The Opulence of Not Giving

I have an acquaintance that started a charitable organization a few years ago. It’s not unlike him to do so as he is a really nice guy, eccentric at times, but nice. I won’t give names or specific details because my goal is not to publicly embarrass this guy. Let’s just say his charitable organization is moderately successful through his and his father’s connections, a pretty concerted social media effort, and the fact that his charity has the potential to do a lot of wonderful things for some human beings that are in desperate need.

I’ve never given any money to his charity.

Why? It’s not because I’m a stingy miser. I do donate to charities. But I don’t donate to his. It’s because of his lifestyle. Maybe I’m overreacting, maybe I care more than I should but this guy lives a ridiculously lavish lifestyle. He takes marvelously expensive trips multiple times a year spending (seemingly) more money than I make in that same year. I’m suspicious that some of his clothes cost more than the entirety of what comprises my closet. I’m fairly certain that some of the parties he throws costs roughly the same amount as that of the value of my car (which isn’t all that much so maybe a bad example).

Not only does he live this lavish life, he flaunts it.

Not a day goes by where I login to one of a variety of social media accounts that I don’t see any number of pictures/statuses/tweets/snaps about his latest expensive venture. I won’t deny it makes me jealous sometimes as I sit at my desk in my office and look at pictures of him in cities all around the world. I am human after all. But my fleeting jealousy is not what fuels this post.

Here’s the thing, I don’t completely fault this guy for spending his families money they way he sees fit. If that is the lifestyle he wants to lead, that is totally his choice. I vacation, I go shopping and eat out. I’m in no place to criticize those things. My problem lies in this fact: this same guy who is leading and flaunting this lavish lifestyle is the same one asking me to donate to his charity.

The charity’s most recent campaign was trying to raise $2000. It exceeded it’s goal, which is fantastic. As the campaign went on, I watched it’s CEO take a vacation to Europe. I couldn’t help but question how much the money spent on that vacation might have helped his organization’s beneficiaries. The plane ticket alone might very well have covered the entire campaign. As he flew to Europe, person after person dedicated $10, $15, $25 to helping others.

He is not alone.

In 2013, American households gave $241 billion to charitable organizations. I’m amazed at that kind of generosity. It’s heartwarming to see that kind of giving. There’s a catch though. In that same year, American households spent $621 billion directly on leisure travel. Individuals spent 158% as much on traveling for fun as we did on feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, disease prevention, and educating the uneducated.

This isn’t intended to guilt you into canceling your vacation. I sure as heck am not canceling mine next month and I won’t feel one ounce of guilt as I play with my nephews on the beach. But I know that I also have a responsibility to live within a certain means so that I can help others. Maybe I even need to reassess what I spend on a regular basis.

Someone once told me, in regards to this argument I am making, “Trey, there is always more that can be done. You’ll never be satisfied.” And they were right, there is always more than can be done and I won’t ever be satisfied. I hope you won’t be either.

Child of God

I’m fortunate enough to live in a nice house in a nice surrounding area. Throughout the week, I go running along maintained sidewalks towards a nature preserve located about a mile from my house where I get to experience God’s awesome wildlife creation, both plants and animals.

Sometimes though (for example: the entire Month of May), it rains and I have to drive to my gym to get any sort of workout. I enjoy my gym, it’s inexpensive while still being a great facility and it’s only about 2 miles from my house. While the immediate area surrounding my house is nice with a low crime rate, my gym sits just on the outside of that area where the income level drops and the crime rate rises. As I get close to the gym, I see less cars and more walkers. I see less houses and more homeless.

I’m not going to lie, there are times when I’m leaving my gym a little later at night that I’ll see someone walking by and get a little nervous. If they’re in gym clothes, I don’t have much of a reaction. If they’re in street clothes, I become suspicious of why they’re walking around a parking lot so late at night. (This is the moment where my mom stops reading my blog and calls to tell me to stop going to the gym at night). It’s not always at night though, I see more homeless people out walking around in the day than I ever do at night.

