Monday, December 31, 2018
So, today is New Year's Eve. It is 3:34 post meridian to be exact. This marks my 46th new year's eve, which if you are good at math, you can figure out how old I am as well. And here's what I have experienced in at least 40 of those years of New Year's celebrations (grant you my 6 year old New Year's celebration involved popcorn and an early showing of Mr. Rogers neighborhood):
No One Else is Having More Fun:-)
For 46 years I have sought out the most fun thing I could think of doing on New Years Eve. I have sought out the most fun celebrations when I was single in my twenties. I have searched out the most happening locales, which I did when I was married without kids. I have undertaken the most entertaining restaurants, house parties, church activities, venues, places, spaces and more. To this end I have celebrated Hogmanay (the Scottish version of New Years) in Glasgow, Scotland. I have watched fire works shot into the sky over the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt. I have visited happening night clubs in Copenhagen, Denmark, and in Minnesota (actually went to Prince's famous Purple Rain bar). I have eaten at some of the nicest restaurants (The CIA "Culinary Institute of America" - Greystone, in Napa being my favorite). I went to fun house parties in San Francisco on the boundary of the Castro and Noe Valley where my sister used to live.
And here's what I have found. No matter where I was at the time, I always thought someone else was having more fun. I would invariably be sitting in a room of people, say in San Francisco, who, when the ball dropped on New York's Time Square, were watching the television screen. And everyone watched with a pining inner angst as they watched other people having more fun than them. And then, everyone would look around the room at each other, and the glance in their eyes said, "I wish I was there in that place, rather than here in this place." But guess what?
No One Else is Having More Fun:-)
New Year's Eve is one of the most aspirational holidays that, to be honest, never seems to meet its own aspirations. I have spoken with people who were standing but a few feet away from the ball dropping in Time's Square in New York, and within eyeshot of the equivalent of Anderson Cooper and Kathy Lee, and they were totally miserable. The temperature was like 25 degrees with wind chill, and all of them standing there were wondering if someone else around the world was having more fun. Actually, I have heard that in New York, they show pictures of places like Dubai and Sydney and London, and everyone wonders of they are having more fun in those places. But, you get the picture:
No One Else is Having More Fun:-)
So, wherever you are tonight, and however you are celebrating. Whether you are in Salem, Oregon, or Boise, Idaho, or Decker, Michigan. Whether you are sitting around with kids or grandkids. Whether you are in a nursing home in Pasadena, California. Whether you have money, or no means at all. Whether you have someone to kiss when that yard arm reaches it's median point, and crosses over into the new year. Realize this:
No One Else is Having More Fun:-)
So, make the most of where you are!
All For Now,
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
I was reading a book recently about the 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther. WAIT! I know, Martin Luther is sort of a boring topic to write a blog post about. However, I just learned something very interesting about Martin Luther. He was really the first "televangelist", "mass media pastor". In today's terms he might have been considered the Rick Warren of pastors, or Billy Graham, or what have you.
As you know, the Gothenburg Press was just being invented and used for mass communication purposes about the time of the Reformation. What I didn't realize, is that Luther never really intended for his famous "95 Theses" to be published. Luther simply wrote up a series of debating theses, for his students at seminary to be debating in class, that involved the Catholic Church. You remember your debate days: "Resolved that a Comprehensive System of Health Care Reform be Implemented". Someone found his theses, thought they were so good, that they mass produced them and sent them around the entire German countryside. Before Luther knew it, he was famous.
This has gotten me to thinking about the importance of mass communication when it comes to modern day church work. When I was first starting New Churches with my brother Jamie, about 10 years ago, the best way to get your name out as a church was to send mass mailers in snail mail. These still have some impact. However, today, online platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, are actually much better. Each week, I film a little video snippet for these, letting the larger community know what God is doing at Burlpres.
Frankly, this blogsite used to be a wonderful way to reach people, however, technology has changed, as new digital platforms have emerged.
If you are a pastor of a church, or are in a congregation that doesn't use mass media to reach the larger world, you are missing out. If Martin Luther could do it, so can you!
All For Now,
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
I am watching a Netflix documentary on the late, and some would say great, film maker named Orson Welles. The truth be told, I have never really been an Orson Welles fan, and thought Citizen Kane (1941, pictured above), was only ok. Keep in mind that I lived on the Central Coast for a while, near to where the real subject for that movie, William Randolph Hearst lived (Hearst Castle) and I have a slightly different interpretation on Hearst's character. But I digress.
Orson did say something that I want to write about today. He said that all films would be totally boring if it weren't for one important thing:
Actually the exact quote was; "The greatest things in movies are divine accidents."
Divine Accidents - says Welles, are things that happen in the directing process that are not what you planned, but rather are accidents that make a film much better than it would have been. Throughout his career, Welles tried to cultivate these experiences. When an actor or actress messed up a line, Welles would sometimes leave that "mess up" in the movie, because it made the scene seem more real. When a bird would fly through a shot, or a sunset would be covered by a cloud, Welles would keep these in the movie as well. These Divine Accidents made Welles' films seem more real, more palpable, more down to earth.
I have been thinking that ministry is really about Divine Accidents as well. That is, the things that you plan in ministry don't always turn out the way you would like them to, but those mis-haps are actually better. Here are some of my favorite examples:
1. When my brother Jamie and I were starting a new church in Paso Robles, we were out playing the bagpipes one night, trying to take a photo for a promotional piece we are doing. Across the street was a local TV station filming a news story for a low news day about a "fake bank robbery". Before we knew it, the film crews that night were over filming my brother and I about the start of our new church, Highlands, and on the evening news that night, they led with that story from Paso Robles! A divine accident.
2. About a month ago, I bought a present for a person that I wanted to show some appreciation for. This person had done a lot for the church, and I wanted to show them how much we were grateful to them. Unfortunately the person that the present was meant for seemed to be on a long vacation, and hadn't picked up the gift. Then, someone else happened by with the same name, took the gift and assumed it was for them. They opened it, and were so grateful. We didn't tell that person that the gift wasn't meant for them. Maybe God meant the gift for the second person after all. A divine accident.
3. My wife was working a job recently that wasn't a fit for her, and she wasn't happy with. One day, when doing a routine call to another agency on a professional matter, that other agency said, "Hey, is this Star? How are you? Are you looking for work, another job?" Star said, "Actually I am, I am not that happy in this job." So, Star applied with this other agency, and lo and behold she loves her new job. A divine accident.
Whether or not you like Orson Welles' directing, perhaps you might agree with him that some of the best things in life are things that seem to happen by accident. Or perhaps, with God, nothing is really an accident...
All For Now,
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
Let me share with you one of my favorite Biblical texts: "Leaving Succoth, they camped in Etham at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord guided them by a pillar of cloud during the daytime, and by a pillar of fire at night. So they could travel either by day or night. The clouds and fire were never out of sight" (Exodus 13:20-22). This is the account of when the Israelites first left Egypt, in about the year 1,500BC, and fled pharaoh (a brutal and awful dictator), to hopefully make it to the Promised Land. What is so amazing about this text, is that even now, thousands of years later, you can still feel the deep fear and pain that the Jewish people faced as they left Egypt. Would they make it to the Promised Land? Would they die in the desert? How long would the journey take? Would they be welcomed when they reached the Jordan River, or would they be turned away?
Now, let me share with you a news clip from last week's news about a caravan of Guatemalan and Honduran refugees who are currently fleeing an equally despotic and evil regime: "A caravan of Central American migrants marching into Mexico bound for the United States grew to at least 5,000 people Sunday despite threats by the United States to seal the border. The throng, many from Honduras, streamed across a bridge over the Sachiate River connecting Guatemala with Mexico" (USA Today, Oct. 22, 2018). Similar to the story of the refugees who left Egypt 3,500 years ago, the modern day Exodus of immigrants tells an equally harrowing tale. These are people who have nothing left to lose. They have nothing else to live for, except the possibility of finding freedom in Mexico or the United States. The same questions apply. Will these people make it to the Promised Land? Will they die in the desert? How long will the journey take? Will they be welcomed when they reach the Rio Grande, or will they be turned away?
