humanity

~I once was a Taker, Now I desire to be a Giver~

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Spirituality and Community Building

Being charitable towards others is a spiritual asset—one that can contribute to community building. Some might even maintain that it is impossible to build a sense of belonging and community without some form of charitable practice.

An illustration is the South African view of community referred to as “Ubuntu,” which is usually translated as, “I am because of who we are.” Retired Archbishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu believes that Ubuntu is the very essence of what it is to be human:

“You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality—Ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

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This value, or way of life—Ubuntu—suggests a way of thinking, seeing, and acting in the world that we live in now.

Tutu refers to being charitable as being someone with “generosity.” Whether you call it charity or generosity, each word translates to giving of one’s self for another, for the greater good of the community. This can be the giving of one’s time or finances, or something as simple as offering nonjudgmental and kind words.

Through charity or generosity of self, we create a deeper sense of community with each other. We begin to see ourselves as one—one community—connected with each other through Ubuntu. We begin to understand and to acknowledge, that we are interdependent in a respectful and supportive way.

As human beings, as a social clan, we have a need to live within supportive environments where we are nurtured and can thrive together, where there is a strong commitment to the well-being of the community as a whole. We are fundamentally designed to live this way. Being charitable towards one another is not just “a nice thing to do”; it is an imperative for our survival as humans, and for our well-being as a local and global community.

A WORKING DEFINITION OF “BEING CHARITABLE”

Based on your individual experiences, you may have your own meaning of the word charity or charitable behavior. The definition that we shall use for this post is that charitable behavior creates a feeling, which leads one to act voluntarily with kindness or goodwill towards another.

There are a number of synonyms or similar words to describe charity or charitable behavior that may be more comfortable for you; perhaps they resonate more with your values and beliefs. Here are a few based on Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions:

  • Altruism: “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of other’s feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness”
  • Benevolence: “disposition to do good: (a): an act of kindness, (b): a generous gift”
  • Compassion: “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.; sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”
  • Generosity: “the quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish: the quality of being generous; especially: willingness to give money and other valuable things to others”

That said, what words or phrases you use to define charity are not as important as taking some form of action to support those who are in need.

In your community, one person may volunteer six hours a month of his time to a homeless shelter, serving meals cheerfully and making everyone smile. Another person may donate money to the same shelter, yet never enter its doors. Another may offer her knowledge and skills by teaching a class on literacy once a month to the shelter’s clientele. All of these are examples of charity and of charitable behavior.

There are many ways one can be charitable to others. There is no one right way, only your way—the way that feels right for you.

Four Aspects of Charity

More specifically, some ways to be charitable include:

Time: Giving of one’s time, however long or short that may be. Giving time is not so much about quantity, as it is about quality—about being present with another to support them in a “hands on” way. This might mean serving meals in that shelter, helping out during disaster relief, volunteering to drive seniors to appointments, baking dinner for a sick neighbor, or any number of activities that help you get to know those you are serving.

Essence: Giving of one’s personal energy and vitality. You may have some personal qualities in abundance and want to share them with others – enthusiasm, hope, grace, gratitude, patience, love – or you may want to increase these qualities in your own life. Each of these qualities brings energy to the space you share with someone when you are truly present with them. Examples: Hearing an exhausted young mother laugh; listening patiently while a man struggles to share his story of being out of work; offering encouragement to someone who feels disheartened. Your own energy and vitality shifts to being more positive and optimistic when you share your authentic self with another.

Talent: Giving of one’s skills and knowledge, such as teaching, gardening, cooking, knitting, or singing; or sharing wisdom from life experience. Everyone has gifts and talents that they are passionate about. These talents come easily and give you joy when you have a chance to express and share them.

Money: Giving of one’s financial resources to provide aid, food, shelter, or clothing; or making a donation to a local or global cause. The sum of money given is not as important as the spirit of the gift. You could start off by giving what you can afford, knowing that even spare change is helpful, and then increase the amount when you are ready, willing, and able to do so.

You may want to take the time to think about these four aspects of being charitable and evaluate which ones have the most meaning for you and where to begin. You may also want to reflect on these questions:

  • Do you have time, but limited funds to give; or do you have money, but limited time? What can do you for others with your time or money?
  • Is taking a more personal approach, one where you would work side by side with others, more appealing to you; or do you prefer a more hands-off approach—where you give openhandedly, but don’t need or want to meet the recipients of your generosity?

There is no right or wrong answer—your answer is your personal choice. Once you determine what is most important to you, then you may want to begin by writing down some thoughts and ideas that come to mind on how you want to express your unique way of giving. Include names of people or organizations you may wish to support.   Being charitable doesn’t need to be complicated; a simple gesture can be meaningful to the receiver. Now you may be more ready to share yourself with others.