The other afternoon, I was driving home from my gym when I was stopped by the only traffic light I encounter. There was a homeless man walking toward the corner where I was waiting on the light. From the opposite direction, a father and son were walking hand-in-hand towards the same corner. I’m fairly certain they were not homeless but I’m equally certain they weren’t walking just because their Mercedes was in the shop.

The homeless man and the father-son duo arrived at the intersection at the same time. My windows were down and I briefly considered rolling them up so as to avoid any awkward money requests. As I was contemplating my window situation, the boy suddenly yanked his hand out of his fathers and walked up to the man.

The homeless man kept his eyes down and didn’t react. The boy looked up at him and without missing a beat held his hand up while saying, “You look thirsty. I don’t like it when I’m thirsty. My daddy gave me $2 to spend at the gas station but I’m going to give you one of my dollars. Then I can still get a drink and you can too.” It was at this time that the light turned green…or at least it was at this time that the car behind my honked and I noticed the light was green. As I pulled away, I saw the homeless man smile and take the crumpled $1 bill from the young boy.

I drove away thinking about the innocence of the moment. A child saw someone in need and did what he could to respond to that need…even when he didn’t have much himself. The father and I both shifted our eyes away from the unwanted opportunity to awkwardly decline giving the man money. We didn’t want to deal with the inconvenience of recognizing a need. The boy though, it was almost as if he couldn’t ignore the need.

Mark Miller wrote a song, “Child of God”. The lyrics are simple but an important reminder:

No matter what people say
Say or think about me
I am a child
I am a child of God

No matter what people say
Say or think about you
You are a child
You are a child of God

I think this is the mindset the little boy had as he handed the homeless man that $1 bill. I think this is the mindset I should have had as I contemplated rolling up my windows. I think this is the mindset I should have as I drive through the part of town in which my gym is located. I think this is the mindset I should have when I don’t want to recognize someone’s need over my convenience.

The next time someone or something makes me feel uncomfortable and I don’t want to deal with the problem, I pray that I remember that I am unbelievably fortunate to be a child of God. I hope and pray that no matter what I say or think, no matter what anyone else says or thinks, I remember that everyone I encounter is a child of God. Everyone I encounter is worth my time and my love. I hope and pray that I remember this boy’s innocence and his willingness to help another child of God.

Music Monday 04.27.15

“Simplicity” Rend Collective

I recently wrote about the church’s habit of containing worship to a certain style. There is a well known struggle between traditionalists and modernists as to what is the appropriate kind of worship to use in services. I am very vocal about my middle-ground stance. I try to pull both ends of the spectrum to a place where we can appreciate the idea that worship isn’t about us, its about our desire (and responsibility) to glorify God with our talents. That brings me to this week’s Music Monday song.

I’ve used Rend Collective in this series before. They’re a great band who combines excellent music with a great depth of theologically complex and challenging subject matter. One of the lines from their song Simplicity actually serves as the namesake for this entire blog. I’ve written about the song before (not in this series) and it’s humble plea to be overtaken by Christ. It’s a plea from the singer that they would be stripped completely of themselves until the only thing left inhabiting their spirit is Christ.

Lord strip it all away, ’til only You remain

The song encapsulates everything I think worship should be. We need to step back from our pride, strip ourselves bare of ambition and insecurities, and lift up a broken song to the only One worthy of our worship. Our first and foremost love.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

(Insert Name Here)

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never been exceptionally talented at any one thing. I have attained many average or “slightly above average” skills. Because of this average “jack-of-all-trades” life that I’ve led, I have oftentimes found myself in an almost constant state of comparing myself to others.  I was a decent baseball player but not on the same athletic level as my older brother. I was a pretty good public speaker but didn’t size up to my youth pastor’s ability to draw in his audiences. I am a good musician but can’t even begin to list the countless people I’ve met who are far more talented and hard-working than myself.

I admired these people for what they were able to do and what they were able to accomplish in their field of expertise. I admired them and I compared myself to them. I compared myself to them and I put myself down in my own mind for my inability to live up to them. In turn, I would find people less talented or less intelligent than myself and feed my own ego off their “inferiority”. I would tell myself that I might not be as good as (insert name here) but at least I’m better than (insert name here). I caught myself in this trap of feeling insufficient through comparison while also needing to gain self satisfaction through further comparison.

