Why Is Obedience So Hard?

boy and dogMom had asked me to feed the dog once again and I decided to do it my own way. I was a child growing up on the island of Trinidad and had a mind of my own. If I had to do this chore, I was going to have some fun while doing it or at least fun in my own eyes. Our dog was located outside the house and after I took his food to him, I hid in a corner and waited. I knew that my younger brother would come looking for me and I was going to scare him. Well, I must have been pretty effective, because he ran back into the house to get my Dad terrified that a burglar was on the property. I was also pretty fortunate that day, because my Dad came looking for the robber with a stick that could have really injured me. At the last minute, I identified myself, terrified my Dad and got a well-deserved punishment for my “practical joke”. Why couldn’t I have just fed the dog like I was supposed to have?

This week I have been reading the tragic story of Saul from the book of 1 Samuel and have been struck by how much he disappointed God. There is very sad verse in chapter 15 that says that God was “sorry he had ever made Saul king of Israel.” How did it come to this point so quickly in Saul’s reign as the first king of God’s chosen people? The evidence is all throughout the earlier chapters of a man who is so concerned by what the people thought of him that he compromised on a regular basis. In the climactic battle with the Amalekites, he is given clear and unequivocal instructions by God to kill all the people and their livestock – no one was to be spared. Despite this, he caves to the pressure from his army to take the King alive and to keep the best plunder for themselves. In a great irony, Saul even offers to sacrifice the animals they captured, but it is “too little too late”. In one of the most important life application verses in the Bible, Samuel tells Saul that “Obedience is far better than sacrifice”.

My namesake David was the King that followed Saul and was “a man after God’s own heart”. While he was no saint and was actually a pretty big sinner, he was also quick to repent. Even more importantly, he learned the power of obedience from a young age and functioned out of confidence not cowardice. At critical moments when he faced the most insurmountable odds, he stopped to seek God’s will and get His “marching orders”. It seems that a critical component to effective obedience is discerning God’s will in the first place. Sometimes this is very clear like it was for Saul, but at other times, it requires getting alone like Jesus so that we can really hear our heavenly father. Once we are clear on what God wants us to do, it is easier to act in a way that honors him.

That said, I have also experienced moments like Saul where it was pretty clear what God wanted me to do and in the critical moments I fell prey to the temptation to compromise and only obey in “half measures”. So why is it so hard to obey? Most of the time it is because of fear and selfishness. We are afraid of the consequences of complete surrender to God’s will and have been hard wired to put our desires above everything else. I think it is also because we are really forgetful. Just like the people of Israel, I fail to remember God’s faithfulness, His love for me and His desire to see me become the person He wants me to be. Like C.S. Lewis so famously said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

As I pause this week to give thanks to God for all that He has done in my life, I am reminded that more than my gratitude, he wants my obedience.

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A Night to Remember

kirk 1Kirk Franklin came for a visit to our CLC Bookcenter this past week and it was a night that I will never forget. For those who have never heard of Kirk Franklin, he is the most popular urban gospel music artist of his generation and has impacted both Christian and secular music charts for over twenty years. He is a song writer, a musician, a choir director and a performer like no other. On this night, he was celebrating the release of his new CD, Losing My Religion, and came to meet his fans, provide autographs and take pictures. His fans in Philly did not let him down and he returned the favor

As Kirk pulled up to the store, he saw a line that stretched far down the sidewalk with hundreds of people waiting to see him. The event had been well publicized on radio and social mekirk 2dia and the weather cooperated as well. Almost immediately after he arrived, he ran outside the store to greet the crowd and was overwhelmed by their appreciation for him and his ministry. Kirk is a ball of energy and got started signing right away and greeting people. He is not a man of pretense and is sure that everyone who meets him feels special. He is particularly fond of families and children and often stopped to hug them and to answer questions they might have.

kirk 4This was not Kirk’s first visit to CLC, but it was the first time that he had visited in ten years. His first visit was in 1998 and was a night that became legend in the gospel music community. Our little store was hosting its first “midnight” release of his album called the Nu Nation Project. We had asked our music rep if Kirk could be a part of the celebration and were told that it was not possible as the project was going to ship one million units that week and we were not a part of the launch plan. We decided to host the event despite this information and were amazed at the turnout that late at night. As sometimes happens in our lives, God had other plans for that night.

What we did not know was that Kirk Franklin did come to Philadelphia that day in 1998, but not for our event. He was in town for a funeral of a friend’s father and as he was driving around he turned on the radio to the local gospel music station. He heard the commercial that we were running and called the station to ask about what we were doing. That night he showed up unannounced with his wife and two body guards. A good number of our customers were still there when he arrived and were completely shocked that it was really him. They quickly got on their cell phones to tell friends and took lots of pictures. What did not seem possible in our eyes was very possible in God’s. As a direct result of the buzz created by that event, we were blessed to host six major midnight releases the following year.

kirk 3Success of the kind that Kirk has experienced over the years can change a person. Some artists become aloof, self-absorbed and very demanding of others. To God’s glory that is not Kirk’s story. He is a model of humility and love for people, no matter who they are. On this particular night, he turned our store into a party that felt like a family reunion. He stayed until the very last person got their CD signed, their picture taken and their hug given. No one was left out. He was in no hurry and clearly got energy from the people that came to see him. At several points during the evening, I could not help but think about the story in the Bible where Jesus told his disciples to bring the children to him as Kirk made every child feel like they were someone special.