THE IMPORTANCE AND BENEFITS OF BEING CHARITABLE

Being Charitable Enriches the Giver and the Receiver

There are rewards to being charitable, both for the giver and the receiver. Not only are you being helpful to those in need, you are developing positive character traits and behaviors in yourself. Charitable work allows you to see life from someone else’s perspective—their struggles and hardships, their triumphs and strengths. It is a privilege to be a witness to another’s life. And in being one, you gain appreciation and gratitude for your own life.

Martha is a manager whose young husband developed an aggressive, terminal cancer. She had her hands and heart full nursing him at home and caring for their two small children. Her co-workers organized themselves, and together they provided dinner every day, not for a month, but every day for six months. Martha’s co-workers were witness to her hardship and struggle, and they responded. They appreciated a need greater than their own. They were inspired to draw on the positive character traits and qualities that live within us all—caring, generosity, selflessness.

Martha’s story showcases how the act of charity in a workplace makes it a community. Because of her co-workers, Martha was able to concentrate on what was important during those precious few months before her husband’s passing.

Many nonprofit community organizations devote themselves to helping those who are suffering from hardship. They seek compassionate volunteers; they offer them the privilege of witnessing someone else’s life by lending a helping hand. By sharing what gifts they have to offer, volunteers receive a gift—they discover and nurture the best within themselves.

On its website, the U.S.-based nonprofit Share the Care states, “Whether you are a burned out caregiver or a novice caregiver, or a friend who wants to help, you can benefit from a system that lets everyone share responsibilities, creates a strong support network among the individual caregivers, and leads to making a profound difference in someone’s life.”

Similar to other website resources like CaringBridge and Lotsa Helping Hands, Share the Care’s mission is connecting caring citizens with citizens going through difficult times in their lives. They are creating small temporary communities of giving within the larger community.

When you give yourself the privilege of being a kind presence in someone else’s life, you will make a difference in theirs and learn a quiet appreciation and gratitude for your own.

Charitable Behavior and the Golden Rule

We all wish to be treated with respect and dignity, and to feel valued and listened to. In the spirit of charity, we would strive to do the same for others. One way to look at this principle is through the lens of reciprocity, known to many as the “Golden Rule,” which states, “Do to others as you wish done to you.” Here is an ethical code that instructs us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

Although different cultures and faith traditions might have different words and language, all human cultures have a version of the Golden Rule. It advises us to treat our neighbors, families, and colleagues as we would wish to be treated and shows how we can all apply empathy, understanding, and right action as our moral guideposts.

Depending upon your age or upbringing, you might remember the Golden Rule (or something similar) being introduced into your school, as part of your family values, or as a faith-based principle. It is a universal ethic, with the power to cut across gender, culture, age, beliefs, and social-economic status.

Wisdom traditions, such as the Golden Rule, date far back in our collective history and are expressed in a multitude of societies – both as lay philosophies and as the vital cornerstone of the vast majority of faith traditions.

The Golden Rule in Different Faith Traditions

In alphabetical order, each reads:

  • Baha’i Faith: “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” Baha’u’llah Gleanings
  • Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5:18
  • Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Jesus, Matthew 7:12
  • Confucianism:” One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct ~ loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Confucius Analects 15:23
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” Mahabharata 5:1517
  • Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith
  • Jainism: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” Mahavira, Sutrakritanga
  • Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest in commentary.” Hillel, Talmud; Shabbat 31a
  • Native Spirituality: “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.” Chief Dan George
  • Sikhism: “I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.” Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299
  • Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as our own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Lao Tzu, T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218
  • Unitarianism: “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Unitarian principle
  • Zoroastrianism: “Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29

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..Is My Being, Really In Christ or Myself?

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“Money is really worth no more than as it can be used to accomplish the Lord’s work. Life is worth as much as it is spent for the Lord’s service.”
― George Müller, The Autobiography of George Muller

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“By this we believe….” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe?” —John 16:30-31

Now we believe….” But Jesus asks, “Do you…? Indeed the hour is coming…that you…will leave Me alone” (John 16:31-32). Many Christian workers have left Jesus Christ alone and yet tried to serve Him out of a sense of duty, or because they sense a need as a result of their own discernment. The reason for this is actually the absence of the resurrection life of Jesus. Our soul has gotten out of intimate contact with God by leaning on our own religious understanding (see Proverbs 3:5-6). This is not deliberate sin and there is no punishment attached to it. But once a person realizes how he has hindered his understanding of Jesus Christ, and caused uncertainties, sorrows, and difficulties for himself, it is with shame and remorse that he has to return.

