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Owed You a Picture

Alps_014_9 I promised to provide a picture of my flight over the Alps to Amsterdam from Johannesburg when my service allowed me to post pictures again.  I keep my promises, so here it is!  They were so close, it looked like I could have reached out the window to touch them.  I'm glad I didn't try.  Happy New Year!

Santa Fe

As you read this, my wife and I will be returning home from New Mexico where we visited our son, John III, for the Christmas holidays. John has lived there for six months, but has already decided to relocate back east to New York City, where he will join our daughter who already lives there. We are of course happy about this since it will bring him closer to where we live in Pittsburgh.

While we were there, we decided to drive up from Albuquerque where John lives to Santa Fe, the state capital about 70 miles north. Santa Fe is a "high" city, located 7,000 feet above sea level. Besides being the state capital, we had heard that it was a thriving art center. We had no idea just how thriving it was! Santa Fe is a city of only 70,000 people, but I have never seen such a concentration of art galleries, jewelry stores, western clothing and other creative expressions. We walked around for more than four hours and didn't even begin to see everything that was there.

Another interesting side note was a visit to the Loretto Chapel with its "miraculous" staircase. TheNew_mexico_2_009_4  story goes that the nuns who ran the Chapel had a choir loft with no staircase. They prayed and a man "appeared" one day who built the most amazing staircase, a true work of art. He disappeared before the nuns could make payment and he used wood that no one has been able to identify to this day. Thus they deemed the staircase miraculous. Here is a picture of the staircase to the left of the choir loft. See what you think.

Now it's time to get ready for New Year's, with all its football games. Happy New Year from the Stanko household.

Ushering in the New Year!

This post isn't about what you may think.  It refers to my personal, world-wide crusade to put a "hiring freeze" on any new ushers in the Church at large.  I have four college degrees and am able to find an empty seat in a church.  If the offering comes around and I miss it, I vow to find a place to drop off my offering at the end of the service. Does this sound strange?  Why such a tongue-in-cheek crusade?  I am advocating this for two reasons.

First, it is a protest to the lack of creativity in many church ministry menus.  A person can do anything they want in a local church as long as it's in the nursery, children's work, choir or usher team.  When someone wants to get involved and we don't know what their gifts are and don't want to spend the time finding out, we often make them an usher.  I guess the thinking is that they can't hurt anyone there or mess anything up. 

Have you ever encountered a non-gifted usher in a local church?  I would contend that ushering could be a vital role, greeting new people, praying for those coming in, parking cars for single moms with kids, and marketing church programs after the service.  Instead we've made ushering an exercise in common sense and not spiritual gifting.

The second reason for my "freeze" is that there are some who define their role in the local church as nothing but an usher.  I talked to one man who has been an usher for 19 years.  I asked him if he ever took a missions trip, visited the poor or went to the church prayer meeting.  He said, "Nope.  I've been an usher."  If I were the pastor, I would fire him and tell him to find something else to do that would define his love for Jesus and His church.

Finding where people fit in the church is hard work.  It requires time and effort on the part of church leaders.  It is much easier for leaders to define what they need (or think they need) to build the church and get people to fit into those roles.  When the church has to adapt to the gifts of the people in the church, most leaders recoil. 

What can we do to remedy this situation?  I think every church can usher in the new year by appointing what I call a purpose pastor.  That person would be responsible to be out among the people, listening to what they are saying and what God is doing in their midst.  Then this purpose pastor would come back to leadership on a regular basis and help leadership adjust their rigid agenda for how people are utilized to take into account what the Spirit is doing in the midst of the congregation. 

Do I think this will happen?  Probably not!  After all, the ushers have all been fitted with uniforms and jackets and this would render those obsolete.  But it's the start of a new year, and I can dream, can't I, of a church where the members were utilizing their gifts instead of a watching a few others exercise theirs?

Mavericks at Work

A delayed flight yesterday allowed me to finish up the latest book I'm reading, Mavericks at Work, by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre.  This book was recommended to me by my friend Bill Kinnon, who has never recommended a book that I haven't enjoyed reading.  You should check out Bill's blog site, which always has interesting links concerning technology, the church and other trends. 

