Monday, January 15, 2018

Meeting a Member of the King Family

This morning, on Martin Luther King Day, I had an incredible experience while doing service work with Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter in South San Francisco designed to help people who are living in abject poverty and who are dealing with substance abuse.  I met a direct descendent of Martin Luther King Jr!

While getting to know some of the residents who live at Safe Harbor, I got a chance to meet a woman named Barbara (pictured above).  Barbara told me that she had been living at Safe Harbor for about 6 months.  She had recently moved up from Los Angeles.  She told me that one of the things she was struggling with was the extreme expense of living in the Bay Area.  She said that she was paying $900 a month for a one room apartment in LA, but that it would cost at least $1,300 a month in the Bay Area.  She told me that she couldn't afford that.  She then said that her mother, named Geraldine King died about 7 years ago.  She was missing her.  Attempting to make a connection with MLK day and Barbara's story, I said, "King?  Your name is King, like Martin Luther King?"  She said, "Yes, in fact, I am related to him."  "Wait, what?!?!" I said.  Barbara's mother's sister is a daughter of the King family, (I think I have that right) and is directly related to the King family.  She then said, "I met Corretta Scott King, but I don't think I ever met Martin Luther King Jr., even though I was in Memphis at the time he was shot."

Now, of course, when anyone tells you about their personal connection to someone famous, one always wonders if their story is 100% true.  However, my gut tells me that Barbara's story is true.  First, Barbara did not lead off with this connection to King, but the fact made its way through our 10 minute conversation.  Second, Barbara seems incapable of fibbing about anything, she is very honest.  Trust me on that one.  Third, it just seems true.

So, considering the strong possibility that Barbara's story is true, that she is a direct descendant of MLK, then it raises for me a whole slew of related questions?  How did Barbara get to this place in her life?  What was her exact journey?  Why is she in a homeless shelter?  Why is she struggling with addiction?  And perhaps most importantly, on this the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination (April 4, 1968), what is Dr. King's legacy for so many African Americans like Barbara in the United States today?

Sadly, the statistics are not good.  Even though great strides have been made in our country since the day of the Civil Rights Movement, there is still much work to be done in our country for all people of color. According to the website; 

*  While people of color make up 30% of the United States population, they account for 60% of those imprisoned today.

*  According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

*  Department of Education statistics show that African American students are arrested far more than their white classmates.

*  The war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color.

*  Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders.

There is clearly still a long way that we need to go in our country if we are to continue to advance the causes which Dr. King began.  And this can only be done with love.  It was MLK, himself, who said; "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

Before leaving the shelter today, Barbara King took me on a tour of the facilities at Safe Harbor.  She escorted me to the room where there are weekly AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) classes.  Pointing to a quote on the wall, Barbara said, "Don't Wish For It, Work For It."  She said, "That quote changed my life.  You can't just wish for things, you have to work for things." Peering into her weathered eyes, I could almost see the eyes of Dr. King himself.  And perhaps it is a good reminder to all of us, that - sadly the work that we all must do is still not done, the fight must go on, the dream must never die...

All For Now,


Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Library Revival

I love the story of the University President who was talking to a graduating class about their imminent bright futures in the world they would be entering.  The President said, "We here at Herringbone [my own made-up name:-)], like to see our University as a storehouse of knowledge.  The reason for this is because students bring so much knowledge in with them when they first arrive, and by the time they graduate, they take so little knowledge out."

The storehouses of knowledge through the centuries have often been called - Libraries.  Europeans often still call libraries by their original Greek name - Bibliotek.  A Greek "Bibliotheca" was simple a "book case".  The greatest libraries in history were in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and Alexandria (in Egypt).  The picture above is of the famous Trinity College Library in Dublin - one of my favorites!

With the rise of online search engine websites, many of the greatest libraries in the world, including the vaunted Library of Congress, have gone - online.  I am in the final stages of writing my Doctoral Dissertation and I am amazed to say that most of the research that I have done for my paper has been done online.  My father-in-law, a law professor, who is now in the process of writing his seventh major academic work, has told me that he can do all the research he needs for a book in his living room in Tucson, Arizona.  The world is changing fast!

And yet, there is still a lot to be said for more traditional libraries themselves.  For me, there is nothing like the smell of paper, and sometimes leather, and the dust of years, and the joy of dog-earing a page to know where you left off, and visiting a library.

