Scrubbing Toilets

To close out 2012 and kick off 2013, I spent better part of 6 months in a constant state of emotional torment. In the midst of a very critical decision making process, I felt like a child somehow positioned on both sides of the world’s biggest see-saw. The highs seemed astonishingly high and the lows incredibly low. The relative ease in which I was able to change directions actually turned out to be quiet troublesome to me. Up and down, up and down, up and down with that rhythmic squeaking that almost lulled me to sleep, not wanting to ever make the decision.

seesaw2Part of me wished that my see-saw partner would have been that much bigger kid. You know, the one that had all of the leverage due to his weight? At any moment, he could plunge down and send me soaring into the sky like a bottle rocket, only to jump off just as I reached the highest point, causing me to plummet down at an even more accelerated rate until the ground, my seat, and my tailbone would join forces to bring me to an abrupt stop. Yes, I actually hoped for such a happening.

The showdown taking place in my head was a career choice. I was faced with choosing between a full-time position as a campus pastor with my church, Fellowship of the Parks, or staying at the Dallas Fire Department and preparing to take a promotional exam to hopefully become a Lieutenant. Here is the single question that created the most indecision and was the root of all of my internal struggle: which career would be living within God’s will for me?

I addressed the idea of feeling a “calling” in a previous post Calling All Ninjas, but I was recently reminded of another lesson I learned throughout this process: you can live within God’s will for you no matter your circumstances. My wife Ann was wise enough to point this out to me when she told me, “you don’t have to work for a church to serve the Lord.” She could not have been more right. There were plenty of guys on the job at DFD serving the Lord each and every day, and there are probably equally as many church staff members out there who are not serving Him. The truth is that you get to decide daily how you will use your circumstances and circle of influence to impact other people, whether you’re a fireman, a pastor, or the custodian at a local high school.

CUSTODIAN OR COUNSELOR?

Charles Clark (pictured at right) became the custodian at Trinity High School in Euless, TX a couple of years before I arrived there in October of 1992 in the middle of my sophomore year. Mr. Clark was recently the subject of a short new piece covered by On the Road. (Click the link under the picture to watch the short video.) Mr. Clark is a great example of what I would consider living out God’s will within his given circumstances. He could easily have chosen daily to clean the bathrooms, empty the trash, lock the doors, and quietly slip out for the day. Instead, Mr. Clark has chosen to use his profession, his love for people, and his influence to impact the lives of the people around him. Here are 3 lessons that we can all learn from the janitor at my alma mater.

1. “Once they trust you and they know you love them, you can get them to buy into what you’re selling”

The wisdom in Mr. Clark’s voice was never more apparent than when these words poured from his mouth. More powerful than any persuasive speech or marketing campaign is the power of personal relationships. Christians, please re-read and re-listen to the words of that custodian. They sound much like the words given to us through the Bible. Before you can get someone to listen to what we have to say, they have to know that we love and care about them. We are told to help everyone become believers and to teach them what we have learned (The Great Commission), but we need to be reminded that the best way to do that is to first love them. After all, the effectiveness of anything we do is affected by the way we love people (see Matthew 22:37-40). A person does not value your input until you make them feel loved, respected, and cared for by you. Your circle of influence is directly proportionate to the number of people that feel like you genuinely care about them. I suspect that Charles Clark has a circle of influence that is, at a minimum, the size of the Trinity High School campus.