As an undergraduate I studied Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. What I learned from my undergraduate degree is that political problems are always more complex than the pat and simple answers that politicians often give. There are times for "Realpolitik" (tough solutions), and there are times for "Amnesty" (more gracious solutions). That said, if I was President of the United States I don't really know what I would do to help with this problem. My gut tells me I would follow the advice of modern day political adviser David Gergen, and former adviser to 5 Presidents, and give Honduras and Guatemala each a billion dollars in aide, help to move along the dictatorships in those countries, and help the Mexican government to build a kind of wall along the southern border of Mexico. But again, I am not President.
The real question is not what should have been done, but what should the United States do now?
What I do know is that as Christians, whenever we read the Bible, we should look around us for modern day examples of the accounts we read about. So, when we see a homeless person by the side of the road asking for money, we should be reminded of the time when Peter met the man outside the temple and prayed with him, "silver or gold I do no have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" (Acts 3:6). When we see a single mother in a supermarket, holding a baby in one hand, and a basket cart in another, we should offer to give her some help, buy her a bottle of water at least. When Jesus encountered a woman like this by a well, he struck up a conversation and he gave her hope, "Woman, you are not far from the kingdom of God" (John 4:25-26). And I know that when we see a modern day of oppressed people, who have nowhere else to turn, we should hear an echo from the distant past about our own people, our own lineage of faith, who fled a similarly desperate set of circumstances. And we should remember how the Exodus ended for the Israelites - in freedom: "Then all the people crossed at a spot where the river was close to the city of Jericho, and the priests who were carrying the Ark stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan and waited as all the people passed by" (Joshua 4:16-17).
All For Now,
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
It is no surprise to anyone who has known my ministry for any amount of time, that I am a big fan of the Schuller family.
If you don't know who the Schullers are, I apologize, the next blog post will be for you:-).
In high school, when I was just sixteen years old, I will never forget taking out my Walkman cassette radio (bear with me if you are a millennial), and place in that Walkman a cassette of Robert Schuller Sr.'s powerful talk on the "Power of Possibility Thinking". On a snowy winter evening in Salt Lake City, Utah, I listened to a riveting talk by Dr. Schuller about how the, "greatest churches in the history of the world haven't even been founded yet." On that wintery evening in December, I decided that THAT is what I wanted to do with my life (even though I definitely didn't ever want to be a pastor).
Later, in college, I visited a conference on preaching by Robert Schuller, and met Schuller and told him that I wanted to go into politics in my life. He said to me, "Graham, I wanted to go into politics too, but I decided to become a pastor instead. Be a pastor like me, you will never 'term out' as a pastor (the way that a congressman gets term limited out)." Even though it would be many years after that that I would become a pastor, my conversation with Dr. Schuller went deep.
When my brother, Jamie, and I started Highlands Church, in Paso Robles, many of our main big ideas came from Robert Schuller. We met in a movie theater in downtown Paso Robles. We did out of the box things like have a huge beacon at night on Christmas Eve, attracting local party goers to our Christmas Eve service. Our founding elder in that church, Nancy Richardson, grew up in the Crystal Cathedral, and her father (Wilterink) was a founding elder at Schuller's church in Garden Grove.
Today, I met, Robert Schuller's grandson - Bobby Schuller - who can be seen regularly on Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) with the "Hour of Power". And - get this - Bobby Schuller, and his church are joining the Presbyterian Church (USA), the same denomination that I am a part of. In Bobby's own words; "We think the Presbyterian Church USA actually has a good name brand. People outside the church actually look up to the PCUSA, and want their kids to grow up in churches connected to the PCUSA. We, at 'Irvine Pres' are not an open and affirming congregation on same gender issues, but we want to be in conversation with people who hold different opinions on that topic. We are excited about the future of our congregation in the PSCUSA."
During the course of my one hour meeting, I found Bobby to be extremely thoughtful and kind and engaging. Even though he comes from a long line of pastoral greats, he doesn't seem to be overburdened by the weight of history, or the expectations that he must feel upon his shoulders. There is an unabashed optimism about Bobby that is contagious. He is excited about what the future of the church is for people who are committed to justice issues and who offer vital ministry options for needy people who come to visit local congregations. Bobby feels that the future of the church is not with denominations, but with local congregations.
I for one am excited about our new friendship with one another. As I met with Bobby today in Irvine, CA, I sensed that the Holy Spirit was a part of our conversation, and that God was doing something bigger than just a meeting between two pastors. I sensed that in an ineffable but real way, God was bringing together two young men, whose families have served in the ministry in significant ways, to bring them together to do something great for God.
All For Now,
Monday, September 3, 2018
Not long ago, I learned about a social phenomenon that occurred in the country of India during British colonial rule there (1858-1947). During some juncture during British rule in the capitol city of Delhi, government officials became concerned about the number of venomous cobras that were "on the loose". As a remedy, the British government offered to pay a bounty on every dead cobra that was killed. Because the general population of the city was very poor, and had no employment, many of the more enterprising ones began to breed cobras, and then bring them in for their reward. When the British found out about the scheme, they quickly disbanded the program. Finding no other use for the cobras, the locals simply released the venomous snakes into the city streets, thereby multiplying the number of dangerous snakes by the thousands.
This social tendency to make a solution to a problem worse than the original problem itself has become known as the - "Cobra Effect".
There are many, many other examples of this in history. In Hanoi, Vietnam, there was a similar incident known as the "Rat Effect". Closer to home, some would argue that Prohibition Laws in the United States had a similar effect. When the US government outlawed the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920-1933, most social scientists tell us that drinking patterns of most Americans, and the abuse of over drinking, actually went up.
This phenomenon of the Cobra Effect has gotten me to thinking about cross-applications to religious life and theology. Is it possible that churches that focus mostly on the sins of their congregants actually have more examples of sinful behavior in their congregation than churches that do not? Is it possible that the the obsession over certain types of sin, over other kinds of sin, actually creates a Cobra Effect within our churches?
When I was in seminary, there was a group of guys who got together every Monday night and had a prayer group with one another. I was not a part of this prayer group, so my knowledge of it is only second hand. Rumor had it, though, that the most common prayer that they prayed with one another about was, "prayers for lust". That is, I suppose, that members of the group felt a need to pray about the sin of lusting over other people. Every Monday, the same prayer came up, "prayers for lust, prayers for lust, prayers for lust." While I do not know (or care), whether the lusts of these young men were ever fruited (so to speak), the constant focus on this particular sin seemed to have the tendency to drive it further into their hearts, minds and souls.
I recently heard a Ted Talk about a person who was studying this phenomenon as it related to endangered trees in a particular forest in the United States. Because these trees were endangered, there were signs along the paths of the forest that said something like, "Please don't pick up old pieces of wood that have fallen to the ground. Every year, people steal 1 million pounds of wood from this forest." The effect of putting up these signs was that the amount of stolen wood actually went way up. The internal message that was being sent was, "Wow, I had never thought of stealing wood before, but I better pick some up, and take some home, it must be worth a lot....and if others are doing it, why don't I?"
In a way, one could think about the very first sin in history, the proverbial snake in the garden of Eden, and God's command not to eat from the tree of good and evil, as the first example of the Cobra Effect. Had God not told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, would they have ever had the notion in the first place? Wasn't the real lure of the forbidden tree that it was something that they shouldn't be doing? Or perhaps is it, that the true Fall of humanity has less to do with the eating of the fruit, than it does with the desire, deep inside all of us, to do the things we are not supposed to do? In this way, the Fall of humanity actually precedes the Fall of humanity?
