The Good Neighbor

By: Ellen Perkey

When we moved into our first house we slowly began meeting our neighbors. We had quite the mixture of people in our south Austin neighborhood. Across the street was a man I particularly remember because he’s the sort of person whom its difficult to forget. He loved to talk to everyone and kept an eye on things in his part of the neighborhood.  He invited Jason (my husband) over for beer a couple times and told us all about the neighbors who used to own our house when we brought over Christmas cookies. When Jason’s younger brother was in town visiting he went outside to make a late night phone call and sat down in the bed of our truck parked out front. Our neighbor marched over and began hassling him about what he was doing in our front yard late at night since he wasn’t used to seeing Jason’s brother around. I remember most of all his kindness and friendliness, the polite way he complimented me when he noticed I lost weight and the advice he gave us about our giant Texas Ash tree in the front yard. In many ways he was the picture of a good neighbor.

Our neighbor was an older Hispanic man who was a retired elevator installer. He was tattooed and a drinker and an ex-gang member. In many ways he personified the kind of person who is vilified in our current media. I’m sure he committed or assisted in crime as part of his life in a gang. I know he wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a good neighbor. Much like the Samaritan of the parable he was the opposite of where we expect to see goodness. God works and speaks in those places we least expect to see, and goodness is in people who have lived lives we’d like to classify as bad. Our neighbor passed away a couple years before we moved out of our home; and I will remember him as a good, imperfect person.


The Spirit of the Law Trumps the Letter of the Law

By: LaDair Wright
SHPC Member

Jesus told the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17,20)
What exactly did He mean by this? The Pharisees were certainly teaching the Laws of Moses, so how was their righteousness lacking?

I think Jesus meant several things by this scripture. Obviously, He had come to fulfill the ancient prophesies regarding the coming of the Son of God. On a deeper level, He had come to explain the rationale behind the Laws of Moses and help us understand their deeper meanings. He pointed out that, while the Pharisees were teaching the letter of the Law, they were not always grasping the more important Spirit of the Law.

Scripture is full of examples in which Jesus essentially said, “The Laws are valid, but you are not looking beyond the words to determine their essence – the real reasons each of them was prescribed. You are not examining the context of the Laws, nor the logic for keeping them sacred.”

A prime example of this is the story of Jesus healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been invalid for 38 years. The Pharisees chastised both the man and Jesus for working on the Sabbath – first the man for carrying his mat, and then Jesus for healing him. The Law said that the Sabbath must be kept holy, a commandment based on the creation story in which God rested on the Sabbath after six days of hard work. The letter of the law (resting on the Sabbath) was logical – one should follow God’s example and use the Sabbath as a day to praise God and to rest one’s body and soul for the work to be done the following week.

But the fallacy in the Law rested upon one’s definition of “work”. Work for personal gain was contrary to the Law, but work for God’s glory was in complete accord with the Law. Working for the glory of God entails praising and worshiping God and doing Godly deeds.
In response to the Pharisees scolding, Jesus told them: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17) 
We must not only consider the letter of God’s Laws, but their deeper meanings – the Spirit of the Laws – when deciding how to live our lives. Have you considered that the phrase “Spirit of the law” may refer to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is our counselor, our advocate – the presence of God that Jesus left behind to guide us when He ascended into Heaven. We must listen to the Holy Spirit and be guided on how to obey God’s Laws, and not blindly follow the directives of others who interpret the Laws for us.
Our righteousness must “surpass the Pharisees and teachers of the law” if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. May it be so for you, and may you dare to examine the Spirit of the Law, and not just the letter of the Law.


Got Bench, Mark?

By: Allen Gunter

Isn’t that supposed to be “Got milk?”, Budget Guy? And by the way, my name isn’t Mark…


How about if it said, “Got benchmark?” That’s what I really want to talk about, but don’t you think “Got bench, Mark?” is kind of catchy?


Okay, maybe not. But if everyone followed some key financial benchmarks, we’d be in a lot better shape than we are now. The economy may have recovered from 2008, but “we the people” haven’t – the personal finance situation in this country is worse now than it was then! 

