Monday, December 29, 2014

Rabbi Baird

The funniest interaction of my Christmas holiday season was when my 12 year old nephew stepped off the plane from Nashville to visit us in Southern California and posed a deep and pontifical question.  He asked, "How's the Synagogue going?"  "Synagogue?" I asked.  "Yes," he said, "you are a Rabbi right?"  "No," I said, "I am a Presbyterian pastor in a Protestant church."  "Oh," he said quizzically, "I thought you were a rabbi.  You have so much Jewish stuff in your house.  You have a menorah in your window, a dreidel on your tree, a shofar on your coffee table, and you are always using Hebrew words in your Sunday messages."  I had to admit, my young nephew had a point.  I do have a lot of Jewish accoutrements in my life.

The truth of the matter is that though I am not Jewish (that I am aware of, followers of my blogposts over the years might remember one in which I stumbled upon a long held possible family secret that my great, great, great grandpa Adam Kahl might have been Jewish), I do love looking at the life of Jesus and his times through a Jewish cultural lens.

Most people who attend seminary do a preponderance of their study from one principle cultural standpoint - Greece.  Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, seminarians study the Greek language.  Though not exactly Homeric Greek (high Classical Greek) the New Testament, in varying degrees of exactness, is written in Koine Greek - quite literally, Greek slang.  The most basic of the New Testament books is the book of Mark, which is comprised of a long list of prepositional clauses connected with the word - AND (Kai, Kai, Kai - in Greek).

The Hebrew language is also taught in seminary, though not many of my colleagues took it very seriously as a study.  I, am ashamed to say, included in this group.

The history of the New Testament is often studied through the lens of Greek history.  Herod was at least part Greek, because he stemmed from what was known as the Seleucid Empire.  Some of the great historians of the early world were Greek (Aristotle was Greek, and wrote history, of course).  But not many of the Greek historians focussed on the land of Judah.  Most of the best historians of the period were not Greek, or Jewish but were Roman - Plutarch was one of the most famous.  The Romans were primarily interested in documenting the expansion of the Roman empire, and so wrote history from the standpoint of military victories.  One of the few great Jewish historians was a Jewish man who's name was both Roman and Greek in origin: Falvius (a Roman name) Josephus (a Greek name).

But studying the Bible through a Greek or a Roman lens is akin to learning to cook French cuisine at a McDonald's restaurant training camp.  You might learn a few of the basics (eg: the French Fry is distant relative of the Pomme Fritte) but the essential beautiful nuances will always be lost.

Here are some of my favorite aspects of Jesus' life as understood through a Jewish cultural lens.

*  When Jesus says to the crowd in Jericho that "salvation" has come into the house of Zacchaeus, it is a Hebrew word play.  The name Jesus in Hebrew is "yeshua".  Jesus is saying, "I (salvation/Yeshua) am coming into Zacchaeus' house".

*  Almost every time Jesus is asked a question, he answers with a question.  This is a very Jewish cultural pattern.  Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"  Jesus asks, "Is that your idea, or did someone else give that to you?"  Jesus is not being cheeky or cute, he is following the pattern of his own cultural conversation.

*  Much of the Old Testament is really written from a standpoint of Jewish puns.  When Jacob wrestled the angel on the banks of the river Jabbok, it is a word pun sentence.  The Hebrew word for wrestle is "Javok".  This is also the Hebrew word for hipbone - "Javok".  And so, the literal translation should go something like this, "When Jacov, Javoked with the angel, on the banks of the river Javok, he disconnected his Javok."

And the list goes on.  Maybe my nephew is correct, I am a kind of protestant rabbi.  I firmly believe that many of the most interesting aspects of the Bible and of God can be unearthed by understanding more about Jewish history and culture.

And so, I hope that like me, on New Years Eve, you will raise your glass and say,

Lacheim - Cheers!


All For Now,

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Places Jesus Would Go

Well, it's two days until Christmas Eve and Mission Street Church has done our utmost to get the word out about our two worship services on Dec. 24 (5:00 and 7:00), held at the Spanish Hills Country Club (999 Crestview Ave., Camarillo, CA).  Actually, in my 15 years of ministry, I hardly remember a Christmas Eve where more has been done to prepare for this service.  To this end;

*  40,000 postcards have been sent to every resident of Camarillo
*  A sticker was on the cover of the Ventura County Star
*  An article is being written for the Ventura Star coming out on Tuesday
*  An ad was in the Acorn Newspaper and Happenings Magazine
*  Liz Brackenbury (LA Opera Singer) is singing "O Holy Night"
*  A free gift has been procured (a votive battery powered candle) for all guests
*  A Boston Pops concert pianist will play welcome music on a grand piano
*  Incredible catering has been arranged for all guests

And the list goes on.  But one of the things I am most proud of is the personal effort that has gone out to get the word out.  To this end, I have personally visited over 300 stores, restaurants, and businesses in town, letting people know about the evening.

And as I have visited these stores, one stark reality has come to my attention.  Lots of churches reach out on Christmas Eve, but not many churches reach out to:

The Places Jesus Would Go

As I made my way through the streets of Camarillo, I saw lots of Christmas postcards, ads, and banners featuring various Christmas and holiday celebrations, in various churches.  However, whenever I would come to one of the following:

*  A liquor store
*  A bar
*  A smoke and cigarette shop
*  A massage parlor
*  A tavern
*  A tattoo shop
*  A pawn shop

I found no Christmas flyers or brochures.  "Do such establishments not welcome religious outreach?" I thought to myself.  "Maybe these types of stores are just against God altogether," I wondered. I decided to test out this hypothesis.  And so, I entered what might be called a bit of a seedy bar in Camarillo.  As I ventured inside, the green hew of neon and the rusty pallor of inebriation hung in the air like chords from an old slack guitar.  The pool table lights swung over the emerald chipped tables like FBI interrogation lights.  Maybe this was a bad idea after all, I thought.

"Excuse me.  My name is Graham, and we are doing a Christmas Celebration at the Spanish Hills Country Club," I said, with a lump of nervousness in my throat.  "Would you like to put up a flyer and a  banner in your bar?"  A long pause ensued.  Then, from behind a wrinkled and be-tattoed grin, the bar tender said with a gravely voice that only a lifetime of smoking or working in coal mines could produce said; "Honey, you can hang that flyer anywhere you like.  And I will personally tell anyone that comes into this bar that they should go to your service."

I kid you not.  She was one of the nicest people I encountered on my 300 store treck.

And then it occurred to me.  These are:

The Places Jesus Would Go

Actually, because there was no place left in the hotel room over the bar, Joseph and Mary stayed in a manger (actually akin to a kind of homeless shelter in the first century).  Later, Jesus would grow up in a tiny cowboy town, known for it's rough establishments in Nazareth.  One of Jesus' disciples would later joke, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  One of Jesus' favorite stopping points on his journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem was Jericho.  Jericho was the Wendover, Nevada of the time.  Jesus would visit bordello after bordello, bar after bar, tattoo parlor after tattoo parlor throughout his ministry.

And I think I know why.  Within such places are some of the nicest people you can ever meet.  This Christmas, sometime, I encourage you to enter and invite someone to a Christmas Eve service in one of

The Places Jesus Would Go

All For Now,

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Little Child That Could

Most of us view history backwards.  No, Duh…that's why it's called history, right!?!

But think about it for a moment.  All of history is viewed from the present backwards.  In other words, we start with the time line today and we move to the left.  Today is Dec. 15, and yesterday was Dec. 14.  History is about standing in the middle of today, looking back and seeing the events that occurred yesterday.

If we were to look at the recent history of the events that have occurred in Camarillo (major mudslides after torrential rainstorms), we might write history this way; "There were these huge rains that hit Southern California.  The rains caused billions of loose rocks to fall on houses at the base of Camarillo Springs.  No residents were killed or injured, but the clean-up efforts will take months if not years." Thankfully that was the historical narrative from Camarillo this past week.  However, in the middle of the rains, in the middle of the mudslides, no-one knew how big it would be, or whether there would be fatalities or injuries.

By the way, thank you so much for your constant flow of prayers and support for the entire community.  We really appreciate them!

And so it is with all of the major events of the history of the world.  We view history backwards:

*  We view the history of the US Civil war as a clash between North and South.  The North eventually prevailed.  But no one at the time knew if the North would win or the South would win.