Many libraries in recent years have been experimenting with new ways to get books into people's hands.  The public library near my house has book stalls on the corners of the street where you can check out a book by taking one out, filling out a card, and when you are done reading it, returning it to the same little blue and yellow stall

Most Presbyterian Churches also have libraries as well.  The church that I am serving in Burlingame has a remarkable library of very relevant and important books.  Our incredible church librarian, Anita Kvam, works long and hard hours to try to make sure that the most relevant and important books are available to members of the church.

Starting this week, First Pres. Burlingame will be offering a new service related to our library.  Often times after I preach a sermon, people will come up to me during the Fellowship Time and ask me if there is a book that I could recommend for further reading on the topic that I had just preached on. Starting this week, the answer to this will not only be - "Yes" - but also, "just go to the library cart and find a book that has been collected that is related to the Sunday message."  Anita will be receiving a manuscript of my message each week on Thursday, and finding books for people to dive into that want further study in that particular subject area.

Ultimately, our goal will be to not only have a great library, but to get that great library into people's hands for assistance and renewal.  And perhaps then, libraries will not only become storehouses where people bring knowledge in, but also places where they can take it out!

All For Now,


Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Joy of Repetition

One of the classic pieces of cinema that is about the Christmas season is the animated cartoon, by the late Charles Schultz, creator of the comic strip "Peanuts".  The movie is called, "A Charlie Brown Christmas".  There is one scene in this movie that features Linus offering the Christmas text in an extremely nasally, and slightly boring way, "And there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night...and they were sore afraid."  What Schultz captures so well in this movie is the repetitive, almost Ambien sleeping aide quality of the Christmas texts.  We have heard them so many times that they literally put us to sleep.

As I sit down to write this blog post on the eve before Christmas Eve, I have been asking myself a question.  How many times have I preached the Christmas Eve texts?  I think I have come up with an answer of about 20 times.  Of course, that is not counting the multiple times that I preached in some churches on Christmas Eve.  I think there were 6 services (or maybe 7, I can't exactly remember) each Christmas Eve at First Pres. Colorado Springs, and in many other churches there were at least 3.  So, given this consideration, I think I have preached the Christmas texts over 100 times.  I must have heard Christmas sermons texts at least ten times that number in my lifetime.  Over a thousand!

How many times have you heard the Christmas texts?  Are they new to you?  Are they fresh?

My friend and mentor Will Willimon, former chaplain of Duke University, has recently reminded me that part of the power of the Gospel is that there is repetition throughout.  And as a preacher, he has told me that one should not try to come up with something "new" to say, but rather, should find;

The Joy of Repetition

Willimon writes,  "Faithful preaching is always repetitious reiteration, always preaching again" (Undone by Easter, p. 51).

Willimon goes on to point out that many great artists relied heavily on repetition.  Mozart was known to repeat certain phrases of music in his piano concertos as many as 10 times in one piece of music.  Tolstoy is, "known for his deliberate, frequent, and sometimes exasperating repetitiveness."  Wittgenstein said that, "he was only attempting to think what people had already thought."  Plato said that, "all teaching is a form of midwifery."  G.K. Chesterton once said that, "Almighty God is a bit like a young child, saying every single morning to the sun, 'Again!'" (Undone by Easter, p. 56).

Many years ago, when I was at a pastor's conference taught by the great Middle Eastern Bible scholar, Ken Bailey, I will never forget him offering an ancient proverb, "If it's true, then it is not new, and if it's new, then it is not true."  This dictum, from the ancient world is a warning against things that seem innovative or cutting edge when it comes to God.

The biggest mistakes I have ever made in preaching, I think, have been times when I tried to do something creative with a text, and the sermon didn't "work" because I was trying to do something that the text did not really reflect.

Our God is a God who loves repetition.  God created each week to begin with Sabbath (in most Christmas traditions that day is Sunday).  Since the beginning of time there has been a repetition of Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath, every seven days.  7, 7, 7, 7...

For the Jewish people, the repetition of the festivals, particularly Passover, was part of its intrinsic holiness.  Since at least the year 1,500 BC, the Israelites have celebrated passover.  By my count that is 3,517 times.

So, as you listen to the Christmas texts one more time over the next couple of days, and find yourself dozing off to sleep, or thinking of other things instead (stockings, parties, presents), remember, that part of the sanctity of our faith is in repetition.  And that there is;

Joy in Repetition

All For Now,


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Internalize Don't Memorize

I wanted to take a bit of a pause from the terrible news of the fires in Ventura County, and now the entire Los Angeles region, to reflect on something more mundane, but perhaps helpful.

