Thursday, July 31, 2008

FREE Financial Tools

Along with Dave Ramsey, another name that Danielle and I have become familiar with recently is Joseph Sangl. Some of you may be familiar with his book I Was Broke, Now I'm Not. If not, I encourage you all to check it out.

The other thing I definitely encourage you to check out is the list of free tools Sangl has available at his website to help you in your journey to financial freedom. It is definitely worth your time to check it out.

By the way, you only have 146 more shopping days until Christmas.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Yesterday marked the end of EconoME, Grace's July sermon series that dealt with money issues. Unfortunately, yesterday's service was the only one of the four in the series that I could be there for. But it doesn't mean that money and the issues surrounding it haven't been on my mind a lot lately.

Grace is offering Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University this fall. I am confident that it is going to change the lives of all those that participate. Danielle and I have decided to be part of the course and we are pretty excited about it, too. Dave Ramsey's philosophy is simple: start out with an emergency fund of $1,000. Then start attacking your debt. Take care of the smallest balances first by putting high payments on those while only making minimum payments on your other debts. Once the smaller balances disappear, wrap that payment you were making on that debt up with the minimum payment of the next smallest and keep going from there until you are debt free. Ramsey calls it the debt snowball.

I have to be honest: imagining life debt free is pretty much next to impossible for me right now. I have been chained to the ground with the bondage of debt since my freshman year of college when, during freshman orientation week, I was lured in by the nice people at the credit card booth who offered me a free t-shirt and a nifty water bottle. When I maxed out that credit card, the nice people at my bank offered me another card that would have double the credit line on it. It was 0% APR for a year, so I thought - heck, why not. And the cycle just continued on and on and on. Eleven years and many many thousands of dollars later, I am paying dearly for the mistakes I made during that period of my life. Sadly, my wife is paying for my mistakes as well.

Guilt and embarrassment stemming from my decade of idiotic financial decisions grip my soul every waking moment. But over the last month as I've gone on video assignments to support the EconoME series and heard testimony after testimony of how peoples' lives have been changed since they went through Financial Peace, I actually have begun to feel a little bit of hope that perhaps there is a way out. I can't help but wonder what Danielle and I --and so many others-- would be able to do for God if the chains of financial burden were shattered. I'm so tired of being in debt. I'm so tired of giving every penny that we earn to credit card companies who think it's justifiable to raise their APRs to 30% like the people from Sears decided to do. THIRTY PERCENT? Do they WANT people to get crushed by their financial ruination?

It is my belief that a huge part of the answer leading up to financial success is honoring God with your finances. But if every penny that you earn goes to paying off debt, it can seem rather impossible to do that. But what if you decided to give God something? I was watching a video recently of a testimony where a guy suggested that if you can't give 10%, give something. Anything. In fact, he and his wife made it a point to give 5% during their season of financial stress. They even named the act of giving 5% to God as a "Fithe". As their financial situation improved, they began to give 6%. Then 7%. And so on.

The truth is: right now I am robbing God. And that burden, in the midst of everything else that we're dealing with, is sometimes too much to handle. I want to be able to give back to God what is rightfully His. But there are times where I just can't.

My question is this: do you think that God would honor a fithe? Does He honor the act of giving something when we can't give Him all?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fun With Beavers

FYI: The pictures and text are all screwed up in this entry because I haven't figured out how to post pics to Blogger yet. But it would take too much time to fix, so I'm not going to. Sorry.

Danielle, Candace, and I spent this past weekend camping down at Beaver Meadows in the Allegheny National Forest. And while we didn't really see any beavers, as the title of this entry suggests, we definitely would have had fun with them if, in fact, we had seen some.

Beaver Meadows Lake I guess this is the meadow where the beavers are supposed to be?

We arrived down there on Saturday after a campsite search in Cook Forest and a random visit to the camp where Aaron, Kelly, and the boys were staying. We pitched our tent in time for dinner and nightfall. Mind you, this was both Danielle and Candace's first time tent camping, so I had no idea how this was going to go. I'm pleased to say that it was a grand success. You can read about Danielle's experience here.

Candace looking on as I finish setting up camp Our site

"I'm not so sure about this!" A baby pinecone and a fine example of Danielle's magnificent eye

Candace and I having fun in the tent after it was all set up

What followed was an evening of fun and food. We cooked Smith's hot dogs (good taste never goes out of style) over the fire, and ate Pringle's and potato salad. Afer dinner, we made mountain pies with cherry filling, and then later, we made s'mores. Candace loved the s'mores. But, in my opinion, who in their right mind wouldn't?

"Is it time for Smith's hot dogs yet?" Danielle and Candace sitting and snacking by the fire

Candace and I clearing up after dinner Candace's first s'more! Mmmmm!!!

As Danielle mentions in her blog, the woods around us were amazingly silent. We didn't even hear the sound of crickets. Occasionally, the chorus of frogs from the lake would echo through the forest, but even that was faint and barely audible. The other strange thing I noticed was that there was not a hint of wind the entire night. The trees were about as still as they could be. I said to Danielle at one point that I wondered if weather still existed. It was really strange but stunningly peaceful.

