Love Holds the Key

Some of my favorite stories involve time periods where guards protected castles and all they stood for with fierce loyalty. The stories include bravery and courage. They show strength that goes well beyond what seems possible. Most importantly, these qualities are wrapped in love shown as compassion toward others.

Picture a guard in armor with this sense of duty as you read some of Paul’s closing words in 1 Corinthians. The terms used here are military words, and making that connection gives a better depth of understanding about how to live for Christ.

“Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done with love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

This verse expressed succinctly show how to carry out all of what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians.

Be on guard.

Watch so you’re not surprised by the enemy. Attacks and challenges will come at some point. Be ready for them. Always be in full armor.

Stand true to what you believe.

Know what you believe and why you believe it. Refuse to compromise. Fix your faith in the Gospel. Determine to keep your ranks unbroken.

Be courageous.

Be brave. Don’t flinch when attacked. Maintain your ground. Resist! Press forward. Refuse to let fear of failure or criticism stop you.

Be strong.

True strength comes from God. Even in weakness, we are strong if He is our focus. Maintain your position.

Everything done in love.

Without love, everything is pointless. We only serve ourselves if love is absent.

As a Christian, I know the key to successfully living out Paul’s words falls at the end — “let everything be done in love.” First, I know it because Jesus himself declared love the most important command for us to follow.

“What commandment is the foremost of all? Jesus answered, ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31)

Second, I know it because my favorite stories, and even more so many real life ones, show these qualities carried out both in love and in the absence of love. Strength, courage, standing true, being on guard all lead to evil’s victory in the absence of love.

Love truly holds the key to victoriously living for Christ.

Discover Encouragement and Determine Reality

sticky-notes-1159958Discussing Discouragement

Lack of progress. Politics. Stupidity. Illness. Aging. Unemployment. Failure.

These things continuously discourage me. If I dwell on them too often and too deeply, I become depressed. Before I reach that point, though, I try to focus on what Scripture says about encouragement.

My visits usually begin here:

“Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

If we focus on remembering God’s activity in our lives, on what His Word tells us and on His promises, we too receive encouragement from the Lord just as Joshua did.

Discovering Encouragement

sticky-notes-1159969God gives us encouragement in countless ways. We choose to be a part of it simply when we accept it.

Encouragement from God comes through…

  1. Prayer, scripture and progress. (Psalm 138:3, Romans 15:4 & Philippians 1:6) Prayer gives us strength to live as God desires and refocuses us on the encouragement He offers. God’s word offers encouragement through stories, guidance and hope. And the progress He works in us keeps us motivated for continual growth.
  2. Remembering. (Joshua 24:16-17Do you regularly remember what God has done in your life? Scripture certainly sets that as a necessary pattern for the lives of men. Through it, we see that God never changes, and that certainly is encouraging.
  3. Reflection in our eternal hope and our position in Christ. (1 Peter 1:6 & Philippians 2:1-2Think about what the Bible says God has in store for us. Exciting and encouraging, right? Plus, belonging to Christ encourages in a profound way as we regularly experience God’s grace and mercy.
  4. Through visible faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:7)
    How often does seeing another person’s faith in action encourage you? The reverse is also true. Look around!
  5. Through other Christians. (1 Thessalonians 4:18, Romans 1:11-12,
    1 Thessalonians 5:11, Acts 14:21-22 & Hebrews 10:24-25
    We can help each other refocus on eternity. We can gather regularly encourage one another through faith. Encouragement also comes as we strengthen and motivate one another.

When you are encouraged in these ways, doesn’t it feel like anything is possible? That’s kind of the point, actually.

Determining Reality

sticky-notes-1159963When I seek encouragement because I feel sorry for myself, I’m always disappointed. Doing so just focuses me more on my own discouragement and cultivates depression.

When I let God encourage me, I’m never disappointed. When I purpose to encourage others, I’m also always encouraged.

Focus determines reality, after all. When I seek out encouragement, I focus on myself. When I let God encourage me and when I look to encourage others, I focus outside of myself. One results in regular discouragement, the other growing encouragement.

Wondering where to start? Not sure how to specifically live this out?

Begin with what encourages you. Do that to encourage someone else. Sure, everyone is different, but we’re a lot alike too. Plus, as the old adage goes, it’s the thought that counts.