*  We view the history of World War II as a clash between Germany and Japan and Europe and the United States.  The West won, but no one actually knew at the time whether that would be the case.

*  We view the history of the Plague as a medical epidemic that claimed the lives of millions of Europeans in the Dark Ages.  The Plague was eventually marginalized, and almost eradicated, but no one knew at the time whether this pestilence might, in fact, be the end of humanity.  History is viewed backwards.

*  Christianity is often viewed the same way.  Backwards.  Most Christians view the life of Jesus from the standpoint of the cross.  Jesus came into the world, lived, worked, healed did miracles, and then was killed on a cross, and then on the third day, he rose again from the dead.

However, it can be an interesting reversal, for a brief moment, to view history not as a backwards reflection, but as a forward reflection.  In order to do this, one needs to try to put themselves into the shoes and the context and the lives of the people who were living at the time.  To look at the life of Jesus forwards, then, doesn't put the main emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, but on the birth.  Wveryone living before the birth of Jesus, who lived in the Abrahamic faith and culture viewed the birth of Jesus not as a preamble to the crucification, but from one great and hopeful vantage point.  Jesus was what was possible.  Jesus, it might be said, would be:

The Little Child That Could

For the prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Ezekiel) who looked forward, thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, the Messiah was, the little child that could bring salvation into the world.

For the Israelites who lived in slavery and bondage in Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the Messiah was the little child that could bring freedom from bondage

For the Jewish people who lived under the oppression of the Roman government and it's extremely heavy taxation and oppressive rule, the Messiah was the little child that could right the wrongs of injustice and heavy taxation

For the shepherds, who were at the bottom of the social structure (essentially "untouchables" as the continental Indians would call them), the Messiah was the little child that could help them out with their impossible tough lives.

For the Persian Magi, who trekked 3,000 miles across the desert sands to find a child that was predicted in the stars of the sky, the Messiah was the little child that could bring meaning into their otherwise meaningless lives.

And so the list goes on.

So, here's my assignment for you for this week.  Try to think about the birth of Jesus as a forward event, rather than a backward one.  Pretend that you are living in the first century in Judah.  Your life is tough.  You basically live without hope.  Now, place your current life into the context of that world.  What are your current struggles and woes? And now, imagine that you have just been told, by an angel of the Lord, Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.  Today in the town of David (Jerusalem) a Savior (helper) has been born to you; he is the Messiah (The Little Child That Could) [Luke 2:10-11].

And now ask yourself this.  What can this little child do for you this Christmas?  Is Jesus, for you…

The Little Child That Could?

All For Now,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Opportunity Evangelism

I will never forget when I was a little boy, and in church on a Sunday morning, where my father was pastor.  My little legs were flapping from the pew in which I sat, and my father was be- robed in black clerical "flowingness" (is that a word?).  Half-way through the service he would invite up all the children in the church who were in the sixth grade or younger, to come up front for the Children's Sermon.  When Dad said that, there was always a long pause of anxiety for many children, determining in their hearts whether they really wanted to make the long trek to the front of the church to sit at the feet of this Darth Vedar-like figure wearing a black robe, or just continue to sit in the pew and color.  Then Dad would say, "For anyone who comes up front with me, I have a special gift, I have a present, I have a toy for you."  At that, all the kids in church would throw down their B-rate Sunday school coloring material and Bee-line it to the front.  The kids were there, let's be honest, for the toy.  Or were they….?

The image is also clearly imprinted on my mind of some of the religious establishment of the church, elders, deacons, ushers, choir directors (what have you), saying out loud, "That's wrong for the pastor to give out gifts on Sunday morning to kids.  The kids should be there for the Gospel and not to get a gift.  Church shouldn't be about getting something tangible, it should be about getting something Spiritual."  When I would tell Dad about these comments from elders, Dad would say, "I know that some of the kids come on Sunday for a toy.  But I also know that along the way, they might hear the Good News of God.  And without the toy, there is no way they would ever be in church, or hear the good news of Jesus."

I have remembered this good advice for these many long years.  And this simple dictum has morphed into a full blown theological approach that I have followed for the past 15 years of ministry.  The approach is what I have called:

Opportunity Evangelism

The premise behind this approach is that most people today, in a consumeristic society, will not come to church unless, in their own minds, they can get something tangible, substantial, concrete, a toy, a gift.  And that while a gift is not the reason a church exists, or God came to die on a cross, quite frankly, it is a small price to pay for the potential of winning a person's soul for eternity.  In short, you give a person Opportunity, and you will have a chance at Evangelism

I believe that Opportunity Evangelism was at the very heart of Jesus' ministry.  When Jesus invited the brothers who were fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, to; "leave their nets and follow me, I will make you fishers of men," I believe this was an example of:

Opportunity Evangelism

The truth is that fishing was a very tough industry in the first century.  A fishing family could work for months on end, and sometimes, not catch any fish or earn much money. But, here's something you may not realize.  Following a very popular rabbi, or teacher, or leader (being a disciple) could sometimes be a good means of living.  You would never become wealthy following a rabbi, but you could pay the bills.  We know for a fact that the disciples did have money from several Biblical sources.  When the disciples see the 5,000 people coming who will need to be fed, they say, "Should we pay for their meals, or do you have some other idea?"  The very fact that the disciples suggest that they COULD pay for the meals, suggests that they had means.  And of course, we all know that Judas was - the money keeper.  Now, were some of the disciples following Jesus for the money, or for the Good News of Jesus?  Who knows?  Who Cares.  The point is that they were there, listening to the Good News of Jesus Christ!

Every Christmas, for years, we have hosted a huge Christmas Eve outreach celebration for the entire community.  This is a chance to bring friends, who would not otherwise attend church, to the service.  Every year, we give out a gift to whoever comes.  This year will be no exception.  Every person that attends will get a battery-powered flickering votive candle.  It won't cost very much (maybe 10 cents a piece) but it will be a way for people to be able to take the "light of Christ" - a candle - SAFELY - back home with them.  Now, do people come to Christmas Eve for the gift, or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The point is that they are there!

Each week I do a Bible study at the Old Town Tavern in Camarillo.  Each week, I order around 5 appetizers for the table to be able to munch on during the lesson.  Are people there for the appetizers or the Bible study?  Who knows, who cares?  The point is that they are there, listening to the Gospel.

Occasionally, there will be server who helps with the table that is in a tough financial situation.  We always leave a good tip.  One of those servers attended church a week or so ago.  Were they there for the tip or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares.  The point is that they were there!

Opportunity Evangelism

We are in our 7th week of our new church development - Mission Street Church.  Things are going very well.  It is such an exciting journey.  People are coming to Christ.  The Holy Spirit is present.  Now, on a given Sunday, I would say that around 12 people who attend are being paid a small amount for their help with setting up services, music leadership, children's ministries, sound crew, theater management, lighting and what have you.  I know for a fact that many of these people are slowly but surely inching their hearts, every day, closer to God.  Now, are they there for the money or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The point is that they are….

You get the picture.

Opportunity Evangelism

Now, full disclaimer, of course there is a moment when Opportunity Evangelism which is good, can devolve into The Prosperity Gospel, which is not good.  Slowly but surely good Christian leaders must morph beginning followers off of tangible earthly assets and move them towards longer term Spiritual ones.  But not in the beginning!

This Christmas, look for ways of giving opportunity to those who don't have it.  Leave a great tip, give a present, offer assistance.  Then see how open they may be to the Good News of Jesus.  You might just be surprised!

All For Now,

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sempo Sugihara

This past weekend I was told one of the most remarkable true stories of faith and courage I have ever heard.  I heard the story on NPR; further detail can be found on Wiki.

Here is the story...

In the 1940's in Germany and Eastern Europe, as Jews were being rounded up by the millions to be sent away to concentration camps like Nuremberg and Auschwitz, there was general panic among the Jewish community.  Total terror found it's way into the small neighborhoods of Poland, Romania, and Lithuania.  Many sought "Visas of Transfer" to countries that were more sympathetic to the Jewish cause and plight.

One of those Jewish men was an Ashkenazi Jew by the name of Joseph Shimpken.  Knowing that his life and his family's lives were being held in the balance of fate, he went from embassy to embassy in Lithuania looking for a transfer.  Much to his despair, all of the "Visas of Transfer" had already been issued by the countries that gave refuge to Jews during the Holocaust.  There was no room left for Joseph or his family.  They were doomed.

