Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reflections on the Loss of Faith

Over the years and as a pastor, I have often struggled after hearing stories of friends and people who experienced a loss of faith. It is one thing not to have faith in the first place, but for those who were active members of our faith communities to then reject God altogether—that is heartbreaking for me.

Apart from the theological implications (and they are grave), how does one interact with those who once had faith from a relational perspective? I recently read a fine article by Ruth Tucker that provides some reflections on how to respond to the loss of faith. I commend this article to you. You can download a pdf copy here: Loss of Faith

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

IRS Audits of Churches

The Internal Revenue Service is very particular about churches supporting or opposing a candidate for public office, especially during an election year. The IRS’ definition of supporting or opposing a candidate is very broad. Almost any statement referencing a candidate can be subject to IRS inquiry and audit. People should know that the IRS doesn’t have unfettered discretion to limit a church’s right to exercise free speech. If your pastor and/or church is ever a subject of IRS inquiry, it is vitally important that a tax attorney is retained for advice before responding to the IRS.

Just because a church is a tax exempt organization, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have constitutionally protected rights. As we head into a contested election cycle, here are some guidelines of what churches and pastors have a right to do or not to do. For further details, please feel free to contact me and I can provide a more thorough guideline.

1. Discuss the positions of candidates on public issues. Pastors and churches are free to discuss the positions of candidates on issues – including criticizing or praising them for their positions. This is called issue advocacy.

2. Pastors can personally endorse a candidate. While the church cannot support or oppose a candidate, the pastor in his/her personal capacity can support and endorse a candidate for public office. The pastor should make it clear that he/she is endorsing the political candidate in his/her personal capacity only.

3. Churches may lobby for legislation. Churches may spend up to 20% of its funds for lobbying activities. As a result, a church may discuss legislative issues, support or oppose legislation, encourage its members or the general public to support or oppose legislation, and support other organizations with their lobbying efforts. Furthermore, churches may lobby candidates on their positions on issues and distribute educational material to candidates or at political events, as long as this is being done to get out the organization’s message and not to assist any candidate. This is a vitally important right, as many churches are seeking to protect the rights of the unborn and traditional understanding of marriage.

Conservative churches are often the target of liberal organizations that seek to silence them with threats and actual complaints to the IRS of alleged and unfounded political intervention. Unfortunately, the IRS responds very quickly to complaints of alleged political intervention with threats of audits. Churches and their members should know that religious organizations classified as houses of worship have much more legal protection from arbitrary audits than individuals and other types of non-profit organizations. If your church or pastor needs additional guidance on these issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Family as Our Primary Ministry

I hope that all of you have had a good Christmas and are looking forward to an exciting new year.

During the last ten years, the subject of the family has been more meaningful to me as I have been learning how to manage and care for my own family. As a single person, I often focused on myself and/or my goals. When God blessed me with marriage, I believe that it was a calling, not unlike my call to the ministry almost 20 years ago.

For many of us who are active in the ministry of the church (be it lay or ordained), it can be a struggle to balance priorities with our family and that of the church. While there are scriptures that call us to leave even our families for the kingdom of God, I think the better interpretation for those passages focuses on being forced out due to unbelieving family members—much like many of our Muslim brethren who were made outcasts upon conversion to Christ.

The apostle Paul, on the other hand, admonishes husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25-33). The type of love here is sacrificial, willing to give one’s own life, nevertheless a job, career or even church position. Many of us are overly focused on our goals and so driven by our purposes that we fail to realize that our primary ministry is not to others but to our own family. Paul makes this a mandatory requirement for those who seek to be pastors (1 Tim. 3:4-5)—but I believe that the principle is applicable to all to families. In 1 Peter 5:4, the apostle Peter gives the imagery of Christ as the Chief Shepherd. We are in many ways under-shepherds over our own families and of the ministries that God has entrusted to us.

It is my experience that during times of crisis, it is often not our “ministries” or church members that will stick by us for the long haul, but rather, our biological family—our spouses, children and/or parents. Church members may come by for an occasional visit but if you are on your deathbed, the only people likely to be at your side day and night will be your spouse, children or parents. This is not to say that the church family doesn’t care for us but remember that they have their own responsibilities and families to take care of. Someone once said that on our deathbed, we are not likely to wish that we would have worked longer hours, made more money or accomplished more—but rather, the only things that will truly matter is faith in God and the love and presence of our family.