Limitations and Strengths

2 corinthians 9

“It is not until we are comfortable with and thankful for our limitations that God empowers us to be used in our strengths.” (Dick Brogden, Live Dead)

Fairly often, I’m comfortable with my limitations. Well, at last accepting of their existence. However, I probably spend an equal amount of time being frustrated by them. Mostly that means comparing myself to others, which only leads to increased dissatisfaction with my limitations as I desire to be someone I’m not and fail to appreciate the person God made.

Until just a few years ago, actually being thankful for my limitations never fell on my radar. Tolerance, a mix of apathy and acceptance, sure. But not thankfulness. Increasing frustration for certain when I thought about them too much.

The last few years have brought increasing comfort with my limitations as well as some measure of thankfulness much of the time. This came as I realized I’m not only protected by my limitations, but I’m directed by them too. You see, without my limitations, I’d more often that not head down the wrong path. I’d miss God’s will.

Take exercise for example. My goal now exists as general fitness and as good of health as possible. It used to be to project to others the image of an athlete, someone who could physically excel and be stronger, thinner and healthier than others. It was all about status and comparisons. My limitations? My body simply would not cooperate with the life of an athlete. I eventually saw those limitations as protection against a wrong focus, something that could easily have become an obsession.

So, I’m learning to be consistently both comfortable with and thankful for my limitations. I see their benefits more fully almost daily, and I realize the way God uses them to direct my focus toward His desires.

Paul talks about a thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, and he talks about how it was there to keep him from exalting himself. Before reaching what seems like a place of comfort and thankfulness with this thorn, Paul asked God three times to remove it. I can relate. I asked God way more than three times to remove my food allergies and sensitivities, another major area of limitation in my life.

Eventually, Paul reached the point of boasting in His weakness, realizing that it was in his limitations that the power of Christ dwelt in Him. His conclusion on the matter finally being…

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The truth of grace’s sufficiency becomes evident through our limitations — our weaknesses — as we realize our utter helplessness for meaningful success in our own efforts. Even what we’re good at, we eventually realize, exists with limitations in place for our good.

When we reach a point of comfort with and acceptance of our limitations, we become more focused on being used in our strengths, our gifts and abilities, placed within us by our Creator. Placed there for divine reasons, our limitations direct us to and help keep us focused on to His glory.

5 Ways to Thrive Under Construction

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In Michigan, there’s always some sort of road construction going on somewhere. They say you can’t drive more than 6 miles from any point in Michigan without coming to a lake (there are 11,000 inland lakes in Michigan), but I think that’s true with construction too. Road construction seems to take forever too. As soon as one area is finished, another begins. 

Construction on our character happens the same way. Always an area needing work, and progress often seems minuscule if existent at all. 

Then I think back over my life and take stock of the changes, the maturity and growth. Most of it happened gradually and seemed nonexistent until suddenly fresh demarcation lines appeared and the orange cones disappeared.

Construction — on roads or on character — frustrates me, and is only eased when I consider what happens when it doesn’t take place. The sides begin to crumble, then the cracks creep into the center and make the path bumpy and rough. Eventually, rough roads are avoided altogether.

5 Ways to Thrive Under Construction

road-signs-construction-1-1503521-1278x832Let’s begin by acknowledging that construction, while necessary and beneficial, is also uncomfortable and inconvenient. Let’s accept these truths and move forward into growth. With that baseline, we can begin to appreciate the process and operate in a way so as to not impede progress and possibly even help make it happen more smoothly.

To actually thrive — and maybe even welcome — construction, practice the following habits:

  1. Have patience. Getting impatient in the middle of construction holds no benefit whatsoever. Instead, it makes the wait seem longer and more unbearable. Take a deep breath and use the time to relax, think and pray. Take this opportunity to learn that you just can’t control everything. Realize that more often that not, waiting in patience produces the best results for everyone involved.

    “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)

  2. Don’t rush progress. Trying to force progress usually harms rather than helps. Instead, take the pace the construction zone sets to allow time for navigating the rumble strips, lane changes and detours that accompany most construction projects. Refuse to only live life at the pace you decide, and consider that perhaps another speed might be better for your current season and that the obstacles placed in your way are beneficial instead of inconvenient.

    “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

  3. Stay aware. Awareness creates a safer space for construction and includes noticing internal and external signage as well as realizing the status of other people as they also make their way through the construction. Awareness also provides wisdom by making sure the construction process not only goes smoothly but that the work done remains the highest quality.