2. Do things because they need to be done, whether they are your job or not.

I am in the process of instilling a “code” to live by for me and my sons. One of those codes is that Macheca men will right wrong. I feel like God calls us to stand up for what is right at all times, not just when it is easy or convenient. It is always our responsibility to take part in fixing what is broken, in healing who is hurting, and standing up for those that can’t defend themselves. Mr. Clark sees that high school students living in a broken world, facing the cruel realities of a very unforgiving society are often unable to “defend themselves”. You see, even though it is not your job to help my mom change her flat tire, it is not your job to show compassion for a homeless addict, it is not your job to sit and listen to a hurting neighbor dump their issues on you in the driveway, and it is not your job to invest time in another person’s child, the world sure would be a better place if we all did. I wish I had the ability to see all things through the lens that Charles Clark sees his work. How much greater would your life experience be if everyone looked at you the way that Mr. Clark looked at his students? What if everyone saw you as being worth it? What if everyone valued you and invested in you? What if everyone did these things not only when it was their job, but all of the time because it needed to be done? I doubt any of these things are in the job description of a custodian, but there are stories of Mr. Clark purchasing clothes for students, giving them rides to jobs, even giving them a place to stay when they had nowhere to go.

3. You get out of something what you put into it.

Let’s face it, the job of a school custodian is not highly respected in our society. This is a job that could be seen as ordinary and unremarkable, negligible and unrewarding. But such is not the case at Trinity. Charles Clark sees his role as significant and far-reaching. He pours his heart and soul into the work that he does and the place that he does it. And you can tell by listening to him, that he gets great fulfillment and joy from his work. This is a prime example of reaping what you sow (see Gal 6:8-9). At the end of the interview, Mr. Clark says, “this custodian thing is working out good for me. I got a great life.” What if we all used those words to shape our outlook on our own lives? What if you lived and worked in such a way that allowed you to constantly say these words to yourself, only changing the blanks, “This ___________ thing is working out good for me. I got a great life.”

LUNCH WITH MR. CLARK

Although I never got to sit just outside of the office on that big rock with him and I never got to slowly stroll the halls with him listening to his sage fatherly advice, I have learned a great deal from Charles Clark, Custodian at THS. To be completely honest, I never had the pleasure of meeting him in our 3 years there together; however, he taught me a tremendous amount about life and perspective in just 2 minutes and 42 seconds. If anyone knows how to contact him, let him know I’d like to buy him lunch one day. T’s up Mr. Clark.

T's up

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Black-eyed Peas and Cabbage

A large number of people start off the new year by eating black-eyed peas and cabbage on January 1st. Some of those people do so because superstition tells us it will bring us good luck (black-eyed peas) and financial prosperity (cabbage), while others do it because that’s what their mom always did.

BEPs and Cabbage  Admittedly, I enjoy participating in and hearing the stories behind traditions and superstitions as much as the next guy, especially when food is involved. In fact, this is why I wait for Mondays when I have a red beans and rice craving. (See Monday Beans) After all, why a tradition exists is, in my estimation, just as important as how to follow it. Spending 7 years working in the fire service taught me that “that’s how we’ve always done it” is a much used, but frequently inadequate reason for continuing a practice. If you’d like to read a funny tale of why it is often a bad reason, read this quick story about Zig Ziglar‘s prized ham. Superstitious or not, I think most of us will agree that black-eyed peas and cabbage are about as effective as playing the lottery when it comes to bringing us luck and riches, so I thought I would I share some of things that I have learned about how to achieve financial freedom and how to create your own luck in 2015.

Last week, I got what may be the most feedback I have ever gotten after preaching a New Year’s resolution type message at church. It was a staggering reminder to me how many people out there are struggling financially, and not just those who don’t make enough money. There are plenty of families out there that make over $200k a year who are drowning in debt, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and not preparing for the future. This has been my motivation for this blog post.

Before I share what I think can help you handle your finances the right way, what I believe is the Biblical way, let me give you a disclaimer: most of what I am about to share with you comes from my experiencing many years of financial failure. At 27, I filed bankruptcy with $37,ooo in debt making about $31,000 year. I then proceeded to allow my family to get back into a good amount of credit card debt, acquire 2 car loans, and even buy our first home that we really weren’t ready for.  As if that wasn’t enough, I also stood by and watched as we built up almost $50,000 in student loans. Here are some of the things we did as a family to save ourselves from complete financial destruction.

