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At age four, Karen Arnett spent a few months with her grandparents. When her parents arrived to take her home, they hardly recognized Karen because she had gained so much weight. As she says, "My grandmother fed me very well." Despite Karen's active childhood, she remained overweight.
Today when Karen considers the main reason she overate, she says it was from boredom. "If I was having a bad day with the kids or a financial problem or a fight with my husband, I ate." Food was Karen's reward and comfort. Her weight steadily increased to 416 pounds. At her home in Evans, Georgia, Karen started a low-fat diet plan in December 1994 and lost 68 pounds. While the low-fat plan was helping, she knew it wasn't the total answer to her health needs. Karen says, "I wasn't submitting my life to God completely. I still overate and didn't exercise."
In May 1995, Karen started the First Place program and now sees how God has blessed every area of her life. Her dress size has gone from a 56 to a 10/12 and Karen has lost 83 1/2 inches and a total of 261 pounds. Since January 1997, Karen has maintained her weight at 155 pounds. A shy person by nature, at one time Karen found it difficult to say anything and usually stood in the back of a room. "It wasn't until I found First Place that I realizedonly God could truly help me. Only by committing all of my life to Him and disciplining myself could I overcome my eating problems," Karen says. Through the program her life has changed drastically, and Karen sees this change as evidence of God's power. "When I was overweight, I was not a testimony to God and His power in my life. Now God has used the weakest area of my life to exhibit His power."
What Is First Place?
Since the First Place program began in 1981, it has spread to all 50 states and over 12,000 churches from various denominations. First Place is also active in at least 13 foreign countries. Yet most of you have probably never heard of First Place. It has no huge advertising budget, and no marketing efforts have been made to get the word out about the program. Those of us involved in First Place have given the program over to God for His glory, and I often say God is our publicist. Most of the growth has come from word-of-mouth customers and the enthusiasm of people who have been through the program.
It all began during the late 1970s. A group of Christians in the First Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, had one question: Since God has saved us from our sins and given us an abundant life, why can't we, as Christians, use that same power in the area of weight control? These people recognized that the spiritual life involved discipline. It takes discipline to pray and follow God every day. By the same token, it takes discipline to control our food consumption. The key desire of these Christians was to create a Christ-centered weight-control program. With this firm goal in mind, they faced it-fully unaware of the immensity of the assignment.
The program would focus totally on Christ and include Bible study, small-group support, a proven commonsense nutrition plan, a method of record keeping and many other elements. These early leaders knew that the key was to keep Christ first in every aspect of the program. And weight loss was not their only focus; they also aimed to grow in every area of life: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. A key concept of the program was-and is-balance.
The logo for First Place illustrates the balance of the program. Each of the four aspects of life is given equal importance. Through Christ, we can achieve balance in all four areas of life if we depend on Him daily to satisfy our hunger. Jesus also taught that God's Word is central to achieving this by saying in Matthew 4:4, "It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Through studying God's Word, we find that it provides guidelines for our physical well-being, directs us spiritually and equips us mentally to manage our busy lives. When we are students of His Word, God also provides emotional stability by giving us understanding of His precepts and the ability through the Holy Spirit to apply them in crisis and everyday situations.
If you are facing physical hunger, as you pray to God, He can provide for your daily physical needs. If you are facing spiritual, emotional or mental hunger, the Bible is also the answer to your needs.
What Are the Nine Commitments?
The First Place program includes a series of nine commitments which will be explained in detail in chapters 6 and 7. In brief, these commitments include:
1. Attendance. A key part of this program is commitment to a small group of people for a 13-week session. This group will be critical as you keep the other eight commitments; therefore, it is essential that you attend every meeting and stay for the entire session. (If you cannot locate a group or begin a group in your area, you will need to find two or three other friends to help you with accountability to the program.)
2. Encouragement. You make a commitment to reach out to another class member in your group every week. The contact gives you a chance to share with others in your group when you are tempted and to ask them for prayer. Your phone call, card or e-mail may be an encouragement for other class members when they are tempted and in need of support. Sometimes you may feel great yourself and not feel the need to contact anyone, but another member may be in need. The Holy Spirit may prompt you to reach out to this person and encourage him or her. Many times the person you contact may be feeling discouraged and even be in the process of overeating, but your phone call, card or e-mail of encouragement may be the one thing he or she needs to face temptation.
3. Prayer. As you pray every day at the same time, it will help you keep Christ in first place in your life. God is concerned about your eating habits and food consumption. Prayer will be critical preparation to overcoming the temptation to eat the wrong food, and prayer will see you through every day. As you communicate with God, you will build a closer relationship with your heavenly Father. Prayer is also an important part of the First Place meetings, where group members pray for each other's needs every week.
4. Bible reading. The Bible says in John 8:32, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." So often we avoid the truth from God's Word, yet this commitment is essential for spiritual growth. Regular reading from the Bible provides the foundation for a spiritual fitness plan. The First Place Scripture reading plan includes a daily Bible reading from the Old and New Testaments. Each day's reading can be thoughtfully read in 15 to 30 minutes.
5. Scripture memory verse. First Place involves memorizing a Bible verse each week and repeating it daily. The memory verse connects to the Bible lesson and provides daily strength and encouragement. God's Word in your heart will strengthen your daily life and spiritual relationship.
6. Bible study. This 10-week study is not meant to be intense. Every day you should read, meditate on and answer a small portion of that week's Bible study. Regular Bible study will build your spiritual fitness as you build your physical fitness.