    “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17)

  4. Plan ahead. When you know you’ll travel through areas with construction, planning ahead simply makes sense. Sometimes that means allowing extra travel time while other times it means taking an alternate route. Planning ahead smooths out the construction process by avoiding having to rush as well as by making the process of interacting with others happen in at least a neutral and hopefully a more beneficial way than it would if you had to fight the clock.

    “A man’s mind plans his way [as he journeys through life], but the Lord directs his steps and establishes them.” (Proverbs 16:9)

  5. Consider the results. Sometimes, the only way to endure a long season of construction comes by considering the end results — the smooth roads. Think of how good driving down a new road feels, how smooth it is. When time for proper construction is allowed, the end result is preferable in every way to the old. During this process, determine to be kind, knowing that everyone gets through the construction eventually and realizing that the consequences of not doing construction is far worse than the inconvenience it brings.

    “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

under-construction-icon-1242121Because of the heavy use along with the extreme temperature changes, Michigan’s roads will always need regular maintenance. The same holds true for my character, and yours too. Until Heaven, imperfection and sin will continue making our paths rough and in need of construction.

When it comes to any type of construction, we have to adopt the philosophy of progress over perfection. As we establish this mindset, we learn to be patient with others and with ourselves. We realize the importance of putting relationships above our need to control and manipulate the situation, and we instead allow the construction to continue as it needs to for the benefit of all those traveling toward perfection.

DISCUSSION: What can you change about how you travel through construction zones?

BE Encouraged

God gives Christians a variety of ways to receive encouragement, including through scripture, through the Holy Spirit and through fellowship with other Christians. All of these provide consistent and bountiful resources of encouragement for His children.

Even in this abundance, we’ve all come across a brother or sister who simply refuses to be encouraged. They’re usually identified by the words “Yeah, but…” in response to any sort of verbal encouragement and often appear blind to any other sort of encouragement.

With total transparency here, I must admit I’ve been that person way too often. Not only have I refused verbal encouragement at times, I could hardly stand to be in an encouraging atmosphere (worship service, for example).

At its heart, failure to be encouraged through the ways God offers encouragement exists as an issue of obedience. We can’t escape the truth that Scripture does in fact command us to “be encouraged.”

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

What I notice most about these and the many other Scripture about encouragement is that the focus of an encouraged individual lies outside of the self. In fact, the focus lies specifically on the Lord.

During the times I’ve refused to be encouraged, my focus fell on myself — my feelings and my emotions — rather than on what God has done, what he’s doing, and what he says he’ll do. The first nine verses of Psalm 77 show this state of mind, the one we find ourselves stuck in when we are discouraged.

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

When we choose to focus on God instead of our feelings and emotions, we’ll experience a building confidence for the present and the future. We’ll realize that experiencing discouragement is inevitable, but being encouraged is a choice. The transition in Psalm 77, verses 10-12, shows this switch of focus.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

The rest of Psalm 77, verses 13-20, then take us through all there is to focus on with regard to God — His activity, His holiness & power, redemption and His creation. In doing so, we discover much-needed encouragement.

Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Turning our focus to God as Psalm 77 illustrates helps us find peace in chaos and to discover courage as we wait for God’s timing. Moving our focus from emotions and feelings toward God and His might, power and goodness, allow us to move forward in confidence because we know God goes with us as our constant source of encouragement.

DISCUSSION: If you dwell in discouragement, how can the encouragement God offers help you move forward?

How Do the People You Hang Out With Influence Your Thinking?

Who are the 5 people you hang out with the most? Do they encourage you? Do they tell you what you need to hear, not just what strokes your ego or helps justify your feelings? Do they challenge you to grow? Even when you disagree, do they stand firm in their convictions? Are they loyal to you even when it’s not easy being your friend? Do they help strengthen you when you’re stressed?

Rohn quote

Sure, we ultimately make our own decisions, but the more time you spend with someone, the more their impact on your thinking. For good and for bad, the people you spend time with influence you. Do you find this to be true?

But because we can’t, nor should we, eliminate all interaction with negative people or those who disagree with us, we must instead seek to deliberately choose what we allow to impact our thinking. Certainly, this involves the actual amount of time spent with someone. But how much does it also involve the depth to which you are vulnerable & transparent?

For example, you can spend time with negative, gossipy coworkers but refuse to let them influence your thinking by counteracting their influence through the other people you spend time with, the books you read, the movies and TV shows you watch, and even the music you listen to both during and outside of work.