In a last moment of desperation, Joseph knocked on the door of the Japanese embassy in Lithuania.  Joseph knew that it was a complete fools errand to get a Visa from the Japanese government, since at that very moment, the German and Japanese governments had signed a pact of alignment and mutual interest.  But he figured that it was at least worth a try - his last try before being shipped to a camp.

The man at the desk was a kindly Japanese Vice-Consul by the name of Chiune Sugihara (aka - "Sempo").  Sempo heard Joseph's story about the need for a Visa, but shook his head in denial, knowing what the answer from the Emperor's government would be.  But then, Sempo said, "Let me try.  But first, how many Jews need asylum?"  Joseph thought for a moment, scratched his head and then said, "At least 6,000!?!?"  Sempo said, "I'll see what I can do.  Sempo made the perfunctory call to Japan and received the expected answer - "No!"

At that moment, something changed inside of Sempo.  His heart for the Jewish people, or any people who were facing such great adversity was great.  That night, Sempo began writing Visas.  In those days, Visas had to be written by hand.  They weren't computer generated back then, like they are today.  Each Visa required intricate detail and minute attention to process.  Sempo wrote 100 Visas that night.  The next night he wrote 100 more.  Sempo issued these Visas to Joseph and many of his friends and family who came looking for them.  Joseph was beyond appreciation and delight at the receipt of these Visas.

When the Japanese government heard about Sempo and his illegal Visas, they were outraged.  They ordered that Sempo be arrested and brought home under "States Arrest" immediately.  Sempo continued with the Visas.  Every day and every night he wrote more of them.  In a flurry of paperwork and Japanese caligraphic handwriting, Sempo wrote more and more.  When he was on his train, bound home, under arrest by the Germans, he wrote more Visas.  Visas were literally being written and thrown out the window as the train whizzed past the small East German towns.  Jews would pick them up from the rail-road tracks like - Manna from Heaven.

No one knows exactly how many Visas Sempo wrote for the Jewish people.  Best estimates are that in a two week period he wrote 6,000 Visas by hand.  When he got back to Japan, Sempo was dishonored, and demoted and arrested.  He and his family spent 21 months in an Eastern Soviet Camp.  When he got out of the camp he spent the rest of his life as a dishonored member of the Japanese society.  He was reviled.  He died in a pauper's grave in Japan.

The Simon Weisenthal Center, a group that tracks Jewish movements since World War II, estimates that because of Sempo, there are around 40,000 Jews alive today.  Today, in Tokyo, there is actually a large Jewish population.  Joseph Shimpken's family is among them.  They all thank Sempo for their survival and existence.

Not long ago, the Japanese government reversed it's decision about Sempo, returning him to a place of honor in the society.  He is now being hailed by many as a national hero.  Sempo will be remembered through the ages as a courageous servant.

Jesus said, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (Matt. 20:16).  He also said, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13)

Sempo put himself last, and now he is first.  Sempo laid down his life for his friends.

God Bless You Sempo!  God Bless You!!

All For Now,

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Weekly Church Checkup

This past week, I visited the dentist.  Full disclosure, because of our family's move to a new state, and various other reasons, it has been a little while since I have been to the dentist (like maybe a year).  The good news is that all of my teeth and gums are still in good working order (sorry this blogpost for some will feel like a little bit "too much information" - TMI).  The bad news is that leading up to my visit, I was quite nervous.

I usually brush my teeth regularly, but on the days leading up to my appointment, I began to brush them a lot more.  Like three times a day.  I flossed extra.  I made sure I was eating healthy snacks.  I reduced my sugar intake greatly.  I bought extra tooth polisher, and tooth whitener.  I even fluoridated my teeth on my own.  I did a whole lot of things leading up to my dental visit that I would not normally do, because I was nervous about the prognosis and the outcome from the dentist.

The thought occurred to me that many people, who have not attended church in a while, view visiting a church, with the same kind of nervous preparation.  People who haven't attended church for a while will often do extra prayers before they attend, read up on their Bible, get their outfits in better shape, work extra hard on presenting their entire family in a best possible light.

People who haven't attended church in a while are often nervous about what the encounter will be like. Will the pastor tell me I need to do more work in my personal Christian "whitening" practices?  Will I get beat up in the sermon, for not eating the right spiritual foods?  Will the prayer time feel like a spiritual root canal?  Will I be given a lecture about how I need to floss my soul more regularly?  Will my visit to church be painful?  Will it be unpleasant?  Will it cost me a lot of money, since there may be a lot more spiritual surgical work that needs to be done?

And so, many, many people decide that they would rather just do without church, or God, or spirituality because they are worried about…

The Weekly Church Checkup

The truth is that some churches are a lot like a dental practice in the pain and guilt that they inflict on people who haven't visited in a while.  I will never forget one church that I attended on occasion while I was a college student in Minnesota.  When school first began, I went to church every week, but as the semester progressed, my attendance became much more fleeting. One morning I woke up, after a bit of a "crazy" (I was a college student after all) Saturday night.  I told myself that I just needed God, and I needed church that day.  What I could not face would be the phalanx of church people who would give me on the way in.

Sure enough, I was greeted at the door by a prying dental hygienist of an usher.  "Well, well, well," she said, "we haven't seen you in while!  Where have you been all this semester?" "Busy," I said. "You look like you might have been out last night.  Kind of a crazy night, hugh?"  "Not really, thanks for the bulletin. I'd like to sit in the back."  "Those seats are all taken, there's a few in the front row," she said.  As she guided me down the isle to my seat right beneath the pastor (not so different than being in a dental chair), I felt the glares of those who had perfect spiritual hygiene.  As I sat down, she whispered, "We have a new program for college kids like you, who haven't attended church in a while, would you like information?"  "Not really," I said.  "Well, here's a brochure on how to keep your spiritual heart free from decay."  I left wishing I hadn't come at all.

Church shouldn't be a weekly checkup, but a weekly affirmation of God's love in our lives.

Mission Street is striving to be that church.  Our two main mottos are:

Come As You Are, and
No Perfect People Allowed

All For Now,

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Flesh Became Word

One of the most central theological themes in the Christian faith is that; "The Word became Flesh" (John 1:14).  The basic meaning of this is that at the beginning of time, there was this etherial, not tangible, non-contained power in the universe.  That power was God.  One of the three-fold dimensions of that power was known as "Word" - "In the Beginning was the Word".  Word or (Logos) has traditionally been thought of as the pre-human form of Jesus.  It is essential for Christ followers that they believe that this etherial power, God, then  became human (flesh) in the form of Jesus.  That flesh  "dwelt among us" (John 1:14b) for 33 years, then died, and then came back to life again.  But that's not what I want to write about today.

What has been on my mind is that in many ways, we can think of this central dictum in it's opposite form.  Just as the "Word became Flesh" with Jesus, so, when Jesus ascended into heaven again, in a very real sense;

The Flesh Became Word

What this means is that when the Spoken Word (The Bible) is uttered, God is brought to life.  When The Bible is preached correctly, with meaning, and truth and grace and hope, there is, in a sense, a living Christ among us.

The Flesh Became Word

I learned from my preaching professor at Fuller Seminary this past summer, Dr. Will Willemon, that the word Theology - literally translated "Theo - Logoi, literally translates as "God Speaks".  I used to think that theology simply meant the study of God, but it really means, "The words of God," "The voice of God", "The utterances of God."  It can also mean "Speaking about God."  When we speak about God, we bring life to God, and we are theological.

The Reformers, Jean Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox and others firmly believed in this central maxim.

The Flesh Became Word'

They believed in it so fully that it compelled Luther to advocate the mass production of the Bible in people's own languages, and dialects.  Luther believed that the Word should be in the hands of the people.  Knox knew that without public education, the "Word of God" would be misinterpreted, misunderstood, misappropriated.  So, he wanted people of all economic backgrounds to be able to read for themselves - the Word.  Knox wanted the Flesh of God made into Words in the very hands of all people.  Calvin placed the reading of the Word in the very center of church - from a central lectern.  This is why, today, in most churches, the sermon is still the central part of the worship service.