After preaching last week at Burlingame Pres. a member came up afterward and asked me how it was possible for me to offer a 25-30 minute Sunday message without notes.  I explained to my friend that it was not really as hard to do as it may seem.  Here are my ideas about how to deliver a long talk without notes.  So, this blogpost is for anyone who does public speaking, preaching, or other forms of declamation in a classroom or a work-room or boardroom.

*  It is always easier to recite your own material from memory, rather than someone else's.  If I had to memorize Shakespeare rather than my own self-generated material ("Et tu Brute?") it would be much harder.

*  The great preacher Mark Labberton, President of Fuller, and also someone who speaks regularly without notes once told me to see a message as a "quiver full of arrows", rather than a fixed set of ideas that had to be communicated in a certain order.  A good speaker comes to the platform with a bunch of arrows.  Not all of them have to be shot in one message.  They don't have to come out of the quiver in any particular order.

*  A good message should be a conversation.  Each week I try to have a conversation with the congregation that I am speaking with.  Just as I don't worry about what to say when I am having a conversation with my 5 year old, Sheena, or my 9 year old, Haley, I don't worry about just having a conversation with a congregation of 600+.

*  I always write my outline out, with one word that would remind me of my point, if I forgot it, on a tiny little envelope sized piece of paper at the back of my Bible.  The goal is to have one word that jogs your memory, if you need a memory jogger.

*  The more you speak, the easier it is.  The best stand-up comedians do monologues in night clubs every single night of the week.  You can only gain a real sense of fluidity when speaking when you do it  A LOT.

*  The best advice I can give is the title of this blogpost:

Internalize Don't Memorize

Memorization occurs at a surface level, and comes and goes almost as quickly as it enters our brains. I knew friends who were good at cramming for an exam in college who could quickly memorize reams of material, and then dispense it into the called for exam, and then forget all of that material by lunchtime.  Internalization occurs at a much deeper level.  When you internalize something it finds a way into the recesses of your heart and soul.  When something is placed in that space of our consciousness, it is ours for the keeping, and for using in any public setting.

All For Now,


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

So Proud and Grateful!

Many of you may have heard by now that my family and I have been impacted, but not (fortunately) touched, by the fires in Ventura County.  By way of giving you a feel for the past 24 hours, let me relate to you the past day's news in a series of bullet points:

*  At 12:30AM last night, I was lying in my bed in Burlingame (where I just preached my first sermon as that church's pastor), dozing off to sleep.

*  At 12:32AM, I was alerted by text that the school that my girls attend in the Foothills of Ventura (Ventura Missionary School), would be closed due to fear of, "smoke inhalation" health issues.

*  At 12:35AM, I texted my wife Star who told me the power was out and that the heat was off and the Ventura was going up in smoke and that Ewan (our 16 month old) was crying uproariously.

*  At 7:30AM, I learned that Star's place of work, Vista Del Mar Hospital had burned to the ground, that several of our best friend's houses had burned to the ground, that 30,000 people were on mandatory evacuation, our children's school, Ventura Missionary School might burn to the ground.  Our worship leader's house might have burned down.

*  At 8:30 AM, I jumped in the car, and instinctively drove straight home.  I asked my very capable church Executive Director (Joan Cleary) and my very capable personal assistant (Heather) to cancel all my meetings, and help me through it.  They pointed me in the right direction and got me on the road.  "Get home," they said, "we will take care of things at the church."

*  At 11:00AM, 3.5 hours of driving time later, (it is a six to seven hour drive from SF to Ventura), I started to become aware that I was a part of a cavalcade of fire trucks that were driving southward from Northern California to help out with the fires in Ventura.

And this is really the major content of my blogpost, except for the very good news that my family is safe and they are sound here on the cusp of the fires (as I write this tonight at 9:58PM on Tuesday).

I have never felt prouder to be a Californian or to be an American.  As I drove down, I kid you not, I was flanked by no less than 50 fire trucks driving down from Northern California to meet the inferno head on.  [Enclosed above is one of the pictures that I took while driving of one small flotilla of fire trucks].  These young men and women and trucks came from cities like Los Gatos, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco, San Mateo, Concord, Fresno, Merced, Madera, Red Bluff, Corning, Redding, and Sacramento.  Truck upon truck were driving south to fight the fires.  The closer we got, the more the impending doom of fires seemed ominous and foreboding.  But they drove headward and onward into the inferno.  As I passed each truck, I gave the young men (20 year olds) a thumbs up and a thank you.  They smiled back.  It brings a tear to my eye to think about it.

So Proud!

*   At 12:00PM, as I was heading into Santa Barbara, I saw thick plooms of smoke billowing through the entire city and area.  This was no small fire.

