Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.

Leave Room: When the Christmas Calendar Is Too Much

I have a calendar on my phone, a calendar on my computer, a calendar on my website, and a calendar on my wall. You’d think I would never miss an appointment. You’d think I would never double book anything. You’d think I went backpacking on a yak in Siberia. No, you wouldn’t, but that last guess would be equally as accurate as the first two.

I still screw up the calendar.
And now it’s December. The month when we routinely add 314 things to our calendar that we will feel guilty about never being able to do. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
We are calendarically challenged (your new word of the month), and we need to slow it down for the holidays, not ramp it up. That’s not to say we turn down social occasions and stay at home all month with our twinkling lights. Socializing is good, even for us flaming introverts. But let’s slow it down to the right kind of socializing.

Prioritize

What really “makes” Christmas for your family members? Cutting down the tree? Christmas Eve service? Eating baking cookies? Listen to every person, and then schedule in the things that matter the most to each person. Yes, schedule in baking cookies. Or it will happen at the last minute because you have to squeeze it in and you’re frazzled. This is not the time to be adjacent to knives, blenders, and hot ovens.
Everyone feels listened to, and the important things happen.

Add in Slowly9d398-img_0276

Start to pick other things you want or have to do. School programs. Worship time. Visits with people from out of town. Look at each time-sucker holiday event and ask your self a couple questions.
♦Is this something I really want to do?
♦Is it something that means a lot to another person?
♦Is it something that shows my gratitude toward God?
♦Is it something I have to do or risk unemployment?
If the answer is yes, put it on the calendar. When something new comes up, go through the mental process of asking these questions before you make an automatic yes. (Or no.)

Protect downtime

Keep free time free. Resist the urge to fill it in with “just one things more.” Yes, it might fit. Yes, you might enjoy it. But it will also stress you out to look at a full calendar and feel like you cannot escape its selfish demands. Guard those non-colored areas on your calendar as if they are gold. They are. They are your golden time to do nothing, enjoy one another, read together, or go on a drive in your pajamas to see lights. These are important activities. If you decide at the time that you can and want to do that one extra thing? Then do it. But you’ll be free to choose.
This is the only time I’m going to give you a pass on not committing to an event. Treasure it.

Celebrate weirdly

My family usually gets together after Christmas sometime. The crazy is over, the gifts are half price, and everyone is sick of coma inducing amounts of food so there’s no need to cook lavishly. Choose a not-normal time for those things you’d like to do but can’t fit in. A breakfast party instead of a dinner one. Invite families to volunteer together. Have friends with little ones over for hot chocolate, pj’s, and a favorite Christmas story time after dinner and before bed. It’s short and sweet and fun. Create an event at a time no one thinks of, and since you created it, you get to make the rules.
Rules are, you don’t have to set up a photo booth and handmade placecards. Unless you want to.

17b9e-window4Leave Room

Sometimes, interruptions to your calendar are good. The shepherds’ willingness to listen to the angels and take off for the stable meant only good things. I’m not sure how the Christmas story would have gone down if they had said to the angelic host, “You know, we’re kind of stressed right now. Can we take a pass on the newborn king thing? Maybe next month, when things slow down.” Well, I am sure. God would have found someone else to do their job. And they would have missed out.

But divine interruptions can’t happen with a blacked-out calendar. Leave room. Leave room for His presence to surprise you on a starry night.

Is Life happening to You?–Part 2

Ah, steps.

Lastweek, I offered two first steps to being people who intentionally choose their life, as opposed to the kind of human default of passively letting life happen to us.


For most, though not all, of us, we have the choice. But it takes work. It’s easier to let life happen. It’s much harder to examine it and make changes. Like Fiyero says in Wicked, “Why invite stress in? Stop studying strife, and learn to live the unexamined life.” (At this point he’s not very heroic. So . . . not words of wisdom really.)

Steps #1 and #2 last week:
Figure out what my priorities are.
Ask god if they are his priorities. (adjust accordingly.)

This week, 3 and 4.

Steps.

Do my actions line up with those priorities?

Here is the tough part. We can have great priorities—on paper. But when daily decisions come calling, do the choices we make display our three words? Do we choose love over anger? Do we choose to forego a bonus at work to have more time with our family? Do we choose to take our kid out of travel soccer so you can say yes to serving others?

When it comes down to those decisions, do we consciously let life overrun us with its status quo, or do we take the wheel and steer it where we have chosen for it to go?

I think this is where most of us fail. We mean well. But the tyranny of the urgent takes over. The law of physics that says whatever our current state of movement is, that’s where we’re likely to stay. It takes conscious effort to rebel and override the system. What do our actions, not our intentions, say about our priorities?

Even more steps.

Create a next step to make it real.