We live in a world of constant comparison. Competition is not only encouraged, it’s expected. Survival of the fittest is ingrained at an early age. Work harder, move faster, study more…be better. The error is when we step back and realize whom we are supposed to be better than. We’re told to be competitive with those around us which is not totally wrong, healthy competition is good, but are we really improving our lives by holding our heads higher from having defeated someone else? Isn’t true improvement, the truest “betterment” in character attained when we can look in the mirror and say, “Today, I am better than I was yesterday.”

I’m a remarkably competitive person and I won’t lie and say I have this completely figured out. Comparison and competitiveness is something with which I struggle on a daily basis. I have, however, come to a point in my life where most days, I can shut out the rest of the world, stop worrying about others achievements, look in the mirror, and know how I size up to the man I was the day before. Some days the man I see is better and some days, that man falls short. On the days where I have fallen short, I pick myself up and find ways to be better the next day. On the days where the man I see is better, I find ways to be even better the next. On this day and every day after, don’t concern yourself with being better than (insert name here). Concern yourself with simply being better than (insert your name here).

To Love and To Serve

“…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:28

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John 15:13

I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m not sure why I couldn’t as I had a full day going to Six Flags and a Rangers game. By the time I got home and in bed, I was exhausted and fell asleep quickly, but I woke up multiple times. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated. I needed to get several things done at the church today in anticipation of our Saturday evening and Sunday morning services (it’s kind of a busy weekend), plus I’m leading worship for another church on Sunday morning. To top that off, I signed up to participate in the prayer vigil at the church early this morning.

I woke up early, grumbling, got ready, and headed into my office. I was already behind schedule and I was thinking about everything I needed to do. I considered skipping the prayer vigil but decided against it. I went into the room and turned on music because it is virtually impossible for me to focus in dead silence and opened up my Bible. I read through some typical passages for Holy week, said a few prayers, went through the provided church prayer list, etc.

I hadn’t planned on reading John 15 but it is a chapter I like to read often so I decided to read through it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read John 15:13. It’s a popular verse and I’ve sung pieces using the John 15 text, taught devotionals on this verse and this chapter, based sermons on it, and discussed it with friends. I read it and was reminded of Matthew 20, which I read a few days ago in my quiet time, specifically verse 28. The two verses just stuck together.

There is a complicated political, social, and religious climate across the country right now. There are many laws being passed and statements being made using the name of Christ. Imagine how the church might appear if we lived Matthew 20:28 and John 15:13. Imagine for a second, the idea that we, as followers of Christ and His teachings, live a life determined to serve others and not ourselves. Imagine if we loved so zealously that we were willing to throw down our lives for love and service of others all in the name of the one who loved and served beyond comprehension.

The problem is not politics and laws, the problem is the heart of the matter. I didn’t wake up this morning thinking about how my efforts today would better serve others or how my prays might intercede to be effective for others. My heart was not in the right place. It was not a heart of love and service, it was a heart yearning to serve myself.

When Christ took the cross on Himself, He wasn’t doing so just for the purposes of substitutionary atonement, He was also displaying the single greatest act of both love and service in the history of mankind. He was giving us a visual display of the deepest levels of love and service.

I would challenge those who call themselves “followers of Christ”, as I challenged myself this morning, to reflect on this act. I’ll have other nights where I can’t sleep followed by early mornings geared towards service. I pray that I wake up dwelling on the life of Jesus Christ. I pray that I wake up dwelling on how far He was willing to go to show me what loving and serving others is supposed to look like.

My Ecumenical Christmas

Yes, I know it’s January 27 and I’m posting about Christmas. I started writing this a while ago and had planned to finish it the week after Christmas. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d just not write it but I just couldn’t make myself trash it. So here it is, one month and two days after Christmas.

Last year, as Christmas approached, I found myself without Christmas Eve plans for the first time in my life. Growing up, we always had a “big-family” Christmas party with the entire side of my dad’s family. It was always one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. As my siblings, my cousins, and I all got older, got married and had kids (myself not included on the kids), the party started becoming harder and harder to organize until it finally stopped.