We need to rely on the resurrection life of Jesus on a much deeper level than we do now. We should get in the habit of continually seeking His counsel on everything, instead of making our own common sense decisions and then asking Him to bless them. He cannot bless them; it is not in His realm to do so, and those decisions are severed from reality. If we do something simply out of a sense of duty, we are trying to live up to a standard that competes with Jesus Christ. We become a prideful, arrogant person, thinking we know what to do in every situation. We have put our sense of duty on the throne of our life, instead of enthroning the resurrection life of Jesus. We are not told to “walk in the light” of our conscience or in the light of a sense of duty, but to “walk in the light as He is in the light…” (1 John 1:7). When we do something out of a sense of duty, it is easy to explain the reasons for our actions to others. But when we do something out of obedience to the Lord, there can be no other explanation— just obedience. That is why a saint can be so easily ridiculed and misunderstood.

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“Be assured, if you walk with Him and look to Him, and expect help from Him, He will never fail you.” ― George Müller

~ Experience the unforced rhythms of grace~

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Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
—Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

Taking time to inventory the great challenges God has delivered me through today has allowed me to get to know Him more intimately. Jesus loved all my hurt and misconceptions about my life away, He turned everything around. I looked in the mirror and saw His character today and for that I say,,. Thank you, Jesus…

That sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve had enough “heavy stuff” in my life, and I want to enjoy freedom. When you are overloaded with the cares of life you need some help. Your mind needs rest from worrying, your emotions need rest from being upset, and your will needs a rest from stubbornness and rebellion. So you need to be humble enough to call out to God and say, “I need help!” Your beginning doesn’t have to dictate your ending. Get God involved in every area of your life and allow Him to lead you into “real rest.”

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~Thou are only a Man~

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“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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The early civilizations were well aware of the danger of pride and power and knew that this could destroy kings and empires if not held in check. And thus a philosophy was developed by the very wise Greco-Roman philosophers (lovers of truth) in order to help their rulers and themselves to be vigilant about their behavior, lest they destroy themselves by pride. And thus when any great general (be it an emperor-to-be, a war general, or any victor of a great battle) was honored by a great manifestation such as a triumphal entry into his city-state, a slave (a lowly of lowlies) would ride in the chariot with him and whisper in his ear that he should remember that he is not a god, but a mortal human being.

I think a better source than wiki might be a scholarly treatise aboutRoman triumphal marches by the historian Robert Payne in the book “Rome Triumphant: How the Empire Celebrated its Victories” Robert Payne, 1962, Barnes & Noble Books 1993. In the closing remarks of the book (pg 251), Payne remarks “…it was the anonymous slave standing behind the triumphator, whispering in his ear about the vanity of honours, who represents the greater triumph. The voice of the slave was the voice of humanity,never so desperate as when it passed unheard.– We do not know when the slave first rode in the triumphal chariot and held the golden crown over the conqueror’s head, or when he stepped down for the last time. We do not know whether the triumphator ever spoke to him in reply,or even glanced at him. He appears only briefly in the history of the triumph, and only once do we see him plain –on the Boscoreale cup,where he is depicted as a youth who seems to be filled with a sense of compassionate duty.”

You should be aware that this type of reminder of vigilance is still very meaningful and applied in many ways in modern life as a philosophical heir to the ancient traditition. The warning against pride and care to remember that life is a fleeting gift and should not be squandered on empty vanities that are really meaningless when considering the totality of life’s journey (the human actions of craving for power, riches, adulation, popularity) is just as important today as it was 2500 years ago. Instead of wasting time thinking that you are “God’s gift to humanity”, the reminder states, “try to live life as a good and simple, honest, kind and noble person (like the beautiful shaker hymn: “Tis a gift to be simple…”)

You might be aware of the yearly Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday in the beginning of the Lenten journey when people receive blessed ashes on their foreheads with the words “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return”. This is done not to depress people, but to remind them that true happiness of this life is totally dependant upon our own human goodness to be fantastically good people instead of selfish jerks.

Whenever a bishop (or cardinal) is elected to be a pope (a really tremendous honor in the Catholic Church), before the pope steps out into the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica to greet the City and the World and to be hailed as the new pontiff (Viva el Papa !) something really cool is done that is centuries old. A simple poor franciscan friar stands before the pope with a broom-like staff made with a pile of dry straw. The straw is lit and for a few seconds a huge flame bursts out, but is gone in a mere minute (a straw fire means an empty fleeting fanfare). (This is done three times) Each time the friar utters the words to the pope “sic transit gloria mundi) meaning “and thus passes the glory of this world”. This is of course a reminder that the great Roman pontiff (like the Roman generals and emperors) should remember that he is nothing more than a lowly servant and all the glory and power and wealth of this world is meaningless when compared to the true meaning of life : just be a very very good and kind and honest person – at the end of your life this will be the only measure of true meaning of the nobility and richness of one’s life.

Is it not cool how all of this applies to our lives today ?

