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,


Monday, August 18, 2014

Fully Human

I recently completed a paper for my Doctor of Ministry degree (76 pages to be exact…ugh), on the preaching ministry of one of my favorite pastors - Rev. Dr. Earl Palmer.  The assignment, in short, was to pick one preacher that I have respected and learned from over the years, and to try to figure out one singular question - "Who is God?" in that person's preaching.

So, for the last month or so, in addition to starting a new church, I have been transcribing five of Earl Palmer's sermons (incredibly, Earl doesn't write a manuscript, but takes an outline into the pulpit), dissecting them, and trying to figure out who God is, or how God is formed or modeled in these sermons.  And what I have discovered is very interesting.  Earl Palmer embraces a Jesus who is Fully God, and...

Fully Human

Let me explain.  The history of our faith, our historical doctrine as Christians, is that Jesus was and is both "Fully God" and simultaneously "Fully Human.  That is, that Jesus was the very embodiment of God while he was on earth.  Everything about Jesus was God.  As Bible says, "In the Beginning was the Word," and we Christians have always viewed "The Word" as Jesus.  Jesus is God.  And yet, Jesus is also

Fully Human.

How exactly Jesus was simultaneously two distinct and different beings is a mystery.  We humans only understand one form of reality - human-ness.  However, God simultaneously occupies two complete and indivisible characters.  Jesus is Fully God and

Fully Human

As a human, then, Jesus laughed the way laugh.  Jesus felt the way we felt.  Jesus got hungry.  Jesus slept.  Jesus grieved when he lost loved ones or he went through trauma, and Jesus was full of happiness and joy when there was something to be happy about.

Now, what is interesting is that most Christians tend to ignore Jesus' human side, and focus almost exclusively on Jesus' God side.  The way we talk about Jesus is almost always from the angle of the God-side of Jesus.  When we pray, we often pray, "Eternal God," or "Father" or "Savior" or "Dear Lord".  These are God dimensions.  But these descriptors don't always accentuate an equally important aspect of Jesus' being - humanness.

Earl Palmer uses two examples of the human-side of Jesus which are intriguing.  The first aspect is when Jesus is tempted in the desert, at the beginning of His ministry, by the devil.  According to Earl, the three things that the devil tempted Jesus to were essentially to give up his human-side, and be only God.  The three temptations, remember were:

1.  Turn this stone into bread - in other words, don't be hungry, and human.
2.  Throw yourself off of a building - in other words, don't die like humans die when they fall
3.  Have all control of heaven and earth - in other words, take control of the world like a God

Fortunately for us, Jesus says no to all of these temptations.  Jesus fully embraced his hunger, his mortality, and his human inability to take over the world.  The devil was essentially tempting Jesus to deny his human-ness and just to be "Fully God".  But Jesus did not bow to that temptation.  Being human was an important and essential aspect of Jesus' character.  Earl would say that if a person denies the "humanity of Jesus" that is equally as heretical as denying the "Godliness of Jesus."

Palmer would even go so far as to say that Jesus' human-ness occasionally caused him to make mistakes (like all humans do).  For example, Palmer says, when Jesus said that the smallest seed was the mustard seed, that was not true.  There are many seeds that are smaller than a mustard seed (not being a farmer, no seeds come to my mind that are smaller than a mustard seed, except maybe a poppy seed).  Palmer says, "Jesus was mistaken, the mustard seed was not the smallest - Jesus must be human".  To say, according to Palmer, that Jesus made an occasional human error, is not to invalidate His ultimate power or authority as God, but simply to high-light an often overlooked dimension of God's entire being.  Being

Fully Human

I am not sure I entirely agree with Palmer that Jesus could make mistakes, since those mistakes would begin to infringe on Jesus' Fully God-like aspects.  It is possible that Jesus was simply using a turn of phrase when he said that the mustard seed is the smallest seed.  However, Palmer's point does make you stop and think a moment.

Being human myself (and on this Monday morning, after preaching yesterday, feeling particularly human), I find the human aspects of Jesus' character the most comforting, the most accessible, the most interesting.  God seems, at times to me, slightly one dimensional.  God is all powerful, God is all knowing, God is all encompassing.  Humans have flaws, and these flaws are what make Jesus unique among all of the gods that history has come up with before Him.  We should embrace the fact that our God is, Fully God and…

Fully Human

All For Now,

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Last Shaker

This past week I listened to a fascinating interview on Public Radio about a Christian denomination which has very nearly come to the end of it's life.  The denomination is known as at the "Shakers" or "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing" (in long form).  If you have never heard of the Shakers, perhaps you are familiar with their contributions to innovation and technological advancement.  The Shakers are responsible for the invention of the clothes pin, the circular saw, the washing machine.  The Shakers invented the oval box, and the straight broom.  They were also a source of great creative energy once, writing many of the hymns and songs we now sing today - "Simple Gifts" (later made famous by Aaron Copeland), is the best example.  The Shakers were once a prodigious and foundational force in England and America.

Today there are, get this, just three Shakers left in the world.  Their names are:

Brother Arnold Hadd - 56 years old
Sister June Carpenter - 72 years old
Sister Francis Carr - 85 years old

These three remaining Shakers live on the Sabbath Day Lake Farm in the state of Maine.  The Shakers were once a strong and vital denomination in the United States and world, and numbered around 6,000.  Asked why the denomination had been having a hard time attracting new members, Arnold Hadd commented that the required life of celibacy was a challenge (no kidding:-).  Ironically, Hadd mused, "celibacy is not the largest reason that Shakers have had a hard time gaining new followers.  The biggest problem has been the separation that is required from the world.  If you are going to be Shaker, you have to remove yourself from the world."

