Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Divine Accidents

I am watching a Netflix documentary on the late, and some would say great, film maker named Orson Welles.  The truth be told, I have never really been an Orson Welles fan, and thought Citizen Kane (1941, pictured above), was only ok.  Keep in mind that I lived on the Central Coast for a while, near to where the real subject for that movie, William Randolph Hearst lived (Hearst Castle) and I have a slightly different interpretation on Hearst's character.  But I digress.

Orson did say something that I want to write about today.  He said that all films would be totally boring if it weren't for one important thing:

Divine Accidents

Actually the exact quote was; "The greatest things in movies are divine accidents."

Divine Accidents - says Welles, are things that happen in the directing process that are not what you planned, but rather are accidents that make a film much better than it would have been.  Throughout his career, Welles tried to cultivate these experiences.  When an actor or actress messed up a line, Welles would sometimes leave that "mess up" in the movie, because it made the scene seem more real.  When a bird would fly through a shot, or a sunset would be covered by a cloud, Welles would keep these in the movie as well.  These Divine Accidents made Welles' films seem more real, more palpable, more down to earth.

I have been thinking that ministry is really about Divine Accidents as well.  That is, the things that you plan in ministry don't always turn out the way you would like them to, but those mis-haps are actually better.  Here are some of my favorite examples:

1.  When my brother Jamie and I were starting a new church in Paso Robles, we were out playing the bagpipes one night, trying to take a photo for a promotional piece we are doing.  Across the street was a local TV station filming a news story for a low news day about a "fake bank robbery".  Before we knew it, the film crews that night were over filming my brother and I about the start of our new church, Highlands, and on the evening news that night, they led with that story from Paso Robles!  A divine accident.

2.  About a month ago, I bought a present for a person that I wanted to show some appreciation for.  This person had done a lot for the church, and I wanted to show them how much we were grateful to them.  Unfortunately the person that the present was meant for seemed to be on a long vacation, and hadn't picked up the gift.  Then, someone else happened by with the same name, took the gift and assumed it was for them.  They opened it, and were so grateful.  We didn't tell that person that the gift wasn't meant for them.  Maybe God meant the gift for the second person after all.  A divine accident.

3.  My wife was working a job recently that wasn't a fit for her, and she wasn't happy with.  One day, when doing a routine call to another agency on a professional matter, that other agency said, "Hey, is this Star?  How are you?  Are you looking for work, another job?"  Star said, "Actually I am, I am not that happy in this job."  So, Star applied with this other agency, and lo and behold she loves her new job.  A divine accident.

Whether or not you like Orson Welles' directing, perhaps you might agree with him that some of the best things in life are things that seem to happen by accident.  Or perhaps, with God, nothing is really an accident...

All For Now,


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Modern Day Exodus Story

Let me share with you one of my favorite Biblical texts: "Leaving Succoth, they camped in Etham at the edge of the wilderness.  The Lord guided them by a pillar of cloud during the daytime, and by a pillar of fire at night.  So they could travel either by day or night.  The clouds and fire were never out of sight" (Exodus 13:20-22).  This is the account of when the Israelites first left Egypt, in about the year 1,500BC, and fled pharaoh (a brutal and awful dictator), to hopefully make it to the Promised Land.  What is so amazing about this text, is that even now, thousands of years later, you can still feel the deep fear and pain that the Jewish people faced as they left Egypt.  Would they make it to the Promised Land?  Would they die in the desert?  How long would the journey take?  Would they be welcomed when they reached the Jordan River, or would they be turned away?

Now, let me share with you a news clip from last week's news about a caravan of Guatemalan and Honduran refugees who are currently fleeing an equally despotic and evil regime: "A caravan of Central American migrants marching into Mexico bound for the United States grew to at least 5,000 people Sunday despite threats by the United States to seal the border.  The throng, many from Honduras, streamed across a bridge over the Sachiate River connecting Guatemala with Mexico" (USA Today, Oct. 22, 2018).  Similar to the story of the refugees who left Egypt 3,500 years ago, the modern day Exodus of immigrants tells an equally harrowing tale.  These are people who have nothing left to lose.  They have nothing else to live for, except the possibility of finding freedom in Mexico or the United States.  The same questions apply.  Will these people make it to the Promised Land?  Will they die in the desert?  How long will the journey take?  Will they be welcomed when they reach the Rio Grande, or will they be turned away?