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Introduction

Is good enough, good enough? Consider, if you will, that if 99.9 percent were good enough then

  • 2 million documents would be lost by the IRS this year.
  • 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank account in the next 60 minutes.
  • 1,314 telephone calls will be misdirected by telecommunications companies every minute.
  • 2,488 books will be shipped with the wrong covers on them each day.
  • Over 5.5 million cases of soft drinks in the next year will be flat.
  • 20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions will be written each year.
  • 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents each day.

Obviously, being good enough is not good enough for life in modern society. So why do we think that being good enough is good enough to get us into heaven? You’ve heard people ask, “If I try my best won’t God let me into heaven?” or “Doesn’t God just require me to be better than the average human?” or “Don’t I have to just live a good life to be a Christian?” or “How could a loving God send good people to hell?”

Martin Luther, the reformer, wrote, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has every plagued the mind of man is the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.” A Bible teacher used to say, “Man is incurably addicted to doing something for his own salvation.”

Let’s examine what the Bible has to say about being good enough.

I. God’s standard is perfection

In one sense, one can be good enough to get to heaven, but they would have to be perfect. God’s standard for entrance into heaven is perfection. On one occasion Jesus identified the two most outwardly religious groups of people in his day the Pharisees and the scribes and told his listening audience, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). On another occasion Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

God’s standard never falls short of complete righteousness and holiness. Anything less than perfection is sin. Think about heaven for a moment. Heaven is a place of the “no more’s” – no more tears, no more sadness, no more pain, no more sickness, no more death. All of those things are caused by sin. The “no more’s” don’t exist in heaven because sin does not exist in heaven. Heaven will be wonderful, not only because of what is present – God, but also because of what is absent – sin.

God’s standard of perfection is not arbitrary. God does not grade on the curve. He does not say, “Oh, you are close enough” or “You have tried really hard to live a good life.” God does not compare. “Well, Bill you are better than John so you are in and John is out, Betty, you are better than Sue, so come right on in.” That would be like trying to jump the Grand Canyon. So what if your jump thirty feet and set an Olympic record, you still splatter.

Now don’t get me wrong, for the most part we are all pretty good. I don’t suppose there are any rapists or murderers among us. If we were grading ourselves on goodness we would rank right up there pretty high on the scale. Let’s call ourselves Danny or Debbie Decent. From our perspective, we do everything right. We pay our taxes, pay our bills, pay attention to our family, and pay respect to our superiors. We are good people.

But God sees us differently. God sees what Danny and Debbie Decent choose to overlook. For as decent as we are walking through life, we make mistakes. For example, we stretch the truth. We might fudge, ever so slightly, on our expense report. We gossip about the new employee. From our perspective, these aren’t big deals. But our perspective does not matter. God’s does. And what God sees is a person wrapped in mistakes.

So let me ask you, is there any sin in your life? If so you are not perfect. You have not met God’s standard of perfection.

II. God’s solution is a pardon

Fortunately, there is good news. There is a solution, a remedy to our imperfection. God’s solution is a pardon found in Jesus Christ. Here’s how is works: “Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! . . . It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some imperfect people. . . . Our sins are taken care of for good” (Heb. 10:12-18 MSG). The apostle Paul described it this way: “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). When Jesus Christ, God’s Son, went to the cross he took our sins, our mistakes, our evil, and our unrighteousness. He was the ultimate sacrifice.

R.G. Lee, former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, was visiting Gordon’s Calvary at Jerusalem, possibly the site where Jesus was crucified. Lee told the Arab guide he wanted to walk to the top of the hill. At first the guide tried to discourage him, but when he saw that Lee was determined to go, he went along. Once on the crest, Lee removed his hat and stood with bowed head, greatly moved. “Sir,” asked the guide, “have you been here before?”

“Yes,” replied Lee, “2,000 years ago.”

And so have we. We were there because our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. Now we must go there to find redemption, to find our pardon for our sin.

So, when it comes to salvation, when it comes to going to heaven, whether we are more like Hitler with our evil or more like Mother Teresa with our purity, our sins are no longer the issue. The issue is what we do about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s solution to our not measuring up to his standard. Jesus has already paid the price for our sin. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some imperfect people. Jesus now offers us a pardon, a release from our sin.

Think about it this way: if a criminal was handed a pardon that would release him from prison, the issue is no longer the crime but rather what he will do about the pardon. If he refuses he will remain in prison. The questions, why he is in prison?, and why is he not out of prison? have two different answers. He is in prison because he is convicted criminal. He is not out of prison because he refuse the pardon. Likewise, the answer to the question, why will a person be in hell? Is because he is a sinner, but the answer to the question, why will he not be in heaven? Is because he did not accept the pardon offered in Christ.