7. Live-It plan. The word "diet" sounds too morbid for a Christian program. When Christ is in first place, the Christian life is meant to be lived abundantly. In First Place we use the term "live-it" instead of "diet" (die-it). Through this commitment, you learn balanced eating habits. In Appendix A, I explain the size of a portion which we call an exchange. The food exchange list is similar to one recommended by the American Diabetic Association; and the foods are divided into six different groups: milk, vegetable, fruit, bread, meat and fat. In First Place, we ask you to cut down your sugar consumption-which includes honey-until you reach your goal weight. Also, we encourage you to reduce your intake of salt and caffeine. Following these food exchanges will be critical to your weight loss.
8. Commitment Record. The Commitment Record (CR) increases your awareness of what you eat each day. At first, the CR may seem time-consuming, but actually it should only take a few minutes each day. The CR builds accountability into the overall First Place program and helps you more easily control your calorie intake. The daily record also reveals, in a concrete fashion, your patterns of eating. If you are attending a group, the CR is turned in each week to your small-group leader, who reads your CR and evaluates your week of eating. Your leader then helps you with any problem you might be having.
9. Exercise. This commitment is based on 1 Corinthians 3:16, which says, "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" What is the condition of God's house-your body? Are you ashamed of its size? If your body needs fixing, now is the time to do it. You cannot expect to maintain any degree of physical fitness without some sort of exercise program. Aerobic exercise may mean joining an organized aerobic exercise class. Or you could walk briskly, jog or bicycle several miles. Swimming is also an excellent aerobic exercise, especially if you have joint problems. To get fit, you will need to exercise four or five times a week; to maintain fitness, you will need to exercise three times a week. Flexibility and strength training are every bit as important as aerobic exercise and should be added to your personal exercise program for total fitness.
You may be saying to yourself, Nine different commitments! Wow! How will I ever manage to keep all nine? They may look overwhelming, but these key ingredients are necessary, if you desire to put Christ in first place in your life. Most of us will not be able to keep all nine commitments every day, but do strive to adhere to the commitments as much as you can, relying on the strength God provides. These commitments are our goal and when we reach this goal, it will bring balance into our lives. I heard it said once like this: "God loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way"-an encouraging thought, isn't it?
When you do commit to God, expect the unexpected. Romans 8:29 says that God wants us to conform to the image of Jesus Christ. God wants to infiltrate every area of our lives, and we believe that First Place covers every major area of life. As change occurs, it can be quite dramatic. Frequently I meet men and women who say they initially joined First Place to lose weight, yet after they reached their goal weight, these same people say the most significant changes in their lives were actually spiritual ones. As we put Jesus Christ in first place, many unexpected blessings will flow into our lives. With God's help we can grow every day to be more like Jesus Christ.
Why Am I in First Place?
As the director of the First Place program since 1987, the passion of my life is to follow Jesus Christ every day. However, this passion wasn't there when I initially learned about First Place.
In 1980 I attended a baby shower and I saw my friend Kay for the first time in several years. Although we had grown up together and shared many experiences, I now saw that something had changed. I said, "Kay, how could you do this to me?"
She looked a bit puzzled and said, "Do what?"
I answered, "How could you lose weight and not tell me?"
Kay smiled and said, "Carole, have you forgotten that we are going to be 40 next year? Do you want to be fat and 40?"
Her honesty shocked me. I had never combined the words "fat" and "forty." For many years I had tried repeatedly to lose 40 pounds. When I was 13 years old, I started dieting and from then on I tried almost every available weight-loss plan. Over the years I seemed to gain and lose the same 20 pounds. I could not keep those 20 pounds from returning on any plan I tried. My conversation with Kay reminded me of this vicious cycle and I thought, Here I am again, with the same 20 pounds, and yes, I'm going to be 40 next year.
In Jeremiah 29:11 God said, "I know the plans I have for you ... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Little did I know when I read in our church paper about a new weight-loss program called First Place that it would be there that God would begin His plans for my change. As I attended the First Place orientation, I thought to myself, I am not all that sure that God cares much about my losing weight. I thought He must be interested in much bigger things. However, I reminded myself of what Kay had said about being fat and 40, and I registered for that first session.
I believe God did want me to lose those 20 pounds, but He also saw my inner rebellion. He would use First Place and the small-group accountability there to help me surrender much more to Him. As I began the program, I didn't see the need to follow the food plan because I had lost weight with a low-carbohydrate diet previously. I thought to myself, Why try something different? I did not eat any bread or fruit, and I ate only four or five different kinds of vegetables with all the meat and fat I wanted, as long as it added up to 1,200 calories. Each week, my leader would evaluate my Commitment Record with dismay and write on it, "Carole, what are you doing?" In hindsight, I now see that not following the food plan was another sign of my unwillingness to surrender to God's control.
I eventually ended up losing 20 pounds because I stayed within the 1,200 calories a day, despite my leader's encouragement to change my food habits. Although I was not eating by the program's Live-It food plan, I still loved the Bible study and fellowship and was content to stay with it. My success with losing the weight caught the attention of Dottie Brewer, one of the founders of the program. My First Place leader at that time then told Dottie that I had leadership potential. That is when I was asked to become a First Place leader myself.
Excerpted from First Place by CAROLE LEWIS WITH W. TERRY WHALIN Copyright © 2001 by Carole Lewis
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.