Consumer debt continues to hit record highs and is now over $14 trillion!                                                             


That ain’t good, folks! What’s it going to be like when the next “2008” comes along?

Because it most definitely will!  


What can you do to protect yourself and your family? Check your finances against the following benchmarks. And if you’re missing on any of them, start working to change that – NOW!


Start with how much you pay each month on all your debts – mortgage or rent, car loans, credit cards, student loans, store loans, medical bills, etc.

 The total of all your monthly payments shouldn’t be more than 35% of your gross monthly income.


So how’d you come out? Under 35%? The lower the better! Over 35%? Time to take a step back and take a good, hard look at how you’re managing your money.


Such as how much you’re spending on housing. If you’re renting, that includes your utilities as well as your rent. If you own a home, it includes principal, interest, property taxes, insurance and maintenance.

 Don’t spend more than 28% of your gross monthly income on housing.


Homeowners – don’t gloss over maintenance costs! They’re tricky because they’re not regular so it’s easy to forget about them in months when you don’t have any. We think about the cost of fixing the air conditioner or replacing the water heater, but even buying some plants for the yard, fertilizer for the lawn – these are all part of your maintenance costs, too. 


Maintenance costs can vary quite a bit from month to month, but guess what? There’s a benchmark for that, too!

 Take 1% of the value of your home and divide that by 12.


Some months you’ll spend less, some months more. But set that aside each month and when those big ticket repairs some along, you should be in good shape to deal with them.


While we’re talking about houses, here’s one to keep in mind when it comes time to buy your next, or maybe your first, house:

 Don’t take out a mortgage for more than 2½ times your gross annual income.


And for your next car or truck?

 Don’t take out a loan for longer than 42 months.


Yeah, I know. You can get car notes now for as long as 84 months! The lower monthly payment looks good, and you just got a more expensive car than you thought you could. But watch out – all you’ve really done is set a financial trap for yourself, just waiting to catch you when you need to replace that car.


Something important to keep in mind about these benchmarks — they’re limits, not targets or goals. They don’t mean that carrying a debt load of 35%, for example, is smart. 


Think of them like the fence around a playground. It keeps you from running out into the street, but the fun stuff is in the middle, well inside the fence. 


How about some rules for building financial security? That starts with saving:

 Keep three to six months worth of living expenses in savings for emergencies.


This gives you a way to cover larger, infrequent expenses without increasing your debt. That air conditioner, for example, or car repairs. The key is to build the reserve back up as fast as you can each time you tap into it. 


And with respect to saving:

 Save 10% of every paycheck.


Not enough! This was a good benchmark once upon a time, but 10% just isn’t enough anymore. So that rule needs to be updated to 15% if you start early, and 20% or more depending on how old you are when you start saving.    


Two final benchmarks – a couple of my favorites! First,

 If it sounds too good to be true, it is.


Anymore there are so many who are looking for ways to separate us from our money. But there’s no magic investment, no secret programs our credit card companies don’t want us to know about, no miracle cure of any type for whatever financial issues we might have. 


You either take charge of your money, or the banks, credit card companies, bill collectors…they’ll end up taking charge of you.


And now for the most important one of all:


  Give 10% to God. 


What makes this one tough is that giving to God can seem so, well, discretionary. It just doesn’t have the immediacy that other things do. But God gives us life, both now and eternally. And all God asks is 10% – a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me!


New Life

By: Ellen Perkey

When we moved into our new home a few years ago we took a couple house plants including a kalanchoe that I’ve had since before our children were born. This little kalanchoe plant became a parable for me.  It was neglected for over a year (literally) after we moved to our new house.  We did a major remodel and some of our things stayed in an untouched room in the house, including this plant.  It sat in an upstairs window and I didn’t water it for at least 9 months.  When we finally moved into our house completely after the remodel I found it behind all the things we had stored.  It appeared dead, but I watered it and put it in my kitchen anyway. A few days later I looked at it I was amazed to see it was growing new leaves! 


“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.  The old life is gone, a new life has begun!”