"Umm, this is where we're sleeping?" Bedtime!

On Sunday, we woke up and made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. After breakfast, we went on a 3 mile hike, which -- for 2 year old Candace -- is a huge deal. Although she was carried by Danielle for the first part of the hike and me on the second part, I still think she did excellent, even if she did cry 90% of the time. LOL.

A baby pinecone! Danielle and Candace walking through wildflowers

Deep thoughts by Candace Stunning wildflower displays

Candace on top of the dam Traversing a rickety old bridge

Candace and I taking a break as we walk through a bog Yes, that is Danielle walking through thick wilderness! I'm so proud!

When we arrived back at the campsite, we were going to make lunch, but a thunderstorm popped up extremely quickly which caused us to tear down camp like crazy people and get in the car just in time for the lightning bolts and the deluge.

"Where da fire go Unca Day?"

On the way home, we stopped by Cook Forest, let Candace dip her feet in the river, we made grilled ham and cheese at an enclosed picnic shelter, and then got ice cream.

Playing at the river "You want me to do what?"

The Clarion River at Cook Forest One of very few pictures where Candace is smiling!

Danielle and Candace playing in the river Eating lunch in a shelter during the thunderstorm

This past weekend reiterated what I already knew: I was born to live outside. If I could live in a forest for the rest of my life, I would be incredibly satisfied. I love being outside. Being in Creation, seeing what God has done, being away from all the modern conveniences of daily life (I can't even tell you where the nearest electric light was, let alone cell phone reception) is something that just fills me with joy.

I love camping. And I love that my wife now loves to camp, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Granger Community Church

On our way back from Minneapolis, Danielle and I decided to embark on a "great churches of the Midwest tour". You can read about it on Danielle's site. On Sunday, our "tour" took us to Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana (just outside of Sound Bend). We waffled back and forth as to whether we were going to stop or not. How glad I am that we did.

What we experienced at Granger was a church that was not only passionate about doing everything excellently, but also one that was heavily investing in its community and reaching out to those who don't yet know Christ. From the moment we walked into their subtly beautiful building (it's rather unassuming, but it is a very well and creatively designed facility) to the moment we left the parking lot, I was in awe of everything about this place. The only bad thing we noticed was a lack of any kind of guest acknowledgment. In fact, Danielle talks about that in her post. The people were very friendly; ushers shook our hands and said "hi" and "good morning" and "welcome", but there was nothing that made me feel valued as a guest. I am proud to say that Grace definitely has a niche in this department. And although this was our experience, perhaps Granger figured out along it's journey that the method they use works. After all, average weekend attendance has gone from 4,000 in 2005 to 7,500 in 2008. Almost a 100% increase in three years. They've got to be doing something right.

As we hopped back on I-90 for the trip home, I began to think about Grace and Erie and whether a church like Granger could survive in Erie.

Granger was founded by Senior Pastor Mark Beeson (awesome blog) and his wife Sheila a little over 20 years ago. Because of their vision (and her investment in the youth/children of the church), Granger has grown into a community phenomenon in South Bend. They are even opening their first church plant this weekend in a town just east of South Bend called Elkhart. Here is why I think Granger has succeeded:
  • They love Jesus. A lot. I could tell by the passion in Pastor Mark's voice on Sunday as he spoke of how he longs for the hearts of all people to be passionate for Christ.
  • They invest heavily in the children and youth. They talk about it in the bulletin. Pastor Mark talked about it during the sermon on Sunday. They're not afraid to admit that they know that the church members/leaders of tomorrow are the children of today.
  • Creativity and innovation is a way of life there. They settle for nothing less than the best. Innovative music. Video in every service. And they do it excellently. I love one of their vision statements:

    Jesus Christ will be worshipped at GCC through a broad expression of the arts. Hearts will be touched, emotions stirred, minds opened and lives forever changed through the excellent and compelling presentation of the arts."
  • Great communication. Their weekly e-news bulletin reaches almost 5,000 people. Church news and events are reserved for the believer's service that they have on Thursday nights. Weekend services (all identical, by the way) are designed as seeker services. Stunning brochures. A website that not only is brimming with information and creativity, but one that is used heavily by its members as a communication tool. Streaming video, service video, and a state-of-the-art media player on their website. Incredible.
  • They are not afraid of change. In fact, Pastor Mark acknowledged two times in his sermon that Granger changes it's methodology often and that you have to choose to be okay with it if you are on board with Granger's mission (helping people take their next step toward Christ....together). Concluding his sermon on Sunday, he said this [emphasis added by me]:
    "Every change we ever make around here, every shift we make, every
    modification in some method or strategy; it is only so that people who want to hear can hear. It is so that we can say, and people will get it: lift your eyes! There is a God above all gods! Lift your eyes! Look to Christ and obey Him. This is our mission. It is what we will do."

WOW. I was speechless.

But could a church like this survive in Erie? Granger is a church located in South Bend, a city much like Erie:

  • South Bend population: 107,789 (fourth largest city in Indiana)
  • South Bend metro area: 316, 663
  • Erie population: 104,000 (fourth largest city in Pennsylvania)
  • Erie metro area: 281,000
  • Both metro areas have populations that are near 40% Catholic with less than 5% of each population identifying themselves as evangelical protestants.
  • Both cities have a substantial college student population.