Who knows? All I am sure of is that the next time I stay the night in the city of Delhi, I am going to check my bed two or three times before crawling into my sheets, and experience first hand...
The Cobra Effect,
All For Now,
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Every week before I begin my message at Burlpres in Burlingame, California, I begin with the same sentence, "We welcome you to Burlpres this morning, and if you are here for the first time, we hope you find this to be a loving and a safe church, our goal is to be the most loving place in town, and a safe place to connect with God wherever you are coming from." Recently someone asked me what I meant by "a safe place to connect with God." This is a great question, and the focus of my blog this morning.
Safety is, of course, a relative term. What is safe for one person may not be safe for another. For example, a friend of mine likes to jump out of airplanes regularly, and finds that to be a safe experience. I would not find that to be safe at all (smile). When I say safe, I mean seven different kinds of safety for our church:
There are many kinds of spiritual experience that are not safe. When I was in Haiti once on a medical mission trip, I had the chance opportunity to meet some people who practiced the Voodoo religion. After speaking with them for a while, I realized that voodooism was a very different religious practice from my own, and quite unsafe for me or my group to be encountering. Not all spiritual experiences are the same. What we believe at Bulrpres is that Jesus Christ is a safe spiritual experience. Jesus said, "come to me all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28-30). What Jesus was saying is that He is a safe person to come to in our times of need.
Not long ago I was worshipping at a church whose pastor was extremely charismatic and dynamic. Going into the church, I realized that this pastor had belief systems that were very different from mine. And yet, not long into the message, I found myself strangely drawn to the lead speaker. He was, "literally pulling me in." At Burlpres we believe in a faith system that is not personality driven. The leaders of the church, the pastors, are all healthy people who live healthy lives. Worship should be a safe experience.
The Presbyterian Church prides itself in the amount of education that we require our pastors and leaders to have before they can provide consistent Biblical and theological leadership to our church. This is not to say that academia is always a preventative for erratic or non-consistent thinking or processing. However, it is to say that we value aspects of human thought like logic, rationality, cognitive reasoning, and ideas based in reality.
Safe For Children
One of the things we are working extremely hard on at our church is ramping up the level of safety that we are offering children on a regular basis. We have always valued the safety of children at Burlpres, and yet we need to do so much more. We have just implemented a series of background checks on all volunteers who work with children. We have a new check-in system that will be computerized and mechanized, a barr code for all kids. We will be implementing a new safe perimeter for children in our children's center. Starting this Fall, only those who are approved with background checks and pre-approval, can enter our Children's Facilities.
Safe for Adults
The news over the past few weeks involving major religious figures in our country and around the world has been extremely tragic and devastating. The number of children who have been impacted by the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania is deplorable and quite literally breaks the heart of God. A major religious leader in the Chicago area has been accused of unsafe boundary breaking with staff members. This simply cannot happen in church. One of the things going forward to insure safety is that we have put in glass doors on all of our staff doors. These glass doors present transparency for both what occurs in our office spaces, as well as what the outside perception is for what occurs there.
Many religious systems are not transparent in the way that money is used. This also does not honor God. Burlpres will be implementing several measures over the next year to continue to insure that the broader public is aware (or can be made aware) of any financial transaction that the church engages in. The stewardship of God's money in any community is so important and essential.
Safe Architecturally and Practically
Our current building project and projects have invested almost $1 million in insuring that our facilities and worship spaces are safe spaces for all people who attend the church. The new roof that is being installed is made of an extremely light material that is earthquake safe and hopefully (joke) safe from leaks. We are also cleaning up a lot of the "clutter" that can be found around the entrances of our doors, and in our classrooms, which also ensures safety. These are just a few of the things we are doing to make the church building more safe.
Ensuring safety in any system, in a world that is constantly changing, is not an easy thing to do. However, it is our pledge to our congregation and to our larger community that when I say from the front, "A Safe Place to Worship God," we mean that in every respect. And in the end, providing these safety measures, and others, are in themselves expressions of loving hospitality, which we pray will go a long ways towards also making our church, "the most loving place in town."
All For Now,
Friday, August 3, 2018
About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the country of Mozambique on the continent of Africa on a mission trip with Lifewater International for the purpose of helping to build a well for one of the rural tribal communities there. The mission trip was remarkable in so many ways, but what remained with me from that trip was an image of a little girl that I met there, beside a village well, with holes in her bucket. Her parents had both just died of the AIDS virus, and this little girl, with holes in her bucket, was effectively all on her own in the world. She didn't even have a bucket that would hold the water that she would desperately need to survive. A tragic metaphor of that mission field. The image remains imbedded in my cranial hard drive and implanted in my heart.
About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a similar mission trip. This time the trip was to Mexico, the Baja peninsula with Burlpres in order to build a house for a local family who lived there. While there, our group got a chance to meet the family who would someday occupy that house, and to meet the neighborhood kids who lived on the street (I say street, but it was really just a dirt path deeply pocked with holes and boulders, reminiscent of a war zone).
One of those little children is the little girl you see in the picture above. I don't know her name, nor will I ever know it. Her sweet little face caught my attention one day as I was eating my lunch after a morning of work. She had no lunch. She did not ask for mine, though, when I offered her my sandwich, she gladly took it. And then sat, with her back to the simple house we had just built, savoring it, as if the sandwich were a Chateaubriand steak served in a Micheline be-starred restaurant. She will forever be for me, "The Girl With A Ham Sandwich".
Statistics for those who are poor, or "impoverished", in Mexico have become a sad platitude of daily news coverage. However, the Mexican government estimates that 33% of the population of that nation lives in moderate poverty (live with less than $2 a day), and 9% of the country lives in extreme poverty (live with less than $1 a day). This girl most likely meets that latter category. Like most third world countries, there is a massive gap between the "haves and have-nots".
What the statistics cannot tell you, and what I experienced, is the relative loneliness and isolation that accompanies extreme poverty. The children we met in the street seemed almost as happy for some company as they did to have a few sandwiches given to them on a hot summer day. One got the sense that when these children woke up each morning, the only thing that greeted many of them were the ubiquitous stray dogs that dotted the entire countryside, and the random chicken that might amble past.
And it...yes...broke my heart to leave. When will these children have a work caravan come through their little neighborhood (barrio) again? When will a house building party ever come to visit again? When will someone show some actual care to these, who Jesus called, "the least of these?". It boggles the heart and the mind to think about. But for me, this will be the new scene in my heart and mind that makes me want to do everything I can for those who are like her.
And, I should not close this blog without saying how beautiful she was. How dignified she was. How full of a sense of pride and strength she was. She was...at least for a fleeting moment...
The Girl With A Ham Sandwich.
All For Now,
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Lately, because my wife Star is now working, and our kids are in a myriad of daily activities, our family has been eating a lot of pre-prepared meals from Trader Joes. These pre-prepared meals are a far cry from the pre-made TV dinners that were around when I was a kid. Some of these meals require a few basic steps before the meal is made. Most of them are quite simple to put together, and relatively healthy to eat.
Now, at this point, I should probably say that my back-up career plans have always been to be a chef. While I have never had formal cooking training (though I would love to some day), I have worked as a sous-chef in a restaurant when I was in college and worked for various catering companies to prepare meals for some pretty high end entertaining (preparing a meal for former Vice President Walter Mondale comes to mind, for example). And, as a side note, I always give people advice to have a backup career plan (but that's another blog post).
So, whenever I put a pre-prepared meal into the frying pan, on a frenetic weekday night, to be honest I always feel a little "guilty" or "dumb". Because of my own false sense of ability in cooking, and my pride, I feel like "this simple meal is beneath me". So, a couple of nights ago, when making a Chinese stir fry, the recipe called for simply heating up the meat, then putting in the frozen vegetables, then putting in the sauce. Simple. But because I was trying to impose my own culinary prowess at this moment, I thought to myself, "What if I just add a little garlic, and then some fish sauce, and perhaps some shallots, and then a bit of Cayenne pepper, and perhaps some ginger and bamboo shoots to spruce it up." 30 minutes later, and a kitchen full of cutting boards, knives, discarded remnants of garlic shells and ginger coverings, I had an....ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING dinner!?!?!