This basic truth gave new meaning to my preaching and speaking on Sunday mornings, when I discovered it.  To be honest, I still have a hard time fully believing it.  Taken to it's extreme, it means that whenever a pastor speaks in a worship setting about God, correctly, lovingly, truthfully, it is equivalent to God speaking Himself.  That when  sermon is preached, it isn't just a good point that is made, a thoughtful reflection that is offered, a helpful concept that is shared, but rather that there is some sort of Godly conveyance taking place.

The Flesh Became Word

This basic notion also has profound implications for all of us.  Whenever we share hopeful things, truthful thoughts, graceful kind words to others, we are also participating in the Flesh Becoming Word.  Whenever we share the truthful, loving, story of Jesus in our own lives (not someone else's story, but our own), we quite literally bring Christ back into the world through the utterances that come from our lips.  And, the opposite is also the case. We also have the potential and the possibility of speaking Words that aren't Godly.  Words that cut down, make small, hurt, inflict, belittle, and curse, eradicate the power of God from the world.  Hurtful words have the impact of removing the Flesh of Christ from the World.

Let's Bring Christ Back into the World this Week through our Words.  And then we will be able to see for ourselves that:

The Flesh Became Word

All For Now,

Monday, November 10, 2014


I don't know about you but the stack of book ideas that I have to write that I just don't have time to write continues to pile up.  Either because I am so busy with being pastor of a church, or because the amount of research needed to write these books will take so much time, or for other reasons, I just don't'have time to write all of the books that I feel need to be written.

For example, I have thought, for some time now, that someone needs to write a book entitled; "Distances and Times in the Bible".  Though the title of the book may not be a best seller (you can work on that), the content seems important to me.  We often underestimate the amount of time it took, and the distances traveled in the Bible.  For example, when the Bible says, "Jesus then went from Galilee to Judea" it doesn't give the impact of the distance traveled by Jesus and the disciples.  The trip from Galilee to Judea is a good two to three day journey over rocky, arid, and mountainous land.  Jesus and the disciples must have been totally winded after those journeys.  No wonder the Pharisees were so annoying to deal with at the end of a long journey.

Another book I don't have time to write (but maybe I will someday) is the main focus of this blogpost:


The full title could be, Flex: How God Works Best in the Lives of Flexible People

A lot of energy and time has been spent on the best way for Christ followers to prepare their hearts to receive God's grace, mercy, and fruit.  Many authors have pondered the exact posture that the human heart must assume in order to be most useful to God.  The bookshelves filled with books on, "Listening to God's Voice", "Deep Contemplative Prayer," "Having a Holy Heart" are numerous.  My big new idea is that, while all of these factors are important, they are not the most important thing.  And here it is.  Flexibility is the key!  God works best in flexible hearts.


By and large the disciples were highly flexible people.  Anyone who has gone on a fishing trip knows that the key to being a good fisherman has:


Flexibility.  Some days you may catch a fish or two, some days you will not.  Some days the morning will begin with sunshine on the water, and then storm clouds will begin to form and the torrential rains will begin to fall.  Some days your fishing lines and nets will work perfectly, and then, all of a sudden, they will catch a snag, or a hole will emerge in the net, and you have to spend the whole day mending the nets.  I believe that Jesus knew this as he was walking around the lake of Galilee and when he said to Peter and Andrew and James and John: "Come and Follow Me!  I will make you fishers of men!"  The fact that the disciples left their fishing professions right there and then, shows just how much they were able to:


Some of the most powerful stories of conversion in the Bible are really stories about flexibility.  Take the story of Zacchaeus for example.  Here was a very wealthy and corrupt man who had more money and power and wealth than any person could ever hope for.  But then he met Jesus, and was moved to the core to;


To become flexible in his heart.  Zaccheaus gave back 4 times the amount he had stollen through the years, and he followed Jesus.  The other rich young ruler in the Bible, who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God, and was unable to be flexible, to give back his money.

There is a reason that Jesus was so drawn to the ministry contributions of women in the Bible (Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary and Martha).  I believe it is because, basically, when it boils down to it, women are more flexible than men.  Of course, women in general are much more physiologically flexible than men.  But I believe they are also more spiritually flexible as well.  While I don't have the scientific data to back up this basic point on this Monday morning, one example of this is that women tend to live longer than men after their spouses pass away.  If a wife passes away first, the chance that a husband will live on much longer is around 20%.  On the other hand if a husband passes away first, the chances of her living long after her husband are well about 50%.  Women are more flexible after periods of change and loss in their lives.  Somehow, they are more able to pivot, to mold, to alter, to change to:


Having just started a new church development here in Camarillo three weeks ago, I can say without hesitation that flexibility is the key to success in a new church.  On any given Sunday, the speakers won't work, the security guards are being persnickety, the computer system is down, the offering plates aren't in the place they should be, a key leadership person gets sick, or what have you.  The successful new church is able to:


On second thoughts, maybe I should be more flexible and write this book after all:-)

All For Now,

Monday, November 3, 2014

Climbing a Mountain

My late Scottish uncle, Ranald Graham, always offered great advice and had a deep inner wisdom about life.

One time when I told him that I was afraid of heights - that I had the tendency to feel a little dizzy and scared (I suffered from vertigo) when I stood at the top of a very high mountain, or a very tall building, he had great advice.  Ranald said; "The difference between not feeling scared when standing on top of very high places (buildings, mountains) and feeling scared, is whether or not you have climbed them yourself or not.  If you climb a mountain yourself, you will never feel scared when you get to the top of it.  If you climb the stairs of a very high building, you will not feel dizzy on top.  If, on the other hand, you take a helicopter ride to the top of a mountain, or you take an elevator to the top of a building, you will often feel frightened of the height at the top."

This advice, on it's face, may seem crazy.  But try it, I have found it to be true.

When I was in college, I had a summer job at an oil refinery.  One of my very dangerous tasks that summer was to climb the ladder of a very tall smoke stack (like 500 feet tall), and to reach out at the top and paint orange protective paint on the pipes that suspended high above the earth.  Given that I have always been afraid of heights, I was petrified of this task.  But once again, Ranald's advice proved to be true.  When I climbed the stack, rung by rung on the ladder, and got to the top, I was less afraid than if I had been dropped on the top of the stack by a crane.

In both cases, what I think Ranald was alluding to was the basic notion that when humans invest themselves deeply in the ascent of high places, they somehow know intuitively how to get to the top, and how to get to the bottom.

Uncle Ranald's advice has proven true not just for mountain climbing or building scaling, and smoke stack scrambling, but also for life in general.  I have always been a little suspicious of people who rise in life to quickly.  Politicians, business leaders, executives, even pastors who go from the ground floor, if you will, to the top too quickly can often find themselves in a perilous place of leadership.  Not having had the arduous task of putting one step in front of the other to get to the top, leaves the leader actually not appreciating the amount of work and effort it took to build the business or political empire.

Former Congressman John Dingle of Michigan once offered a few thoughts about our current President - Barack Obama (don't worry, this is not a political blogpost, but let me offer this illustration to make a larger point).  He said, Obama just rose too quickly too soon in his political life.  Having served only 2 years in the Senate, before he ran for President, he didn't ever really learn the difficult and intricate process of governing.  Had he waited a few more years to run, and to learn (to climb, if you will, the mountain of politics, rather than be dropped on the top so quickly) he would have been a much more effective President.

Yesterday morning was our second Sunday for Mission Street.  It was a wonderful worship service!  Really special.  People were so fed by the worship music, prayers, message, etc.  Our attendance was 60 (which, by the way is 20 more than I was hoping for).  As the leaders were assisting with worship, we were all aware of the climb we were all making in starting a new church.  It's one step after the other.  It's one bend in the road, and view point after the other.  It's a beautiful journey.  And because we are climbing the mountain ourselves, we won't find that we are dizzy, or afraid of the view, when the summit is reached.

The climb is the journey.  The climb is essential.  Being on top is not what is important.  How you get there is.  The journey is important.

Climb away!

All For Now,

Monday, October 27, 2014

In The Beginning...

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is it's very first sentence - Genesis 1:1.  More specifically, one of my favorite groups of words (four of them), are the first four words in the Bible:

In The Beginning…God

These four words establish that at the very beginning of creation there was one singular and all powerful presence - God.  There weren't other forces competing with God, or other dominions.  All that there was at the beginning was - God.  Also, we know that the very nature  of God is "goodness" and "love".  So, there wasn't any evil as we know it.  It was all "good" and all "love"

Actually, even though we call the chapter that these words come from - Genesis - for the Hebrew people the book of Genesis is known as - "In the Beginning" (Bara - Sheet).  For centuries rabbis have opened worship services with these four words:

In the Beginning…God

All good things must begin with God at the very center of them.  God is the force that brings all things into focus, into order, into creation, into life.

