The Power of Margin

Within days after making our recent cross-country move from California to Tennessee, a friend from back in California persisted in calling me. When her number popped up on my caller ID yet again, I thought to myself, “Why does she keep bothering me? Doesn’t she know I don’t have time to chit chat right now?” My negative and ungrateful thoughts immediately convicted me. After all, having a friend who cares about me and wants to know how I’m doing is a blessing! Could I really not take a moment to honor someone by sharing a few minutes of my time with her? What would please the Lord more: taking time to nurture relationship with one of His children, or filling up every waking moment of my time with organizing, unpacking and running errands? It occurred to me that I was making myself so busy with my to-do list that I wasn’t allowing any “margin” in my time.

Margin. It’s a word I’ve been hearing a lot lately, and it’s become my mantra in this unnecessarily busy season of my life. Most of us are familiar with the definition of margin as “the space around the printed or written matter on a page”. However, another definition of margin perhaps better explains the term as I’m referring to it. Margin may also be defined as “an amount allowed or available beyond what is actually necessary”, or “a limit in condition, capacity, etc., beyond or below which something ceases to exist, be desirable, or be possible”.

Though I’d heard the term margin in this context before, I never thought of it as a concept I needed to apply in my own life until I learned about it in Priscilla Shirer’s Bible study, Breathe: Making Room for Sabbath. Then my pastor mentioned margin in one of his messages. I know that when God is trying to tell me something, He continues to bring it up in a variety of settings until I take note.

I admit that there is very little margin in my life at the present time. The lack of margin is apparent in the way my stress level goes through the roof when someone asks me to go out for lunch or coffee or to take on a minor service commitment. I freak out because I just don’t know where I’m going to find the time! Another example of my need for margin presented itself during last week’s church service. Our pastor informed the congregation that the church’s weekly offerings are falling far short of what’s needed to cover weekly costs. I wanted to help, but unfortunately I have nothing to give. Guess why? No margin in my finances. From month to month I strap myself by spending my paycheck before I even receive it. I have left no margin for giving gifts, tithing, or contributing to important and worthy causes. Every month my paycheck is already spent to pay the credit card bill I racked up the month before.

The idea of leaving “blank space” in my life for God to speak to me, guide me, and direct me greatly appeals to me and is a necessary practice in my Christian walk. In order to honor the Lord when He calls me to do something and to love my neighbor as myself, I must leave margin in my time, energy, and finances.

So how can I create more margin in my life? A solution came to me through a woman in my Bible study group. She shared how a friend had reminded her of our need to ask the Lord to order our steps. When we do so, He will help us identify what’s really important and say no to the unnecessary:

The LORD directs the steps of the godly.
    He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall,
    for the LORD holds them by the hand. (Psalm 37:23-24; NLT)

A fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Boy do I need it! At all times it’s important to pray for the Holy Spirit to work in me to produce all of the fruit of the Spirit, but at this juncture in my walk with God, my need for self-control is paramount. The Holy Spirit began helping me develop restraint the moment I started praying for it! I recognized the Spirit’s work in me during a recent trip to Target. In weeks previous, I had spent hundreds of dollars at the store for things I “needed” for our new house. However, on my most recent Target visit I passed up the $100 area rug I wanted, and with the exception of a $1 Yoda cup for my son, I only purchased what I intended to purchase (a spiral notebook and a sympathy card). Yeah, God!

Notice that there is only one fruit of the Spirit. Though nine spiritual qualities are listed (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), they are not Spiritual “fruits” plural. This is because the characteristics are intertwined, complementing and supplementing each other. For example, as the Holy Spirit grants me greater self-control, the other fruit of the Spirit becomes evident in my life at the same time. If I have greater self-control, I am able to say no to activities that are not a good use of my time. In doing so, I develop peace. When I feel peaceful, I am more loving, kind, and joyful. When I am joyful, I am more patient and gentle. When I exercise self-control with money, I am able to give and demonstrate faithfulness to God. So the fruit is one, and in order to obtain it I must walk by the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, and keep in step with the Spirit:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:16-26; ESV; emphasis mine)

Lord, may I glorify you in every area of my life – with my time, money, and possessions, and with my body and in my relationships. Help me preserve margin for friends, family, financial giving, and for just being still with you.

Enjoy Switchfoot’s This is Your Life

References:
Dictionary.com, s.v. “margin,” accessed October 31, 2015, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/margin?s=t.