It was during the same time (my college years) that I started working for churches as a paid musician so my plans switched from family Christmas parties to singing in Christmas Eve services. I enjoy church so it wasn’t anything I dreaded, actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. After college I started working my first “real” job in ministry at Christ UMC in Plano, TX. CUMC is a large church, large enough to warrant having seven services on Christmas Eve. So for the last three years, I spent my afternoon and late evening performing various tasks and participating in the services. I would also always take out a little time to attend a Christmas Eve party with some dear friends, a party that became very special to me.

This year however, I found myself with no plans. No Christmas Eve parties, no responsibilities to fulfill at the churches for which I now work, nothing at all. At first I didn’t know what to do. Then one day the week before Christmas, as I was looking at some old photos, I came across some pictures from a church performance during my old youth choir’s tour to Chicago. We sang at a predominantly African American inner-city church on the west side of Chicago and the atmosphere was electric. I remember thinking how awesome it was to watch two groups of people with very different socio-economic, political, and theological backgrounds come together to worship. That’s when I decided to have my ecumenical Christmas.

I decided to visit 4 churches around Birmingham representing a wide range of the theological and political spectrum. The night of Christmas Eve, I set out with my step-sister to visit Mountaintop Community Church (Non-denominational), Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal). My goal was to experience various styles of worship…to gain an understanding of how different people choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. I thought it would be a nice evening filled with pleasantries associated with my favorite holiday. What I got was a renewed spirit.

There was something so sincere about each place I visited. Each church worshipped in different ways…some used guitars, some used organs, some used projection screens, some used hymnals, all had sermons and all had candles. What I found was that even though they chose different styles with which to worship, it all came down to the same thing: thankfulness for a God who chose to take on human flesh, bear our sins, and save each of us.

So much of the church’s energy is spent arguing things like who God loves or doesn’t love, how to get to heaven, how to avoid hell, what is a sin and what is morally appropriate, do we choose God or does He choose us, is it wrong that I used “He” to refer to God…the list goes on and on. But this one night I visited 4 very different churches and left each one feeling a renewed spirit about how the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator of all things and time itself took on human flesh for each person I worshipped with that evening. He took on human flesh for each person worshipping around the world that evening. And He took on human flesh for each person NOT worshipping around the world that evening.

I know that it’s January 27 and that this post has been mostly about Christmas but as I think ahead to the rest of this year, I find myself wanting to keep those feelings alive. As I prepare for Lent and Easter Sunday, I find myself thinking about the initial choice God made to come to Earth in human form. Christ knew His destiny was to end up on the cross. He knew his destiny was to take on all the suffering of this world in the most painful act of love ever displayed. Yet he made the choice to come anyway.

I think about all the different people I worshipped with that evening. I saw a wide variety of social, economic, professional, political, and theological backgrounds. I saw males, females, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, and ethnicities I would not have been able to identify without asking. I saw many different people coming together to glorify God for the greatest gift ever given and it gave me hope.

It gave me hope that the church universal would return to love. It gave me hope that the church universal would preach a gospel that is never contained by any parameters of a person’s identity. It gave me hope that the best is yet to come. It gave me hope that the church would, in the same way that the candles illuminated each building that Christmas Eve, do it’s job of shining the light and life of Christ to a dark and dying world.

 

“Christmas means you don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.” -Pastor Doug Ferguson (Mountaintop Community Church)

“The people most attracted to Jesus were those who could recognize their own inabilities best.” -Rev. Andrew Pearson (Cathedral Church of the Advent)

“We live in a world where everything is a problem needing to be solved when the real solution was laid in a manger 2000 years ago.” -Pastor Gary Furr (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church)

“Christmas is a time to trade in our pessimism and receive the life changing gift of joy everlasting.” -Rev. Mike Holly (Bluff Park United Methodist Church)

Music Monday 01.26.15

“Sinking Deep” Hillsong Young and Free

Over MLK Day weekend, I took my middle school youth on a ski retreat up to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. It’s hosted by the UMC camp and conference center up there with a guest speaker, a worship band, games, and, of course, skiing. We closed each day with a corporate worship service for the entire group. The guest band leading worship for the weekend ended the service every night with this song.