Star, my wife, took a bite of it, and said, "this is awful, what did you do to it?" I said, defensively, "I just tried to spruce up the recipe a little, and add a little flavor, to give it a little extra color, and texture." Star said, while spitting out a mouthful, "well, you certainly accomplished your goal. Let's get takeout." And she was right. It was pretty bad...
This tendency to want to throw in my own take on whatever is required of me in life, could actually be a description of my life. When asked to preach a basic sermon, I sometimes say, "What if we spruced it up, and tried to make it better?" (sometimes to the detriment of the text or the Gospel). When I have been asked to lead a meeting, sometimes I have said, "What if we don't just have a regular meeting, what if we have a super meeting?" (sometimes to the detriment of just the normal routine of getting a task accomplished). What I am saying is that often I have erred in life when I didn't....
Just Follow the Basic Recipe
And what I have been wondering is if I am not alone. What if all of us, to some extent or another tries to spruce up our lives with all kinds of things (extra stuff, nice cars, super big houses), when all that we really need to be happy is to...
Just Follow the Basic Recipe
What if a lot of the sin-behavior that we engage in (drinking too much, sex outside of the boundaries, business deals that put those around us in risk, gossiping about others, slandering or hating our neighbors) really boils down to the same problem. What if it is a part of human nature to not...
Just Follow the Basic Recipe
That was really Adam and Eve's problem. God gave them a good life. He gave them supremacy and responsibility over everything in the Garden of Eden. But the first humans weren't good with that. They wanted to spruce up their lives. Add a little flavor. Add a little color. And so, they ate from a tree that they shouldn't have.
Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt.11:30). Maybe what Jesus was really saying in this text is that all we have to do to find rest and peace in this life is to...
Just Follow the Basic Recipe
And now, I'm going to the freezer to get out a frozen burrito for lunch. Maybe I'll refrain from making a Zabbayon Sauce to accompany it...
All For Now,
Friday, June 22, 2018
Over this summer holiday, I have been reading an incredible book called, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It is Jesus' first person account of his early life, as narrated and beautifully written by the queen of, yes, "vampiric novels and screenplays" and all things bloody - Anne Rice. Apparently Rice is a Christ follower, or at least interested in the things of Christ, and her book reads as compellingly as any narrative I have read about the early life of Jesus.
What has struck me, at this interesting juncture in history, as immigration and human rights once again come to the fore (when 2,300 children and counting have been separated from their parents at the border of Mexico and the United States), is that Jesus and his family were, of course, immigrants.
Rice does a better job of annotating Jesus' early life, than I will be able to in the context of this blog post, but Jesus and his family fled the Holy Land when Jesus was about two or three. They then became immigrants, and had to flee to the nearest country that would accept them. Egypt was the best and closest answer. And so the Holy family fled, political oppression, human rights violations, murderous rampages by an insane dictator named - Herod I (self-named Herod the Great, as all megalomaniacal leaders are prone to do).
This brings the life of Jesus into a much larger light when we consider that when he was just a child he most likely cast eyes upon the pyramids of Giza, and the Sphinx, and would have beheld the great library in Alexandria with his own eyes, before it burned to the ground in 270AD. Jesus would have experienced the wonder of domesticated cats, and men of society who wore eye makeup like king Tut (but I digress).
Egypt, of course, plays figuratively into the entire history of the Bible, as a place that readily accepted and embraced the immigrants of the Holy Land, going back to the time of Abraham; "Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there" (Gen. 12:10). This extends to the time of Jacob and his son Joseph, and subsequent sojourn of the family there,;"'Why do you just keep looking at each other? I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so the we may live and not die" (Gen. 42:1-2). Egypt, it would seem, for about a 2,000 year period, had a very porous border with neighboring countries, allowing immigrants to enter and exit, for the most part, without harm.
Move to the time of Jesus. And now let us ask a question? What if Egypt had not accepted immigrants from neighboring countries whose people were facing political oppression? What if the Holy family had been turned away? What if the family had been separated, with half of them going to a prison for adults, and Jesus and his brothers and sisters (yes, Jesus had siblings, Joses, James, Judas, which Rice does a nice job of elucidating) to a separation facility for children? What if the Holy family had never been able to reconnect with one another after separation? What if Jesus had had to be raised by prison guards and immigration authorities? The questions boggle the mind.
Here are my last set of questions. What if another prophet or great leader is among the children who are now being housed in separation facilities? What if another great leader (like Moses, another Jewish castaway who had beginnings in the land of Egypt), is now in the slavery of a chain link fence or cell, withering away with the heat of indifference and injustice?
Who knows the answer to these questions.
As a student of history, I know that truly great countries, like Egypt, Rome, even Great Britain, have always found a place for, "the least of these" (Matt. 25:40).
All For Now,
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
The late great philosopher and political theorist, Karl Jaspers (bear with me a moment, I have a larger point to make), once wrote about "Axial Civilizations". Jaspers wrote about the fact that there are certain civilizations in the history of the world, that became so-called axial (pivotal, fundamental) moments in the future of global civilization. What I want to reflect upon in this blogpost, is the power of an - "Axial Moment." That there have been certain moments in history which played axial (pivotal) roles in the future of the world.
One of these axial moments is - June 6!
For example, on this very day, just 74 years ago (June 6, 1944), 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in a battle that would later be called "D Day" - in order to force an extremely significant thrust in the prolonged effort to push back the Nazis and to win the Western Campaign of World War II. Nine-thousand American troops died on this very day, for our country, just 74 years ago. Those brave souls who gave their lives, climbed the beach heads, under extreme pressure from the Nazis, only to die upon those white sands. To become the "flowers of the forest", and fallen heroes, as later poets would write.
On this same day, just 50 years ago (June 6, 1968), a US Senator named Robert F Kennedy, the brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, was shot and assassinated in the kitchen of a hotel, named "The Ambassador", in Los Angeles, California. Just after Robert Kennedy bellowed the words from a be-chisseled hotel podium; "Now it's onto Chicago, and let's win there", a lone gunman (as far as historians know) shot the young senator multiple times, leaving him limp, only to die on a cold, commercial, kitchen-floor.
What to make of this convergence of historic events?
What to make of this...
Not sure exactly!
Except to say that many young people have fought for the betterment of this country, only to be cut down too young, and too soon. Also, that life is fragile. And that these liberties of ours (freedom, truth, independence), these liberties that we keep, were not (to paraphrase Shakespeare's play Henry V), "purchased cheap".
Perhaps another reflection is that in both of these axial moments, there was a stated aggressor (Sirhan Sirhan in the former case, and the Nazis in the latter), there is an example of a violent perpetrator and a victim. And that the would-be victims stood-up to, and ultimately vanquished their opponents - not through sheer force alone, but through good will, vigilance and the test of time.
Finally, I guess it makes me sad, from the standpoint of a person living in the year 2018, 74 an 50 years later, to know that though we have progressed in many ways, in so many more, we have miles and miles yet to travel.
Where are we as a country on June 6, 2018?
Is this another...
All For Now,
Friday, May 18, 2018
Not long ago, our family spent about a week or so in La Jolla, near San Diego, for Spring Break. While we sat by the beach and watched the waves lap upon the shore, it quite literally seemed, for that moment, as if - time stood still.