The above is not to deter us from serving or ministering to others—only that we should approach ministry from more of a God ordained and balanced perspective. We should all remember that outside of God’s gift of His son, the second most valuable gift that God has given us is our family. In this coming year, let us remember to minister to our families and be willing to sacrifice for them as God has sacrificed Himself for us.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Impacting Culture as Lay Christians

What is your purpose in life? If we were honest, this is one of the many questions that all of us have struggled with. As Christians, our purpose should be centered in God’s eternal plan. He seeks that none should perish but that all come to eternal life through Jesus Christ. God has set us here on earth to fulfill His eternal plans.

What is God’s eternal plan? In addition to proclaiming the Gospel, I believe a critical aspect is to impact our culture. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Just as light is a luminator, we are to show how Christ can transform not only the individual but our society for the better. Just as salt is a preserver, we have a duty to preserve the Christian influence that has pervaded our culture.

We need not be priests, pastors or professional missionaries to impact our culture. Jesus has commissioned all of us to impact our world, in whatever role we have in life.

There is a cultural battle that rages today seeking to suppress Christ’s influence in the name of separation of church and state. Interestingly, without Christ and the Church, much of the modern concepts of individual rights, freedom, liberty and justice for all would not have developed as we have it today.

While the Church can grow in any system of government, whether supportive or oppressive, it grows much healthier and faster in a supportive environment as opposed to suppression. As Christians, regardless of what we do in life, we can help advance the work of Christ by living out our faith in our school, work and business. When we pervade our culture with good Christian role models, we impact culture, transforming it into a supportive culture that will minimize barriers to the Christian faith.

One of the ways that lay Christians can help the Church is to go into the world and live Christianity as a teacher, mechanic, police officer, businessman, physician, politician, scientist, attorney, judge, etc. As God puts us in a position of influence, we need to remember that He placed us there for a purpose. When provided with an opportunity to help the Church and people in need, remember to do so in a way that will advance the kingdom of God. Christianity cannot just be a Sunday event. It needs to be lived 7 days a week to be effective. When we live Christ in what we do, we can influence and impact our culture.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Growth of Home Church Movement

Researcher says mainline US denominations losing members to “new form of church”

Is there a “transformation shift” going on in American Christianity? George Barna, founding director of the Barna Group, a Ventura-based firm that researches religious trends, says there is. “We predict that by the year 2025 the market share of conventional churches will be cut in half,” he told the July 23 Los Angeles Times. “People are creating a new form of church, and it’s really exciting.”

Barna has written a book, Revolution, about this “new form of church,” which goes by various names -- house church, living room church, underground church – but basically marks a departure of many Christians from conventional church structures, such as parishes or the mega-church. People gather in homes in small groups averaging anywhere from a dozen to twice that number, where they worship, pray, and engage in Bible reading. A 2006 Barna Group survey estimated that 9% of U.S. adults attend house churches every week, nine times the number that did so in the 1990s.

Proponents of the home church say it is the way the early Christians met. “There were no church buildings in the first 300 years of church history,” a house-church planter, Dan Hubbell, told the Times. He said people like these gatherings for their intimacy and their egalitarian quality.

Milt Rodriguez, whose Rebuilders ministry starts such gatherings, told the newspaper, “It’s not just one person preaching with everybody following. Everyone has a function, and everyone shares.”

Barna says the house churches reflect a philosophy that values relationships over other goods – such as doctrine and tradition. Critics say the phenomenon leads to insular groups that develop club mindsets and will not be open to the wider world.

Such home churches reflect a Protestant Evangelical mindset, according to Penn State University sociology and religious studies Roger Finke. “If you are Orthodox or Catholic or Lutheran,” he told the Times, “you wouldn’t think of having the authority [to worship] without being part of a larger hierarchy. For evangelicals, the ultimate authority is the Bible. They don’t depend on ordained clergy to provide ritual or give them sacraments.” (Barna grew up Catholic, but later became an Evangelical Christian.)

A 4,000-member Irvine mega-church, New Song Church, has branched out to include 15 mini-churches in its ambit. Members of these groups meet normally in their homes, and once a month at the central church for services. According to a 2004 Christianity Today article, New Song members are young (average age 28) and, though mostly Asian, have in recent years included growing numbers of other groups, including Hispanics.

Are Catholics immune to the home-church allure? Apparently not. A home-church founder in Austin, Texas, Dr. Cecilia Schulte, a “lifelong Catholic,” told the July 29, 2005 Religions and Ethics, that she went the home church route because “I wasn't finding... all of what I needed by attending Mass or just following ritual, etc. We're spiritual beings, and that means exploring and changing and growing, and I felt inhibited in a traditional church setting.”