*  At 3:00PM, I rolled into Ventura to find, and I am not writing hyperbolically, a total WAR ZONE of decimated houses, neighborhoods and hillsides.  Where apartment complexes and middle income homes and grand estates had once stood, now ashen heaps and withered hopes and dreams lay in smoldering piles of soot and sunder.

*  At 3:30PM, when I rolled into my driveway, I cannot tell you the joy and elation that I felt when I picked up my 16 month old son, and held my two daughters and wife in joy and relief that we were all safe and together.  And we are safe here tonight.  Though we are leaving on Thursday, moving away sooner than planned, to evade the potential for personal harm.

But not all have been so fortunate.  My dear friends Bashar and Gada lost their house.   And their parents lost their house.  And others.  Too many to count!  And the numbers are rising.  Ojai is in trouble.

This is not over.

Not by a longshot.  The big winds are forecast to pick up on Thursday at a speed of 70 miles an hour.

But for tonight, I am

So Proud!

And Grateful!

All For Now,


Monday, November 27, 2017

To Begin With Prayer

This morning is my first official day as senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame.  I must admit that I woke up this morning with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and hopefulness - "afoot and lighthearted" as the poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "I take to the open road."

Another reason that I am excited about this morning is because today we will launch one of the first and most important ministries at Burlingame.  We will begin a prayer ministry!

All great movements of God always begin with prayer.  Let me repeat that.  All great movements of God always begin with prayer.

The first church in history, the Acts 2 church, began with prayer in the upper room.  Jesus' own ministry began with prayer and reflection and discernment in the wilderness.  Paul's ministry began with prayer as he sat, still blinded by God's light, in the city of Damascus, awaiting what God would instruct him to do.  Every Billy Graham crusade always began with prayer.  Countless successful churches in history have had as their focus the essential need to pray.

Now, this may seem like an obvious point for any Christian ministry.  However, as a fourth generation Presbyterian minister, I have, until recently, and quite unfortunately, sometimes seen prayer as more of an appetizer on the plate of life rather than the essential meat and potatoes that it really represents.  "Oh sure, it is important," I always said.  I have learned that it is...IMPORTANT.

When my brother and I started Highlands Church about ten years ago, we were blessed at that time to have a large number of Charismatic Christians join the church from another church in town that was struggling.  This group, perhaps more than any other, taught me the essential importance of prayer.  I will never forget how every single Sunday morning, in the movie theater where we met, a handful of people would meet in the theater manager's office, amidst popcorn droppings and Sprite covered carpets, and pray for that morning's worship service.  After this, many of them even went around and prayed over each seat in the theater, that the would-be occupants of that seat, an hour or so later, would be touched by the power of Christ.

One of my favorite stories about the power of prayer happened in the city of Seattle at University Presbyterian Church.  UPC, as it is called, had long been a very successful downtown church.  However, one very important ministry outreach eluded that church - college students.  Nestled right on the cusp of one of the most thriving state universities in the country, there were, sadly, very few college students who connected with the church.  A prayer ministry was formed that met in a nearby hotel, called, "The Inn".  Each week, a handful of moms of college students, got together to pray for a thriving college ministry.  It didn't happen over night.  In fact, it would take about 20 years of prayer, and hard work.  But eventually, one of the most successful college ministries in the country developed - so-named "The Inn" because of the name of the prayer group's initial meeting place.

This coming Thursday, and every Thursday that I serve as pastor of FPCB, a group of talented, thoughtful, spiritually-wise, kind and compassionate people will meet in the senior pastor's office (my office) to pray for the needs and concerns of the church, the community and the world.  I am so grateful that my new friend Susan Siciliano has agreed to lead this group.  Susan has such a warm and down-to-earth spirit, that will bless this ministry so much.  Other equally fabulous members of the group will include, Louise Arata, Tiffany Daily, Karen Preston, Marjan Wells, Jodi Lowery, Marilyn Nicholls, and Debbie Trevithick.  Others may join the group over time, but initially this core group will coalesce and discern and bond.  While these women are meeting to pray, I will simultaneously be in my home office writing each weeks' sermon (no pressure:-), so they will quite literally have the place to themselves:-)

If anyone who is reading this blog post has any prayer needs, please don't hesitate to send them to me, or send them to Susan Siciliano, or any members of the prayer group.  We will diligently pray for you!

Oh, and one last thing, this prayer group is also dedicated to the concept of having fun, in each other's company, while praying for others.  No one ever said that prayer needs to be drudgery.  But rather, to lift another line from Walt Whitman, "The long brown path [of Christ's joy and fellowship] will be before them, leading wherever they choose."