Priscilla Shirer, Breathe: Making Room for Sabbath (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2014).

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

World CitizenI am prejudiced. I admit it. I wish I wasn’t, I don’t like it, and as much as I hate to see it in myself, it is true.

My husband, son and I recently made the cross country move from South Orange County, California, to Tennessee. We made several overnight stops on our drive. Before departing for our final day of driving, we searched for a restaurant where we could grab a quick and easy breakfast. I won’t name the city or the restaurant, but suffice it to say that the place we went to had a large all-you-can-eat buffet. We were somewhat shocked at what we observed – nearly everyone in the restaurant appeared unhealthy and very overweight. Though I expected the usual breakfast fare for breakfast, I was taken aback by the greasy, fat-laden food. I was so spoiled in Orange County! I was used to having healthy food options that oftentimes included gluten-free bread, organic fruits and vegetables and cage-free eggs. I know, I know, it sounds so snooty, doesn’t it?

This wasn’t my first exposure to other parts of the country, but even though I’ve frequented this region of the U.S. many times before, I was still appalled at the type and amount of food people were putting into their bodies. I know that many people consider Californians “fruits and nuts” partly because of their notoriously healthy lifestyles. Some of this stereotype is true: There is a gym in virtually every neighborhood, and because of the beautiful weather people are often seen outside walking, running, and biking. Though there are downsides to living in South Orange County – the high cost of living, the fast and stressful pace, the traffic, etc. – I have always appreciated the culture of health that predominates in that part of the country.

When I recognized the ugly prejudice welling up in myself in the restaurant, I sensed the Lord asking me, “Just who in the world do you think you are?” I agreed with Him. Who am I to judge what anyone else does, how anyone else looks or how anyone else acts? Who am I to approve or disapprove of anyone?

Unfortunately, harboring negative thoughts about people, whether they are based on race, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, level of education, socioeconomic status or on any other characteristic we assign to a particular group of people, is dangerous and can even be deadly. Prejudices and stereotypes that are never questioned or challenged but rather nurtured and encouraged can result in discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, marginalization and genocide.

Prior to our move, I confessed my concern about the cultural differences between our old home and our new home to one of my spiritual advisors. She reminded me that if you strip away a person’s exterior – their education, their possessions, their career, etc. – deep down we are all the same and we will all be held to the same standard when we stand naked before God. Intellectually, I know this is true. The Lord has no favorites – He loves us all just the same, and He will judge us all just the same. In light of this truth, how can I change my attitude so that I will see people who may be different from me the way Jesus sees them?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Jesus told this parable in response to a question posed by “an expert in the law”:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29)

Jesus answers the man’s question using a parable. In this parable, known as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”, Jesus describes how a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten and left half-dead. When first a priest and later a Levite, both supposedly godly men, saw the injured man they passed by on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan saw the man and had compassion for him:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)

Interestingly, Jesus told this parable knowing that the Jews and the Samaritans deeply hated each other. The Jews considered themselves Abraham’s pure descendants and therefore superior to the Samaritans, a mixed race produced after Israel’s exile when northern kingdom Jews intermarried with other peoples. Nevertheless, the Samaritan was the only one who showed mercy to his fellow man.

I love how Jesus doesn’t pull any punches – it is not sufficient to love and care for only those who are like us or who we are comfortable with, but rather he commands that we love and show mercy to all of God’s children.

I once volunteered for Amnesty International at a U2 concert. AI provided its volunteers with t-shirts that read, “Citizen of the World”. The slogan reminds me that, though we may be proud of our nationality, our ethnicity, our religion, etc., ultimately we are all just human beings created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father.

When I perceive others in a negative light, it is my problem and not the other person’s. They are not the ones who needs to work on their attitude – I am. As with any time the Holy Spirit convicts me that my thoughts are offensive to God, I must go to Jesus and surrender my preconceived ideas and prejudices to Him and ask for their removal.

Just as Jesus saw straight into the heart of the “expert in the law” and corrected any false notions he may have had about who his neighbor is, He will work on my heart to help me see all people as my neighbor. In the same way, I pray that others will view me not as a “fruity and nutty” Californian but rather as a sister in Christ, a fellow “Citizen of the World”.

The David Crowder band sings about How He Loves us all.