And as it turns out, according to a recent book by Physicist Carlo Rovelli, in actual scientific terms, that might have in fact been the case. In his new book, "The Order of Time," Rovelli, surmises that time actually moves faster on the tops of mountains than it does near the flatlands, or ocean. New clocks have been developed, using nuclear magnetic imaging, which make it possible to detect these finite differences in time. The concept is an extension of Einstein's theory of the relativity of time, that time responds to the gravitational pull of large masses. The earth is a large mass. The closer that a clock, or a person for that matter, is to the earth, the slower time moves. In very real terms, a person who lives near the ocean ages less than a person who lives near the mountains. Looking back on it, the time my spent in Colorado Springs, around 6,033 feet above sea level, did seem to move faster than my time spent in Oxnard, at sea level.
Of course, the idea of the relativity of time is not a new idea. The Bible tells us that, "A thousand years in your sight are like a day the has just gone by, or like a watch in the night," (Psalms 90:4). By this description from the book of Psalms, apparently time moves faster for God than it does for humans.
Most people forget that the whole notion of time itself was invented by monks who were trying to figure out how to pray with more regularity, "The first mechanical time devices appeared in late medieval monasteries. Bells driven by weights called monks to the hours of prayer" (Subversive Spirituality, L Paul Jensen, p. 37). It was the invention of railroads, the transcontinental railroad in America, for example, that necessitated the standardization of time. Previously, each town and city had its own clock and those clocks were very far from synchronized with one another. But I digress....
Rovelli's book, the content of which I haven't yet read myself (though I have reviewed several articles and listened to several podcasts about Rovelli), reveals that the notion or idea of time is actually totally a construct of our imaginations. Rovelli says, "We never see time, time is not something we can see or smell or taste or touch. All we are able to do is to watch clocks which measure time." Rovelli has even gone so far as to take the integer of time "T" out of all of his equations. Rovelli says that time is totally a mental construct.
Rovelli says that most people have this idea that the past and the present and the future are three different things, totally different from one another. However, physics is showing us that the difference between the past and the present and the future are all relative. Once again, this seems to reflect the thoughts of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, "Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises" (Ec. 1:5-6).
Reflecting further upon this Rovelli says that, "The only difference between the past and the future is the amount of disorder which lies ahead." In other words, the way to tell the difference between this present moment and the future moments are that in this moment, we know exactly what is happening. For example, I am typing this blog at this computer right now. What will the future hold? Will there be future blogs? We don't know, because the the definition of the future is that it is disordered. Again, Jesus lifts this up in the famous Sermon on the Mount, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself (or in Rovelli's terms, "the future has enough entropy." (Matt. 6:34).
If you are like me, this momentary convergence between the thinking of one modern day physicist and the Bible are head scratching and heartening at the same time. Perhaps the real lesson in all of it is, we should all spend a lot more TIME...
At the beach!
All For Now,
Thursday, May 3, 2018
This past weekend I led a mens retreat for Burlpres (First Pres. Burlingame) at the Valambrossa Retreat Center in Menlo Park (pictured above). It was a great retreat entitled; "Braveheart: Every Man Dies, but Not Every Man Really Lives." We discussed a lot of really important topics like the difference between healthy risk and unhealthy risk, the role of work in our lives, the role of accumulation, and life in Christ. But what will remain with me is less what I taught from the front, but what I learned from the other men.
One gentleman, at the end of the retreat, when we went around the room to share what we had learned or gleaned from the retreat said; "The word that keeps coming to me is - REVEAL." He went on to say that what he had learned was that, "Real soul health begins with the courage to be able to reveal ourselves to one another. And then, the goal is to be able to reveal ourselves to ourselves." Wow, I had sat through many seminary lectures on soul healing and soul growth and had heard much less wisdom from the so-called "experts in the field.
Not too long ago a man in his mid-sixties came to meet with me in my office. After about 30 minutes of discussion about small, seemingly insignificant topic matter (the weather, the Giants, the Warriors), I asked, "So, what's on your mind?" He took the cue, and paused, and then said, "I've come to a decision in my life, that it is now time to retire. I have never used the "r" word out-loud with anyone else, but I feel like it's time for me to start to make plans to re...re...re....retire." After he said this, he began to cry. I asked him what was going on with him? He said, "It feels good to finally say it, and now that I have said it, it doesn't seem like it will be such a hard thing to do." This man had revealed his soul to me, and then, and in the process, he had revealed his soul to himself.
Self-Revelation of our souls to others is, it must be said, not always a good thing to do. Unless we find someone that we trust with our thoughts and processes, it can be a dangerous thing to do. Also, very often, we do not know what we ourselves are thinking about something, and so the words that come out of our mouths when we reveal ourselves with others are actually quite inaccurate.
When I was growing up as a teenager, and I would come home at the end of a long day at school, I would almost always be upset. "I don't like school, I don't like the kids, I don't like where we live," I would tell my mom. She would then ask, "Did you each lunch today?" "No," I said angrily. "Why don't you eat a burrito and then let's talk about it." After eating, of course, I would feel much better about the entire world. Sometimes the things that come out of our mouths do not REVEAL what we really think, but how we really feel in the moment.
An expert in Small Groups ministry (Dr. David Augsburger) once told me that it is actually quite unhealthy to share our most intimate thoughts with any more than two or three people in the entire world. So, you really don't want to encourage your small groups in churches to REVEAL themselves to each other. It's too much for most people to process.
But we can reveal our hearts to God. That, in the end, is the best definition of prayer!
All For Now,
Thursday, April 19, 2018
If you are a fan of rock and roll music, then you know that The Edge (ne David Powell) is the name of the famed lead guitar player for the rock band, U2. However as I have thought about the secret to great teaching, whether in a classroom or a boardroom or a pulpit, over the years, The Edge is what I have determined is also the key to great teaching. All great teachers have - The Edge.
What do I mean by The Edge?
All great teachers have a compelling force that comes from the inside that sets them a part from just someone who is giving a discussion, or sharing a thought, or communicating a principle. The Edge can be a nondescript energy. This energy can sometimes be mistaken for annoyance or being perturbed. The Edge often comes from the fact that the teacher has a lot of complex information, or a difficult concept, that they want to communicate in a way that is life changing. The Edge is conveyed to a class or a room of people in the notion that the teacher will not have accomplished his/her main purpose for the lesson, unless everyone in the room gets it.
Who are some teachers that I have known over the years that have The Edge?
Mr Erickson (sixth grade teacher, Hawthorne Elementary School, Boise, Idaho)
As we came into the room that bright day in early September, Mr. Erickson, our new teacher for the year had us line up against the wall rather than sit in our assigned desks. Spitting words at us like a Gatling Gun, Mr. Erickson said, "This is not going to be a normal class. This is not going to be an easy class. You are going to be challenged this year in ways that you have never been challenged before. But after it, if you listen and you learn, you will find that you are a different person." One of my friends raised their hand in an attempt to clarify what Mr. Erickson meant by 'challenge', but then thought better of it and hid his hand behind his back. I will never forget my year with Mr. Erickson. That year we learned about Hydogren Chloride, the 'jell mass' of Shampoos, and many other things. Mr. Erickson had - The Edge.
Professor Adrienne Christiansen, Macalester College, class on The Rhetorical Tradition
The class that boring morning was focussed on a discussion of Platonic f'orms' and their differences with Aristotelian 'forms'. A student raised his hand, "Dr. Christiansen, it seems to me that Plato and Aristotle are very similar. Both Greek philosophers, both concerned with classification." Professor Christiansen answered, "Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Plato talked about a higher form, Aristotle was just concerned with writing every single classification down." I never received higher than a C grade on any paper or exam that I turned into Professor Christiansen. She wasn't always nice to me. But she had an indispensable, undeniable force that compelled her teaching from within. She had - The Edge.