When I heard it the first night, I thought it might an original song of theirs as I had never heard it before and I consider myself reasonably knowledgable about worship music. I did a little research care of Google and Spotify and found out that it was actually written and recorded by Hillsong Young and Free a little over a year ago.

I was enamored with the song. I couldn’t stop playing it. I looped it over and over taking in every word and every note. I dwelled on the lyrics.

“Sinking deep in mercy’s seas”

“Your love so deep is washing over me”

I like the allusion that God’s grace/mercy/love is so vast, so overwhelming, that we can’t possibly contain it. It’s such a force that we can do nothing but sink deeply into it, be completely overtaken by it. It’s immovable, it’s immeasurable, it’s incredible, and it’s yours for the taking.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

A Different Kind of Gift

I really enjoy giving gifts. There’s something exciting to me about picking out a gift for someone and giving it to them to celebrate a holiday, commemorate an occasion, or just brighten their day. That’s just another reason Christmas is exciting to me. (Side note: I feel like all my recent and near future posts are about Christmas but meh, ’tis the season). I spend a good deal of time thinking about the gifts I give in hopes that they will be wanted, practical, and appreciated.

I try to take the same approach when people ask me what I want for Christmas. A few days ago, as I was thinking about who I was buying for this year, what I was buying them, and what I wanted, I was shown a video for an organization called Advent Conspiracy.

Numbers can be very shocking…and the fact that Americans spend $450 billion a year on the holiday season is hard to swallow even without taking into consideration the fact that $10 billion would solve the worlds water crisis. Here’s another shocking fact: that video was made in 2008…it is currently estimated that Americans spend close to $601 billion on the holidays. $601,000,000,000.

There is another organization called Sole Hope. Sole Hope was founded by friends of a friend to provide shoes for children in Uganda who otherwise wouldn’t own a pair. Not only do they have to walk around barefoot in rocky dirt, they have to encounter jiggers that live in that dirt (Jiggers, not chiggers). It only costs $10 to provide a pair of shoes for child. $10. I own a pair of Cole Haan wingtips, they are my favorite shoes and they cost $250. The cost of those one pair of shoes could literally put shoes on the feet of 25 children.

Now, this is not meant to be a guilt trip. I don’t feel bad for owning my Cole Haans, I don’t feel bad for buying Christmas gifts for my loved ones and I certainly don’t want you to feel bad for it either. My goal is not to get you to give up everything for Christmas and give all your money to solve the world water crisis or put shoes on the entire continent of Africa. However, imagine with me for a second what could happen if we just cut back. Instead of spending $100 on a Christmas present, we spent $50 and then gave $50 to Advent Conspiracy. Instead of spending $1000 on Black Friday, we spent $500 and gave $500 to Sole Hope.

I’ve decided to cut back on my gift giving and holiday spending this year and I’m asking anyone intending to buy me a present, to donate instead. I’ve chosen Advent Conspiracy and Sole Hope for my own purposes but you can donate to whatever cause you see fit to be best served with your money. For every dollar I spend on a Christmas present, I’ve chosen to put $2 towards one of these two charities. I live within a budget as do most people so I simply can’t spend what I might normally spend on presents, I have to cut back…but it’s something I believe can make a difference.

I don’t know, maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m too hopeful, but there is something incredible about the idea that I can make a difference just by cutting back. If we’re just willing to adjust our lives slightly, together we can change someones life.

 

Make a difference by donating to Advent Conspiracy or Sole Hope.

Weird Kid

I was a weird kid. The only reason I use “was” is while I’m definitely still weird, I’m no longer a kid. When you’re a kid, everyone always asks you what you want to be when you grow up. All of the typical answers are baseball player, ballerina, doctor, astronaut…you know, all those jobs that seem really cool to little kids. In first grade, I remember my teacher at Creek View Elementary School, Mrs. Lovelady, asking everyone in class that very question. As she cycled around the class, everyone was giving those typical answers that you’d expect, then she got to me. I proudly proclaimed my desire, at the age of 6, to be a district attorney. I was a weird kid.