 

Popcorn Prayers

“God, if you’re real, I need you to show yourself right now!” my dear friend prayed after giving birth to her second stillborn child.

“God, I can’t take this anymore! Please help me!”, I prayed through blinding tears when I was in the depths of depression.

As he tended to his dying father, my husband cried out to God, “Help me, God! Give me strength!”

Though spending lengthy periods of time in prayer and quiet reflection with the Lord are treasured as well as vital to our Christian walk, there are also times when the luxury of time is not available. And sometimes our needs are so great and so immediate that all we can do is cry out to God, begging Him to allow us to experience His presence and his response to our requests at once. Otherwise, we may fear we won’t survive the moment.

popcornI will never forget listening to a sermon by Skip Heitzig when he was Pastor of Ocean Hills Church. He used a term I had never heard before: “popcorn prayer”. These prayers, like a kernel of corn when it is heated and explodes and pops up into the air, are quick prayers we “pop” straight up to the Lord. Popcorn prayers are those prayers we cry out when we are desperate, when words escape us, and in those times we can muster only enough strength or presence of mind to plead “Help! Please help me, Lord!” Oh, if only I had a dollar for every time I prayed a popcorn prayer! I tend to offer popcorn prayers when I’m frightened, when I don’t know what to do, when I have come to the end of my rope with a person or a situation, or when I just can’t stop myself from repeating some destructive behavior.

King David most certainly never heard the term “popcorn prayer”, yet he definitely understood the concept behind it:

Hasten, O God, to save me;
    come quickly, Lord, to help me.

May those who want to take my life
    be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
    be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”

    turn back because of their shame.
But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
    “The Lord is great!”

But as for me, I am poor and needy;           
    come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    Lord, do not delay. (Psalm 70)

Notice the terms “hasten”, “come quickly” and “do not delay”. We, like David, experience moments when we are broken and empty, and we beg God to hastily come to our aid. David faced enemies who sought his ruin and wanted to take his life. Though we may not be in danger of murder as David was, we still face any number of enemies during our lifetime, including our number one enemy, Satan, who seeks to destroy us.

In verse 3 of Psalm 70, David asks that those who say “Aha!” to him may “turn back because of their shame”. “Aha!” is something someone might say when they think they are right and you’re wrong, or when they think they’re beating you. When David’s enemies cruelly and haughtily said, “Aha! Aha!” to him, they added insult to injury by reveling in what they were sure was their inevitable victory and David’s certain defeat. Similarly, we may feel that our “enemies” – whether they be actual people as in David’s case, or the enemies of anxiety, depression, health challenges, relationship struggles, loss of a loved one, financial problems, etc. – are metaphorically saying “Aha!” to us. In those situations, we may pray like David that God would confound and frustrate whatever is coming against us.

David asked the Lord not to delay coming to him because he was “poor and needy” (verse 5). When we approach the Lord in brokenness, poverty and neediness, He meets us with mercy. He honors us when we come to Him with a humble heart:

And it will be said:

“Build up, build up, prepare the road!
    Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.”
For this is what the high and exalted One says—

    he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly

    and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57: 14-15)

Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor. (Proverbs 29:23)

David’s “popcorn prayer” teaches us that even in the midst of our distress, it is still appropriate to praise God. In verse 4, David prayed that all who seek the Lord would “rejoice and be glad in him” and that all who long for His saving help would always say, “The Lord is great!”. David wanted the Lord’s followers to glorify Him in this way. In verse 5, David praised God as his help and his deliverer. I find it difficult to praise God when I am scared, angry or overwhelmed. Nevertheless, finding things to praise Him for (and there is never a shortage!) helps me take my mind off whatever negative emotions are consuming me and re-direct my focus onto Jesus and all He has done.

When Saul sought to kill David, David prayed to God for help and strength. The Lord heard David’s prayer and delivered him from his enemy’s hand. As David recounts:

In my distress, I called to the Lord;
  I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
  My cry came before him, into his ears.

 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me. (Psalm 18:2, 16-19)

Beloved Warrior, when all you can do is cry out to the Lord, rest assured that He will hear you and answer you. His mighty hand will reach down from on high and take hold of you, and He will rescue you from all that is too strong for you.

This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it – the Lord is his name. Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. (Jeremiah 33: 2-3; emphasis mine)

Enjoy “Cry Out to Jesus” – an awesome song by Third Day!