As an undergraduate I studied Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  What I learned from my undergraduate degree is that political problems are always more complex than the pat and simple answers that politicians often give.  There are times for "Realpolitik" (tough solutions), and there are times for "Amnesty" (more gracious solutions).  That said, if I was President of the United States I don't really know what I would do to help with this problem.  My gut tells me I would follow the advice of modern day political adviser David Gergen, and former adviser to 5 Presidents, and give Honduras and Guatemala each a billion dollars in aide, help to move along the dictatorships in those countries, and help the Mexican government to build a kind of wall along the southern border of Mexico.  But again, I am not President.

The real question is not what should have been done, but what should the United States do now?

What I do know is that as Christians, whenever we read the Bible, we should look around us for modern day examples of the accounts we read about.  So, when we see a homeless person by the side of the road asking for money, we should be reminded of the time when Peter met the man outside the temple and prayed with him, "silver or gold I do no have, but what I do have I give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" (Acts 3:6).  When we see a single mother in a supermarket, holding a baby in one hand, and a basket cart in another, we should offer to give her some help, buy her a bottle of water at least.  When Jesus encountered a woman like this by a well, he struck up a conversation and he gave her hope, "Woman, you are not far from the kingdom of God" (John 4:25-26).  And I know that when we see a modern day of oppressed people, who have nowhere else to turn, we should hear an echo from the distant past about our own people, our own lineage of faith, who fled a similarly desperate set of circumstances.  And we should remember how the Exodus ended for the Israelites - in freedom: "Then all the people crossed at a spot where the river was close to the city of Jericho, and the priests who were carrying the Ark stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan and waited as all the people passed by" (Joshua 4:16-17).

All For Now,


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

My New Friend

It is no surprise to anyone who has known my ministry for any amount of time, that I am a big fan of the Schuller family.

If you don't know who the Schullers are, I apologize, the next blog post will be for you:-).

In high school, when I was just sixteen years old, I will never forget taking out my Walkman cassette radio (bear with me if you are a millennial), and place in that Walkman a cassette of Robert Schuller Sr.'s powerful talk on the "Power of Possibility Thinking".  On a snowy winter evening in Salt Lake City, Utah, I listened to a riveting talk by Dr. Schuller about how the, "greatest churches in the history of the world haven't even been founded yet."  On that wintery evening in December, I decided that THAT is what I wanted to do with my life (even though I definitely didn't ever want to be a pastor).

Later, in college, I visited a conference on preaching by Robert Schuller, and met Schuller and told him that I wanted to go into politics in my life.  He said to me, "Graham, I wanted to go into politics too, but I decided to become a pastor instead.  Be a pastor like me, you will never 'term out' as a pastor (the way that a congressman gets term limited out)."  Even though it would be many years after that that I would become a pastor, my conversation with Dr. Schuller went deep.

When my brother, Jamie, and I started Highlands Church, in Paso Robles, many of our main big ideas came from Robert Schuller.  We met in a movie theater in downtown Paso Robles.  We did out of the box things like have a huge beacon at night on Christmas Eve, attracting local party goers to our Christmas Eve service.  Our founding elder in that church, Nancy Richardson, grew up in the Crystal Cathedral, and her father (Wilterink) was a founding elder at Schuller's church in Garden Grove.

Today, I met, Robert Schuller's grandson - Bobby Schuller - who can be seen regularly on Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) with the "Hour of Power".  And - get this - Bobby Schuller, and his church are joining the Presbyterian Church (USA), the same denomination that I am a part of.  In Bobby's own words; "We think the Presbyterian Church USA actually has a good name brand.  People outside the church actually look up to the PCUSA, and want their kids to grow up in churches connected to the PCUSA.  We, at 'Irvine Pres' are not an open and affirming congregation on same gender issues, but we want to be in conversation with people who hold different opinions on that topic.  We are excited about the future of our congregation in the PSCUSA."

During the course of my one hour meeting, I found Bobby to be extremely thoughtful and kind and engaging.  Even though he comes from a long line of pastoral greats, he doesn't seem to be overburdened by the weight of history, or the expectations that he must feel upon his shoulders.  There is an unabashed optimism about Bobby that is contagious.  He is excited about what the future of the church is for people who are committed to justice issues and who offer vital ministry options for needy people who come to visit local congregations.  Bobby feels that the future of the church is not with denominations, but with local congregations.

I for one am excited about our new friendship with one another.  As I met with Bobby today in Irvine, CA, I sensed that the Holy Spirit was a part of our conversation, and that God was doing something bigger than just a meeting between two pastors.  I sensed that in an ineffable but real way, God was bringing together two young men, whose families have served in the ministry in significant ways, to bring them together to do something great for God.