Let me see if a story will not help clarify this issue. Many years ago a young boy shot and killed a man while gambling. In those days, murderers were sentenced to hang. But the townspeople were so concerned for the young lad that they gathered a petition asking the judge to pardon the boy. Finally, the judge agreed but only on one condition. The judge would wear a clergyman’s robe and collar and carry the pardon between the pages of the Bible.

As the judge approached the boy’s cell, he could hear the young man cursing and swearing at him. “Get out of here, preacher, I don’t want what you have to offer.”

“But, son,” the judge replied, “You don’t understand.”

“I understand fine,” said the boy. “I don’t want what you have to offer.”

The dejected judge left the jail. Later the guard told the boy that it was the judge who was dressed like a minister. Between the pages of the Bible was an authorized, sealed pardon for his release.

When the day of execution arrived, just before they put a black sack over the boy’s head, they asked if he had anything to say.

He replied, “I am not dying because I killed a man. I am dying because I rejected the pardon.”

You see the issue is not your sin. The issue is what you will do with Jesus Christ. Our fault before God is not necessarily our sin – He made a remedy for that. Our fault before God is rejecting the pardon.

“Yea, but,” I can hear some people say. And then the question: How could a loving God send good people to hell? The question itself reveals a couple of misconceptions. First, God does not send people to hell. He simply honors their choice, as when the judge honored the choice of the condemned boy who rejected the pardon. Hell is the ultimate expression of God’s highest regard for the dignity of man. He has never forced us to choose him, even when that means we would choose hell. As C. S. Lewis stated: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.”

No, God does not “send” people to hell. Nor does he send “people” to hell any more than the judge sent the boy to be hung. That is the second misconception.

The word people is neutral, implying innocence. Nowhere does scripture teach that innocent people are condemned. People do not go to hell. Sinners do. The rebellious do. The self-centered do. The ones who reject God’s pardon do.

So how could a loving God send people to hell? He doesn’t. He simply honors the choice of sinners.

III. God’s salvation is through personal faith

So what must we do? We must, by faith, accept Jesus’ finished work on the cross as God’s only accepted way to enter heaven. God’s salvation is through personal faith in Jesus Christ. We must trust in what he has done for us.

Ten of the eleven world religions teach a salvation by good deeds. Christianity stands alone with its emphasis on faith rather than works for salvation. The Scriptures say, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is a gift – we don’t work for it, we don’t deserve it, we don’t earn it. We simply trust God for what he has done through his son, Jesus Christ.

It is like a medicine. You can believe a certain medicine will help you, but until you trust it enough to take it, it won’t do anything for you. Faith is more than believing in God. It is trusting in him to the point of receiving Christ into your life.

Conclusion

Was there a time when you honestly realized that you were a sinner and admitted that to God? Do you truly understand that Christ took your place on the cross? Do you understand that the real issue is not your sin, but what you will do with Jesus Christ? Have you received Christ alone for your salvation?

~Ebb and Flow of Grace while in The Storms of Life~

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Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.

Ernest Gaines
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There are no bonds so strong as those which are formed by suffering together.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
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Reflecting on the divine purpose in hardship can help us respond to trials in a God-honoring way as we seek to understand the lessons He wants us to learn through life’s dark moments.
The disciples experienced several “mountaintop moments” in their time with Jesus. But when a storm arose while they were out on the Sea of Galilee, fear took over. Amidst the roaring waves and with the boat rocking, Jesus’ chosen ones failed to recall the lessons they had learned about the power and purposes of their leader. Even the appearance of Christ walking on water didn’t bring immediate relief (Matt. 14:26).

When trouble strikes, we sometimes forget our knowledge of God, too. We struggle to recall past answers to prayer, specific guidance provided by the Holy Spirit, and lessons learned in previous crises. Only the present seems real. Our minds spin with future implications, and our troubled emotions inhibit clear thinking.

In our own strength, we lack sufficient resources and abilities to meet life’s challenges. So God provides what we need. Our suffering is never a surprise to the Lord. He knows everything we are going through. More than that, He’s orchestrating our circumstances for His glory and our benefit, according to His good will.

 

Reflecting on the divine purpose in hardship can help us respond to trials in a God-honoring way. Let’s take a moment to fix our attention on the Lord and seek to understand four lessons He wants us to learn through life’s dark moments:

 

1. One purpose for hardship is cleansing. Because of our own “flesh” nature and the self-absorbed world we live in, it’s easy to develop selfish attitudes, mixed-up priorities, and ungodly habits. The pressures that bear down on us from stormy situations are meant to bring these impurities to our attention and direct us to a place of repentance. Our trials are intended to purify and guide us back to godliness, not ruin our lives.

2. A second reason we face difficulty is so we’ll be compassionate and bring comfort to others. God’s work in our lives is not intended solely for us. It’s designed to reach a world that does not recognize or acknowledge Him. The Lord uses our challenges to equip us for serving others. As we experience suffering, we will learn about God’s sufficiency, His comforting presence, and His strength to help us endure. Our testimony during times of difficulty will be authentic. Those to whom we minister will recognize we know and understand their pain. What credibility would we have with people in crisis if we never experienced a deep need?