2 Corinthians 5:17


The renewal and re-creation that continuously happens in nature reflects the truth of God.  No matter how dead we are spiritually, no matter how hopeless and violent the world seems it’s possible to come back to life.  The love of God overcomes, and there’s no sin or sorrow that can be healed.  Anyone can become a new person.


The Real Parable of the Talents

By: Allen Gunter, The Budget Guy


I’m sure you’re familiar with the Parable of the Talents. You know, the one where the master entrusts three of his servants with some talents and then leaves town for a while. But did you know that in the ancient texts there is a fourth servant?  


Well, it seems the fourth servant was most anxious to honor his master and do something good with the talents he had been given. But while he was thinking about what to do, he began noticing that some of the other servants had things that he didn’t…nicer cloaks, larger rooms, better food. He couldn’t understand why they had these things and he didn’t, and it made him feel a little inadequate and a little jealous. After all, didn’t he work just as hard…perhaps even harder…than they did? Didn’t his family deserve to have good things, too?  


Then one day the servant saw a beautiful cloak in a merchant’s shop. 


“If I had such a cloak, the other servants would respect me more and I would be much happier.”



Unfortunately, the servant did not have enough talents to buy the cloak.   But the merchant knew the servant’s master to be very wealthy, and he saw this as an opportunity to gain favor with the master. So he offered to let the servant have the cloak in return for just a few talents and the promise to pay the rest later.   The servant’s heart quickened.   


“This will only take a small part of what my master entrusted to me. I can still do something good for him with the rest and I’ll surely be able to replace the talents I’ve just used by the time my master returns.”  


So off the servant went in his fine new cloak. He hadn’t gone far when he met a man selling beautiful Persian rugs.   


“Such a rug would be much more comfortable to sleep on than the straw mats my family has now. Besides, if I were well rested, I’m sure I could do so much more to please my master.”


But again the servant did not have the needed talents. Thinking the servant to be a man of means because of the fine cloak he was wearing, the merchant offered to sell the rug to him for a small payment, with the rest to be paid later.  


This delighted the servant, who soon found that he could acquire most anything he desired this way. And so he did until he had many fine things for himself and his family.   


But as he acquired more, the servant realized that his heart had become burdened with all of the things he had bought. For now the servant worried about how to protect all of his fine new possessions from thieves and moths and rust. He resented the time he had to spend taking care of them, finding places to keep them.   


The servant began to realize that the happiness and contentment he had when he bought something new was temporary and unfulfilling. He seldom thought about his master anymore. He knew that one day his master would return and he would have to give an accounting, but that time seemed too distant. Besides, he had to deal with the accountings the merchants presented to him.  


And that had become the servant’s greatest burden. The merchants, of course, wanted to continue to be paid for what they had sold the servant. The servant truly wanted to pay them, but the small amounts the merchants kept asking for added up to large amounts that the servant found difficult to pay. He worried about how he would pay them, and it caused great strife and tension in his household.  


Okay, Budget Guy, stop right there. This isn’t from any “ancient text”…you’re making this all up! This is just your feeble attempt at being cute!  


Feeble, perhaps, but not intended to be cute! You see, I believe Jesus’ parables are all incomplete. He laid the groundwork for us in each one and then left the final “chapter” for us to write based on how we apply that parable to our own lives.  


Isn’t the Parable of the Talents really a lesson for us in how God wants us to manage all that He has entrusted to us? I believe God means for us to find joy in life, and a certain amount of joy can be found in material things. However, it’s not okay when the “wanting” and the “having” become the standard by which we measure ourselves and our happiness.  


Like Luke 16:11 ,“If, therefore, you have not been faithful in the use of worldly wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?” , the Parable of the Talents reminds us that we are merely stewards of what we have. How we handle that stewardship is a measure of our faith.


The Compass

By: Ellen Perkey

Leon preached about following the Spirit this Sunday in church and it reminded me of the mental image of how I perceive the Holy Spirit personally. I’ve always felt the Spirit as a compass, something that I can access when I’m quiet and listening, a pulling feeling towards or away from something. Rarely I will get a flash of clarity from the Holy Spirit about something in my life, like the time I was walking in a rainy gray pasture to check on a pregnant horse and realized there was nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than that.  