As I listened to the interview of these three remaining Shakers in the world, I had another thought.  All Christian denominations have the potential to die.  I, myself, am a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and it's membership has had a fairly consistent rate of decline for at least the past 50 years in the United States.  And, as I consider the largest single reason that the Presbyterian Church has been dwindling in membership, I think it is similar to the challenges that the Shakers experienced.  We too, more often than not, are separated from the world.

Let me make a large, and bold statement.  Christians that separate themselves from the world, in sequestered, removed faith communities, almost always have difficulty in maintaining vitality and growth and life.  Many Evangelical Christians, in my experience, also separate themselves from the world.  Quite literally, many Christians don't live in the space of the world anymore.  They don't have non-Christian friends, they don't read non-Christian books, they don't send their children to non-Christian educational institutions, they don't listen to non-Christian radio.  Everything in their lives is about separating form the world, removing themselves, taking themselves away from, not connecting with the world.

One of the things that I love most about starting a New Church Development (Mission Street Church) is its constant and regular connection to the world.  I am now writing this blog post in the church office, in a downtown public office building.  Outside my office door are five other employees who also rent our office space (an attorney, a social worker, an insurance adjuster, and two public accountants).  There is the potential for a good joke here, but I can't think of one right now.  Quite literally, this church, the one we are starting, is right in the business space, the market place, the space of the world.

As churches develop, very often the tendency is to remove themselves step by step, to be further and further away from the actual world.  The progress of a church often looks something like this.  A church begins in a public space (a school or movie theater).  Then the church builds a building, which is far away from the business world.  Then the church builds an even bigger building, because the old church was spilling too much out into the world.  Then the church finds issue with theological quandaries in it's mother denomination, or has issues with one thing or another, so it moves to a different denomination or it starts a new one.  None of these movements in and of themselves is a problem in and of itself.  Sometimes definitional boundaries are important in an organization.  Buildings and faith statements are important things.  However, the tendency to pull away from the world in which we were created to live in is a great temptation for many churches, and almost always leads to their demise.

The Shakers have left the world an incredible legacy of inventions and innovations.  Unfortunately, it appears that this once great denomination will one day, soon, be no more.  When Brother Arnold Hadd was asked on Public Radio to make a pitch for why anyone would want to be a Shaker and join his community he said, "Well, because we are here…."  Sadly, in a few years, even that existential pronouncement may not be the case for the Shakers.

Or other Christians, like you and me, who do not intentionally live in the public space that God gave us to live within, and to minister to.

All For Now,

Monday, August 4, 2014

THE Mission Street Church

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak at a church in the Chicago metro area (Christ Church, Oakbrook, Ill.).  We live about 1 hour north of LAX (Los Angeles Metropolitan International Airport), but driving in traffic, and during rush hour, can be challenging, so I took a taxi cab to the airport.  Also, I love counting the number of limousines that are driving from the Bel Air foothills into the city.  As always, I was fully amazed at the deep and unrivaled life-wisdom of taxi cab drivers.  My driver on this occasion was no exception.  This was his wisdom chestnut:

Southern California is the only freeway system in the world that prefixes all of it's freeways and highways with the word - "The".  For example, if someone gives you directions from one place to the other in Southern California they might say; "You take 'The 101' to 'The 210' to 'The 405' to 'The 110'.  I realized what my cab driver was saying was, in fact, very true.  For example, when I lived in Salt Lake City growing up we didn't say, take 'The I-80' - we just said, take 'I-80'.  When I lived in Minnesota to go to college, we didn't say take 'The 35' we would just say, 'drive on I-35W'.  Then I asked my sagacious cab driver why it was that Southern Californians put a "The" in front of their freeway systems, and he had an equally sagacious answer.  "It's because freeways, highways, interstate roads are the center of our entire lives down here.  These are the oldest freeways in the country (The Old Pasadena Highway still exists and was the first ever built).  Freeways are the centerpiece, the emblem, the talisman of our entire livelihood."  Honestly, I hadn't heard the word talisman since my days at college.  I asked him where he got his education, he said, "Law degree from UCLA".   "Ugh," I thought to myself, law degrees are now a prerequisite for driving cabs….

After I began to think about it, I thought about the fact that it isn't just freeway systems in Southern California that give the "THE" prefix to important cultural icons.  Every city does this with the main symbol of that community.  In New York City, for example, you have not just, "Empire State Building" but "The Empire State Building".  In San Francisco you have not just "Golden Gate Bridge" but "The Golden Gate Bridge".  In Ann Arbor Michigan where UMICH plays football in one of the largest stadiums in the United States you have not just "Big House" but "The Big House."  And so on and so on.  In fact, if you are trying to learn a new culture, somewhere in the world, find that thing that they put the word "The" in front of and chances are it is it's…talisman!?!? (main thing).

Unfortunately I did not have this deep nugget of wisdom when I was thinking about the name for our new church - Mission Street Church (by the way, check out our new logo at the top of the page).  And now, having thought about it, and applying the wisdom of my tax cab driver friend, we should probably make sure to put a "The" in front of the name - THE Mission Street Church.  When naming the church I did, however, have an intuitive sense that we needed to name our church after something geographic and cultural that took a central space and place in the minds and the hearts of the people who live here.  Rick Warren had that idea when he called his church - Saddleback Church, based on the mountain range that flanked his church campus.  Mission Street, as I have said before, was the original name of the El Camino Real, now "The 101".  Missions, at one time ran all the way up and down the coast of California, built in the 1600's by Spanish missionaries who were sent by the Catholic church in Spain to bring Christianity to the native Indians of the coast of California.  On Oct. 26 we will launch - THE Mission Street Church - at the Edwards Movie Theater on - THE 101.

I suppose we could have called our church "The 101 Church" but that name was already taken by another church in town.  My taxi cab drivers well esteemed point seems to have been equally well proved...

All For Now,