Bob Sorge, in the final chapter of The Fire of Delayed Answers, brings Biblical application to this concept using Psalm 1:1-4.

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers.

The Psalm doesn’t say we can or should avoid ungodly values, morals and attitudes altogether, but it does tell us we can choose not to walk, stand and sit with those living them. We can avoid much ungodly impact simply by how and where we choose to position ourselves. Failing to do so results in a gradual giving of ourselves to sin. Sorge expresses the idea this way:

“The sequence of “walks,” “stands,” and “sits” describes progressive entrapment in sin. The temptation of sin is to walk by, then to stand and hang out, and finally to sit down in it.”

Truth is, we will be tempted in these ways regularly. No practical way to avoid them. Influence comes at us constantly and in uncountable ways, but we can choose where to dwell and what we allow to dwell within us.

Let’s apply this concept to our virtual relationships. Who do you hang out with the most in forums or on social networking sites? Who do you walk, stand and sit with on a regular basis via text, email, blog reading/commenting, etc.?

For the month of April, Struggle to Victory will focus on my virtual influences by featuring guest posts, by guest posting on other sites, and by highlighting some of the regular visitors to this blog. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged, strengthened & challenged by these people as much as I have on a regular basis, people I am proud to say have an impact on my thinking in ways that matter eternally.

DISCUSSION: Are you the average of the 5 people you spend time with, virtually or otherwise? How can you apply Psalm 1 when we have as much, if not more, bad influence coming at us as good?

5 Crucial Principles for Managing Stress

Manage stressAn interesting progression took place while blogging about stress this past month – I became more stressed. No, writing didn’t negatively stress me. Stress, yes, but the good kind resulting in stretching and growing, the therapy kind.

Do you have any good stress in your life right now?

Maybe the increased awareness of stress in general played a role. For sure, a large part came from an increase in stressors, most through others and out of my control.

My first reaction, my automatic response, is to eliminate stress as much as possible. That’s not always the best option, though. Sometimes my focus must be on recharging and then continuing, letting stress be and not trying to control it. With that, I realize that I must…

Persistently pursue time to recharge and refocus.

Relieve stressIf Jesus needed to do this (Matthew 14:13-34), I definitely need this habit. So, instead of trying to fix everything (which is impossible and only adds to stress), maybe letting it ride, living within it is best. In other words…

Acknowledge the stress, then keep commitments and fulfill responsibilities by simply doing what’s next.

As I’ve learn to keep moving through the stress, I’ve also gotten better at not letting stress constantly eat away at me, at not worrying about what I can’t control. I’ve learned to counteract stress with healthy outlet activities (exercise, reading, talking, etc.), and I’ve learned to pray… a lot… about everything (Philippians 4:6). Do you have healthy outlets for stress relief?

In that, I begin to focus on controlling my attitude and responses during stress. Out of that comes a realization that I need to apply a principle I’ve told my boys many times, namely…

Understand what you can and can’t control, and refuse to dwell in the wrong place.

Prepare for StressWhen I realize what I can and can’t control, I must then focus my energy and effort on that which I can control, even if only slightly. One of the most difficult areas to realize control involves the volume of what we take on, what we commit to and assume responsibility for.

And what I see happening is a lot of people drowning in a perfectly floatable boat simply because they’ve weighed it down by taking on too much. They’re sitting in a sinking boat because they’ve put too much in it, and the only way to keep from drowning is to get rid of some of the stuff. Really, it’s best to never take it on in the first place, but at some point, we must…

Learn to say “no” – even to good – so we can say “yes” to better and best.

As stress ebbs and flows, and as I realize my inability to truly control its existence, I increasingly understand the importance of a habit of consistency regarding stress management. I realize that stress exists mostly as a mental battle, that it’s the atmosphere of my inner self that truly determines whether or not I sink or float. Do you have any consistent habits to help manage your stress?

Psychcentral says “most negative symptoms [of stress] can be corrected if you take action.” My experience with stress – and a crash and burn resulting from not managing it well – supports this fact. With that comes the final principle for managing stress…

Find ways to manage your stress on your own terms before your body forces you to on its terms.

Dealing with stress really isn’t an option. You WILL deal with it one way or another. The question is, will you deal with it by choice or by force?

DISCUSSION: What can you do today to better manage stress? What advice do you have for others?