The byline for Mavericks at Work reads "Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win."  Here is a summary from the book's Appendix that sums up what the entire book had to say:

We've made the case as forcefully as we know how that you can't do big things in business if you're content with doing things a little better than your rivals.  That's the central message behind the performance of every company we visited and every executive whose work we explored in this book.  But to make our case even stronger--and to make the book even more useful--we've gathered material to help you think more boldly about how to compete, to think more openly about how you innovate, to think more deeply about how you stand out in a crowded marketplace, and to think more creatively about how your organization works.  In other words, this is material to help you think more ambitiously about how you lead (page 263).

While this paragraph describes the material in the Appendix, it also applies to everything else that is in this book.  I could not help but think how many copycat churches there are today, content to be doing church work a little better than the church across the street, while the gifts in thousands of members lay dormant or are expressed outside their church setting.  More on that in another post.

I found many helpful ideas and tips in the book, but this one was particularly insightful for the work that I do in churches.  Excuse the somewhat crude description that is contained therein:

Fail to hold the line [hiring talented people], Andreessen argues, and you inevitably succumb to what he calls the Rule of Crappy People: "There are good people and there are great people.  Great people tend to hire other great people, because that's who they want to work with.  But good people tend to hire people who aren't so good.  They don't want to manage people who are smarter than they are. So over time, unless you're tough and disciplined, the talent level in the company declines to the lowest common denominator, and you wind up with lots of crappy people.  It's a disaster.  But it takes tremendous willpower not to compromise."

I have found the above principle to be true in many churches, where great leader pastors who are bad managers hire people who are less than what they could obtain so they don't have any problems managing them. 

At any rate, Mavericks at Work is a must read and one that I highly recommend if you are interested in producing quality results. Thanks, Bill, for another great tip.

Feel free to write your comments or your own book review of what you've read lately on the site where this entry is posted. You can also read or subscribe to my weekly Monday Memos by going to the site where they are posted. And don't forget my personal PurposeQuest website, which has loads of material that will help you find your purpose and be productive.

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Christians in the Middle East

There was an article in Sunday's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review entitled Christianity Faces Crisis in the Middle East.  It promised to be the first of a series, but the second one hasn't appeared yet.  The article highlights the challenge that Christians in the Middle East face and pointed out that many are leaving to pursue safety and hope.

I was in Bethlehem in September and it was a depressing scene.  First, there is the 20 foot high wall erected by Israel to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.  Then when we got close to the Church of the Nativity, the purpose of our visit, we were inundated with merchants and hucksters, anxious to make up for lost business due to the war in Lebanon. When we didn't buy, we were subjected to hostile comments from our Muslim friends.

The Christian who gave us the tour of Bethlehem (no Israeli tour guides are now allowed into Bethlehem) told us how hard life was for Christians in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  There were no jobs and Christians were not usually considered for the few that were available.  Many thousands have indeed left to pursue a better life, many to the United States. 

So what is the Church doing, Protestant or Catholic, for our brothers and sisters still there?  What are we doing to see that the Muslims there are exposed to faith in Jesus?  While Israel captures most of the attention for evangelical Christians, there is much work to do in the entire Middle East.  It will take more than polite, politically correct statements by politicians and church leaders turned politicians. 

Having written that, I want to take steps to visit not only Israel again this year, but also some churches and believers in other Middle Eastern nations.  If you would like to join me in this or could financially contribute to such a journey, let me know.  I have written some contacts to express my interest in going.  I will keep you posted as any doors open for me to follow through.  . 

Feel free to write your comments or additional insight about this topic on the site where this entry is posted. You can also read or subscribe to my weekly Monday Memos by going to the site where they are located. And don't forget my personal PurposeQuest website, which has loads of material that will help you find your purpose and be productive.

What Did the Pope Say Again?

Did you happen to listen to the Pope's Christmas Eve remarks from the Vatican?  If not, you didn't miss anything at all.  Please understand:  I am not engaging in Pope bashing.  I have nothing against the man.  Here is the leader of 1 billion Christians in the world, someone with tremendous influence and spiritual authority, however, and he takes the opportunity with the world's microphones in front of him to say absolutely nothing.

Here are some of the remarks he made on Christmas Eve:  "Jesus came for each one of us and made us brothers.  [People should strive to] "overcome preconceived ideas and prejudices, tear down barriers and eliminate contrasts that divide--or worse--set individuals and peoples against each other, so as to build together a world of justice and peace."  Huh?

Don't get me wrong.  I haven't seen any Christian leader step forward this holiday season to say anything of significance, anything that would marshall and direct the tremendous spiritual resources that Christians have toward a common cause.  But no Christian leader has the world's media at his doorstep like the Pope does during Christmas and Easter, so I watched in wonder as the opportunity was wasted. 

