“Hi, I’m New Here.”

I was waiting tables when I met Chris. I was impressed because he gave me eye contact and was kind. He invited me to a beach party with his friends. I’m from Egypt and don’t know anyone here in Chicago, so I was interested but also scared. I didn’t know if I should go—would he abduct me? I called my mom, then I went to the party.

His friends were nice and did not kidnap me! They included me in conversations and invited me to a cookout. Soon, I began to feel at ease with all of Chris’s friends. At one cookout I parked in the wrong place and was given a ticket. All my new friends pitched in to pay the fines. I did not feel I could take this money, the car problem was my own fault. Chris explained it is a cultural honor for them to help me. He said it made them happy because of their faith in Jesus. I was shocked by their kindness.

One of the guys became a closer friend to me. His name is Peter. We started studying for the GRE together and also playing ping pong. He invited me to his house to hang out and he even invited me to his grandma’s home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I went and learned about the birth of Jesus. I was overwhelmed at how beautiful this literature is. Each family member brought a small gift for me. These included a highlighter, a multi-tool and a hammock. I wept in front of them because I had never received so many presents in my life.

I have never learned about Jesus before, so I decided to read the Bible with Peter. When I needed a roommate, Peter introduced me to another friend who needed a roommate. Some other guys are helping me with my English. It was a great honor when they asked me to cook Persian food for them. My birthday was in February and I cooked for them again. We had a good discussion about God, and I asked them some questions I have been thinking about like, “Why would God create humans if He was already perfect and knew we would not be?”

I passed the GRE and was accepted to a graduate school in Denver. I see God in everything; all my turning points, friends, meals, and winning the lottery to come to the US. In two weeks time I will move to start my new life and I cannot wait for it to begin! I wonder who I will meet next?

On Your Own

One of the marks of God’s people is hospitality. As recorded in Ruth 2:10, in her own time of need, Ruth dropped to her knees, then bowed her face to the ground: “How does this happen that you should pick me out and treat me so kindly—me, a foreigner?”

  • In your own story, who has welcomed you? What did that feel like?
  • On the other hand, who are some of the people God has allowed you to welcome?
  • Given today’s circumstances, has it become harder to meet new people? How can you find new people to invite to your community?

Resource

At the time “Chris” and “Peter” met their new friend, they were reading this book together: The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations: Walking alongside People Who Believe Differently by Mary Schaller and John Crilly.

This Is a Test

Over the last few weeks, as the coronavirus has played havoc with our lives, it has been both deeply encouraging—and frustrating—to see how people are responding. On the plus side, I loved Governor Cuomo’s introduction of “New York Clean” hand sanitizer. Regardless of what we might think about his politics, I appreciate how, in a few short sentences, he calls out people who are price gouging, offers a local solution and reassures the people of New York that their government is taking action. I was also encouraged (to be honest, I cried last night) as I read this story about a small Italian restaurant in San Anselmo, California that offered its customers not just takeout but also “help to those who are in need of items that have disappeared from store shelves, like toilet paper, hand towels, bleach, sponges, and many more items that restaurants normally use. If we have it, we’ll give you some at our cost, just ask!” Here in Durham, NC, it seems like business after business, and most community and institutional leaders, have been doing all they can to help. Likewise, many small groups are organizing mutual help, such as the ncrestaurantrelief.com fund or the woman in my neighborhood who handed out flyers looking for people to share needs (“Check this box if you need groceries”) and offers to help (“I can drive.”)

On the other hand, I am guessing that you too have seen leaders communicating poorly and people acting selfishly and have worried about finding toilet paper, which is currently suffering from an artificial shortage due to hoarding.

Does tragedy make people worse? Does it call out the best in us? I think it does neither. I think it gives us one more chance to respond “yes” or “no” to the love of God and love for our neighbor, one more chance to decide who we are and who we are becoming.

On Your Own

We’d like to invite you to respond to a few questions in one of two ways.

  1. Share with a group you are already a part of (or organize a new small group for sharing) via Google Hangout, Zoom, Facebook, etc.
  2. If you are not part of a group like that, join the WeCanNeighbor conversation here (on Facebook) or here (on Instagram).

QUESTIONS

  • What opportunities have you taken—or could you take—to help a friend or neighbor this week?
  • Are there encouraging stories you have heard about people helping each other?
  • How are you and God doing? What are you doing with your worries, frustration, isolation, energy?

Big Plans, Small Hoops, & Simple Surrender

One thing I wish I could figure out is how to stop dreaming about “big plans” for my life. I know the trend is to think big and ask God for great things, but when it comes to career choices, my experience has been the opposite: the thing God has consistently asked me to do is to walk humbly and accept the positions that He opens for me.

Last week, I had two annual reviews, one for my teaching job at Duke and the other for the work I do for the Navigators. There was a lot of emotional build up! All my life, I have looked ahead to dramatic changes and big shifts, some new adventure to dive into. But this year, like so many others, God quietly nudged me to more or less keep doing what I’ve been doing (a blend of teaching writing to grad students and traveling for the Navs).