Based on the above data, I don't see any reason why a church like Granger couldn't survive here in Erie. We have several great churches in town. Erie First, First Alliance, McLane, and of course Grace just to name a few. But is there a church in Erie that is willing to step out in faith and really GENUINELY reach the WHOLE city for Christ? Is there a church that is ready and willing to genuinely make a difference in the Erie community? Is there a church in this community that is willing to make history-making decisions without the fear of reprisal by [some of] its members? Is there a church in Erie that is so passionate for Jesus that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that they are doing all they can to cause the hearts of those that feel unworthy, unloved, and unlovable to beat passionately for Him?

Is there a church in Erie that is determined to offer their very best for Christ no matter how much pain and change they will have to go through?

I long for Grace to be that church. Unfortunately, I don't think we're there yet.
So I ask: what in the world are we waiting for?

Shouldn't we just shut off the lights and lock the doors behind us if we're not willing to be that church?

Doesn't God deserve it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Think I Love My Life

Danielle and I moved into a new place a couple weekends ago. As we try to get everything situated and settled, we are trying to get rid of the stuff we don't need (I'm a pack rat; she's not) and organize the stuff we need/want to keep. Tonight, I made it my goal to buy a RubberMaid tub at Wal Mart and combine two huge cardboard boxes of photos that have come along with me on every move since 2005 (I've moved a total of 4 times since then....UGH).

As I dug through the photos and put them in their protective tub (I did not organize them; I am saving that for when the weather gets nasty), I realized that I am in the middle of an extraordinary existence.

I looked through those pictures and couldn't help but to give thanks to God for the life with which He has blessed me. The places I've seen, the people I've met, the things I've's absolutely amazing. As I thought more and more about it, I realized that I love my life.

So the next time I complain about life and how hard/stressful/boring/stupid/unfair it is, wouldn't it be great if I brought a little perspective into the situation?

We'll see if that happens.

In the meantime, it sure won't hurt to offer thanks to God for giving me a truly wonderful life. It's certainly something of which I don't do nearly enough.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Observations from a midwestern roadtrip

We left Erie on Sunday morning at 7:30. Ahead of us was a 14 hour trip that, with the one hour time change, would put us into Minneapolis at 8:30 central time. We decided that we only wanted to drive in the sunlight; not because we hate driving in the dark, but because we wanted to see everything along the way. The drive went well, although we did hit some July 4th weekend traffic woes in and around the Chicago area. The weather was near-perfect which made for smooth sailing for pretty much the entire journey. Here are some observations from the road:

1. Planning for light traffic on a Sunday in the country's third largest city is not good planning. Also, don't forget to factor in holiday traffic when, in fact, there has been a holiday on the preceding Friday.

2. I am not a city-lover. As my wife knows all-too-well, my idea of fun is tenting in the middle of a completely deserted wilderness with none of the modern conveniences of daily life to distract me. Still, Chicago looks like a fun city that I would like to explore sometime. But only once.

3. I always thought that
St.Olaf was the town in Minnesota from where Rose Nylund hailed.
Well, this trip has proven me wrong. Assuming that Rose Nylund was not getting gas along the Illinois Turnpike, I am rather amused (and somewhat excited) that St.Olaf is indeed a real place.

5. Depictions of the Midwest in movies and TV shows are seemingly accurate. There are corn fields and different kinds of mills as far as the eye can see.

6. I'm convinced that most media does not know what they're talking about. While they are running story after story about how high gas prices are affecting everybody's vacation plans, it didn't much seem like it as we drove on Sunday. Traffic going east was absolutely insane. Thank goodness we were heading west. Traffic was backed up from near Rockford, Illinois to the middle of Wisconsin (about 200 miles).

7. Wisconsin's highway numbering system is wonky. Indeed, they're not even numbers. They're letters. Take, for instance Highway PP and Highway EW:

8. For America's Dairyland (as they proudly proclaim on their license plate), Wisconsin didn't have as much cheese as I thought it would. However, it did have it's fair share of tornado and flood damage from earlier this year.

9. We arrived the Twin Cities just as the sun was setting. It was really beautiful, actually. It was as if the Twin Cities' Chamber of Commerce knew we were arriving and arranged the most perfect of evenings to welcome us:

Overall, it was a really great drive. In retrospect, it doesn't seem like it took 14 hours...but roadtrips with Dave and Danielle are always so fun that you don't even notice how long the drive is. Even the gas prices weren't as bad as had been feared. The highest we saw was just outside Chicago with $4.49/gallon. As we approached the 14th hour, we both commented on how much we wanted to continue driving because we had had so much fun. Actually, that's a lie. I thought it...but I didn't say it. I love road trips with my wife. I love my wife! :-)

Today, we are heading to the Fogo De Chao Churrascaria for lunch. I haven't been to a churrascaria since I traveled to Brazil several years ago. It goes without saying that I am pretty darn excited!!