Yesterday, Mission Street Church was launched.  And if we were to establish four words with aptly sum up our new church's launch, it could be these same four words:

In the Beginning…God

*  God was there for the nearly 200 people who attended

*  God was there at 5:30AM as I loaded the first trailer onto the back of our car

*  God was there at 6:00AM when the first trailer was cracked open, and a team of 5 met to unload, even as the sun was still hidden behind the horizon.

*  God was there at 7:30AM when 10-15 volunteers arrived to help set-up church in the movie theater

*  God was there at 9:20 when people arrived to worship at Mission Street for the first time.

*  God was in the midst of the worship music that was so incredibly played by the Bel Air Street Band

*  God was in the welcome announcements so energetically offered by Dee Harrison

*  God was in the bagpipe band which played Suo Gan - an old Welsh hymn

*  God was in the Lifewater International conversation with Sada Andrews

*  God was in the welcome time in the atrium of the Edwards Movie Theater, as Panera Coffee was consumed and Sprinkles cupcakes were devoured.

*  God was in the message that I offered about the parable of the Lost Sheep, and how God's main purpose, as is our main purpose, is to leave the 99 behind and to go after the 1.

*  God was there as people filed out of the movie theater (theater 6) with beaming grins on their faces, many of them saying, "This is fantastic!  I love it!  This is what I have been looking for for such a long time.  Thank you.  See you next week."

In The Beginning…God

And God Is Good!
All The Time!

All For Now,

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can I Get A Ticket?

A friend of mine just asked me a pointed and good question: "What am I most looking forward to this coming weekend as we launch our first worship service for Mission Street?"

The question was one I had to think about for a moment because there is so much that I am looking forward to:

*  I'm looking forward to many friends and family who will be coming from all parts of California to see one another again and worship together.

*  I am looking forward to leading a New Church Development once again, a kind of church experience that I just feel I was made to be a part of and to lead in my pastoral calling.

*  I am looking forward to the Bel Air worship band, led by Liz Brackenbury, a broadway singer and a deep woman of faith to lead our music.

*  I am looking forward to the Gold Coast Bagpipe Band, one of the best bagpipe bands I've ever played with, to open and close the worship service.

*  I am looking forward to throwing a huge party (Sprinkles Cupcakes included) for God.

*  I'm looking forward to the raw energy and initiative involved in hauling two trailers full of equipment from a storage unit, to the back door of a movie theater at 6:30AM, leading a one hour worship service, and then, tearing it all down again in less than an hour.

*  I'm looking forward to interfacing with an incredible handful of sound, light, camera production and and tech professionals who are such a gift to Mission Street.

*  I'm looking forward to meeting in a space to worship God that has absolutely no outward vestiges of religion and ecclesiastical infrastructure.

And the list goes on…

But the thing I am most excited about is that a few of the people who will be coming this weekend have absolutely no concept of what a church is, or who God is, or what the whole thing is about.

For a couple of months now, I have been getting coffee at a small coffee shop here in Camarillo.  Each day, I have just gone into the coffee shop and bought a coffee and talked with my friend who is the lead Barista there.  This past week, I decided to take a risk and tell my Barista friend about our new launch of a church, and to invite him to our opening service in the movie theater.  I had no clue about how he might respond.  To be honest, I thought it might be the end of our relationship.

To my surprise, he was elated.  "Oh wow!" said my friend, "This is amazing."  "I love it."  And then he asked me a question that I will never forget.  "Do you think I could get a ticket for this new worship service?"  "A ticket?" I asked.  "Yes, this sounds amazing, I really want to come, where do I buy a ticket for the service?"  I was flabbergasted.  My friend actually thought he needed a ticked to come to….church.  "You don't need a ticket.  Just come," I said.  "But I want to make sure I get a seat, how much are the tickets, where do I buy one?"  "You don't have to buy a ticket, just come," I said.  The man was insistent.  He needed a ticket.

For a moment, this exchange almost literally broke my heart.  This man was so excited for this new church, and wanted so badly to be a part of it, and was worried that he might actually miss out.  And maybe this man's entire life-frame of reference was that everything in life that is of any worth has to be purchased, it has to be bought, you need a ticket for.

I was about to tell him that admission was free, but then I thought twice about that.  In a real sense, admission to church is not free. It's not free for any of us.  God bought our admission to church, to new life, to eternal life, many years ago on a cross. He bought it with his life.  So, in a real sense, my friend,. who has never been to church before, was quite correct.  Perhaps this total outsider knew more about God and theology than I did.  Admission is free but we do need a ticket - that was bought for us a long time ago.

Then, I looked at my friend in the eye and said, "There is just one more seat available, and it has your name on it.  I will save a seat for you.  I have your ticket."

My friend was brimming with happiness and appreciation.  And so should we all be, who worship God week to week.  We do need a ticket.  And we have one.

If you are in the area, I will see you this coming weekend at the Edwards Movie Theater, at 9:30AM in Camarillo.  If you live afar, then please pray for us!

All For Now!


Monday, October 13, 2014

How I Pray

I should begin this week's post with a huge disclaimer.  One of my worst Spiritual gifts is the gift of prayer.  I'm not just saying this to sound humble, or to try and draw you into this post.  I am truly awful at prayer.  And this blog post is all about prayer.  So, if you happen to be an "expert" prayer, please read no more.  But if you are like me, and CS Lewis I am told (Lewis thought he was a very, very poor prayer, even though he prayed all the time), and you are awful at prayer - then continue reading.

It's not that I don't try to pray, or work at it, or do it a lot.  Also, like CS Lewis, I don't pray to change God, but because I need to be changed.  I need prayer, God doesn't.  I pray for myself mostly.  I'm pretty selfish in my prayers.  I need to grow in the area of praying for others.  So, these are my basic forms of prayer:

I pray "micro prayers" on the way to work, or while driving Haley to school.  "Lord, be with this day."  "Help Haley to have a good day."

I pray "nervous prayers" on Sunday morning when I first wake up before I preach, "God, help me in my message."  "Help me to help people today."

I pray "confessional prayers" almost every day.  These are almost always the same, "God, forgive me for all the ways I have fallen short.  Be with me.  Help me.  In Christ's name, Amen".  I don't bother listing out sins that I have committed (unless they are really big ones).  I know God already knows my sins, and repeating them again and again to myself can have the effect of making me feel bad.  Also, the list would go on forever, and who has the time (Luther figured this out, and it is what led him to the Reformation).

I pray "angry prayers".  Sometimes I even cuss in angry prayers.  "Lord, I'm really ?!?!?!?! !?!? off right now.  !?!?!."  I know that God has already heard such language before by far more spiritual people than me (AKA:  Jeremiah - "Dear God, The nation of Israel is a whore" Jer. 5:7).  I have never actually cussed at God, or to God in my life, except once.  I still feel bad about it.  We were trying to do a big kick-off worship service in San Antonio, Texas, and on Sept. 26, it began to snow.  Snow in Southern Texas in September!  I was really, really angry.  But I shouldn't have said that to God.

"I'm sorry God, for that, forgive me!"

I pray "agenda prayers" before every meeting at church, "Lord be with this meeting, as we talk together about the need to really work hard together as a team, especially as it relates to our first song set of our worship service this coming weekend…"

I pray "couple prayers" every evening after our two girls go to bed.  Several years ago, Star and I decided to begin praying every single evening as a couple.  At first, it seemed a little strange (to be honest), praying out loud with my wife.  Prayer feels like such a personal thing, and to do it out loud feels a bit like practicing the lines of a play while waiting in line at a supermarket.  After about 7 years now of praying every night together, we wouldn't let an evening go without it.

My most favorite prayer time is what I call, "presence prayer".  These are prayers that are more extended, at night, when everyone else goes to bed.  These I usually do on my knees, kneeling before the couch.  I will sometimes also have had a glass of wine.  Sometimes I will put on some music with my headphones.  My favorite recent selection is Lisa Gerrard singing, "Now We Are Free" (Gladiator theme music).  In my presence prayers I try to just "Be With" God.  I don't try and listen for any choirs of angels, or profound voices that ring out in a stentorian roar, (for example: "Graham, turn back!")  I don't bring a laundry list of problems to God.  I just try to be with God.  If God were in the room with me, I would pour Him a glass of wine and just sit.

