Thursday, March 8, 2018

How Miracles Happen

It was a windy, blustery morning in May, as clouds hovered low in the quaint college town of Oxford, England.  Spurts of rain would randomly slap the face of by-passers who walked the cobbled streets, and ducked below rock-built archways, late for class or a bite to eat in a cafeteria.  It was a Thursday, and the normal course of the class schedule for students was winding down, as evening galas were prepared for the weekend.  Tuxedos were being measured.  Champagne was being chilled.  A medical student by the name of Roger, not a student of the University, had just finished his shift in a local hospital.  He rode the morning train in to Oxford.  His first goal was to meet up with some old friends for lunch at a nearby pub.  And then, a miracle happened...

Roger Bannister had woken up that morning with one goal on his mind - to make history, to change the world, to test the fates of mice and men - to run a mile in less than four minutes.  It had never been done before, though some had come close.  The year before, the Swedish runner, Arne Andersson almost broke the four minute barrier by running a mile in 4:01.6.  In 1945, another Swede, Gunder Hagg, made the same attempt but failed.  Some said it couldn't be done.  And then a miracle happened...

Some of Roger's friends had thought that it was a bad idea to attempt the record breaking feat that morning because of weather conditions.  And yet, still, 1,000 or plus people were willing to take time off of their busy collegiate schedules to see if history could be made.  To see if the vaunted four minute mile could be achieved.  Most experts at the time, if there really were any by modern day comparisons, wouldn't have put their money on Roger Bannister to break the four minute record.  In the words of a great modern day runner and friend of mine, Jamey Gifford, who ran competitively for the Stanford University cross country team, and who racked up an impressive array of medals in his own racing days; "When you look back on Roger Bannister, in many ways, he doesn't seem like a terribly significant athlete.  His elite career only lasted a few short years, he never won an Olympic medal, and he held the world record in the mile for a mere 46 days."  But still, a miracle happened...

As Roger flung himself, chest full of air, arms flapping and body collapsing, he literally threw himself across the finish line.  His time was 3:59.4.  The crowd who had gathered there erupted in jubilation at the announcement of the news.  A miracle happened...

What made it a miracle?

It had never been done before.  Bannister was the least likely of people to accomplish this feat.  He only ran 28 miles of training a week.  He worked full time in the medical profession.  He had a big lunch before running.  He retired almost immediately after his running of the race and breaking of the record.  It occurred in a somewhat obscure place, on a random track in a seemingly insignificant byway and backwater of the world.  When you think about Olympic fame and track and field records, Oxford is probably not the first city that comes to your mind.

Several years ago, I was studying for my Doctorate with Fuller Seminary at a college in Oxford (St. Stephens College).  When class let out, to give students a leg stretch in the middle of the morning, I went outside and walked down the street to the corner.  There I found a street named Iffley Road.  It was a nothing to write home about.  And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled the name, Ifflley Road.  There before me was a black gravel track and a small parade stand.  This was the place!  This was the place that on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the world record.  This was the place where a miracle happened...

Having been a pastor for about 20 years now, I have seen my share of miracles.  I have witnessed people getting healed who you would never expect to get well.  I have seen churches rise up in places where no-one thought churches could be built.  I have seen communities come back to life again after years of moribundity and abject poverty.  I have witnessed couples who were headed for divorce, figure out ways to keep their marriage together.  I have seen people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol find ways to lay aside their vices and take up the cross of Jesus.  I have seen miracles happen.  And when they do, they never announce themselves beforehand.  Miracles never walk up and say, "Something great is about to happen."  They just happen.  They just occur.  They occur in the lives of ordinary, common, hard working people.  Usually, it is only after they have occurred that you realize that history was made.

Last week, Roger Bannister, who broke the four minute barrier died at his home at the age of 88.  He would go on to live a distinguished life and contribute mightily to the field of mental health and medical awareness.  His life, it must be said, was complete when he died.  He seemed to do everything that a person could hope to do in the span of eight decades.  And yet it wasn't the eight decades that he will be remembered for.  It was the sub-set of four minutes.  And that's...

How Miracles Happen...

All For Now,


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

N + R + HS = P

I have been thinking lately about the process that most churches use to decide whether to have a new program or not.  Having served in lots of different kinds of churches through the years, I have seen lots of ways that churches approach this subject.  Usually the process goes something like this.  Let's take an innocuous and fictional example.  Let's say the church is trying to decide whether to start a "Quilting Ministry."