Dr. Charles Ryerson, (Princeton Seminary, class on Hinduism and the Christian Context
As we sat in our tables in Templeton Hall, Ryerson began, "I don't know what any of you learned in college. I mean, honestly, some of you I wonder how you even got accepted to this seminary. Christianity is not some set of rules or Bible texts or principles. It is who you are, deep within you, a context that was deeply embedded in your whole world outlook." I would later travel the Indian subcontinent on a research scholarship given by and mentored by Dr. Ryerson. Before I sat under the tutelage of Ryerson, I never knew much, or to be honest, cared much about India. Now it is one of my favorite countries in the world. Mr. Ryerson had - The Edge.
Rev. Earl Palmer (West Coast Pastor's Conference, Mt. Hermon, California)
From the front, "I am so delighted to be looking at St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippian Church over the next few days together. We have lots of material to cover, so it is best, perhaps, if we just dive into it. On the Monday after Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was abuzz with an uncomfortable disease." Rev. Palmer (pictured above) is and was one of the greatest teacher/preachers of his generation. I did an entire paper on the writings and teachings of Palmer for my Doctorate at Fuller. I literally picked a part, piece for piece, countless sermons that Palmer gave. In short, he is inimicable (un-copyable). But what I discovered is that what made Palmer's preaching/teaching great was not so much his words, but his force. Palmer had - The Edge.
All great teachers must have The Edge
One last thing. The Edge cannot be manufactured, or affected or pretended or replicated. You either have a deep desire to communicate a singular truth or you do not. Teachers who try to pretend like they have it often come across as being simply "mean" or "strident". However, if you ever have the opportunity to be taught by someone who has this miraculous gift, you can be changed for the better for a lifetime.
All For Now,
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
What is the biggest dream that you have for your life? Maybe your dream is to be famous (a rock star, an author, or an actor). Perhaps your dream is to live a happy life (your kids are fulfilled and healthy). Some others may have a dream to make enough money to retire early.
I have moved through various dreams for my life as I have gotten older. When I was in high school, my dream was to be in politics, maybe a senator or even higher. Then, I got to college, and my dream was that I might go to broadway and be a singer in a show, like Les Miserables, or Phantom of the Opera. After college, my dream was to go into International Relations and work in a foreign embassy. Then there were the dreams to build a "mega church" like Robert Schuller or Rick Warren. Now, my dream is mostly to build a healthy church that HELPS people, and to raise a family that has internal strength and fortitude. But to be honest, most of the dreams of my life have been about ME.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of a man whose dream it was to live in a fully racially integrated society. A place where, "one day there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." This was the dream of one African American pastor named, of course, Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot on the porch of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
What is remarkable about Dr. King's dream, in hindsight, is how huge and how bold and how grandiose and how large it actually was. We take for granted today that it is possible to have a president of the United States who is an African American, or to be able to go to any college you want to as long as your grades are good enough, and you have the financial means. But back in Dr. King's day, that wasn't the case. South of the Mason Dixon Line, as they say, separate bathrooms were commonplace, separate restaurants, separate stores, separate neighborhoods. America was deeply divided.
To compare the radical audacity of racial integration in the South (and North) to Dr. King's dream in 1968 would be to compare it to some of the current massive calamities that our world faces. A modern day version of Dr. King's dream might be one of the following:
"I have a dream...that one day every child on the face of the earth will not go to bed hungry at night."
"I have a dream...that one day malaria and other mosquito born illnesses, which kill millions of people around the world each year, will be eradicated."
"I have a dream...that depression and other psychological illnesses that people face, will be a thing of the past."
"I have a dream...that the United States will never again have a mass shooting ever again."
"I have a dream...that there will never again be a war that involves religious differences between people."
"I have a dream...that there will never again be a war!"
You fill in the blank....how big of a dream can you come up with?
What may be missing from the modern psyche is the ability to dream large...dream VERY large. There have been dreamers in the past. There have been the William Wilberforce's who dreamed of eradicating slavery from Great Britain. There have been the Louis Pasteur's who dreamed of, among other things, a world without rabies and anthrax. There were the founding fathers of America who dreamed of an experimental country where a democratically elected and Federalist system could actually replace a monarchical system. But where are the dreamers today?
What is the seedbed of great dreams? Courage, obviously. Altruism. Audacious, irrational optimism and tenacity. A crazy idea that is so big that you are willing to lay down your life for it.
And perhaps most of all, the dream that you might have, will be larger than your own life. That is, if you were to die, in the middle of the completion of that dream, as Dr. King did on that porch in Memphis, Tennessee, that that dream would go on, and carry forward and progress a little more day by day. And of course there is work to do. But the dream still exists. As Dr. King put it, until the day when we are...
"Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
All For Now,
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
"After the final no, there comes a yes,
And on that yes, the future of the world depends."
These words were penned by the great American modernist poet Wallace Stevens in the year 1942 as collection of poems first published under the title; "The Well Dressed Man With a Beard". The story of how Stevens became a poet is worth a blog post unto itself, as he didn't first start to write poetry until his forties, after being educated at Harvard as a lawyer, and working as an insurance company executive for the early part of his career. And the rest of the poem by Stevens is equally prophetic and poignant:
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slide over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket's horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self the trust sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
If I could write poetry like that, I would quit my day job too!
However, since it is less than two weeks until Easter, Stevens' words have been echoing in my ear as the best definition of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, a description of the life of Jesus that I can come up with.
I just put my 1.5 year old son Ewan down for his morning nap. He has been struggling all morning with a bit of a cold, as his little nose drips like a faucet which runs into his mouth. He has been tripping over things, a little cranky, a little agitated - poor little guy. It has been a morning of "no's". "No, don't draw on the table." "No, don't hit the dog." "No, don't throw the remote controls." And so, I decided to just put him down for an early nap. As I tucked Ewan into his crib with a warm bottle, and his snuggly blanket, you could sense excitement from him as he hunkered down for a "long winter's nap." It was the comforting "Yes" after a morning of "No's".
"After the final no, there comes a yes,
And on that yes the future of the world depends."
Some of my best friends are not Christian. When I speak with them, they often tell me that the whole Bible is just one long series of "Do's and Don'ts". When they say this they point out all of the Old Testament passages that delineate rules and regulations from the ancient world (the Ten Commandments, the Levitical Codes, the ways that God cracks down on early people like Noah's friends). With this line of thinking I can never really offer a countervailing argument. They are right, there are a lot of "No's" in the Bible. But then there comes a great and wonderful "Yes", in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was the ultimate Yes. His life was an affirmation of the intrinsic value of humanity, and God's love for it, God's desire to save it. The kinds of things Jesus said were mostly Yeses. Jesus' most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, can be thought of as one big long string of Yeses. The "Blessed Are's" can all be turned into "Yes to's":
"Yes to the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Yes to those who mourn,
for they will be comforted."
"Yes to the meek,
For they will inherit the earth."
And, of course, Jesus said some "no's", but they were always said in love. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn thee (YES), go and sin no more," (John 8:11).
And Jesus is the yes that comes after centuries of definitive "no's". Early civilizations, from the Egyptians to the Persians to the Phoenicians to the Greeks, all offered the world a handful of lasting contributions, and yet most of their cultures were defined...
Wait, I think I hear Ewan waking up from his nap....
Will this be a moment for No or Yes?
All For Now,
Thursday, March 8, 2018
It was a windy, blustery morning in May, as clouds hovered low in the quaint college town of Oxford, England. Spurts of rain would randomly slap the face of by-passers who walked the cobbled streets, and ducked below rock-built archways, late for class or a bite to eat in a cafeteria. It was a Thursday, and the normal course of the class schedule for students was winding down, as evening galas were prepared for the weekend. Tuxedos were being measured. Champagne was being chilled. A medical student by the name of Roger, not a student of the University, had just finished his shift in a local hospital. He rode the morning train in to Oxford. His first goal was to meet up with some old friends for lunch at a nearby pub. And then, a miracle happened...