Part of His guidance was the usual kind: as I was reading Ephesians (I’m in a small group and we are studying it), and verse 1:1 jumped out at me: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” I’ve read that verse before, but this time, as I was thinking about my annual reviews, the phrase “by the will of God” just jumped out. In my heart, I knew it was for me. In my mind, I knew Paul’s story and could see how God’s pattern with him applied to me.

Another part of His guidance was a basketball hoop. I often take a walk as part of my quiet times, and I noticed several basketball hoops in people’s driveways. It was an expensive neighborhood I was visiting, and some of the setups were incredible: huge plexiglass backboards, spring-loaded and adjustable rims—in fact, they were too big. They overwhelmed the driveways they were in, and, as I thought about it, they just looked ugly.

But in one yard, there was an older, smaller setup: a simple pole planted in the grass, an old, faded, arched backboard with a slightly bent rim.

But in that small driveway, it looked right. It was the right size for a friendly, family game of basketball. As I was looking, an elderly man came out of the garage, ready to do some yard work. I took a chance and said hello and told him I liked his basketball hoop. He smiled and said, “Oh yea, we’ve about worn that thing out.” In my mind, I imaged just how much love, how many hours he and his now grown family must have spent out there together.

Duke and the Navigators both offered me the opportunity to keep doing what I’ve been doing with a modest amount of added responsibility. There are things that will definitely stretch me, and the jobs are needed. But nobody asked me to be president, nobody appointed me to lead an exciting new taskforce (jobs I would be terrible at!) And I am content with that.

Where does asking God for greatness come in? I think it comes in the impact, not the position. Jesus said it this way:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

If you are offered a great big job, and it fits you and God is leading, awesome! But if the way looks less prestigious and the offer a bit smaller than you had dreamed, but you know that God is leading, you can trust that the door He has picked out for you is just right. In the end, we all must all surrender the results to God.

Resources

If you’ve gotten off the track of spending regular time along with God, here is a tool that can help you find your way back: Getting Started (or Re-Started) with God.

If “job fit” is a mystery, you might want to use one of the tools here: Exploring Your Life Purpose.

If you are looking for something to meditate on here-and-now, take a look at Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (ESV)

 

What Happens When You Don’t Have Time to Walk with God?

In college, I had things down. I went to all our fellowship meetings. I spent consistent time praying and reading the Bible. I met with a mentor and mentored a couple of younger guys myself.

When people told me things would be different after college, I believed them, but I didn’t really know what they meant. Not until 6 months later.

My first job was working in the fundraising department of Columbia University’s Teachers College. I was also in grad school. To make it all work financially, I worked full-time, so I could qualify for tuition benefits, and went to school full-time, to get reduced-cost housing. (This was New York, and on-campus housing was the only thing I could afford.)

I suddenly went from being “FAT” (faithful, available, teachable) to scrambling to survive. I knew that God was with me, but I just couldn’t do all the things I had learned to stay close to Him.

After crashing more than once just trying to hang on, I learned that for this new life to work, I had to re-organize. It was all trial-and-error at first, but in the end, I had to find an approach that

  • Fit the time I had
  • Gave me good “bang for the buck”
  • Wouldn’t kill me, given my limited mental and emotional energy

For me, that meant less Bible study but much more Bible reading. Reading, it turns out, not only fit my schedule, but it also fit my capacity. Instead of tapping into the same “bucket” I was already drawing on for everything else (I was studying day and night for school and for my job), reading filled me up in a different way. It got me connected to God’s big story.

Another big change was not expecting to have time to do the same things every day (a 30-45 minute quiet time each day, for example) but much more variety: multiple, short “touches” Monday-Friday (for example, writing down a few verses and reading them during spare moments when I could) and longer times to read and reflect on the weekends.

Getting married, having kids, moving overseas, new jobs full of demands and other changes in schedule and pace of life have taught me again and again that the things we call spiritual “disciplines” are much more about heart than technique. You have to do something! But what God wants more than anything else is my devotion, love and trust. In seasons of relative calm, I can take more time. In hectic times, I don’t stop coming to God – God is never not my highest priority – but I do have to find ways that fit. It can be hard to accept both the freedom and the responsibility to adjust and change, but that is exactly what is required if we are going to walk with God for a lifetime.

 

Resources

If you are crushed for time, here are two ideas:

  1. Make a short list the things that have helped you feel close to God. Pick just one thing from this list (for example, setting aside 10 minutes to pray) and make time to do it this week. If it works, try it again and try it more often. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  2. From the same list, look for things that inspire you that are already part of your everyday life. For me, it can be sports (I love seeing people sacrifice for the team) or looking at the sky or passing by a beautiful tree. The next time you find yourself already doing one of the things on your list, just say a short prayer: “God, you are indeed mighty!”

If you have a little more time and want to explore what works for you, try working through this exercise.

If something like “having a quiet time” is pretty new to you, try 7 Minutes with God or order Getting to Know God through a Daily Quiet Time.

 

Little Acts of Kindness

I am constantly amazed at how far a small act of kindness can go.