Article from: CalCatholic

Monday, July 23, 2007

Vietnamese Christians and the Law (Part 2)

Last month I was privileged to attend a week long Constitutional Law training event with the Alliance Defense Fund and National Litigation Academy in Pasadena, California. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is the largest Christian legal defense organization in the United States with focuses on religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional family values. As a graduate of the National Litigation Academy, I am part of an army of Christian attorneys over 1000 strong dedicated to protecting, training and litigating against humanistic philosophies and organizations like the ACLU in the attempt to protect and preserve traditional, biblical and constitutional matters that affect Christians. ADF has won over 34 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court level. For a summary of recent cases won, please visit

Although the use of the court system should be something to avoid if at all possible, it is sometimes necessary to avail ourselves to the secular judicial system in order to protect ourselves, our families and our rights as Christians. Even the apostle Paul in Acts 22:25, appealed to the laws of his day for protection from the unjust punishment of scourging without a fair trial. When Paul lost at the lower court levels, he appealed to the higher courts—in his case, appealing directly to the courts of Ceasar (Acts 25:21), as was his right as a Roman citizen.

God has placed us in this world for a reason. Though God does not want his people to be conformed by the world (Romans 12:2), he does desire that we be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14) in the world as to be a witness and in my view, transform our world. God has commissioned his people to go into the ends of the world—not only to preach the gospel, but to also make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). God not only wants individuals to be saved but He also wants the kingdoms and governments of this world to be transformed by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the ways that kingdoms and governments can be transformed is for its laws to reflect the righteousness of Christ.

There is now current legislation in the United States Senate to make it a hate crime to speak negatively against homosexuals or issues regarding homosexuality. In Sweden, there was a Lutheran pastor who was preaching on the text that mentioned a list of unbibilical lifestyles, with them, homosexuality (Romans 1:21-32). The pastor was brought up on hate crime charges against homosexuals because of the reference to homosexuality as an unacceptable biblical lifestyle. He was actually convicted at all the lower court levels and sentenced to prison. His case was appealed to Sweden’s Supreme Court and thankfully with the help of ADF, the Swedish Supreme Court reversed the conviction, threw out the unjust law and set the pastor free. What happened in Sweden can actually happen in the United States (just a matter of time) if Christians don’t utilize our legal rights to oppose a humanistic agenda that seeks to remove Christ from society.

For too long, secular humanistic organizations like the ACLU have terrorized people of faith (especially Christians) with their lawsuits. God is now raising up Christian organizations like ADF to help Christians everywhere protect values most important to us—that is, the right to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to protect the least of us without a voice (the unborn) and to uphold the biblical standards of traditional family values.

Discrimination against Christians rarely happen outright, but often are done through disguised reasons or the implementation of certain laws that restrict. As Vietnamese Christians, please avail yourselves not only to the power of the Holy Spirit but also the laws of the land to protect yourselves, your family and community. If you ever need help against those that seek to restrict your rights to speak out for Christ in any way, please feel free to contact me. As an ADF allied attorney, I can help advise you of your rights and help make available the resources of more than 1000 attorneys across the United States who are willing to battle the agendas of secular humanists for the sake of Christ and His Church.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Vietnamese Christians and the Law

While I was in seminary, I read two books by John Naisbitt called Megatrends and Megatrends 2000. The books offer predictions of future changes based on trend analysis. One of the points of his book that resonate even years later was his comment on the advantage of specialized knowledge in an ever increasing world of information. Naisbitt reiterated that knowledge continues to be a source of power—increasingly so in an information age. While there are many different types of knowledge that have changed our world and affect our daily lives, the complexities of the law and its application are undoubtedly among some of the top areas that impact us on a secular level, if not also religious.

Vietnamese Americans tend to shy away from the legal arena for a number of reasons, perhaps due to a fear of confrontation and perhaps equally important, due to the potential economic costs. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the law affects our lives one way or another. Every day, society’s laws engage and impact our lives, determining how we live with our neighbors (i.e., criminal and injury laws), do business (i.e., contract and tax laws) and even how we live out our faith (i.e., constitutional law).

We as Vietnamese Christians should utilize the law for our protection and advantage. Fear of confrontation or economic costs may in the long run cause us even more loss (without even realizing it), be it financial setbacks to a loss of religious liberty.