Roger Bannister had woken up that morning with one goal on his mind - to make history, to change the world, to test the fates of mice and men - to run a mile in less than four minutes. It had never been done before, though some had come close. The year before, the Swedish runner, Arne Andersson almost broke the four minute barrier by running a mile in 4:01.6. In 1945, another Swede, Gunder Hagg, made the same attempt but failed. Some said it couldn't be done. And then a miracle happened...
Some of Roger's friends had thought that it was a bad idea to attempt the record breaking feat that morning because of weather conditions. And yet, still, 1,000 or plus people were willing to take time off of their busy collegiate schedules to see if history could be made. To see if the vaunted four minute mile could be achieved. Most experts at the time, if there really were any by modern day comparisons, wouldn't have put their money on Roger Bannister to break the four minute record. In the words of a great modern day runner and friend of mine, Jamey Gifford, who ran competitively for the Stanford University cross country team, and who racked up an impressive array of medals in his own racing days; "When you look back on Roger Bannister, in many ways, he doesn't seem like a terribly significant athlete. His elite career only lasted a few short years, he never won an Olympic medal, and he held the world record in the mile for a mere 46 days." But still, a miracle happened...
As Roger flung himself, chest full of air, arms flapping and body collapsing, he literally threw himself across the finish line. His time was 3:59.4. The crowd who had gathered there erupted in jubilation at the announcement of the news. A miracle happened...
What made it a miracle?
It had never been done before. Bannister was the least likely of people to accomplish this feat. He only ran 28 miles of training a week. He worked full time in the medical profession. He had a big lunch before running. He retired almost immediately after his running of the race and breaking of the record. It occurred in a somewhat obscure place, on a random track in a seemingly insignificant byway and backwater of the world. When you think about Olympic fame and track and field records, Oxford is probably not the first city that comes to your mind.
Several years ago, I was studying for my Doctorate with Fuller Seminary at a college in Oxford (St. Stephens College). When class let out, to give students a leg stretch in the middle of the morning, I went outside and walked down the street to the corner. There I found a street named Iffley Road. It was a nothing to write home about. And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled the name, Ifflley Road. There before me was a black gravel track and a small parade stand. This was the place! This was the place that on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the world record. This was the place where a miracle happened...
Having been a pastor for about 20 years now, I have seen my share of miracles. I have witnessed people getting healed who you would never expect to get well. I have seen churches rise up in places where no-one thought churches could be built. I have seen communities come back to life again after years of moribundity and abject poverty. I have witnessed couples who were headed for divorce, figure out ways to keep their marriage together. I have seen people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol find ways to lay aside their vices and take up the cross of Jesus. I have seen miracles happen. And when they do, they never announce themselves beforehand. Miracles never walk up and say, "Something great is about to happen." They just happen. They just occur. They occur in the lives of ordinary, common, hard working people. Usually, it is only after they have occurred that you realize that history was made.
Last week, Roger Bannister, who broke the four minute barrier died at his home at the age of 88. He would go on to live a distinguished life and contribute mightily to the field of mental health and medical awareness. His life, it must be said, was complete when he died. He seemed to do everything that a person could hope to do in the span of eight decades. And yet it wasn't the eight decades that he will be remembered for. It was the sub-set of four minutes. And that's...
How Miracles Happen...
All For Now,
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
I have been thinking lately about the process that most churches use to decide whether to have a new program or not. Having served in lots of different kinds of churches through the years, I have seen lots of ways that churches approach this subject. Usually the process goes something like this. Let's take an innocuous and fictional example. Let's say the church is trying to decide whether to start a "Quilting Ministry."
1. Someone comes forward and says, "We should start a quilting ministry."
2. Someone else says, "Good idea, quilting, cool, let's announce it Sunday."
3. Announcement gets made, "Come to our quilting ministry opener!"
4. Two people show up to the quilting day opener. Neither of them know anything about quilting. One of them was under the impression that it was a "quitting ministry" that involved quitting smoking, and misunderstood that it was actually about "quilting". The "Quilting Ministry" never gets off the ground.
Obviously this same scenario can be applied to lots of different kinds of ministry (youth, seniors, young adults, men's, women's, whatever). Choose one that fits your own church.
A more helpful model that I have used in churches that I have served is a quick mathematical equation. Keep in mind that I was always quite terrible with math in school, and...that's why I became a pastor:-) Here is the equation:
N + R + HS = P
Needs + Resources + Holy Spirit = Program
The first letter is N for NEEDS. What this means is that every church program must start with an actual NEED. The more pressing the need, the more effective the ministry. Where there is no need, there is no ministry. What do I mean by need? In Burlingame where I have just moved, and am pastoring, one of the most pressing needs is assistance for young adults and young families. Living expenses are extremely high here, and people's lives are insanely busy. What are some needs that young adults have in Burlingame? Affordable childcare. Many families in this area are known to spend around $3,500 a month on child care (gulp). I bet the area that you live in has needs to. REAL NEEDS, not small needs.
The next letter is R for RESOURCES. Does the church have the resources to be able to carry out the ministry? Most people think that resources are just about money, but they involve many more components: facilities, staff, time, knowledge, intelligence, skill, ability, and long term sustainability. Often churches try to start important ministries that are actual needs in their community, but they don't have the resources to be able to do them. For example, I would love to work on limiting fire arms sales for automatic weapons in our country, however, my church has no direct resources to help with this glaring national problem. So it would be foolish to take on this issue. So, you gotta have the resources.
The third couple of letters are HS - HOLY SPIRIT. Is the Holy Spirit directing you to do a certain program or is this just a pet project? Do you sense a prevailing wind from God telling you to do something or is this just a whim? For example, I wouldn't mind if our church had a bagpipe band. But, because I am the only bagpiper in the church (that I know of), and bagpipes are a bit of a "nitch" ministry (to say the least), it would just be more of a personal pet project than a ministry lead by the Holy Spirit.
So, that's it. N + R + HS = P. It seems quite simple, but this formula can save your church a lot of heartache, time, money, energy and burnout.
More often I have seen churches develop programs using a different formula:
PN + NR + MOA = Program
Perceived Need + No Resources + My Own Agenda = Program
Can anyone say, "Quilters Anonymous?"
What about "Bagpipers for Jesus!"
My apologies to all of the quilters out there who are reading this blog:-)
All For Now,
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
In those days he came preaching in the Desert
and saying "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near."
These words were written about a great preacher who lived not long ago. They were written about a man who drew thousands of people to his fiery declamations about God's power and might and sovereignty and salvation. People from all walks of life and all segments of society came to hear the man who preached these words. They were, of course, originally preached by John the Baptist who lived in the first century in the country of Judea. But they were made more famous in recent years by a man named Billy Graham who lived in the latter part of the 20th century and preached to millions and millions of people. This blogpost is a tribute to Billy Graham's ministry and impact on my own ministry and life.
Billy Graham passed away last night at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He was 99 years old.
Like Billy Graham (not my namesake, though many have asked if I was named after Billy Graham), I was raised in a Presbyterian home. Graham hailed from Presbyterian stock on both sides of his family. Graham's late wife was Ruth Graham (nee, Ruth McCue Bell, whose father was Dr. L. Nelson Bell a prominent Presbyterian missionary to China). Graham's own family were Reformed Presbyterians from Scottish stock. The New York Times this morning wrote that, "Though the Grahams were Reformed Presbyterians, and though his father insisted on daily readings of the Bible, Billy was not an enthusiastic Christian." The same might have been said of my early Christian upbringing. I went to church each Sunday morning mostly because that's what our, "family did" on a Sunday morning. It is not that my faith wasn't real growing up, it was, it was just that the way that it was practiced and experienced was not necessarily highly emotional, or flashy or fiery.
The church I grew up in was named Trinity. And potlucks, church family camps and children's sermons were, in many senses, my own personal Holy Trinity.