A compass guides us when we use it, and it reliably points in the same direction every time. What a compass won’t do is give us turn by turn directions as a GPS does. It takes skill and practice to find your way with a compass, it is something you have to keep checking in with to successfully use it. But a compass will remain the same, day or night, clear weather or rough weather, disregarding all circumstance. Even when you’re not looking at a compass it will continue to point in the same direction.  

The unfailing love of God is always there to guide us. When things are unclear we need to pray for guidance and also check in with the internal compass God has given us access too. So many times I pray “God, I don’t know how I can do this,” and the answer is always that I don’t have to do it alone. I pray so often “God, show me where you want me to be,” and sometimes I can see a glimpse of the good things God is guiding me towards even when where I’m at seems so dark.  

Make the choice to check in with your compass this week. Listen to the little disquiet inside you that asks you to look for something more. Listen to the calm center of your heart that says you’re exactly where you need to be right now. Listen to the reassurance inside that tells you this stage of your life won’t last forever. Remember that unlike a compass the guide of the Holy Spirit comes with the assurance that whatever the path is you’re not walking it alone. 


Are You Smarter Than a Moth?


The next time you wander into your kitchen, take a look at your refrigerator. Stop and think about all of the really…er…cool things it does for you. Open it up. Take a moment to look inside, maybe grab a snack. 


What would you say if I told you that your refrigerator is the perfect cage for a moth? 


So says Emmanuel Derman, a pioneer in quantitative finance and author of the book “My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance.” It seems that Mr. Derman went to his refrigerator to get some lunch one day and found a moth inside: 


“The moth was attracted to the refrigerator light. Every time I opened the door, the refrigerator light came on, and the moth loved it and hovered about.  Every time I closed the door, it got dark and cold inside and, of course, unattractive to the moth, but since the door was closed it couldn’t get out.”


To get it out, Mr. Derman simply disabled the light and held the door open while the moth flew out. (However, he doesn’t reveal what he did then about getting the moth out of his house…) He concluded from all this that the refrigerator is “a fiendish cage designed just for moths, who were free to leave whenever the door opened, but couldn’t because of their character/constitution.”


“Cute story,” I hear you thinking, “but what does it have to do with the price of Starbucks© in Austin?” Well, it seems to me that this is the perfect parable for the materialistic trap we keep falling into.


Maybe it’s an ad (I can’t afford not to buy at that price!), or the new Whatchamajigger 1000 your neighbor just bought (if they can afford that on what they must make, I can, too!), or perhaps just something that catches your eye in a store (I’ve been working really hard and deserve that!). Whatever it is, the light comes on and you’re sucked into it, just like a moth. You buy it, even though you don’t really have the cash right now to pay for it. But hey, that’s what credit cards, payday loans, home equity loans, 0% interest offers are for, right?


And for a while it’s fun to dance around the light, enjoying what you’ve just bought. Slowly, though, so slowly that you don’t really notice it, the satisfaction fades, the light dims. That empty spot that you thought you’d filled creeps back. You’re tired of juggling the bills, trying to stretch the paychecks. The light is out, it’s cold and dark, and the door looks like it’s closed tight.


But you have an advantage over that moth. A BIG advantage. You can turn away from the light and toward the door. You can reach out and open it! 


I know, now you’re thinking, “Yeah, sure. Nice ‘rah-rah’ talk, Budget Guy, but it ain’t that easy.”  


Maybe, maybe not. But here’s how you can make it happen. 


>   Develop a spending plan so that you know you’re spending your money on the things that are most important to you (including some fun things)

>   Avoid sales except for necessities

>   Avoid ads and stores that sell your weaknesses

>   Beware of “freebie” gimmicks; they’re designed to get you to buy things you don’t need

>   Unless you pay off your balances each month, DON’T use a credit card; use a debit card or better yet, use cash

>   Set an amount you won’t go above without sleeping on it first

>   Don’t use shopping and trips to the mall as entertainment

>   When you do go shopping, make a list and stick to it; ask a friend to go with you to help you stick to your list and spending limits

>   Copy the “urge to splurge” questions in the box and stick them in your wallet – in front of your credit cards


And think about this: The more our lives are taken up with stuff – buying it, working to pay for it, maintaining it, fixing it, storing it, disposing of it – the less room there is for God. Of the 168 hours in a week, how many get taken up dealing with stuff? How many do you give to God? Is the mix about right? Or is it out of whack?  (Don’t forget, God’s giving you all of eternity!)