What will you do now? A plan is awesome. A plan without actual, concrete steps toward the goal is just a lovely Facebook meme.

For instance, suppose your three words are “give more freely.” (Totally making this up on the fly here.) One of the things you do to make that happen is sign up for a 6k run/walk to benefit clean water initiatives. (OK, not making that up. I’m doing that.) Then you realize you’re in such bad shape you breathe heavily walking to the mailbox.
And smiley faces. Because  . . .
you  made it.

Next step: Walk a half mile tomorrow. Walk five minutes more each day. Not fast. Not perfectly. But the next real step is to start walking and then up that distance gradually. It’s simple. Achievable. Doable. And easy to gauge if it really gets done. See how much more likely that is to happen than a vague goal of “I want to do something to help other people”?


What do your actions says about your priorities? What’s your next step? I’d love to hear! 

Is Life Happening to You?–Part 1

Pastors deal with people a lot. This should be self-evident, but it came as a bit of a shock to my introverted soul to learn I would be spending so much time interacting with people.

Fortunately, I’ve also learned that people are pretty interesting, so it’s all good.

Life happens to insets. They hatch. They lay eggs.
They die. End of story. 
Out of all these interactions, I’ve found there are generally two different kinds of people. (No, that is not a punchline for anything. Totally serious here.)

–Those who let life happen to them, and
–Those who choose what happens.

It’s not scientific or anything, but personal experience tells me there are a lot more of type One. I know it’s my default. I think most of us find it a lot easier to be a victim of our own lives, or at least a bystander.

It’s hard work to paddle the boat instead of just letting it drift. Sometimes, the current taking us one direction is strong, and fighting it is a long, exhausting struggle. Plus, let’s be honest. We don’t have to feel bad if we can say, “I couldn’t help it. Things just happen.”

It’s easier to let life happen to us. But it’s not better.

Have you ever found yourself saying things like, “I don’t ever have time for . . .” “I don’t know how that happened.” “I’d love things to change, but I can’t do anything about it.” “If only . . . had not happened/would happen. Then things would be better.”

That’s letting life happen to you talk. It’s chosen victimhood, assuming that something outside of yourself has to happen before you will have the life you want to have.

Obviously, there are things that happen. We don’t control cancer. Or people who hurt us. People in other parts of the world are helpless when faced with persecution and kidnapping. Girls in Nigeria truly don’t choose their life. But for most of us, we’re really not victims. We’ve just never learned how to be type 2—those who chose what happens.

These guys, on the other hand. They make their choices.
(Except maybe being put in cages. But this is a rescue,
not a circus.)
I’ve been doing some thinking, and some rearranging, to make sure I don’t fall into that default mode myself. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with to be the kind of person who chooses, not allows, life.

Figure out what my priorities are.

What are the important themes and needs in your life? The best piece of writing advice I ever received was to put the main idea of whatever I was writing, whether a 300-paeg book or a 300-word devotional, into three words. Yes, just three words. It focuses you. With just three words as a guide, it’s suddenly clear what parts of a story or article fit the theme and what is extraneous and needs to be cut out. The writing is far, far better for the focus.

So is life. What are your three words for life? If you had to narrow your purpose down to three words, what would they be?

Ask god if they are his priorities.

OK, maybe you have three great words. You think they describe your life. But if you are a Christian, there’s a filter to run those words through. Would God agree that is the mission He has for you?

Because someone’s words might be, “Raise happy children.” Or “have job success.” Or even “great bikini body.” Whatever. But passed through the lens of “What did God put me on this earth to do?” they fall short. They may be good things to do. But they cannot be the end all three-word purpose for someone who wants to follow Jesus with all her heart, soul, strength, and mind.

In saying we should chose our life, I’m not preaching that God promises anyone the life they want. I’m not claiming that God particularly even wants you to be happy. (Sorry, recent pop-theological proclamations to the contrary. That just isn’t biblical.)

So, telling folks to choose their own life instead of letting it happen to them comes with the caveat that we’re choosing wisely. With godly intent. Otherwise, we may be living intentionally, but we’re also living pointlessly.

Donald Miller makes the claim that a believer’s purpose is to “save many lives.” That’s a bit higher than happiness and success. It’s the height God wills us to aim for.

So #2 in the quest to be a person who choose their life—make your three-word life theme something God would agree should be a priority.

Take some time. Now. This evening. Tomorrow. SOON. Examine the priorities of your life. If you had to put them into three words, what would you choose? What would God think of those words? Revise. Edit. Finalize the rough draft. You know—all those things you had to do in College Composition. Then please, would you share your words with me? I’d love to see what God is doing in your life.

I’ll go first so it’s not so scary. I think my three words are: Bring Jesus’ grace.

That’s enough for this week. Next Monday, the other two steps.