I did see, however, that the Vatican is thinking of starting a soccer team.  Now that will strike fear into the heart of hell!  People are dying every day without Jesus and we are thinking of starting a soccer team.  (In the interest of fairness, I was part of a church in Mobile that had 11 men's softball teams!  I guess it was under the guise of sports evangelism! I participated along with everyone else.)  Why not take that money and sponsor missions, build churches or feed the hungry?

I guess I am seeing that the only thing that will reverse militant Islam is militant Christianity.  Of course, we don't wage war like terrorists for our weapons are spiritual.  As we conclude 2006, I wonder if we don't need to take a look at our priorities as believers and determine to march to the beat of a different drum--heaven's rhythm--and take our role as salt and light more seriously. 

If you agree or disagree, feel free to write your comments for the world to see on the site where this entry is posted. 

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More on the Magi

My family went to Saturday night service and, lo and behold, our pastor spoke about the magi and the star they saw.  That certainly has been the major theme of this Christmas season for me and, as he spoke, I jotted down some more thoughts to add to what I already wrote a few days ago in a post entitled The Magi. Here are those additional insights to the story found in Matthew 2:1-18.

1.  The magi were Arab scholars and wise men.  Let us take heart that in this story some Arabs were more in tune with Jesus than the Jews were.  May God work in the lives of both Jew and Arab today so that the Son of God may be worshiped and revered in their midst.

2.  Think of the difficulty of their trip of 1,000 miles.  They were carrying precious cargo for the gifts, so they faced security issues, discomfort, fatigue and probably traveled at night to avoid the desert heat.

3.  Those who lived closest seemed to care little about what the magi (and shepherds) told them concerning the birth of the King.  Those who came the farthest and those who lost sleep pursuing the baby Jesus had the greatest reward.

4.  The magi were led to Jesus by the following means:  Daniel and the local Jews in Babylon, their own study of the Old Testament, nature by means of the star, Herod and the unbelieving Jewish officials, and dreams.  If you are open to God, He will use any and all means possible to guide your path.

5. The magi came more for Mary's sake than for Jesus, who was too young to comprehend the event.  Scripture tells us, however, that Mary treasured these things in her heart and probably drew on them decades later when Jesus began His ministry.  What are you treasuring in your heart so you won't forget?

6.  Your level of joy is commensurate to the distance you must travel to find that joy, whether physical, emotional or spiritual.

7.  The magi had to make the same trip home after they found Jesus as before.  There are no shortcuts in following God.

8.  The magi disappeared after the story and we know nothing of their work after they returned home.  Did they spread the good news?  Were other lives impacted?  How were their lives changed from that point?  What difference did the star and worship of Jesus make?  What differnce has the baby Jesus made in your life, not only during Christmas, but from that point forward?

Feel free to write your comments or additional insight about the magi on the site where this entry is posted. You can also read my weekly Monday Memos by going to the site where they are located, including number 276 which was also about the magi. And don't forget my personal PurposeQuest website, which has loads of material that will help you find your purpose and be productive.

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White Christmas

The title of this entry doesn't refer to the weather report for Christmas day, but rather the 1954 movie starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby.  Why do I even mention this?  Because every year my wife and her sister watch this holiday cinema while I look for something else to do.  This year, I decided to assist them by purchasing the DVD version and giving it to them as an early Christmas present. 

They immediately opened the package and watched the movie, while I slept for two hours on the couch as they watched it like they were doing so for the very first time.  Today we are carrying out another Christmas tradition when we visit the section of Pittsburgh called the Strip District. 

Now the Strip District sounds like a nasty part of town, but it isn't.  The Strip got its name since it's a strip of land just outside downtown Pittsburgh where all the markets bought their wholesale produce decades ago.  They still do, but the area has now gone public and commercial with restaurants and specialty shops.  We will go to the fabulous Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. to buy cheese and Italian food products.  Then we will go either to Wholey's Fish Market or Benkovitz Seafoods to buy our fish for Christmas Eve dinner.  From there, we will wander through the stores, which will undoubtedly be crowded today with last-minute Christmas shoppers.

We are having mild temperatures this year, so it doesn't look like we won't have a white Christmas this year.  That's fine with me.  I don't get along with snow or cold temperatures, which is why I enjoyed living down South for 18 years.  I hope to get back there some day.