1.  Someone comes forward and says, "We should start a quilting ministry."

2.  Someone else says, "Good idea, quilting, cool, let's announce it Sunday."

3.  Announcement gets made, "Come to our quilting ministry opener!"

4.  Two people show up to the quilting day opener.  Neither of them know anything about quilting.  One of them was under the impression that it was a "quitting ministry" that involved quitting smoking, and misunderstood that it was actually about "quilting".  The "Quilting Ministry" never gets off the ground.

Obviously this same scenario can be applied to lots of different kinds of ministry (youth, seniors, young adults, men's, women's, whatever).  Choose one that fits your own church.

A more helpful model that I have used in churches that I have served is a quick mathematical equation.  Keep in mind that I was always quite terrible with math in school, and...that's why I became a pastor:-)  Here is the equation:

N + R + HS = P

Needs + Resources + Holy Spirit = Program

The first letter is N for NEEDS.  What this means is that every church program must start with an actual NEED.  The more pressing the need, the more effective the ministry.  Where there is no need, there is no ministry.  What do I mean by need?  In Burlingame where I have just moved, and am pastoring, one of the most pressing needs is assistance for young adults and young families.  Living expenses are extremely high here, and people's lives are insanely busy.  What are some needs that young adults have in Burlingame?  Affordable childcare.  Many families in this area are known to spend around $3,500 a month on child care (gulp).  I bet the area that you live in has needs to.  REAL NEEDS, not small needs.

The next letter is R for RESOURCES.  Does the church have the resources to be able to carry out the ministry? Most people think that resources are just about money, but they involve many more components: facilities, staff, time, knowledge, intelligence, skill, ability, and long term sustainability. Often churches try to start important ministries that are actual needs in their community, but they don't have the resources to be able to do them.  For example, I would love to work on limiting fire arms sales for automatic weapons in our country, however, my church has no direct resources to help with this glaring national problem.  So it would be foolish to take on this issue.  So, you gotta have the resources.

The third couple of letters are HS - HOLY SPIRIT.  Is the Holy Spirit directing you to do a certain program or is this just a pet project?  Do you sense a prevailing wind from God telling you to do something or is this just a whim?  For example, I wouldn't mind if our church had a bagpipe band.  But, because I am the only bagpiper in the church (that I know of), and bagpipes are a bit of a "nitch" ministry (to say the least), it would just be more of a personal pet project than a ministry lead by the Holy Spirit.

So, that's it.  N + R + HS = P.  It seems quite simple, but this formula can save your church a lot of heartache, time, money, energy and burnout.

More often I have seen churches develop programs using a different formula:

PN + NR + MOA = Program

Perceived Need + No Resources + My Own Agenda = Program

Can anyone say, "Quilters Anonymous?"

What about "Bagpipers for Jesus!"

My apologies to all of the quilters out there who are reading this blog:-)

All For Now,


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Just As He Was

In those days he came preaching in the Desert
and saying "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near."

These words were written about a great preacher who lived not long ago.  They were written about a man who drew thousands of people to his fiery declamations about God's power and might and sovereignty and salvation.  People from all walks of life and all segments of society came to hear the man who preached these words.  They were, of course, originally preached by John the Baptist who lived in the first century in the country of Judea.  But they were made more famous in recent years by a man named Billy Graham who lived in the latter part of the 20th century and preached to millions and millions of people.  This blogpost is a tribute to Billy Graham's ministry and impact on my own ministry and life.

Billy Graham passed away last night at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.  He was 99 years old.

Like Billy Graham (not my namesake, though many have asked if I was named after Billy Graham), I was raised in a Presbyterian home.  Graham hailed from Presbyterian stock on both sides of his family.  Graham's late wife was Ruth Graham (nee, Ruth McCue Bell, whose father was Dr. L. Nelson Bell a prominent Presbyterian missionary to China).  Graham's own family were Reformed Presbyterians from Scottish stock.  The New York Times this morning wrote that, "Though the Grahams were Reformed Presbyterians, and though his father insisted on daily readings of the Bible, Billy was not an enthusiastic Christian."  The same might have been said of my early Christian upbringing.  I went to church each Sunday morning mostly because that's what our, "family did" on a Sunday morning.  It is not that my faith wasn't real growing up, it was, it was just that the way that it was practiced and experienced was not necessarily highly emotional, or flashy or fiery.

The church I grew up in was named Trinity.  And potlucks, church family camps and children's sermons were, in many senses, my own personal Holy Trinity.