When I was about 12 years old, I went with my local congregation to the Billy Graham Crusade to be held in the Boise State University Basketball Arena. I had never been to a religious (or a non-religious event for that matter) of this ilk. Thousands gathered in that arena to listen to the mass choir, a few members of which came from my own local Presbyterian congregation. Then Billy Graham began to preach. What struck me, surprisingly, was not his fiery oratory, but rather his magnetism and kindness. Even from a pulpit in the center of a huge arena, I felt like Billy Graham was speaking to just - ME. He seemed like the kind of person who you wouldn't mind having in your home, sitting beside your bed, or holding hands to pray with.
At the end of the worship service in BSU stadium I found myself, for some inexplicable reason, walking forward to pray with one of the attendants at the front of the arena. After the prayer, like Graham has said of his own similar conversion experience, "I can't say that I felt anything spectacular. I felt very little emotion. I shed no tears. The Lord did speak to me about certain things in my life. I'm certain of that, but I can't remember what they were."
Later when I went to college in Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, I would visit friends in downtown who lived right next to the International Headquarters of the Billy Graham Association. Because I was going through a bit of an agnostic stage in my own faith walk at the time, I was less enamored by the magnitude and size of the ministry organization, but still felt an innate power in their presence and Spiritual footprint, even as I walked around their buildings on snowy, sub-arcticly cold days.
As the years have elapsed, and my own ministry has unfolded, I have become aware of how different I am as a pastor and a preacher than Billy Graham. I don't preach about evil very often, though I do believe in it. I don't align myself with political causes, though, as a student of Poly Sci, I know that everything in life is inherently political. I don't try or want people to feel bad about their lives after they hear me speak. And perhaps most of all, I realize that the intoxicating, and more often wearying chimera of public life isn't really real, and doesn't last. In the end, perhaps I realize that I am more PRESBYTERIAN than I ever realized.
However, I am grateful for the life of Billy Graham and his ministry. And the world seems, somehow, more vacant and empty on this chilly February morning, now that it no longer has Billy Graham within it. Graham's favorite hymn to have his congregation's sing after one of his sermons was the great, "Just As I Am." Aptly, Graham's greatest contribution was that he was a pastor, "Just As He Was." And now, Billy Graham is in heaven, and it might be said that he has gone there, "Just As He Is." But thankfully, those who listened to Graham, and were impacted by him will never again be able to say that we are, "Just As We Were..."
All For Now,
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Tomorrow is Valentines Day, and many people in America are focussing on ways to endear themselves to the people they love. Most guys, truth be told, who pay attention to Valentines Day, are scrambling to come up with a good website from which to buy flowers. Flowers can be a way of showing someone you love, that you love them. Personally, I have always found that a good bottle of Pinot is even more appreciated. However, one of the things I have learned in life is that the ear is actually the closest part of the body to the heart.
Not long ago, my Spiritual Director, friend, therapist and mentor, Rev. Dr. Gordon Hess (PhD), told me an important life lesson; "The ear is the organ of intimacy." To be honest, when I heard this for the first time, my mind went to the word intimacy, and then I thought about an ear, and I wondered if this was some new sexual technique that I was not aware of. Gordon explained that the best way for a person to feel that you love them is to demonstrate that you have heard them. Or better yet, to actually HEAR them. When people feel heard, they then often feel understood, and when they feel understood, they feel like someone really knows them, and when someone really knows them, they often feel loved.
Yesterday on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed an incredible woman named Kate Bowler who is a professor at Duke Divinity School and who has just written a nationwide best-seller called, "Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved". The title is incredible, and the book, which I have not read yet, is an account of her survival from cancer and the spiritual insights that accompanied that journey. In the interview, Kate says that when she learned that the doctors who treated her had overlooked the cancerous tumor that was found in her colon, she became infuriated. How could they miss such a basic medical malady? Terry asked Kate whether she ever thought about suing the doctors who made this medical mistake that almost cost her her life. Kate said, "No, I didn't, but I really did wish that someone, just someone had said to me, 'You know, I am really sorry, this is awful, I really made a mistake, I feel terrible about this.'" In other words, what Kate wanted most is to be healed, but short of that, what she cherished was the chance to be HEARD.
The truth be told, I have always been pretty good at listening, but I have never been very good at demonstrating to someone else who is communicating with me, that I have actually HEARD them. Recently, I received a critique about an aspect of the worship service that I lead each week. The critique on its face was not a bad one, and when the person pointed out the mistake, I immediately heard what they were saying. In previous years, my instinct would have been to shoot this person back an email and said, "Oh, ok, great, thanks for sharing, I'll consider this." However, what I have learned is that this kind of response isn't a great mechanism for hearing. So, instead, I picked up the phone, and I talked with this person for about 30 minutes. I talked with them not just about the issue that they were presenting, but about their entire lives. How were they doing? What was going on with them? How were things going? The next Sunday, the person who made the critique walked up to me with tears in her eyes and said, "Graham, I just want to thank you. And I want you to know that I really felt HEARD by you the other day." Now, here's the truth. I really didn't modify my behavior in the slightest. What I did do is take time to try to demonstrate to that person that I had HEARD them. And in hearing there is healing!
So, this Valentines Day, you can buy flowers, or a bottle of Pinot. These are both good things. But what may get you closer to that person's heart is not a dent out of your checking account, but a dent in your ear. To show, for a few brief moments, to demonstrate, that what they have said, that you they really are - you have HEARD.
All For Now,
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Like a lot of other Americans, I have been enjoying a series of television shows on "Netflix" (a movie streaming service), that is called, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." The premise of the show is extremely simple - it is all tied up in the title - a series of comedians who drive with Jerry Seinfeld (a comedian) who are getting coffee. But the great nuggets of simple wisdom that are shared in the show are priceless. Here are a couple of them:
"Pain is knowledge rushing to fill a gap" - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld explains that a lot of times we don't have the knowledge we need in life. But then we have some experience of pain, and we immediately know the truth. Seinfeld says that an example of this might be when you are walking around your room at night, and you don't know where your bed is, but then you stub your toe on the bed, and it hurts. Pain just helped you to learn some important knowledge:-)
"Comedy is basically a series of proofs"- Jerry Seinfeld
Again, Seinfeld explains that a good comedian stands up in front of people and says something ridiculous that needs a proof. An example of this might be, "Why are the raisin brand people always telling us about two scoops of raisins?" Are two scoops more compelling than one? No one really likes raisin bran in the first place, so saying there are two scoops doesn't make it more of something someone wants to eat.
"Sometimes backstage I think, 'I don't even know why I picked this business'" Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that almost always before he goes out on stage he wonders if he is really all that funny or really has much to offer people. He is constantly amazed that people would pay good money to want to come out and hear what he has to say. As a preacher, I can relate to this at some level. Quite frequently I wonder if the sermon I have prepared, right before I deliver it, really has anything to offer, or is all that good. My experience is that this is often a sign that it is, in fact, pretty good.
"The comedian studies himself, the actor studies other people." - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that the main difference between acting and doing comedy is that comedians are always looking inward and questioning themselves. The good comedian questions their motives and their drives and their ambitions and their wants and their desires. The actor, says Seinfeld, does the opposite, they look outwards. The comedian wants to be him/herself. The actor wants to be anyone but themselves.
"Talking about comedy is like talking about sex." - Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld says that his favorite thing to do is to talk with other comedians about comedy. But, in the end, he says, it's sort of fruitless. It's like talking about sex. In Seinfeld's words, "You can talk bout all the fancy dives you want, but it's still just a foot of water." I'm not sure I really understand this last one, but I think it relates to the fact that comedy is like diving off of a stage into a foot of water. It's pretty basic, and in the end, it either works or it doesn't.
"The key to happiness is always having something to look forward to." - Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Seinfeld interviews other comedians too, one of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She said that the key to happiness is always having something on the horizon that you are looking forward to doing. It doesn't have to be a big thing, but a small thing, a favorite place to have coffee in the morning, a vacation on the horizon, a good book to dig into when you go to bed.
All For Now,