My prayers are not eloquent.  They are actually really bad prose.  The most eloquent prayer I know is Mark Labberton, President of Fuller.  Labberton's prayers are like the poems of William Butler Yeats.  My prayers are like a bad rap song.

My recent big idea about prayer is that when Jesus gave us the model prayer (the Lord's Prayer), he meant us to say it - a lot.  When I pray the Lord's Prayer, I say it in my own words:

In Heaven
Holy is Your Name
Your Kingdom is Coming
Your Will is Being Done
Here on Earth As in Heaven
Give Us Today Our Daily Bread
And Forgive Us our Debts
As We Forgive our Debtors
You Lead Us Not into Temptation
But You Deliver Us From Evil One
For Yours is the Kingdom
And the Power
And the Glory Forever

How do you pray?

All For Now,

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Is it just me, or does it seem like the world is more dangerous now than ever before?  To listen to the evening news, or any cable news outlet, it would seem like the chance of being beheaded or contracting an endemic life threatening virus is as likely to happen to any one of us, as the chance of the sun going down at the end of this day (picture from Daily Telegraph).

Happily, in the midst of the fear contagion, one news commentator, CNN's Jeffery Toobin, offered some pretty good sense this last week whilst one of his colleagues was almost literally whipped into a frenzy over the chance of dying by one of the aforementioned malignancies.  Toobin said, "Now, wait a minute, just calm down here!  I think we are totally over-reacting to both ISIS and EBOLA.  Did you know, that every day in America 92 people die in a car crash?  That's a high number.  But, to date, nobody, nobody from America has died of the EBOLA virus."

If I can just pause here for a moment to reflect on the fact that two of the major calamities facing the world today have been boiled down to abbreviations and acronyms.  "ISIS" or "ISIL" stands for, "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."  The name "Ebola", and as much as the news media are covering the disease but not giving us any real information, comes from the name of the river in the Republic of Congo from which many of the viruses have developed - the "Ebola River".  The actual disease is known as, "Filoviridae Virus".  I was wondering if by giving these two atrocities acronyms or abbreviations if it doesn't give us a kind of nonchalant sense control over the things that scare us.  We have given them nicknames, like calling your husband "Monty" instead of "Montesque".  But back to what I want to mainly focus on for this week's blog post.

What I wonder, amidst the terror that most Americans are feeling right now, is how Christians should respond to the recent events in the world.  Three thoughts come to my mind:

1.  We Should Not Over-React

The world is a dangerous place.  Always has been, always will be.  Our own personal lives are really no more at risk than they ever have been.  Compared to the rest of the world, we, Americans live a pretty safe existence.

2.  We Should Live In the Present Moment

A few days ago, one of the wisest people I know, my Spiritual mentor and Counselor, Rev. Dr. Gordon Hess, gave me some very good advice.  He said to me, "Living in authentic Christian experience means living in the NOW.  The past only exists in so far as we bring the past into the present.  The future only exists as we are hopeful about it.  We have three choices.  We can have regret about the past, or we can have anxiety about the future.  We humans live between regret and anxiety.  The better path is to live in the present moment."

Most of the commentary about ISIS or Ebola hinges on hypotheticals about what might happen.  ISIS might infiltrate the United States.  Ebola might have an outbreak here.  ISIS might not be conquerable by air-strikes.  Ebola might not have a cure.  And the list goes on.  Notice, the hypotheticals are always focussed on the worst possible outcome.  Nobody has said, for example, "Members of the Islamic State might see the light, become Yahweh fearing, lead a movement of Democracy in the Middle East."  No-one ever says, "Ebola is totally beatable and winnable if we all work together on this."

3.  Most Important, Christ Followers Should Throw Ourselves Into the Fight to Meet These Crises

Even though the chances of you and I contracting EBOLA are extremely slim, they aren't slim for a 2 year old little boy now living in Monrovia who has no mother or father.  Millions of people need our help in African countries being impacted by the EBOLA virus.  Even though the possibility of being beheaded by ISIS is almost non-existent for us, the perils facing some of the oldest Christians on the face of the earth - those living in Iraq are extremely grave.  Quite literally, the Christian progeny of Abraham and Sarah, are, as we speak, being nearly eliminated from the face of the earth.  We should make their plight our own plight, and their concern our own concern.

In three weeks, Mission Street Church will be launched.  Check out our new website for ways that we will be trying to address sanitation, hydration and clean drinking water as a church through Lifewater International:

In the meantime, stay calm, live in the present and love your neighbor as God loves you!

All For Now,

Monday, September 29, 2014


The pre-eminent psychotherapist Carl Jung used to love to tell a story about a rabbi who was asked one day, "Why did God show himself to people so often in ancient times, but today, no one ever sees God?"  The rabbi responded, "Because, in modern times, no one can bow low enough to see God." The phrase, "bowing low enough" can be summed up by one word in our modern lexicon:


One of the most important aspects of God's ability to act, to move, to bring about fruit in our lives is the disposition of:


Again and again, the Bible offers examples and stories of people who were only able to be healed, receive salvation, turn the corner after they knelt before God,  lowered themselves, repented, asked forgiveness, or were brought from high places to low places.  The list is endless:

*  Adam and Eve trying to be like God, but falling from grace, had to bow before God
*  The rich young ruler had to humble himself with his financial resources before God
*  Moses had to take off his shoes while walking on holy ground
*  David, through his own poor decision making process with Bathsheeba, repented, and bowed
*  Jesus' greatest sermon: "The meek shall inherit the earth", is about bowing our hearts
*  John the Baptists' greatest sermon: "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is Near", is about humility

One might argue that the entire Bible, perhaps all of human existence hinges on the human heart's ability to enact:


But you already know this.  My big thought for the week is that humility is not a quality that we can actually have any personal control over.  True humility occurs when we outside forces or actions cause us to have to reverse direction.  In short, we can't WILL true humility.  We can't wake up in the morning and say, "Today, I am going to be the most humble person in the world. I am going to receive a gold medal in humility."   I am more and more convinced that humility only occurs through the hard things that happen to us in life, and our larger ability to give those tough experiences to God.

C. S. Lewis once said that, "A man is never so proud as when he is striking an attitude of humility" (Christian Reflections, p. 14).  What Lewis was capturing is the sense that we cannot impose, or impute humility in our own lives.  We must be made humble by the tough experiences of our lives.  Later Lewis said, "Pain is the megaphone by which God rouses a deaf world."  He might also have added that pain and tough experiences are the way that God allows humility to begin to grow in a person's life.

In my own life I have had many things, though compared with others not so many, that have helped me to become more humble:

*  In college I contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had to drop out for a while, but I became more humble in the process.
*  The first New Church Development that we started in San Antonio, Texas failed.  That was a really hard experience, but I became more humble.

There are many other experiences which I would like to write, but which are either too raw or I am still processing which have helped me to become more humble.  These experiences I would never have desired to undergo, nor would I ever want to go through them again.  But I am thankful that one of God's favorite tools for bringing about fruit in this world, is when a human heart comes before God and says, "I'm sorry."  Then, change can begin.

All For Now,

Monday, September 22, 2014

No "gods" Before God

So, here's a small confession to begin this week's blogpost with.

A lot of the Bible's rules, regulations, laws and edicts don't seem like they have a whole lot to do with me.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I am glad they are all in there, but, for example, when the Bible says; "Any alien living among you shall not eat any blood," (Lev. 17:8) I wonder what to do with this text. I am not aware of any aliens living among me, and if I was aware of them, I guess I could call The Department of Homeland Security, but would they care if that alien ate blood.  A burger anyone?  Or, here's another text which seems to defy a direct application to my life; "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest," (Lev. 19:9).   When I read this, I look at the four walls of my tiny apartment in Camarillo, California and realize that we barely have any plants in our house, let alone a field.  These texts, I must remind myself, are not just written for me, but the Bible is for all humanity, for all of the history of the entire planet earth, for the entire cosmos - so, though they must apply to someone, they do not necessarily apply to me.