When I was about 12 years old, I went with my local congregation to the Billy Graham Crusade to be held in the Boise State University Basketball Arena.  I had never been to a religious (or a non-religious event for that matter) of this ilk.  Thousands gathered in that arena to listen to the mass choir, a few members of which came from my own local Presbyterian congregation.  Then Billy Graham began to preach.  What struck me, surprisingly, was not his fiery oratory, but rather his magnetism and kindness.  Even from a pulpit in the center of a huge arena, I felt like Billy Graham was speaking to just - ME.  He seemed like the kind of person who you wouldn't mind having in your home, sitting beside your bed, or holding hands to pray with.

At the end of the worship service in BSU stadium I found myself, for some inexplicable reason, walking forward to pray with one of the attendants at the front of the arena.  After the prayer, like Graham has said of his own similar conversion experience, "I can't say that I felt anything spectacular.  I felt very little emotion.  I shed no tears.  The Lord did speak to me about certain things in my life.  I'm certain of that, but I can't remember what they were."

Later when I went to college in Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, I would visit friends in downtown who lived right next to the International Headquarters of the Billy Graham Association.  Because I was going through a bit of an agnostic stage in my own faith walk at the time, I was less enamored by the magnitude and size of the ministry organization, but still felt an innate power in their presence and Spiritual footprint, even as I walked around their buildings on snowy, sub-arcticly cold days.

As the years have elapsed, and my own ministry has unfolded, I have become aware of how different I am as a pastor and a preacher than Billy Graham.  I don't preach about evil very often, though I do believe in it.  I don't align myself with political causes, though, as a student of Poly Sci, I know that everything in life is inherently political.  I don't try or want people to feel bad about their lives after they hear me speak.  And perhaps most of all, I realize that the intoxicating, and more often wearying chimera of public life isn't really real, and doesn't last.  In the end, perhaps I realize that I am more PRESBYTERIAN than I ever realized.

However, I am grateful for the life of Billy Graham and his ministry.  And the world seems, somehow, more vacant and empty on this chilly February morning, now that it no longer has Billy Graham within it.  Graham's favorite hymn to have his congregation's sing after one of his sermons was the great, "Just As I Am."  Aptly, Graham's greatest contribution was that he was a pastor, "Just As He Was."  And now, Billy Graham is in heaven, and it might be said that he has gone there, "Just As He Is." But thankfully, those who listened to Graham, and were impacted by him will never again be able to say that we are, "Just As We Were..."

All For Now,


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Ear and the Heart

Tomorrow is Valentines Day, and many people in America are focussing on ways to endear themselves to the people they love.  Most guys, truth be told, who pay attention to Valentines Day, are scrambling to come up with a good website from which to buy flowers.  Flowers can be a way of showing someone you love, that you love them.  Personally, I have always found that a good bottle of Pinot is even more appreciated.  However, one of the things I have learned in life is that the ear is actually the closest part of the body to the heart.

Not long ago, my Spiritual Director, friend, therapist and mentor, Rev. Dr. Gordon Hess (PhD), told me an important life lesson; "The ear is the organ of intimacy."  To be honest, when I heard this for the first time, my mind went to the word intimacy, and then I thought about an ear, and I wondered if this was some new sexual technique that I was not aware of.  Gordon explained that the best way for a person to feel that you love them is to demonstrate that you have heard them.  Or better yet, to actually HEAR them.  When people feel heard, they then often feel understood, and when they feel understood, they feel like someone really knows them, and when someone really knows them, they often feel loved.

Yesterday on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed an incredible woman named Kate Bowler who is a professor at Duke Divinity School and who has just written a nationwide best-seller called, "Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved".  The title is incredible, and the book, which I have not read yet, is an account of her survival from cancer and the spiritual insights that accompanied that journey.  In the interview, Kate says that when she learned that the doctors who treated her had overlooked the cancerous tumor that was found in her colon, she became infuriated.  How could they miss such a basic medical malady?  Terry asked Kate whether she ever thought about suing the doctors who made this medical mistake that almost cost her her life.  Kate said, "No, I didn't, but I really did wish that someone, just someone had said to me, 'You know, I am really sorry, this is awful, I really made a mistake, I feel terrible about this.'"  In other words, what Kate wanted most is to be healed, but short of that, what she cherished was the chance to be HEARD.