All For Now,


Monday, September 3, 2018

The Cobra Effect

Not long ago, I learned about a social phenomenon that occurred in the country of India during British colonial rule there (1858-1947).  During some juncture during British rule in the capitol city of Delhi, government officials became concerned about the number of venomous cobras that were "on the loose".  As a remedy, the British government offered to pay a bounty on every dead cobra that was killed.  Because the general population of the city was very poor, and had no employment, many of the more enterprising ones began to breed cobras, and then bring them in for their reward.  When the British found out about the scheme, they quickly disbanded the program.  Finding no other use for the cobras, the locals simply released the venomous snakes into the city streets, thereby multiplying the number of dangerous snakes by the thousands.

This social tendency to make a solution to a problem worse than the original problem itself has become known as the - "Cobra Effect".

There are many, many other examples of this in history.  In Hanoi, Vietnam, there was a similar incident known as the "Rat Effect".  Closer to home, some would argue that Prohibition Laws in the United States had a similar effect.  When the US government outlawed the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920-1933, most social scientists tell us that drinking patterns of most Americans, and the abuse of over drinking, actually went up.

This phenomenon of the Cobra Effect has gotten me to thinking about cross-applications to religious life and theology.  Is it possible that churches that focus mostly on the sins of their congregants actually have more examples of sinful behavior in their congregation than churches that do not?  Is it possible that the the obsession over certain types of sin, over other kinds of sin, actually creates a Cobra Effect within our churches?

When I was in seminary, there was a group of guys who got together every Monday night and had a prayer group with one another.  I was not a part of this prayer group, so my knowledge of it is only second hand.  Rumor had it, though, that the most common prayer that they prayed with one another about was, "prayers for lust".  That is, I suppose, that members of the group felt a need to pray about the sin of lusting over other people.  Every Monday, the same prayer came up, "prayers for lust, prayers for lust, prayers for lust."  While I do not know (or care), whether the lusts of these young men were ever fruited (so to speak), the constant focus on this particular sin seemed to have the tendency to drive it further into their hearts, minds and souls.

I recently heard a Ted Talk about a person who was studying this phenomenon as it related to endangered trees in a particular forest in the United States.  Because these trees were endangered, there were signs along the paths of the forest that said something like, "Please don't pick up old pieces of wood that have fallen to the ground.  Every year, people steal 1 million pounds of wood from this forest."  The effect of putting up these signs was that the amount of stolen wood actually went way up.  The internal message that was being sent was, "Wow, I had never thought of stealing wood before, but I better pick some up, and take some home, it must be worth a lot....and if others are doing it, why don't I?"

In a way, one could think about the very first sin in history, the proverbial snake in the garden of Eden, and God's command not to eat from the tree of good and evil, as the first example of the Cobra Effect.  Had God not told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, would they have ever had the notion in the first place?  Wasn't the real lure of the forbidden tree that it was something that they shouldn't be doing?  Or perhaps is it, that the true Fall of humanity has less to do with the eating of the fruit, than it does with the desire, deep inside all of us, to do the things we are not supposed to do?  In this way, the Fall of humanity actually precedes the Fall of humanity?

Who knows?  All I am sure of is that the next time I stay the night in the city of Delhi, I am going to check my bed two or three times before crawling into my sheets, and experience first hand...

The Cobra Effect,

All For Now,


Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Safe Church

Every week before I begin my message at Burlpres in Burlingame, California, I begin with the same sentence, "We welcome you to Burlpres this morning, and if you are here for the first time, we hope you find this to be a loving and a safe church, our goal is to be the most loving place in town, and a safe place to connect with God wherever you are coming from."  Recently someone asked me what I meant by "a safe place to connect with God."  This is a great question, and the focus of my blog this morning.

Safety is, of course, a relative term.  What is safe for one person may not be safe for another.  For example, a friend of mine likes to jump out of airplanes regularly, and finds that to be a safe experience.  I would not find that to be safe at all (smile).  When I say safe, I mean seven different kinds of safety for our church:

Safe Spiritually
There are many kinds of spiritual experience that are not safe.  When I was in Haiti once on a medical mission trip, I had the chance opportunity to meet some people who practiced the Voodoo religion.  After speaking with them for a while, I realized that voodooism was a very different religious practice from my own, and quite unsafe for me or my group to be encountering.  Not all spiritual experiences are the same.  What we believe at Bulrpres is that Jesus Christ is a safe spiritual experience.  Jesus said, "come to me all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28-30).  What Jesus was saying is that He is a safe person to come to in our times of need.