And wherever God leads!~

All For Now,


Monday, November 13, 2017

The Leadership Factory

Most of you know by now that after a wonderful three and half years with two churches on the Central Coast of California (Mission Street Church, Goleta Presbyterian Church), in the Santa Barbara Presbytery, that Star and I and the family have been called to be the next senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, in the Bay Area, near San Francisco.  Our last Sunday at Goleta will be Nov. 26, and our first Sunday in Burlingame will be the next weekend on Dec. 3.  We will always be thankful for our friends and experiences on the Central Coast, during this recuperative time in our lives, and we will never forget the kindness and love that we experienced here.

Some have asked why we decided to accept the new call in Burlingame.  The short answer is because God called us there.  The longer answer, and the one I want to reflect on in this blogpost, is that First Pres. Burlingame is one of the greatest church...

Leadership Factories

that I have ever known.

All churches have unique and special cultures.  And the unique cultures of specific churches determine what kinds of outcomes those churches have.  For example, Highlands Church, a church that my brother Jamie and I started in Paso Robles, is a uniquely capable outreach (evangelism) machine.  No church that I know of (in the PC USA) is more welcoming of outsiders to the faith, and consistently works to reach out to them, than Highlands.  Goleta Presbyterian, where I have served for the past 1.5 years is particularly capable and being a "safe place" for people of all theological backgrounds to come and worship God.  In this way, Goleta has the wonderful quality of never judging people who come to church.  People from all faith backgrounds are welcome there (and it must be stated that this is a very good thing).  Perhaps you might reflect for a moment on what the uniquely special culture of the church that you attend is.

What is the uniquely special culture of First Pres. Burlingame?  It produces great leaders!  Some of the finest pastors I know, people who are mentors of mine and that I look up to, have come from First Pres. Burlingame.  Dan Meyer, who was recently rated as one of the best preachers of his generation, and now serves a church of 6,000+ members near Chicago in Illinois, served as an Associate Pastor at Burlingame.  Steve Schibsted, who is now serving as the Interim Pastor of First Pres. Berkeley, is one of the best turnaround pastors I have ever known.  Steve turned First Pres. Chico around from a struggling 200 person church to a bourgeoning city center church.  Steve served at Burlingame as an Associate pastor.  Jeannie Cavender, who is a Commissioned Lay Pastor at Goleta Pres., is one of the best congregational prayers I have ever met.  Jeannie grew up at First Pres. Burlingame.  Tom Gillespie, who served as First Pres. Burlingame's third pastor, went on to become the President of Princeton Seminary.  Under Tom's leadership, the seminary was able to develop the largest financial endowment per-capita of any other institution of higher learning, at that time.  You get the picture.  First Pres. Burlingame is and has always been a...

Leadership Factory

So, why is it important for me to be a part of an institution like Burlingame, that is so capable at producing great leaders? Well, in short, the world needs a brand new crop of great church leaders.  Perhaps like no other time in human history has the gap between the world's needs and the kinds of leaders that the Christian church is producing been wider.  And, in my opinion, for whatever reason, seminaries, churches, and other institutions of higher learning just aren't producing the kinds of leaders today that will be required to meet the world's needs going forward.  It is not a statement of hyperbole to say that nearly an entire generation of millennials, and post millennials (the so called "i-generation") are now not only saying "no" to church, they are saying "no" to God.  Things have to change!  So, I am excited to be a part of a church that will help to make those kinds of decisions, and to mold those kinds of leaders.

Secondly, what I have been most proud of in my ministry, up to this point, are the leaders that God has allowed me to help to develop and mold in the churches that I have served.  To create a list of these great leaders would take up an entire blog post of its own, but a short list would include: Mickey Fenn (pastor), Katy Griffin (pastor), James Baird (pastor), and Joe Baugh (worship leader).  Again, this list is not exhaustive by any means, and I don't take credit for their innate leadership gifts, but it does reflect some of what I am proud of in my ministry.

The last reason that I am excited about working for a church Leadership Factory, like Burlingame, is because, let's face it, I'm not growing any younger (:-). At 45, I figure that I have about another 20 years to help make an impact for the kingdom.  That's not to say that God won't be able to use me at 65 for some other great purpose for the kingdom, but that after a lot of prayer and discernment I have decided that this is the best use of my gift set and the time that I have left.

So, if you are a great leader and want to become even better one.  Or you want to learn some new leadership gifts, or you just feel that God might be calling you to something different than what you are doing right now, I want to welcome you to the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame.  Because it nothing less than a...

Leadership Factory

All For Now,