Consider legal costs to protect oneself like any other business cost. A successful business person often realizes that it costs money to produce or preserve money. He or she will spend money (often times called “overhead”) to produce more money, or in the case of buying insurance, to preserve money or potential loss. Though no one feels good in spending resources to make or preserve money, it is the reality of doing business and living in most societies.

Beyond the economic impact of the law, the legal system also affects our rights, freedoms and liberties. These intangible factors can be just as important or even more than the economic factors. Consider the value of spending time with loved ones, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to worship God freely or to proclaim the gospel of Christ. The practical application of the law can either allow or hinder, greatly affecting our lives.

Laws passed by congress, state government or local municipalities potentially affect millions of lives on a daily basis. The true effects of those laws are often seen when the court system renders its legal decision. In a practical sense, the gatekeeper to our economic system—affecting science, medicine, technology and business is the legal system. Whether we like it or not, we need to learn to understand and utilize the system, to not only protect ourselves and our families but to also advance God’s kingdom.

With the increase in secular humanism within the United States, Christian values appear to be attacked from all sides by way of systemic discrimination to strategic lawsuits from organizations like the ACLU meant to intimidate and silence faithful Christians from exercising their God given and constitutional rights. While such battles are far from the physical sufferings experienced by our brethren in much more oppressive countries, it nevertheless is a battle that we must wage—particularly against the powers and principalities that seek to destroy our rights and liberties. Once those rights and liberties are suppressed, it is not inconceivable to see physical persecution, as is commonly witnessed in many countries where its citizens do not enjoy equal protection of law. A German pastor living during the Nazi regime by the name of Martin Niemoller once said, “When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent for I was not a communist. When they locked up the Jews, I remained silent for I was not a Jew. When they came for the trade unionists, I remained silent for I was not a trade unionists. When they came for the Catholics, I did not speak out for I was a Protestant. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

In the coming months, I would like to share how Christian attorneys through organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) are going face to face and battling Christian discrimination and secular humanist organizations like the ACLU all over the United States in order to preserve religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional family values. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus said that the rain falls on both the righteous and unrighteous. As Vietnamese Christians, we are not immune from the impact of discrimination or the law. The laws of our society have granted us certain inalienable rights and freedom. The tricky part is knowing how to utilize those rights and having the resources to enforce those rights. In the coming months, I hope to share with you further information that could be a resource if you or anyone you know ever find yourselves being discriminated against or persecuted because of your faith in Christ.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pastor's Salary

For awhile I have thought about writing an article on the minister's salary in the Vietnamese church. I recently came across an article by published by Crown Ministries that does a good job in helping those of us in the Vietnamese churches to reflect on the need to adequately support our ministers--if we want to prepare and retain quality clergy for the second generation. The salaries study in the article can be reduced by 25 to 50% when you apply it to the Vietnamese church context. Also, we don't have the mega church income issue at the present time. If you have some thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


In 1863, in a letter written to Nathaniel Hawthorne, poet John Godfrey Saxe said, “I suspect that the spirit of our blight regarding religion is that we feel that we must keep the preacher poor so that God will keep him humble.” Tragically, since that time it appears as if many churches have adopted this “practice” when the issue of paying the pastor has been addressed. Even though there is not a shred of biblical truth to justify it, more times than not a congregation’s actions have spoken volumes in support of this statement, whether they verbally admit it or not.

The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Today few pastors receive an unreasonably high salary. A reasonable income is based on what would ordinarily be paid for like services by a similar organization under similar circumstances. A majority of ministers who serve as pastors today are highly trained and well educated. In obedience to the Word of God and because laborers are worthy of their hire, churches need to give the maximum amount of support to their pastors, without jeopardizing the overall financial stability of the church.

How much do pastors make?
A recent study conducted by The National Association of Church Business Administration points out that the average full-time American pastor (pastors without an outside job) has at least four years of college or university education, works approximately 60 hours per week in ministerial and pastoral service, pastors a church with approximately 123 regular attendees, and earns an average annual income of $32,700. This includes salaries, clergy housing allowance, medical insurance benefits (if provided), and retirement plan contributions (if provided). With a congregation of 400 or more the pastors average annual salary is $44,000. Pastors of “mega-churches” or churches with attendance of 1,000 or more (14 percent of the churches in America) have an average income of $110,000, but pastors of churches with 100 or less in attendance (46.7 percent of the churches in America) earn $25,000 or less annually.