The truth be told, I have always been pretty good at listening, but I have never been very good at demonstrating to someone else who is communicating with me, that I have actually HEARD them.  Recently, I received a critique about an aspect of the worship service that I lead each week.  The critique on its face was not a bad one, and when the person pointed out the mistake, I immediately heard what they were saying.  In previous years, my instinct would have been to shoot this person back an email and said, "Oh, ok, great, thanks for sharing, I'll consider this."  However, what I have learned is that this kind of response isn't a great mechanism for hearing.  So, instead, I picked up the phone, and I talked with this person for about 30 minutes.  I talked with them not just about the issue that they were presenting, but about their entire lives.  How were they doing?  What was going on with them?  How were things going?  The next Sunday, the person who made the critique walked up to me with tears in her eyes and said, "Graham, I just want to thank you.  And I want you to know that I really felt HEARD by you the other day."  Now, here's the truth.  I really didn't modify my behavior in the slightest.  What I did do is take time to try to demonstrate to that person that I had HEARD them.  And in hearing there is healing!

So, this Valentines Day, you can buy flowers, or a bottle of Pinot.  These are both good things.  But what may get you closer to that person's heart is not a dent out of your checking account, but a dent in your ear.  To show, for a few brief moments, to demonstrate, that what they have said, that you they really are - you have HEARD.

All For Now,


Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Gospel of Seinfeld

Like a lot of other Americans, I have been enjoying a series of television shows on "Netflix" (a movie streaming service), that is called, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."  The premise of the show is extremely simple - it is all tied up in the title - a series of comedians who drive with Jerry Seinfeld (a comedian) who are getting coffee.  But the great nuggets of simple wisdom that are shared in the show are priceless.  Here are a couple of them:

"Pain is knowledge rushing to fill a gap" - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld explains that a lot of times we don't have the knowledge we need in life.  But then we have some experience of pain, and we immediately know the truth.  Seinfeld says that an example of this might be when you are walking around your room at night, and you don't know where your bed is, but then you stub your toe on the bed, and it hurts.  Pain just helped you to learn some important knowledge:-)

"Comedy is basically a series of proofs"- Jerry Seinfeld
Again, Seinfeld explains that a good comedian stands up in front of people and says something ridiculous that needs a proof.  An example of this might be, "Why are the raisin brand people always telling us about two scoops of raisins?"  Are two scoops more compelling than one?  No one really likes raisin bran in the first place, so saying there are two scoops doesn't make it more of something someone wants to eat.

"Sometimes backstage I think, 'I don't even know why I picked this business'" Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that almost always before he goes out on stage he wonders if he is really all that funny or really has much to offer people. He is constantly amazed that people would pay good money to want to come out and hear what he has to say.  As a preacher, I can relate to this at some level.  Quite frequently I wonder if the sermon I have prepared, right before I deliver it, really has anything to offer, or is all that good.  My experience is that this is often a sign that it is, in fact, pretty good.

"The comedian studies himself, the actor studies other people." - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that the main difference between acting and doing comedy is that comedians are always looking inward and questioning themselves.  The good comedian questions their motives and their drives and their ambitions and their wants and their desires.  The actor, says Seinfeld, does the opposite, they look outwards.  The comedian wants to be him/herself.  The actor wants to be anyone but themselves.

"Talking about comedy is like talking about sex." - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that his favorite thing to do is to talk with other comedians about comedy.  But, in the end, he says, it's sort of fruitless.  It's like talking about sex.  In Seinfeld's words, "You can talk bout all the fancy dives you want, but it's still just a foot of water." I'm not sure I really understand this last one, but I think it relates to the fact that comedy is like diving off of a stage into a foot of water.  It's pretty basic, and in the end, it either works or it doesn't.

"The key to happiness is always having something to look forward to." - Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Seinfeld interviews other comedians too, one of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  She said that the key to happiness is always having something on the horizon that you are looking forward to doing.  It doesn't have to be a big thing, but a small thing, a favorite place to have coffee in the morning, a vacation on the horizon, a good book to dig into when you go to bed.

All For Now,


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Conflict In the Workplace

This morning, while preaching a sermon a part of a series called, "God on the Job," I addressed the tricky topic of "Conflict in the Workplace."  As a general practice through my 20 years thatI have preaching, I always asked the staff and the session that I am working with to reflect on the passage or the topic at hand.  Perhaps in no other place that I have served as a pastor have I found that people had more practical training in the area and topic of conflict in the workplace.  The following blogpost represents a few of the great ideas that I got this past week, that didn't make the message.  These pieces of advice came from people in the field of law, teaching, business, ministry and therapy: Enjoy!

How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace?

1. Pick Your Battles: Not every fight or argument is worth having, pick wisely before you enter into  conflict.

2.  Remember the Conflict Isn't About You:  Most conflicts, even though they may be directed at you, are actually not about you.  More likely, you are the scapegoat or the presenting problem, but there is often an underlying reason for the conflict that isn't about you.