I always wanted to be a lawyer. I liked arguing, I liked talking, I had a keen interest in history and politics (yes, at 6) but, more than anything, I liked attention. And I didn’t just like having some attention, I liked being the center of attention. I loved the idea of standing in front of a courtroom and everyone watching me as I talked and argued about legal matters. As I got older, I would actually daydream occasionally about winning court cases. Let me reiterate, I was weird.

Obviously that’s not at all how my life turned out. I did spend the next several years with the same desire to be an attorney, all the way up until my senior year of high school. It was then that, with some nudging from my dad and my high school choir director, I reluctantly decided to give music a shot. In college, I fell in love with the idea of working in music and knew that’s what I supposed to do. Unfortunately, it was with the same mentality as wanting to be a lawyer…I fell in love with the idea of being the center of attention on the stage instead of in the courtroom.

By my junior year of college, I realized that I enjoyed performing and I liked having the attention, but I didn’t feel passionate about performing. I don’t typically like doing things “half-way” but I found myself perfectly content with it when it came to the stage. With some guidance from a couple of my professors, I came to realize my love for conducting. It was the end of my junior year and I didn’t really have any interest in doing music education so changing my major wasn’t an option at that point. Fortunately, I did land the opportunity to serve as an assistant conductor for one of the choirs.

I entered the field of conducting with the mentality of how much I was going to enjoy being, quite literally, the center of attention. I was going to get to make music with other people while being the focus of the rehearsal and the concert. In hindsight, I now see how I had slowly evolved from being a weird kid to being a weird jerk.

I entered graduate school with the same mentality; however, it was during graduate school that things began to change for me. For the first time, I started to truly appreciate working with others in a way that would give all of us glory. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted plenty of the attention, I was just more willing to share it with others. While this new appreciation began to develop inside of me, I got my first job as a church music director in Texas.

I don’t recall any “lightbulb moment” or epiphanies. There was just this steady evolution inside me over time as I worked with my choirs at school and worked with the minister and musicians at my church. Eventually I got to a place where I realized, “Hey, this isn’t about me.” What a concept to grasp.

I left that first church and got a job as the youth choir director at a church in Plano, TX. It was here that I really and truly learned what it meant to be a servant leader. I fell in love with the youth of that church. They helped me to discover this passion inside myself for seeing them grow closer to Christ. They helped me realize that it really isn’t about me, it isn’t even about them, it’s really all about our ability to glorify the One who created us, gave us life, and gives us breath.

It was during this time that I received what I consider to be the greatest compliment I could ever receive. One of the youth wrote me a letter and shared that they had struggled with their belief in God, even considering becoming an atheist at one point. They went on to tell me that during one of our nightly devotionals on choir tour, they were able to begin the reconciliation of their faith because they “could see and feel Christ through (my) teaching”. As I read the letter, it became one of THOSE moments. I was alone in my office as I read the letter and I was overcome with emotion and just began crying. It wasn’t about glorifying me, it wasn’t about praising me; I was just the vessel through which the message was being delivered, I became emotional because I realized the powerful effect we can have when we get out of God’s way and let Him use us and speak through us.

I’m not one for definitions. I like things being a little ambiguous, I like gray areas, and I love playing devils advocate. Despite all that, I have decided to define, from this point forward, what success is to me. You can take it or leave it. I have decided that as long as people see or feel Christ through interaction with me, my life can be counted as successful. It’s not how much money I make, what possessions I have, it’s not even about bringing hoards of people into the church or making people happy. If I can shine the light and life of Christ into this dark and dying world, then I have done what I am supposed to have done.

It’s a process. Don’t think that I have this all figured out and that I am now completely able to set my own ambitions, cares, concerns, etc. aside and always have that mindset. Some days are easier than others and some days I find myself unbelievably impatient and frustrated with God. Then there are the days where I stop and remember that it’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about Him and what He has done for us. Soli Deo Gloria.