Two weeks ago, I watched a neighbor get wheeled out of her house on a stretcher. She was conscious – but pale and obviously in pain. It took a few days to find out what happened: she had an aneurysm (she has told me since it was the worst pain she has ever felt in her life), and as she was dropping to the floor, she hit her head hard on a table, tearing ligaments in her neck.

When I caught up with her husband, he was also in rough shape. He wasn’t sleeping or eating much, spending as many hours as he could at the hospital. When I asked him if we could do anything, maybe cook a meal, he didn’t refuse.

Now, it wasn’t some swelling in my heart that made me offer this. I wasn’t thinking, “How can I overwhelm him with a sense of love and service?” I was just thinking if there was some small (to tell the truth, fast and easy) way to pitch in. My wife and I quickly came up with a couple of simple dinner plans: a tray of chicken and rice one night and a plate of burgers the next.

Since then, we have gotten a card from the wife, several thank-yous from the husband and were stopped and thanked by the daughter (who lives nearby). For my wife and I, it was really no big deal, just a little something extra we were more than able to do. For them, it was a lifeboat in a storm – a bit of hope in a hard time. I don’t know where it will lead, but I know it got their attention.

Yes, sometimes, the dramatic happens, and we are asked to “give big.” But more often, we are only asked to “give small” – just a little act of kindness – the kind I believe the Holy Spirit excels at nudging us toward. In my experience, “salt and light” very often means the simple things.

 

Resources

The “Doing Good” Bible Study is a one-page word study compiled by Craig Parker. It is simple but powerful.

“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. This is an older song (and Dean warns that it is a bit melodramatic), but the lyrics communicate well the importance of even the smallest act of kindness.

Vocation: It’s Bigger than Your Job. If you have the time for it, this three-part study looks at how calling, service and the gospel are connected.

 

Flourishing or Languishing?

When I got my first job out of college, it certainly didn’t feel like I was flourishing. I lived in New Jersey and worked in New York. I woke up every day at 5:30 AM to catch the train, and if there was a seat, I could spend a little time reading the Bible. The train almost always filled up, though, so every day I was torn: do I give my seat to someone (and lose the opportunity to read?) or do I continue sitting and reading? Either way, I felt guilty, and since I wasn’t sleeping much any way, waking up even earlier didn’t seem right. Then one morning, standing on the train and reading, I came to Psalm 139:1-3 (emphasis added):

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up… You scrutinize my path and my lying down and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.”

Down to the detail of when I was standing and when I was sitting, God was telling me He knew about my struggles and the deep guilt I was feeling. In fact, He even knew the name of the train I was on: the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, i.e., the Path Train. What I learned that day is this: God knows that life after college is different than life in college. He knows we need to make adjustments to fit into the new place where He has called us. “Flourishing” is not simply a reflection of the activities we are involved in. It is also a matter of the heart. During times of transition, sometimes our hearts are fine (though frustrated) as we seek to settle into new patterns.

Resources

  • 2 question quiz: If you are feeling stuck/languishing/frustrated about your intimacy with God,
    • Is the problem your activities? (Have you stopped doing what you know works, or is the problem you just haven’t found a pattern that does work in your present circumstances?)
    • Do you have somebody you can talk to about how you are doing?
  • A book Dean recommends for dealing with busyness is Practicing the Presence of God. A modern translation of this 300-year- old collection of letters can be read online here.
  • You can read more about The Navigators Mission, Values and Vison here. (Or watch the vision statement being illustrated here.)

 

I Was Made for Work

Yesterday was a long day. After dinner, I still had emails to answer and PowerPoint slides to edit. (I work at a university.) This was after being up at 6 am to help my daughter get to school, an hour of writing and editing before I left, a meeting by 9 am, more meetings and emails through the afternoon, walking the dog, throwing together a little dinner and then picking up my wife at the airport. Yup, it was a long day. But was it a good day?

A day like yesterday makes me question what kind of life I was made for. I sometimes think the “ideal life” is sitting quietly, thinking, and talking with a few friends. Another attractive option—especially after a few days at the beach—is the “life of ease.” Doing nothing at all, and doing it in a beautiful location.

The only problem is that neither of these options is what God thinks. “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule” (Genesis 1:26). Note: there is not even a pause between those thoughts! We are made like God—creative, active, engaged—so that we can do our work, with God, of caring for God’s world. When I teach or when I am doing the dishes or doing a little yard work, I am doing what God designed me to do. I was made to work.

Work is not some kind of punishment or accident. In the Gospel of John, the word “work” is used more than 20 times, mostly about the work that Jesus does. In John 5:17, Jesus defends His “hands on” approach to life: “My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I too am working.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the word “work” or “worker” is used over a dozen times, and in every case, it is used to mean something good! Yes, we need rest and we need wisdom to not burn out, but work is not the problem. (The problem is working to please ourselves and others, not God.)

Yup, yesterday was a long day. And I think God would say it was a good one.

 

Resources

The Gift of Work“? I thought it was a curse! Check out this Bible study and others to help you think about work in the resource section of Dean’s website, human365.org.