3. Third, God promises usHe’ll provide a path through any trialwe face. The disciples probably wondered how long the storm would last and whether they would make it safely to shore. Most likely, they wished it never happened. But, had they somehow avoided this storm, they would have missed the demonstration of Jesus’ power over the sea and wind. The frightening situation was transformed into a revelation of the Savior’s divine nature. God wants to make His power known through our trials, as well.

4. The most important thing He gives us isanawareness of His presence. At first, the disciples believed they were alone in a terrifying storm. When they initially spotted Jesus, their fear increased. They thought He was a ghost. But as they recognized Him, their fear changed to relief and hope. Similarly, we may not sense God’s presence during a crisis. But He has promised to always be with us (Heb. 13:5-6). The assurance that the Lord will never leave provides immediate comfort, an infusion of courage, and a sense of confidence to endure.

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No one enjoys suffering. But in the hands of almighty God, trials become tools. He uses hardship to shape believers into the people He intends them to be. Jesus allowed the disciples to experience the fear and anxiety of being in a boat on a raging sea. He permitted them to suffer because He had something far more important to teach them. He wanted the disciples to recognize their own helplessness, His sufficiency, and their dependence on Him.

Ask God to reveal His abiding presence in the midst of your trouble. And remember—He always provides for your spiritual needs to help you both endure and grow stronger in your Christian faith.

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A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

Martin Luther King, Jr
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~Color Forward In Spite Of Challenges~

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What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition.”
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

What is the biggest barrier facing the formerly incarcerated as they try to reintegrate into society?
To us, the biggest barrier is the lack of critical legal information that people need in order to overcome barriers in reentry. We see the major issues as:

—Enormous legal and practical barriers to stability and success, including an inability to get an ID or open a bank account, enormous court debt, denials of employment, housing, and public benefits

—A complete lack of legal advocates, knowledge and navigational resources about these barriers

—An infrastructure of people and agencies who already support and work with those in reentry—including family and loved ones, social services agencies, housing facilities, legal advocacy groups, education programs, religious institutions, substance abuse facilities, corrections departments and government agencies—that lack the legal guidance necessary to navigate critical and often crippling issues

The lack of an integrated, knowledgeable and supported reentry infrastructure undermines the spirit and intent of reform efforts to reduce incarceration levels. The “Roadmap to Reentry” guide illuminates pathways to stability and success post-incarceration by educating people on how to navigate enormous legal and practical barriers.

In terms of the legal barriers, there are many—which is why the guide covers nine areas! Reentry is so unique to each individual, so we see that people experience very different issues, much of it dependent on their life circumstances and goals. The biggest issues that we see are court-ordered debt and fees that have amounted over time, which leads to an inability to get an ID; housing and employment discrimination; trouble reunifying with children and loved ones upon release; and unlawful parole conditions that can overly restrict where people can live and work.

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What is the most important thing families can do to ease the transition?

Plan, prepare and do research! Family has access to phone and Internet, so they can help the loved one make plans and goals and then research opportunities in the area they are returning to—including housing, employment, education and support services. If you know your loved one’s goals and have a timeline for completion, you can help to set them up for success before they get out. If the county to which they are returning doesn’t have the right resources, they can help their loved one understand the process to transfer counties, either before or after release. Also, I would say that families can help their loved one in reentry by helping them do research on the law—reading manuals like ours to help their loved one understand whether they are actually banned from public housing or public benefits, and what kinds of jobs they can get—because many myths persist. So family can help a huge amount by educating themselves, getting a ton of resources and then empowering their loved one with that information.

The other thing that I think is critical for family members is to take care of themselves. If you find your loved one a support group, find one for yourself too. Families are often the support structure for a person in reentry, but of course they do not have the education of a case manager, therapist or social worker, yet they are playing that role. So having support for families who are helping someone through the ups and downs of reentry is critical.