So unscrew the light bulb, turn around and open the refrigerator door. Wonderful things are waiting for you right outside!



Plugging In

By: Ellen Perkey
When my husband Jason and I started looking for a church home after we were married we settled on SHPC. We loved the family kind of feel that we had when we sat in service and the alive feeling in the sanctuary during worship. We came from very different religious backgrounds; I grew up immersed in the church my whole life, attending not only Sunday service at our Methodist congregation but also Wednesday night meeting and children’s programming. Jason’s family was intermittent in attendance and didn’t participate much outside of Sunday worship. We began our time at SHPC with a long, long time of being visitors (7 years) and minimal involvement in activity outside of attending worship a few times a month.  
Although we both felt early on that Shepherd of the Hills was our church home we didn’t really develop the feeling of a church family until we began to be involved in our small group and other programs. We found a small group of other young adults that was holding a Bible study and we joined in. Being connected to that group of people, all of whom we count as friends still, changed so much for us. Instead of the church feeling like a group worship it became more of a place to serve and to be served. Ever since then our church family has grown wider, from the people who care for our children and love them to those we serve on committees and mission with. Connection in our church gave us a community that we needed.
We didn’t realize at the time when we were just beginning to attend church that we would eventually build a deep connection to so many people in the church. I could list off 10 or 20 people that I could call on in an emergency to help our family or our kids. When we walk into church we spend almost as much time connecting with people as we do worshipping. Fellowship in our church family has become such a powerful, tangible thing for us. Our roots in the church give us stability in our life outside of church that is hard to find in our current disconnected culture.
Find a way to become connected in your church home, join a class or small group, participate in a mission, volunteer for greeting duty or hospitality. What you may find is that you are planting the seed of something that will keep expanding and root you deeply in our community of people. Plugging is about finding that balance in serving and being served that draws us closer to God through our church family. 


It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night and the rain beat frantically against my window as if it were trying to escape by squeezing through the glass and into the shelter of my office. It had been a long day and I was drained, like a bank account sucked dry by credit card payments. 
I put my feet up on my desk and my eyelids started to droop. I had almost drifted off when the raucous ring of the phone caused my eyes to jerk open. I fumbled for the phone. The voice that greeted me when I finally found it was frantic … scared…  
You’ve got to help me, Budget Guy! I’m being stalked and I’m scared to death!!  
Stunned, I could only stammer something about calling 9-1-1. After all, I’m not Austin CSI! What could I do?
No, you don’t understand, BG! I’m being stalked by my credit score. I went to buy a car and the best interest rate I could get was 12%! They said my credit score wasn’t high enough for the really good rates. And then the interest rates on my credit cards went up … because of my credit score. Now I hear that credit scores are part of the insurance rates someone gets and my car insurance just went up!  Help me!! What can I do?!  
A long sigh escaped my lips. I’d seen this type of thing before, and it’s never been pretty. I pulled out my calculator, loaded it with fresh batteries and set it on the desk in front of me … just in case. I began to talk about credit scores, keeping my voice calm and soothing.  
First, I explained that credit scores are based on data in your credit reports. And most credit reports have errors in them (79% according to one study), with 1 out of every 4 causing significant damage to the person’s credit score. So the first step is to get your reports and make sure they’re accurate.
Wow – That’s pretty scary! But, hey – I can do that! Get reports, find errors, fix errors … Boom! Done!!

      The voice was calmer. Good. Maybe I wouldn’t have to resort to my calculator after all. But I knew my caller needed to face up to reality. Getting errors fixed in your credit reports isn’t easy and it takes time. The credit bureaus don’t have any incentive to make sure their data is correct. Your best bet for help? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.    