At any rate, if you read this before Christmas, we wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.  I hope that you have some Christmas traditions that are pursuing this year with family and friends.  If not, then why not create some that will become an important part of your holiday celebrations.   

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Upgrade 2

By the way, I did get an upgrade to business class the other day from Amsterdam to Detroit.  What a blessing that was!  It makes all the difference in how you feel when you arrive.  I sat next to a man, however, who was so drunk by the time we landed that he could not stay awake.  Plus in his drunken state he bought more expensive stuff from the in flight duty-free store than anyone I have ever seen. I thought he was going to talk my ear off until he couldn't remember where he was flying to or where he had come from.  I guess the line from the carol Silent Night applied to him:  "Sleep in heavenly peace."

I used the eight hours flying time to read and watch The Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Man's Chest starring Johnny Depp. (I was out of the country when this was released and I never had the time to go to a theater to see it.  I loved the first movie in this series, but this second one wasn't nearly as enjoyable.) I usually don't watch movies while flying because the headset and screen are so hard to hear and see. I also think I can put my time to better use. I thought I would give myself a break, however, from the busy-ness of my last three weeks and I was glad I did.  While the movie got generally bad reviews, I thought it was pretty good.

We arrived early into Detroit, which enabled me to get an earlier flight home to Pittsburgh.  Now I am land bound until the day after Christmas, when Kathryn and I fly out to New Mexico to see our son.  Our daughter is coming to Pittsburgh for Christmas along with my wife's sister Diana.

I hope you will be with family this Christmas but, if not, I pray that the presence of Jesus will fill your life and heart this holiday season.  You are not alone, no matter how few people you are with, because God is with you.  And that truly is the good and happy news of this time of year.

The Magi

I hope this finds you either preparing to have or already enjoying a wonderful Christmas and holiday season.  I came home Tuesday night and worked to get ready for my annual meeting with our accountant.  The meeting was last night and, all in all, we had a good year, finishing strong in the last quarter. 

Last Monday I wrote about the magi in The Monday Memo, those wise men who came to see and worship Jesus as described in Matthew 2:1-18.  I can't seem to get this story out of my mind, so here are some additional thoughts on this story, in no particular order (you may want to read The Monday Memo 276 if you haven't already to get some additional background on this subject):

1.  These wise men came from the area of modern day Iraq and were probably of the people today known as Kurds.

2.  The distance from Persia to Bethlehem was 1,000 to 1,200 miles.  Since they came on camels, the trip would have taken a long time.  Thus they could not have arrived around the time of Jesus birth. That's a long way to come in search of spiritual knowledge.  The Jews could have made a local trip to see Jesus but did not, in spite of the accounts not only of the magi, but also of the shepherds.

3.  The magi were wise men who were given authority over the state religion of Persia by Darius, thus they had political influence coupled with religious wisdom. 

4.  At one time, Daniel was appointed head of this hereditary priesthood, thus leading to the conflict and intrigue that led to Daniel's night in the lion's den.

5.  In all probability, Daniel entrusted the Messianic "secret" to a sect of the magi since he received many prophecies and was the chief magi.  Many Jews in Babylon could have kept the "secret" alive over the next six centuries.

6.  The magi probably arrived in Judea amidst great pomp and a large entourage, including cavalry and soldiers.

7.  When the magi came and worshiped Jesus, they foretold that all earthly kingdoms and wisdom would bow to Jesus the King or perish. 

8.  Herod was dead shortly after he had the young boys slaughtered in Bethlehem.

9.  The religious leaders told Herod and the magi where the King would be born, but they refused to follow, even out of curiosity.  This depicted the eventual disinterest in Jesus by most of the Jewish leaders. 

10.  The magi gave gifts to Jesus. We should, too.

11.  Politicians like Herod often try to use the Bible and spirituality for their own ends. 

12.  Politics and Jesus have never been a good mix, even in the modern world.  Why?  Because most politicians must lie or tell half-truths to obtain and maintain power. 

13.  It is interesting that the magi (non-Jews) had more integrity and spiritual hunger than Herod (a part-Jew) and the Jewish leaders (all Jews). 

Feel free to write your comments or additional insight about the magi on the site where this entry is posted. You can also read my other Monday Memos by going to the site where they are located. And don't forget my personal PurposeQuest website, which has loads of material that will help you find your purpose and be productive.

From the Stanko household, we wish you a very Merry Christmas! 

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