Keeping this in mind, one of the main texts of the Bible which I have always felt was written for someone other than me is the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Deut. 5:7).  Whenever I have read this, I have said to myself, "Well, that one's not for me either."  I don't have any idols in my house.  I do not have shrine to Chemosh, the first century God of the Moabites, or I do not have any statues of Athena, as Paul preached against in the book of Acts, so this text is not written for me.

However, as I have contemplated this text, I have thought that there are at least two ways to interpret it.  It could be interpreted as idols (statues of foreign gods), or it could be interpreted as what we do as Christ followers to prepare ourselves to come before God, to worship God.  In other words, it could mean, "When you come before God, you should make sure there are no impediments, vices, distractions, unhealthy outside influences in your life."

Every evening my wife Star and I say a prayer together.  We pray for everything that we are thinking about, worrying about, contemplating, hoping for, and working on.  We pray for our children that they might have a good day at school the next day.  We pray for our future worship leader at Mission Street, that he/she would have great success here.  We pray for the rest of our church staff.  We pray for past call settings that we have served in.  We pray for our friends and relatives that are struggling with some aspect of their life.

Now, if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I do have many small "g" gods in my life.  I do have many vices and idols which can become "gods".  A short list of these includes:

*  TV
*  Food and Drink
*  in an earlier part of my life Smoking
*  my I-Phone, I-Pad, MacBook Pro
*  Working Out and my Body Image
*  my desire to neatly Order all parts of my life
*  my personal Ambitions
*  my Insecurities

These are a short list of my small "g" gods.  Now, God knows, and I know that many of these small "g" Gods will be with me all of my life.  God, and I, would prefer that they not be in my life at all, and yet, many of them always will be.  I am human.  However, when I come before God in prayer every night, with my wife, I work hard to rid them of those few moments that I am spending intentionally with God.

*  I turn off the TV when I am praying
*  I try not to be drinking a glass of wine when I am praying
*  I turn off my I-phone
*  I try not to be wearing my work-out clothes
*  I try not to worry about all the things of my life that are out of order
*  I try to remember that my whole life really isn't just about ME!

In short, when I come before God, I try to have no "gods" of my own.  What is quite interesting is that the first commandment doesn't tell us that we should destroy all of our small "g" gods.  It doesn't say, "Rid yourself of all gods".  It also, interestingly, assumes that all people, all people will have small "g" gods, and it acknowledges their presence.  The Bible doesn't say, "God is the only god in the universe".  God, the one true God, Yahweh/Jesus, knows that there are other small "g" gods.  No, the writer of Deuteronomy (historically thought of as Moses), knew better.  He knows that humans would have gods, and that these gods exist.  The point is that when we come before The GOD, we should not have these small gods around around.

Now, I must go and harvest some of the grain from my fields…but remember to not glean from the edges!?!?!

All For Now,

Monday, September 15, 2014

When God Walks...

I recently made an interesting discovery as I was reading my Bible.  From the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation there are many, many accounts and descriptions of Jesus/God going on;

A Walk

Before I make my larger point, let me give you some examples.

*  In the book of Genesis, just after Adam and Eve ate the proverbial fruit of the tree it says, "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was WALKING in the garden." (Gen. 3:8)

*  When Jesus was beginning his ministry in Galilee and recruiting his first disciples, the Bible says, "As Jesus WALKED beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew." (Mark 1:16)

*  One of Jesus' most famous miracles is when He WALKED on the water; "About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, WALKING on the lake.  He was about to pass them, but then they saw him WALKING on the lake, they thought he was a ghost." (Mark 6:48-49).

*  One of the first sightings of Jesus after he is resurrected is when he is on a WALK on the road to Emmaus; "As the two men talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and WALKED along with them." (Luke 24:15).

And there are many, many other texts in the Bible depicting Jesus/God on;

A Walk

Maybe you can think of more examples.

What is the significance of this?  Well, on it's face there is, of course a practical dimension to walking in the ancient Middle East.  Walking was one of the only means of transportation.  If you were going to get from point "A" to point "B", and you were poor, as the disciples and many early people were, you would walk.

However, I think there is a deeper, more spiritual thing going on when Jesus walks.  I have always felt that when Jesus was on a walk, he was listening for God's voice, he was praying, he was contemplating larger things.  Perhaps it was in the combination of physical motion, and Godly thinking that inspiration came to Jesus.  There is a dignity in Jesus' walk.  Even in the face of great adversity and evil Jesus walked.  Jesus WALKED to the cross.

We might ask ourselves, why aren't there any descriptions in the Bible of God running?  When Peter and John find out from the women in the garden that the tomb that held Jesus only a few nights before was empty, the Bible tells us that there was a veritable running race between Peter and John to get to the cemetery; "So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.  Both were RUNNING, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first." (John 20:3-4).  There are no descriptions in the Bible of Jesus running.  Even when Jesus' friend Lazarus died, Jesus does not run to save him.  Though the Bible does not say, one gets the feeling that Jesus simply sauntered his way to meet his friend who was dead.

Walking is a deliberative, paced, metered, thoughtful, discerning mode of movement.  There is a slow, foot after foot, step after step dynamic to walking.  After a run, a person can feel winded, and tired.  A run requires a short burst of energy.  A walk requires an ongoing expending of energy.  C.S. Lewis was famous for his long walks through the countryside, or in-between his house at The Kilns and Oxford.  Lewis would often say that the walks were a way of stimulating his mind, and his body.  There was a spiritual dimension to Lewis' walks.  The actor John Travolta once said on actors theater that the most important thing to learn in acting was not what you say, but how you walk.

I used to compete in Oratory at a national level, and I remember that my coaches would always tell me that my walk up to the front of the stage was as important as the first words that I said.  A speech tournament can be won through a good confident walk and it can lost, even before you utter your first word, through a sheepish, scuffling or scared walk.

Each morning when I wake up and think about this great effort that we are on to start a new church, I say to myself, "Just remember, Graham, that all great things of God are a WALK, they are not a running race or a sprint.  Just WALK through this day, and then WALK through the next day, and the day after that, and Jesus will be walking with you."

And he will WALK with you as well!

All For Now,


Monday, September 8, 2014

The Persistent Widow

One of Jesus' most interesting and enigmatic parables (stories) is the parable of the persistent widow.  The parable is unique in that the lead character (a nagging, haggling, in your face, side-swiping, jabbing widow), is lifted up as the heroine of the story.  And she is admired for one single and particular quality - PERSISTENCE!  Not giving up.  Here is the parable in case you have forgotten it (I had);

In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.  In other words he was a bad law enforcement official.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, "Grant me justice against my adversary".  We don't know what justice this woman was asking for, but we know that she kept coming, day in and day out, morning noon and night.  In those days, as is the case today, a person never got a second hearing from a judge (that would be double jeopardy), but she kept coming.  She was totally annoying.  For some time he refused.  But finally he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming."  I love the honesty of the judge here.  He is ready to pull his proverbial hair out.  This widow was a down-right pain in the back side.  She was relentless, unremitting, in-your-face, a thorn in his side.

And that's it.  That's the parable.  Jesus finishes with the thought that we should be like this woman in our faith and in our lives.  We should keep pushing, keep going, keep moving on, moving through the tough challenges of our lives, and through the tough challenges of our faith.

Now, I don't know what the image you have in your head of this widow is, but for me I have always thought of her as a tiny little Babushka, a hunched over old krone, a toothless angry old woman.  But what if that wasn't what she was like at all?

What if she was beautiful?  What if she was a fashion goddess?  What if the persistent widow was hilarious, a cut-up at any dinner party?  What if she was relentless in her ability to cut people down with jokes?  What if she preferred the first century's version of Prada instead of black sack-cloth?  What if she was more like….brace yourself…Joan Rivers?

As I watched the news this weekend of the late comedian Joan Rivers' funeral, I was struck by one singular and important quality of Joan's life.  She too was persistent.  She was unrelenting, unremitting, unquenchingly tough.  She persisted through many difficult things in her life.  As one of the first women comedians of her time, she worked in a purely male dominated world.  As a Jewish woman she worked in comedy in a mostly WASPY world.  She experienced the back-hand from one of those WASPY comedian men, Johnny Carson, when he never spoke to her again after she began her own TV show.  Then, her husband committed suicide (so she really was a widow too!), and she raised her daughter Melissa by herself.  Joan experienced poverty, and bankruptcy, and tough times.  Doing comedy is one of the hardest ways in the world to make money.  If there ever was a quality for a comedian it was persistence.  You have to just keep at it, even as your audience is with you, or they are against you.