Pastoral salary is a two-edged sword: Pastors should be paid what they are worth, but they also should be worth what they are being paid. Income paid to pastors should be fair and a reasonable indication of the congregations’ evaluation of the pastors’ worth. Yet, it should also take into consideration the responsibilities and workload of the pastor, the pastor’s level of education, the size of the congregation, the economic level of the locale, and the experience of the pastor.

How much should a pastor make?
A good rule of thumb to determine how much salary pastors should receive is to either pay them the same salary as the average wage of the church ruling board, the average estimated wage of the families in the congregation (throw out the highest 2 percent and the lowest 2 percent and average the remainder of the congregation), or base the salary on a proposed budget presented by the pastor to the appropriate financial authorities of the church.

An annual review of a pastor’s pay is vital and the pastor should know exactly what to expect from the congregation during the coming year. However, if a church does not increase the pastor’s pay each year by at least the cost of living, it has in effect reduced the salary. Moreover, just as the members of a congregation expect their employers to provide them with a cost-of-living pay increase each year, a pastor should expect the same.

Working outside the church
In some situations, pastors are forced to seek outside employment in order to supplement low salaries, especially in smaller churches. In today’s Christian society in America there seems to be too much emphasis placed on Paul’s life, in which he was both a missionary and a tentmaker. Paul was primarily a missionary and was supported as a missionary; tent making did not support him. Today many congregations expect pastors to be tentmakers because they do not want to support them in a manner pleasing to God. But, Paul said, “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14).

If pastors feel committed to earn their living outside the church, so they will not have to take money from church members, then that commitment must be from God. As such, pastors should be given the freedom to pursue second jobs without fear of stigma. But if pastors are working because their churches will not support them, then that is wrong, because it is a lack of commitment on the part of God’s people and a lack of faith on the part of the pastors (see Philippians 4:19).

Before allowing their pastors to take outside jobs, the church board must honestly determine if they have the resources to assume their full and adequate support. If pastors are torn between the loyalty of a job in which they earn a living to provide for their families (1 Timothy 5:8) and the call of ministering to people, they will have divided minds and the overall stability of their churches very well could suffer.

Inadequate pastoral income does produce negative consequences. Pastors who are concerned about providing basic needs for their families may not have the emotional energy to concentrate on the needs of their churches. Financial burdens may contribute to a lack of enthusiasm, low self-esteem, and a despairing attitude toward the ministry. Ultimately, that will harm the congregation and result in a hurtful witness to the community. “Appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12).

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Discerning God’s Call

Is there any way to really know God’s call and purpose for our lives? God was thinking of us long before we ever thought about him. His call for our lives predates our conception. Knowing our life’s call and purpose begins with knowing God. In his best seller, A Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope. The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose.”

There are two types of calling that the believer will experience, the general call and the specific call. I believe that we can all know God’s general call. God’s general call for you and me is to serve and glorify him in whatever we do—whether it be as an engineer, social worker or student. The general call of God is imparted to every Christian through the scriptures. Romans 12:1 states, “I ask you therefore, brother and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you present your lives as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” The apostle Paul wasn’t saying that our lives had to achieve a certain status before we could serve God, no, God’s general call is not dependent on feelings or a “Damascus Road” experience. When we surrender our lives to God, we can all accept the commission of Romans 12:1 as God’s call to us—no matter who we are, what we do or how high up the societal ladder we may reach.
Only as we mature in our walk with God, will he reveal specific calls to the believer. Though the general call will never change, a believer’s specific call will usually change throughout one’s lifetime. We can compare God’s general calling as a military commission. When an officer receives that commission, he/she is imparted with a duty to serve and defend his/her nation regardless if he is a combat officer or staff officer. Within the life of the military officer, he/she has a number of different missions or assignments, which only lasts until that mission is completed. The servant of God, like the military officer, will have a series of missions, some longer, some shorter. Sometimes we confuse God’s calling, thinking that we are not called at all by God if we don’t have something specific or if that specific call seems to end. We need to learn to differentiate between God’s general call, which is permanent and given to every Christian, from God’s specific call, which are assignments that could and will often change.

More than ever today, the Vietnamese community needs people able to both discern and accept God’s call to serve him. How can one discern God’s specific call? A specific call is unique to the individual. It is an assignment that God has for that individual as the result of that person’s first and foremost availability—then background, personality, temperament and experiences. Thus, when a person is discerning his/her specific call, it is perfectly acceptable to consider how his/her background, personality, temperament and experiences will be compatible with that ministry.