Safe Emotionally
Not long ago I was worshipping at a church whose pastor was extremely charismatic and dynamic.  Going into the church, I realized that this pastor had belief systems that were very different from mine.  And yet, not long into the message, I found myself strangely drawn to the lead speaker.  He was, "literally pulling me in."  At Burlpres we believe in a faith system that is not personality driven. The leaders of the church, the pastors, are all healthy people who live healthy lives.  Worship should be a safe experience.

Safe Intellectually
The Presbyterian Church prides itself in the amount of education that we require our pastors and leaders to have before they can provide consistent Biblical and theological leadership to our church.  This is not to say that academia is always a preventative for erratic or non-consistent thinking or processing.  However, it is to say that we value aspects of human thought like logic, rationality, cognitive reasoning, and ideas based in reality.

Safe For Children
One of the things we are working extremely hard on at our church is ramping up the level of safety that we are offering children on a regular basis.  We have always valued the safety of children at Burlpres, and yet we need to do so much more.  We have just implemented a series of background checks on all volunteers who work with children.  We have a new check-in system that will be computerized and mechanized, a barr code for all kids.  We will be implementing a new safe perimeter for children in our children's center.  Starting this Fall, only those who are approved with background checks and pre-approval, can enter our Children's Facilities.

Safe for Adults
The news over the past few weeks involving major religious figures in our country and around the world has been extremely tragic and devastating.  The number of children who have been impacted by the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania is deplorable and quite literally breaks the heart of God.  A major religious leader in the Chicago area has been accused of unsafe boundary breaking with staff members.  This simply cannot happen in church.  One of the things going forward to insure safety is that we have put in glass doors on all of our staff doors.  These glass doors present transparency for both what occurs in our office spaces, as well as what the outside perception is for what occurs there.

Safe Financially
Many religious systems are not transparent in the way that money is used.  This also does not honor God.  Burlpres will be implementing several measures over the next year to continue to insure that the broader public is aware (or can be made aware) of any financial transaction that the church engages in.  The stewardship of God's money in any community is so important and essential.

Safe Architecturally and Practically
Our current building project and projects have invested almost $1 million in insuring that our facilities and worship spaces are safe spaces for all people who attend the church.  The new roof that is being installed is made of an extremely light material that is earthquake safe and hopefully (joke) safe from leaks.  We are also cleaning up a lot of the "clutter" that can be found around the entrances of our doors, and in our classrooms, which also ensures safety.  These are just a few of the things we are doing to make the church building more safe.

Ensuring safety in any system, in a world that is constantly changing, is not an easy thing to do.  However, it is our pledge to our congregation and to our larger community that when I say from the front, "A Safe Place to Worship God," we mean that in every respect.  And in the end, providing these safety measures, and others, are in themselves expressions of loving hospitality, which we pray will go a long ways towards also making our church, "the most loving place in town."

All For Now,


Friday, August 3, 2018

The Girl With A Ham Sandwich

About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the country of Mozambique on the continent of Africa on a mission trip with Lifewater International for the purpose of helping to build a well for one of the rural tribal communities there.  The mission trip was remarkable in so many ways, but what remained with me from that trip was an image of a little girl that I met there, beside a village well, with holes in her bucket.  Her parents had both just died of the AIDS virus, and this little girl, with holes in her bucket, was effectively all on her own in the world.  She didn't even have a bucket that would hold the water that she would desperately need to survive.  A tragic metaphor of that mission field.  The image remains imbedded in my cranial hard drive and implanted in my heart.

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a similar mission trip.  This time the trip was to Mexico, the Baja peninsula with Burlpres in order to build a house for a local family who lived there. While there, our group got a chance to meet the family who would someday occupy that house, and to meet the neighborhood kids who lived on the street (I say street, but it was really just a dirt path deeply pocked with holes and boulders, reminiscent of a war zone).

One of those little children is the little girl you see in the picture above.  I don't know her name, nor will I ever know it.  Her sweet little face caught my attention one day as I was eating my lunch after a morning of work.  She had no lunch.  She did not ask for mine, though, when I offered her my sandwich, she gladly took it.  And then sat, with her back to the simple house we had just built, savoring it, as if the sandwich were a Chateaubriand steak served in a Micheline be-starred restaurant.  She will forever be for me, "The Girl With A Ham Sandwich".