Now, for those who are reading this blog-post and who are inclined to disagree with the comparison of the persistent widow in Jesus' story to Joan Rivers, let's return to the story.  There is nothing about the moral quality of the widow in Jesus' story.  There is nothing about the faithfulness in God, or the deep prayer life of the widow.  There is nothing about her spirituality.  There is only one descriptor - she was persistent.

Once, while being interviewed by Larry King, Joan was asked why she made jokes about all kinds of inappropriate subjects (death, sex, genocide, murder, etc….).  She said, "Because, if you can laugh at something, it no longer has power over you.  I am Jewish, and I guarantee you that if I was in Auschevitz, the death camp where millions of Jews were put to death, I would have found a way to make a joke about it.  You just have to push through things in this life, you have to never give up."

Neither Joan nor the woman in Jesus' story is a perfect character.  Far from it, they are both deeply flawed people.  And a lot more is required of us in our faith walk than simply persistence.  We must have humility, we must know and love Jesus, we must turn our lives to God, and away from ourselves.  We must be generous, and thankful and contrite.  And there is no indication that either the widow or Joan did these things with their lives (though we do not know).  But Jesus, the one who persisted, and still persists with us, would have loved and admired one singular quality about their lives - their persistence!

And he loves it when we persist as well!!

In Christ:-)

All For Now,

Monday, September 1, 2014

Trusting Your Gifts

This Labor Day weekend I celebrated by watching several uninterrupted hours of US Open Tennis on TV.  One of my favorite players was playing - Scottish born Andy Murray, who is the 9th ranked player in the world, and who finally vanquished his Russian counterpart A. Kuznetsov in the fourth set.  As Andy was playing, American commentator, Jim Courier made an interesting comment.  He said;

"Andy has some big decisions to make in his future.  If Andy wants to have a long career, he will have to ease up on the hard work.  Andy is always working out very hard in the gym.  He's always pushing himself too hard and too far.  Andy works way too hard.  Andy always says; 'I win my games because of my hard work.'  But that's not true Andy wins because of his talent.  I sometimes think that Andy doesn't trust his talent enough.  Trusting your talent is one of the great keys to success in life."

As watched Andy Murray run around the court, I noticed Jim Courier's point being played-out (no pun intended), right before my eyes.  When Andy was smiling and seeming to enjoy the game, and his God given talent, he was winning.  When Andy was angry and upset and straining, and working, he was losing.  As he was trying to push himself beyond his own talent (when he was working), he was losing.

The distinction actually reminded me a little bit of the now old movie, "Chariots of Fire" which featured two excellent but very differently motivated runners.  There was Harold Abrams who was motivated by winning and excellence.  He often came in second.  Then there was Erik Liddel, the Presbyterian minister who was motivated by God and by God's gifts in him, and the pleasure of running.  He said, "I believe the Lord made me for a purpose.  He made me for the mission but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure."  In a sense, Erik was the most successful as a runner when he was enjoying the pleasure of God's gifts through him.

Christians often refer to talent as giftedness.  According to the apostle Paul, God gives all of us separate and important gifts; "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and still to another the interpretation of tongues." (1 Cor. 12:7-10).

Distinguishing (Discernment)
Interpretation (Understanding)

These are some of the gifts of God.  And there are many more that Paul doesn't list.  One of the keys to life is figuring out what our particular gifts are.  What is not often discussed or talked about is the equal importance of not only identifying our unique gifts, but ENJOYING THEM.  And trusting in them.

For example, if a person is given is given the gift wisdom, there is nothing that can make a person more wise through hard work.  Hard work might help us to gain more information, but not wisdom.  If a person is given the gift of faith, there is nothing in hard work that can make a person more faithful.  Hard work might be the application of faith, but it does not make us more faithful.  If our gift is in distinguishing (discernment), there is nothing in hard work that will make us more distinguishing.  A therapist, for example, might get more adept through many years of work, but not more distinguishing or discerning.  And so, we must simply take pleasure in our gifts and TRUST THEM.

One of my gifts, I have been told, is in public speaking.  Working hard on my speaking can make transitions more smooth, can make illustrations more relevant, can make connection points more alive, but it cannot make my speaking any better.  Speaking is a gift.  As I have grown older, I am learning, like Andy Murray, to trust that gift, rather than simply to work it to death.

So, that's my blogpost for this LABOR DAY weekend.  Less work.  Less Labor.  More Trust.  More Pleasure in our gifts and talents.

What gifts has God given you that you need to trust more today?

All For Now,

Monday, August 25, 2014


So, every morning, I read the newspaper (usually the New York Times), and my favorite part of the entire newspaper is - the obituary section.  Don't' worry, I don't have a morbid curiosity, or a deathly fascination. I just enjoy reading about the contributions and the life stories of people who have come before me.  A well written obituary is like a mini-biography of great (and not so great) people.  You can learn more life lessons from a good biography (or well written obituary) than any self-help manual or motivational talk.

Last week I read a fascinating obituary about a man named James Schiro who died too young (at 68) and who was the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Pricewaterhouse and Zurich Financial.  In other words, Schiro was one of the world leaders in the financial global industry and investment strategies.  It was his lessons on leadership that have stayed with me since I read about his life:

"People don't like change, but they can manage change.  The one thing people can't handle uncertainty.  I think it is the job of leaders to eliminate uncertainty."

Schiro's right!  Change is uncomfortable.  Change forces us to evaluate the way that we have been doing things in our lives, and to alter time honored behaviors.  Change means that the rhythms that we create for our lives, ordered around the activities of our lives have to be altered.  Humans thrive on good rhythms and routines.  Most of our life rhythms are functions that our bodies and souls engage in which we don't have to think about any more.  We just, as the saying goes, "Go through the motions."  Change means that we need to begin to think again.  And thinking is hard work.

Another great leader said, "Leadership is helping people to move through change at a rate they can tolerate."

Since we have moved from Colorado to California, our family has had to go through many changes.  The stores that we once shopped in for food and clothes are different.  The computer programs that we relied upon for basic functions have needed to be changed.  The schools our daughters attend have changed.  The house that we are living in has changed.  The way that we drive from here to there has changed.  In the words of the late poet, William Butler Yeats, "All has changed, changed utterly".  And change isn't always fun, but it can be.  When changes are difficult, we have managed these changes.  And we have grown through these changes.  We know that the changes we are experiencing won't last forever.  And we are stronger because we have experienced these changes.

As Schiro says, we can manage change.  We can say to ourselves, "I'm in the midst of change, change isn't comfortable, but things will get more comfortable as we go along."

It's the second part of the thought piece which is has caused me to pause and think even more.

People can't handle uncertainty, It's the job of a good leader to eliminate uncertainty.

From a leadership standpoint, this idea makes a lot of sense.  Uncertainty in a leadership system is never helpful.  When an employee or a person who works in a large organization asks him/herself; "What am I supposed to do?  Who do I report to?  Is my role important?  Does it make a difference?  Why am I doing what I am doing?  How will I be evaluated?  What will determine my success?" it is never a good thing.  A good leader constantly helps to eliminate these uncertainties, to answer these questions.  A good leader affirms and clarifies on a daily basis the certainty of these things:

*  This is the specific task
*  This concrete task is important
*  When this task is completed that's the definition of success
*  This project is important, and crucial
*  This is where we are going as an organization
*  This is how important you are!

These are uncertainties that can be eliminated in a system.

But, as a pastor, I can say that there are uncertainties that can't be eliminated.  Life is full of uncertainties.  A good leader actually sometimes needs to be honest and say, "I actually don't know what the future will bring.  I am not sure how things will end up.  I have studied everything that can be studied, but I honestly don't know what to do in this particular situation."  People, I have found prefer honesty in the face of uncertainty over gossamer laced platitudes.

So, in the end, it isn't the elimination of uncertainty that is called for.  It's the recognition that uncertainty exists and the leader will be with them, through the thick and the thin of things.

Jesus said, "Behold, I will be with you, even until the end of the age." Jesus didn't say that we would understand all facets of life or of our changes or of our futures.  Jesus didn't say we would understand the uncertainties of our lives.  He said, "I will be with you, through all of life's uncertainties."

And that's why Jesus is someone we can be certain of!

All For Now,