It has everything you need to get your credit reports cleaned up.  
Okay. So it won’t be as easy as it sounds. What ever is? Is there anything else I can do?  
Time to put my caller to the test. So I asked, “Ever been late on paying any of your credit card bills?   
I’m late every now and then. You know how it is … things come up.   
Do you have high balances on any of your cards?  
Not that it’s any of your business, Budget Guy, but yeah, I’ve got some pretty good balances on some of my cards. So what! Doesn’t everyone?  
Uh-oh. My caller was starting to get testy. I reached for my calculator again as I explained that credit scores are based primarily on your payment history and on the amount you currently owe.
So it’s really pretty simple:  
Hey – BG – I just had a brainstorm! I’ll go get another credit card. That will increase my total credit but it won’t have any balance. So that will take care of that part of my problem. Even better – I’ll find me one of those balance transfer offers and that’ll save me on my interest charges. Gotcha on that one, BG – bet you wish you’d thought of it!   
Slippery character, this one. Trying to avoid dealing with the real issues. Time to lay it on the line.  
“One minor problem, my friend – if you’ve run up the cards you have now, what makes you think you won’t end up running up your new card? Not to mention all of the ‘gotchas’ those balance transfer offers are loaded up with.  
“Look, you’re not the first person that’s tried to game the system. You might make it work for a little while, but then it’ll come back and bite you and you’ll be worse off than you are now. You’re not being haunted by your credit score, you’re being haunted by your own choices! If you’re not ready to own up to that…  
Whoa – okay, okay! You’ve made your point! I wish there was an easier way, but like they say, there’s no free lunch. If I’m honest with myself, I guess I really knew that all along. Thanks for telling it like it is, BG.   
“You’re welcome. Sorry to be so harsh, but there aren’t any shortcuts. Start with getting your credit reports and work it from there. And keep my phone number handy – I can walk with you on this new journey.”  
As I hung up, I put my calculator away and my feet back up on my desk. Sleep came easy.


Cheeseburger Loans

Cheeseburger loans?! Very cute!  Now that you’ve got my attention, tell me what this article is really about so I can decide whether or not I want to read it.
It’s really about cheeseburger loans.
Yeah, right! Look, quit wasting my time. No one gets a loan just to buy a cheeseburger. What would you use for collateral…french fries? 
No collateral required. In fact, millions of Americans take out loans every day for cheeseburgers, milk shakes, tacos, fried chicken…even grilled salmon with teriyaki glaze on a rice pilaf and Crème Brule for desert.
You’re making me hungry! But I still don’t see…
It’s simple, really. If you are carrying a balance on your credit card instead of paying it off in full each month and you charge a meal, you’re borrowing from the credit card company to pay for that meal. Doesn’t matter whether it’s from McDonald’s or the Vince Young Steakhouse. Immediate loan approval, no collateral required, and interest rates up to 30%. What a deal!
So that cheeseburger that I just ordered off the dollar menu could end up costing me two or even three dollars…  And I was so proud of myself for ordering on the cheap!
Well, at least you didn’t make the mistake that most people do. The fast food places have found that the average person orders about 30% more when charging their meal than when using cash.
Why do you suppose we do that? I can’t imagine that we’re actually hungrier when we’re paying with plastic. It gives me a great idea, though. I think I’ll write a new diet book –”The Pay-With-Cash Diet”. No exercising, no pills to take, no special meals to buy. I’ll make a fortune!
And you’d save people a fortune! We use credit cards so much we’ve lost touch with the true value of a dollar. We’re no longer limited to spending only what’s in our own pockets, so we don’t see the money running out. And we don’t stop to think about the true cost of what we are buying…we just keep on writing ourselves those instant loans.
So the next time you reach for your charge card to pay for the $40 Tex-Mex meal your family just ate, ask yourself whether or not it was worth the $60, $80 or maybe $100 or more you’ll actually end up paying by carrying a balance on your credit card rather than keeping it paid off.
Common sense…don’t leave home without it!
If you have money questions or would like some help with your finances, just ask the The Budget Guy (aka Allen Gunter). “If he don’t know, he’ll tell you so!”