Statistics for those who are poor, or "impoverished", in Mexico have become a sad platitude of daily news coverage.  However, the Mexican government estimates that 33% of the population of that nation lives in moderate poverty (live with less than $2 a day), and 9% of the country lives in extreme poverty (live with less than $1 a day).  This girl most likely meets that latter category.  Like most third world countries, there is a massive gap between the "haves and have-nots".

What the statistics cannot tell you, and what I experienced, is the relative loneliness and isolation that accompanies extreme poverty.  The children we met in the street seemed almost as happy for some company as they did to have a few sandwiches given to them on a hot summer day.  One got the sense that when these children woke up each morning, the only thing that greeted many of them were the ubiquitous stray dogs that dotted the entire countryside, and the random chicken that might amble past.

And it...yes...broke my heart to leave.  When will these children have a work caravan come through their little neighborhood (barrio) again?  When will a house building party ever come to visit again?  When will someone show some actual care to these, who Jesus called, "the least of these?".  It boggles the heart and the mind to think about.  But for me, this will be the new scene in my heart and mind that makes me want to do everything I can for those who are like her.

And, I should not close this blog without saying how beautiful she was.  How dignified she was.  How full of a sense of pride and strength she was.  She was...at least for a fleeting moment...

The Girl With A Ham Sandwich.

All For Now,


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

Lately, because my wife Star is now working, and our kids are in a myriad of daily activities, our family has been eating a lot of pre-prepared meals from Trader Joes.  These pre-prepared meals are a far cry from the pre-made TV dinners that were around when I was a kid.  Some of these meals require a few basic steps before the meal is made.  Most of them are quite simple to put together, and relatively healthy to eat.

Now, at this point, I should probably say that my back-up career plans have always been to be a chef. While I have never had formal cooking training (though I would love to some day), I have worked as a sous-chef in a restaurant when I was in college and worked for various catering companies to prepare meals for some pretty high end entertaining (preparing a meal for former Vice President Walter Mondale comes to mind, for example).  And, as a side note, I always give people advice to have a backup career plan (but that's another blog post).

So, whenever I put a pre-prepared meal into the frying pan, on a frenetic weekday night, to be honest I always feel a little "guilty" or "dumb".  Because of my own false sense of ability in cooking, and my pride, I feel like "this simple meal is beneath me".  So, a couple of nights ago, when making a Chinese stir fry, the recipe called for simply heating up the meat, then putting in the frozen vegetables, then putting in the sauce.  Simple.  But because I was trying to impose my own culinary prowess at this moment, I thought to myself, "What if I just add a little garlic, and then some fish sauce, and perhaps some shallots, and then a bit of Cayenne pepper, and perhaps some ginger and bamboo shoots to spruce it up."  30 minutes later, and a kitchen full of cutting boards, knives, discarded remnants of garlic shells and ginger coverings, I had an....ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING dinner!?!?!

Star, my wife, took a bite of it, and said, "this is awful, what did you do to it?"  I said, defensively, "I just tried to spruce up the recipe a little, and add a little flavor, to give it a little extra color, and texture."  Star said, while spitting out a mouthful, "well, you certainly accomplished your goal.  Let's get takeout." And she was right. It was pretty bad...

This tendency to want to throw in my own take on whatever is required of me in life, could actually be a description of my life.  When asked to preach a basic sermon, I sometimes say, "What if we spruced it up, and tried to make it better?" (sometimes to the detriment of the text or the Gospel).  When I have been asked to lead a meeting, sometimes I have said, "What if we don't just have a regular meeting, what if we have a super meeting?" (sometimes to the detriment of just the normal routine of getting a task accomplished).  What I am saying is that often I have erred in life when I didn't....

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

And what I have been wondering is if I am not alone.  What if all of us, to some extent or another tries to spruce up our lives with all kinds of things (extra stuff, nice cars, super big houses), when all that we really need to be happy is to...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

What if a lot of the sin-behavior that we engage in (drinking too much, sex outside of the boundaries, business deals that put those around us in risk, gossiping about others, slandering or hating our neighbors) really boils down to the same problem.  What if it is a part of human nature to not...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

That was really Adam and Eve's problem.  God gave them a good life.  He gave them supremacy and responsibility over everything in the Garden of Eden.  But the first humans weren't good with that.  They wanted to spruce up their lives.  Add a little flavor.  Add a little color.  And so, they ate from a tree that they shouldn't have.

Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt.11:30).  Maybe what Jesus was really saying in this text is that all we have to do to find rest and peace in this life is to...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

And now, I'm going to the freezer to get out a frozen burrito for lunch.  Maybe I'll refrain from making a Zabbayon Sauce to accompany it...

All For Now,