3.  Sometimes you Don't Know What's Happening In a Person's Life:  Everyone comes to a conflict with a history of something.  Rarely do we ever know what a person's whole story is before we engage with them.

4.  Assume Positive Intent:  The tendency is to demonize anyone who disagrees with us.  "They are trying to bring us down," "They are trying to make me look bad."  However, assuming positive intent, even if there isn't really totally positive intent can help a great deal.

5.  Focus on the Resolution:  Rarely are our conflicts made better by rehashing them.  What has happened, how things went wrong.  Focus on the future, the resolution.

6.  Try to Understand What We Can Learn:  Even unhelpful conflicts can teach us something about life or about ourselves.

7.  Mentors Help:  If you have someone that is a wise counselor in your life that you can talk with about your conflict, a larger picture or lesson can be arrived at.

8.  Try to Get to Know Someone On a Personal Level:  A woman told me recently that her boss was such a difficult person to work with.  The only recourse she had was to get to know her boss better on a personal level, to try to understand him as a person.  She said it helped!

9.  Don't Bite On Every Piece of Bait:  In every conflict there are usually a whole number of issues that a person puts forward that you can engage with.  Choose wisely on what you bite on.  And you don't have to bite on any of it:-)

All For Now,


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Learning How To Learn

Not long ago, I read a op-ed piece from the New York Times, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tom Friedman, that has stuck with me.  And frankly it has also made me petrified.  It involves the question of how people need to learn going forward.

To boil the piece down, which you can access by Google if you type in, "While You Were Sleeping" by Tom Friedman, it involves discussion of a new computer that IBM is building called a "Quantum Computer".  Previous to this new "Quantum Computer" the most artificially intelligent (A.I.) computer built by IBM was called "Watson" (the one that became famous from the show Jeopardy).  This new Quantum Computer can handle 50 quantum bits or qubits (what's a qubit, I hear you asking?).  I have no idea, but it is a super fast and super powerful computer that has the capability of working "100,000 times faster than they do today."  Where the rubber meets the road with this is that this computer will be doing many of the jobs that people do today.  Amazon is now launching a whole chain of grocery stores called "Go" that only use these quantum computers instead of hiring employees to help people with checkouts.  Budweiser beer is now experimenting with transporting its product (beer) using driverless trucks.  Bank of America is now testing three "employee less" branches of its banks.  What this will mean in the near-term is that people will be out of work.

To remain competitive in the modern workforce, according to this article, will mean that we have to not learn the basic methods of commerce and business that we know today, but rather that we learn how to work with computers that will do many of the same tasks.  According to one expert, "100 percent of our jobs" moving forward, "will be augmented by artificial intelligence."  This shift is going to change the way we do education in this country.  Rather than learning the three R's (reading, writing and rithmatic), kids will have to learn how to work with super computers.  And here's the scary thing, as if this is not scary enough, these computer systems will not remain static, but will continue to evolve.  Next year there might be a Quantum/Quantum computer, and so on and so on.

Anyone who has faced the frustration of getting a new smart phone and learning how to use it, only to find that the next year, there is a brand new smart phone that requires a whole different set of skills, knows what I am talking about.

In short, and sorry for the long lead-up to this point, we as a society will have to become better at:

Learning How To Learn...

And this is what has got me thinking about church, as we know it, since that is my field and profession.  I wonder if the same paradigm shift will be applied to our churches in the future.  Rather than simply teaching people in a new member's class basic facts about theology, the Bible, the church, the governance of a church, I wonder if we will need to be teaching people how to use some of the technological advances in Biblical learning.  Rather than hiring people to positions who know how to use certain platforms (Outlook, Excel, Propresenter) perhaps the goal will be hiring people who are able to learn new platforms.  Rather than preaching sermons to people about a certain passage of the Bible, I wonder if we will need to help people find further platforms and avenues of learning beyond just the basic sermon on Sunday.

As someone who is a creature of habit, this new advent and societal paradigm shift, if in fact that is what is occurring, does not make me happy.  I love to do the same things each day, day in and day out.  Every day at the gym I always use the same locker, even though there are 100 other lockers available.  I drive the same way to the places.  I am not a fan of shopping, so I buy the same clothes that I had before, only newer versions.  I eat the same foods and drink the same drinks.  I'm a 45 year old fuddy duddy when it boils down to it.  But I will need to get more comfortable with:

Learning How To Learn...

What Christians in the new epoch may need to hold in tension are the dueling philosophies of "Once Reformed Always Reforming" (The centerpiece of Reformed theology) and also that our God, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

All For Now,