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The United States criminal justice system is the largest in the world. At year end 2011, approximately 7 million individuals were under some form of correctional control in the United States, including 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons and jails.1) The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing the rate of nearly every other nation.2)

Such broad statistics mask the racial disparity that pervades the U.S. criminal justice system. Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males.3) If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males.4) Racial and ethnic disparities among women are less substantial than among men but remain prevalent.5)

The source of such disparities is deeper and more systemic than explicit racial discrimination. The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities. The former is the system the United States describes in its report: a vigorous adversary system replete with constitutional protections for defendants. Yet the experiences of poor and minority defendants within the criminal justice system often differ substantially from that model due to a number of factors, each of which contributes to the overrepresentation of such individuals in the system. As Georgetown Law Professor David Cole states in his book No Equal Justice,

These double standards are not, of course, explicit; on the face of it, the criminal law is color-blind and class-blind. But in a sense, this only makes the problem worse. The rhetoric of the criminal justice system sends the message that our society carefully protects everyone’s constitutional rights, but in practice the rules assure that law enforcement prerogatives will generally prevail over the rights of minorities and the poor. By affording criminal suspects substantial constitutional rights in theory, the Supreme Court validates the results of the criminal justice system as fair. That formal fairness obscures the systemic concerns that ought to be raised by the fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black.6)

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“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems

~Consider Your Ways~

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“When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives.”― Ezra Taft Benson

I have spent a great part of my  life searching for the one trait all successful people share. I found in my quest for this knowledge”The Common Denominator of Success” revealed successful people’s common characteristic was not hard work, good luck, or astute human relations, although these traits were important. The one factor that seemed to transcend all the rest was the habit of putting first things first. I observed, “The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either, necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”

The Book of Haggai, the second shortest in the Old Testament, communicates this same message: Put first things first. It was written to people like us, who would say that God must be first. But they had drifted away from this truth. They lived with misplaced priorities. Haggai was sent to help God’s people get their priorities in line with what they knew they should be.

Haggai spoke his message to Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after living in captivity in Babylon. As you recall, Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple some 70 years earlier. When the Jews returned from exile they faced the daunting task of rebuilding. The first returnees made preliminary attempts to clear the debris and lay the foundation for a second temple. Their Samaritan neighbors offered to join in the work, but the Jews refused them. The Samaritans, in turn, threatened the workers and sent men to Persia to lobby against the Jews, bringing the work to a halt.

As years passed, slowly but surely, Jerusalem came to life again. Homes were built, stores opened, commerce established, fields planted, crops harvested, and life began to resemble normalcy. Israel, however, got used to life without the Temple. The foundations were overgrown with weeds. They stood as a mute reminder of the Jews’ failure to take care of God’s house. Fourteen to 16 years passed, and then Haggai appeared on the scene with one prevailing message: It’s time to finish rebuilding the Temple.

It was a message of priority: Put first things first. The Temple was the center for worshiping God. It represented the heart and soul of the Old Testament religion. Although God is everywhere, the Temple was the place on earth where God dwelled in a special sense. For the Temple to lie in ruins was to neglect the worship of God. It was a testimony of misplaced priorities. It was an embarrassment to God and a blemish on his reputation.

Haggai’s message was blunt. He pulled no punches and wasted no words. Haggai spoke like a foreman on a construction project. With a hardhat and tool belt, walking around the construction site, he bellowed out orders. Found here are a few practical steps about putting first things first.

I. Stop making excuses

First, Haggai confronted excuses for the Temple lying in ruins. “The LORD of Hosts says this: These people say: The time has not come for the house of the LORD to be rebuilt” (Haggai 1:2, HCSB). They intended to build God’s house, but just hadn’t got around to it yet. If you were to ask them about it, they would probably say, “I’m all for building the Temple. It is a great cause. But God wants us to take care of our own families first. Times are hard. Jobs are scarce. We need to pray about it some more. We will eventually build it, but not now.” They made excuses.

Billy Sunday defined an excuse as “the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I never knew a man who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else.”

It is always easy to make excuses when you don’t want to obey God. We can always find rational justification for not doing what God wants us to do: The time is not right. I’ve got family responsibilities. My kids need me now. When things settle down at work, then I can do something. The first step to putting first things first is to admit our responsibility.

II. Cease being selfish

Closely aligned with excuse making is a selfish mindset that permeates everything. Haggai challenged the people’s selfish behavior. “The word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:34, HCSB). Paneled houses can mean “covered” or “roofed,” but the point was that it represented the finishing touches. Their homes were not “in process.” No weeds were growing around their unfinished foundations. Their homes were complete while the Temple remained nonexistent.

Please understand: Nothing is wrong with having a nice home. This statement is not an attack on riches or big houses. What’s wrong is to own a nice home while God’s house lies in ruins. What’s wrong is spend all your money on selfish needs while ignoring the things of God. What’s wrong is to spend one’s time, one’s best hours, and one’s talents on selfish pursuits while the things of God are left undone. It is an indictment of misplaced priorities.

It is easy to drift away from God’s agenda to our own. It is easy to pursue selfish desires while ignoring God’s. In fact, it is the default mode of our lives. If we give no thought to how we are living, we will naturally live for ourselves. The bent of our hearts and is always toward selfishness. This is what happened to the Jews Haggai addressed.

Like William Cowper, the hymn writer and pastor, penned: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” That is what happens when we don’t persistently and consistently seek God first.