1. GET EDUCATED AND MOTIVATED

Our financial life took its first step in the right direction the day I picked up The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. What was most eye-opening to me was how simple it could be to handle your finances the way the Bible asks us to.

Total Money Makeover    Note that I did not say easy, I said simple, meaning that even a regular non-finance major like me could easily comprehend the concepts presented. Educating myself financially did not mean learning all the ins and outs of the stock market, how to diversify a portfolio, or what average yield returns on 10 year CDs are. I learned the more about the right and wrong approach and mindset to treating money. Here is what it did for me: it radically changed my perspective on finances. Or, as Ramsey would say, it started a financial paradigm shift for us as a family. Seeing the progress we were making encouraged me to take Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class at our church, Fellowship of the Parks. Nothing is more motivating than progress!

FPU

Please believe me when I tell you that this class completely changed our lives. I estimate that we followed the program at about a 65% commitment level, and we have seen amazing results. In the next 3 years, we eliminated all consumer debt, paid off both of our cars, accumulated emergency savings that could pay 3 months of our bills, fully funded our employer matched retirement accounts, and opened IRAs for each of us. We now owe only on our house and Ann’s student loans. We have had no huge financial windfalls and nobody backed up a dump truck full of money on our lawn. We simply educated ourselves on how to manage our finances. It does hurt a bit to think where we would be right now if we had gone all in and been 100% committed.

2. TAKE A FINANCIAL HEALTH MONTH

About 4 months ago, I started the process of calling just about every company that I send a dollar to to see where I could save money. I called my cell/home phone/internet provider, my satellite service, the electric company, my mortgage holder, and even sat in front of a buddy who is my auto insurance agent and went through my policy line by line. It was very eye-opening to see just how much money I was wasting every month simply because I was too busy (or lazy) to make some phone calls. When it was all said and done, I decreased our monthly bills by almost $400 a month, got a $300 credit on my cell phone bill, got a check from my insurance company, decreased the interest rate on our mortgage by a full 1%, and cancelled my Direct TV NFL Ticket (I still am not ready to talk about that yet.) I don’t care how much money you make, it doesn’t make sense to pay more for something rather than less. And it makes even less sense to pay for something you don’t ever use. (See ya later 24 hour fitness membership!)

This process also included making an honest, accurate budget. It is very eye-opening to create an exact budget that accounts for every dollar you spend. I determined that I eat too much, could save a little more, and that it feels good to plan vacations that you know will be paid for before you leave for them. There is one little caveat that makes any budget more effective: YOU HAVE TO FOLLOW IT! I have a math/numbers brain, creating a budget can actually be fun for me. Sticking to them is a different story! My advice to you is to track your spending, decrease it where possible, create a manageable budget, then stick to it. And in your budget, make room for #3….

3. BE GENEROUS

If you make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year, make it a priority to be generous with what you have. The single greatest financial decision we ever made as a family was to start tithing 10% of our income. From that day forward, our family’s financial situation has continued to improve.  In my mind, there is NO coincidence here. I fully believe that God will bless a joyful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). Currently, the first lines on our budget each month are dedicated to giving money away, before food, before the mortgage, and before clothing. I now have realized that I have been the beneficiary of generosity many more times than I have been the giver. I intend on changing this over time.

Yes, I am a pastor. No, I don’t say this to increase giving at my church. If you are not a Christ follower or for some reason don’t trust ‘the church’ or your church, start by giving away 10% of your income to the person/organization of your choosing. Just give God a chance to bless you through generosity by committing to doing this for 3 months.  I am NOT promising you financial riches or a “return on investment”. I am simply telling you that giving builds a foundation of  generosity, humility, and selflessness. Just realize that no matter how much debt you are in, how tight your budget is, or how much money goes in/out of your bank account each month, cheerful giving will soothe your soul and remind you of just how fortunate you are.

Whether you are making minimum wage or six figures, I hope that 2015 is a year that brings you financial peace. l wish you 365 days full of black-eyed peas and cabbage.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment and let me know what things you have done to improve your financial situation.