Additional posts about stress:

5 Ways to Be Strong for the Stressed

Strength for stressedLife fluctuates. Sometimes we live in more struggle than victory. But sometimes, we get to bask in the mountaintop sunshine. Most of the time, though, we seem to live with a mixture of both struggle and victory.

Fortunately, for the most part, we each fluctuate at different levels and paces. For example, sometimes my exercise partner encourages me out the door. Other times, I’m forcing her to meet for a run. Sometimes my husband provides stability and help in my busyness; other times, he leans on me.

What relationships in your life reflect this same exchange of encouragement?

I remember a time when I did all of the leaning and needed all of the encouraging. I felt so buried in struggle I had no strength to lend to others. What others did for me during that time taught and prepared me for how to be strong for others later.

The following 5 ways to be strong for the stressed stand out as tremendous helps during my own season of needing to draw strength from my others:

  1. Encourage. While what encourages differs from one person to the next, finding small ways to encourage others helps them put one foot in front of another.  A “praying for you” text or even just a smile from across the room go a long way in encouraging someone when they are struggling.
  2. Listen. Simply listening to a person talk about struggles helps tremendously. Whether it just allows that person to vent or helps them find solutions, authentic listening truly relieves the intensity of stress.
  3. Create space. Find ways to help unload the person’s schedule. Take a friend’s kids for the evening or clean her house while she’s at work. Giving the gift of margin creates breathing room that might be just enough to encourage hope for more permanent relief.
  4. Pray. Often, someone who is overloaded got that way because they refused to allow others to help them. No matter what you can pray for them, and you can let them know you are praying for them. So many times, I could sense extra strength coming through the prayers of those who loved me.
  5. Create comfort. When stressed out, comfort seems absent and quite distant. Bring a friend coffee or make him a favorite meal or treat. Find out what brings comfort, even if only for a moment.

Strength for OthersFor the first time in 20 years, I’m less stressed than my husband, kids and most of my friends. A new experience, to be sure. Perhaps a better way to put it is that I am just balanced and in rhythm right now, and they are all going through times of intense struggle and less balance. I know this will probably change, that I’ll need their strength more and they mine less at some point. But for now, I can take what others did for me and pay it forward.

DISCUSSION: What other ways can you suggest to be strong for others who are stressed and overloaded?

Weak is the New Strong

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Strength 1srength 1

Be Strong

Strength comes from the individual and is what you make it. Strong exists as the current beauty ideal. After all, “Strong is the new skinny,” and I need to let everyone to know that I am “Pretty Strong. Pretty Fast.” (I’m not, by the way, strong or fast but especially not fast.) Strong is how you want to be viewed; it’s your reputation’s goal.

Every corner of culture – television, magazines, fitness and even education – touts the necessity to “Be Strong.” In fact, being strong exists as the best path to success for self and to elimination of the competition.

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Strength through Weakness

God’s view of being strong means bringing Him joy, depending on Him for strength and realizing that He IS strength. Strength comes through weaknesses as we allow His power to flow, not by focusing on destroying weaknesses through our own creation of inner strength.

In “Created to be God’s Friend,” Henry Blackaby says, “The provision for our obedience is always provided for us by God. Ours is to obey; it is for God to provide! What we in our weakness and limitations cannot provide, God in His infinite grace does provide.”

Even though we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we DO have limitations. We ARE weak. No matter how much strength we manage to muster, our weaknesses eventually show themselves and leave us naked and spent for all to see. And that’s the place where we realize that weak really is the new strong.

In “The Fire of Delayed Answers,” Bob Sorge says, “We don’t really know what it’s like for God to be the strength of our heart until our heart and flesh have failed.”

Have you reached that point? Do you know what having your heart and flesh fail feels like? Because if you do, then you know the life-changing impact of God’s power flowing fully through you. You know that as your own strength flows out through your weaknesses, God’s strength flows in through that same portal.

The only way to truly reach the point of God’s strength flowing through our weaknesses is through brokenness and through trusting God in that brokenness to give us strength for the day. It is at that point that weakness actually becomes the new strong.

Welcome to the book club discussion of The Fire of Delayed Answers by Bob Sorge. Each blogger in the group is reading and then sharing on what inspires, encourages, or challenges them. We are taking 2 weeks per chapter and are currently on Chapter 8. Our co-facilitators are Jason and Sarah – other participants include DustyGlynn, Joell, Rick, and TC.