Just as God will not want us to enter into a marriage with a spouse having very little compatibility with us (unless you are a Hosea or Gomer), so why would we think that God will usually want us to be in a ministry where we will lack the background, personality, temperament and training? It is true that He sometimes allows that to happen but more common than not, He will likely assign a ministry that will be compatible with the individual. Thus, when discerning God’s specific call, it is acceptable to consider if you have the background, training and experience for that type of ministry and whether you can see yourself enjoy doing that type of ministry. These compatibility issues are a good first step to discerning God’s specific call.

The second step to determining God’s specific call demands more of a spiritual discernment of how God calls. God’s calling can be direct; it can be indirect; and it can be through a godly restlessness of the soul.

The apostle Paul received a direct call through a visionary encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s calling was a radical event which does not happen to everyone who serves God. However, if one receives a call through this manner, rejection of that call is a tragedy.

Why doesn’t God make more direct calls to his people? I believe because God is more pleased when his followers both respond and walk in complete reliance by faith. Faith is a trust that does not require direct evidence. The scriptures in Romans 1:17b states, “The just shall live by faith.” God will often use circumstances in our lives to indirectly call us to Himself. At the turn of every decision, our circumstances will point to service in Christ. He will bring ministers to our lives who will inspire us. Every time we read something, he places before us the lives of people who have answered His call. When these circumstances and others similar surround us overwhelmingly, it may be that God is knocking at our hearts, calling us to Himself for service.

For those who fail to discern God’s call through indirect promptings, that person will likely experience a restlessness of his/her soul, as though he/she has been running away from God’s call but cannot seem to escape no matter what he/she does. Psalm 139:7-10 says, “Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I go to the darkest places; if I dwell in the remotest parts of the world; even there Thy hand will save me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” If you have been spiritually restless and suspect that you have been running away from God’s call, just stop, allow Him to take hold of you and give you peace and purpose.

Is God speaking to you? Has He placed before you an opportunity or ministry that you can relate to and would probably enjoy? Are there signs and circumstances that He has called you directly or indirectly to that ministry? If you can answer yes or maybe, you may be closer to discovering God’s specific call for your life. If you desire to discern God’s specific call for you, I would encourage you to talk with a pastor or Christian leader who has experience in spiritual direction (this is a type of spiritual counseling ministry).

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Simplicity as a Practical Discipline (Part 1)

According to the Washington Post, the consumer debt in America exceeded 2 trillion dollars in 2004, rising from 1 trillion in 1994. According to the College Board, the average college student accumulated roughly $2,700 of credit card debts by graduation in addition to $20,000+ of school loans. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, the credit card debts for low to middle income Americans show an average of $8,650 in 2005 as compared with Australians of the same level at only $2,500.

Many Americans, including Vietnamese-Americans, are living beyond their income levels. The American dream of a small house with a white picket fence has evolved into a 3000+ square feet house in a gated community, an SUV and several luxury sedans.

In my practice and ministry, I have been seeing an increase in individual and family stress for the past 10+ years, largely due to the desire for more material things. Unfortunately, this occurs at similar rates even among Christians. Sometimes a person strives to keep up with the Jones’ without even realizing it. In an age of consumerism, society makes it easy to borrow money. Instead of buying what we can afford now, we charge it with the confidence that it will be paid next month. However, next month comes and years go by, and we find that the credit card really hasn’t decreased that much.

In the desire to have a bigger and nicer house, many people take out a much larger loan then they can realistically afford. What is the responsible standard for taking out a home loan? While there are many views, my own is to only take out a loan based on what you can afford on your average income for the past three years—and for a working couple, base that on the highest income. This way, in the event of a loss or change of employment (for the working couple) by one person, the remaining income may be tight, but will not cause the stress of a foreclosure during the time that the unemployed person looks for alternate employment.

In an age of consumerism and easy loans, it is not easy to refrain from taking out a home loan based on the maximum combined income of both you and your spouse. It is not easy to refrain from using your credit card as a loan source for the family vacation, home furnishing or other enjoyments. Though the quick gratification will provide satisfaction for a time, the potential ramifications from the stress that it produces is far beyond its temporary worth.

In his book, Celebrations of Discipline, Richard Foster states that simplicity is freedom. Would you like to reduce stress in your life, your marriage? Consider learning to practice the discipline of simplicity. Whereas materialism and consumerism often brings bondage and stress, simplicity brings balance and freedom.

The discipline of simplicity involves both an inward acceptance as well as an outward lifestyle. In the coming months, we’ll briefly consider how the discipline of simplicity can reduce stress and bring more happiness to family relationships.