III. Don’t miss God’s blessings

As a consequence of their excuse-making and selfish living, the people in Haggai’s day experienced hardship. He continues: “Now, the LORD of Hosts says this: Think carefully about your ways: You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough to be satisfied. You drink but never have enough to become drunk. You put on clothes but never have enough to get warm. The wage earner puts his wages into a bag with a hole in it” (Haggai 1:5-6, HCSB). They sowed plenty of seed, but there was a drought and the crops didn’t yield as much as they had hoped. They had active lifestyles but were not experiencing satisfaction. They were laboring but showing no profit. No matter how hard they tried, they seemed to be spinning their wheels. No matter how much money they made, they could not keep it. Do you know how that feels?

Because of their selfishness the people missed God’s blessings. Haggai points out a sobering reminder: What happens in your heart affects every other part of your life. Because the people had pushed God out of the center, they suffered in every area.

What they did not see was that God caused their predicament. They hadn’t stopped to consider that God was trying to tell them something. Haggai screamed: “Hey! It’s God who controls the rain and the harvest. He is withholding his blessing because your priorities are not right. Put his house first and he will bless you.” Jesus said the same thing: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” (Matthew 6:33, HCSB).

Blessings come through obedience. If we want to experience God’s blessings we will put him first.

IV. Take time to evaluate

With this strong indictment and devastating predicament, the people realized they had caused their own calamities. The people were ready to evaluate their situation. Twice Haggai instructed the people, “Consider your ways” (1:5, 7.). The word consider means to give careful thought to. It was time for the people to do some serious self-examination before the Lord. Haggai wanted the people to stop long enough in their busy schedules to evaluate their life in light of God’s Word. He wanted them to measure the consequences of their actions.

Evaluation is a good thing. That is why teachers give tests and employers hold job reviews. Socrates wrote: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Each day we need to evaluate how we spend our time and our money, and how we use our talents. We should examine who we choose as friends, what we set as goals, and where we are going. If God is not first, guess who removed him from his rightful place?

The failure to make constant corrections each day is like a pilot who does not make slight course adjustments in flight. The plane will end up hundreds of miles off course later. The failure to take the proper precautions today will result in severe consequences tomorrow.

When we stop making excuses, cease being selfish, seek God’s blessings, and take time to evaluate, we can see God work in powerful ways. This is what happens when first things are first, when God is first in our hearts. How will we know that we have put first things first? How will we know that God is first place? Here are three indications.

A. We are active in the right things

“Go up into the hills, bring down lumber, and build the house. Then I will be pleased with it and be glorified, says the LORD” (Haggai 1:8, HCSB). In all of life there is a time to talk and a time to act, a time to consider and a time to do. Those who put first things first are up and doing the right things: spending time with God daily, serving people, honoring him with their time, talents, and financial resources. For the Jews living in Jerusalem, it meant cutting down trees to build God’s house.

B. God is glorified

Why should the Temple be built? That God may be glorified. When God is not first we are indifferent to his glory—his fame and his reputation being spread. But when God is first revealing his glory is first on our minds. In fact, everything we think, say, and do is to honor God and bring credit to him. Whatever your occupation, the chief business of every Christian is to bring glory to God.

C. God blesses us

When the people obeyed, God sent word: “I am with you” (1:13). When God is first, he blesses us. And the sure sign of his blessing was his manifested presence. If God seems distant in your life, perhaps your priorities have gotten mixed up. When you put God first, you experience a new awareness of his presence. That is true blessing.

Conclusion

An instructor at a time-management seminar told the participants to prepare for a quiz. He reached under the table and took out a wide-mouthed gallon jar and set it on the table. Next to the jar were a number of fist-sized rocks. He asked the group, “How many of these rocks do you think we can get inside this jar?” The participants made their guesses. The instructor said, “Let’s find out.” One by one he began to put as many fist-sized rocks as he could into the jar until the rocks inside were level with the top of the jar.

The instructor then asked, “Is the jar full?” All the participants looked at the jar filled with rocks and said it was.

But then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar. The gravel filled the spaces between the big rocks. He grinned and asked again, “Is the jar full?”

The participants were not about to be fooled a second time. They said that the jar was probably not full.

The instructor nodded and said, “Good. You are catching on.” He next took out a bucket of sand and poured it into the jar. Slowly the sand filled the gaps between the rocks and gravel. After the sand settled, the instructor once again asked, “Now, is the jar full?”

The audience roared, “No!”

He said, “Good.” He was pleased that they understood an important principle. The instructor poured a pitcher of water into the jar. At this point he stopped and asked the group, “What’s the point of this?”

Somebody said, “Well, there are always gaps, and if you work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”

But the instructor said, “No, the point is this: If I hadn’t put in those big rocks first, I would never have gotten them in at all.”

What should be your big rocks? God and his house. Put them into your life first.