At a time when bookstores are closing, people are downloading their music and music artists have stopped visiting retail stores, this was a moment to remember. Hundreds of people showed up to support an artist who matters to them and their community. Our bookstore was able to host this event because of the many volunteers that helped out and everyone had fun. We sold over 200 physical CDs that night and praised God for his blessing on our little store. A lot has changed since 1998 when I first met Kirk Franklin, but one thing has remained the same. The same God who brought Kirk to our store so many years ago has remained faithful to our ministry. He gets all the glory for this wonderful night and Kirk Franklin would be the first to applaud that notion. What a good God we serve.

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The Power of Personal Connection

huggingThe call came into our front desk this week. Jeanette buzzed my phone and said that a Mrs. Johnson was on the phone and wanted to talk with me. I asked Jeanette if she knew the woman and she said that she did not, but that this woman claimed to know me. A few seconds later, I picked up the line that Mrs. Johnson was on and discovered that she was a long time CLC customer from the era when I had been a bookstore manager. At that time I had helped her find a particular Bible and she had used it for many years and needed a replacement. Somehow, I must have made an impact on her as she tracked me down at the headquarters office where I now work and opened the conversation with line. “I just had to call you because you know everything”. Well, I certainly do not know everything, but I did know about this Bible and that it had been replaced by a similar Bible with a new name. After a quick recommendation and a reminder about where our store had moved since we last chatted, she thanked me profusely and ended the call.

As I was pondering this event and how much I enjoyed this aspect of my work when I was in the bookstore, I couldn’t help but consider another breaking story of the past couple of weeks. After many years of rumors, Amazon.com actually opened a physical bookstore in Seattle, Washington. This astounding event occurred without much fanfare in the mainstream media or hoopla about the irony of “the world’s largest bookstore” actually finally opening a bricks and mortar location. After 21 years as an exclusively on-line book retailer that destroyed the livelihoods of many independent physical book stores, this giant of an organization opened a very modest 5,000 square foot location. There has been much speculation about why they made this plunge. One thing is for sure, shopping on-line is not the same as visiting a store and the closure of so many bookstores has changed the book buying habits of our nation and many countries around the world. While people may have access to almost any book on-line they want at any time of night or day and great prices, this reality does not replace the value and the joy of human interaction.

I spent the weekend at America’s Keswick in Whiting, NJ at my church’s annual men’s retreat and realized how good it was for my soul. Men tend to be islands unto themselves and stoically go through life pretending they don’t need other people, especially not other guys in their lives. While we interact with each other in business, at church and in recreational settings, we rarely take time to get below the surface. Far too often we are consumed by trivial conversations about sports, politics or other inconsequential issues as we avoid ever letting other men into our world. I was like this for a long time too. In recent years, I was deeply convicted about this reality in my own life and committed to being in a weekly men’s accountability group. These men that I meet with are like brothers and have given me a safe place to explore my faith, share my frustrations and to be challenged on a regular basis. As I spent quality time this weekend in extended conversations with guys that I do not interact with on a regular basis, I was reminded of the way Jesus poured himself into the life of twelve men that he mentored.

This built in desire for relationship makes my phone call this week and the store opening in Seattle make a lot more sense. Mrs. Johnson could certainly have done her research on-line about the Bible she needed, but why do that when she could call me and get a personal recommendation from “an old friend”. Amazon may be finally recognizing that Starbucks was on to something when they opened so many locations around the world to create “third places” for people to congregate, interact and buy coffee at crazy prices. It would not surprise me if they open more stores and even increase prices as people prove once again that they are willing to pay more for the in-store experience and personal recommendations that make finding “just the right book” such a delightful experience.

My team members in France will certainly be glad that we have a physical bookstore in Paris and nine more in strategic locations all over that traumatized nation this next week. After closing on Saturday in memory of the horrific events of this weekend, we will reopen again to provide an oasis of care and concern. People will be able to come in and ask the hard questions, to cry and to mourn and we will do what we always do in crisis situations. We will mourn with those who mourn and pray with those who will let us. Our books will be all that much more meaningful and the Bibles on our shelves will provide the only true answers to events that seem so unimaginably awful. I only wish I could fly across the ocean to join with them as they open the doors. I may not be able to speak French, but I do know how to hug. May God be the God of all comfort to the people of France and may we remember the power of personal connection.

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Creating Safe Spaces

burkaVoices were being raised and I knew something strange was going on. On this particular day I was sitting in my office at the bookstore working on paperwork when I heard the sounds. Concerned that an altercation of some sort was taking place, I quickly walked out to hear the words that I will never forget. “What part of Christian did you not understand about this bookstore?” Two women were speaking to another who was dressed from head to foot in a burka with only her eyes visible. I am not sure what I was surprised by more – the Muslim woman or how she was being treated by her Christian “sisters”. Unfortunately the damage already been done by the time I arrived on the scene and before I could intervene, this Muslim woman quickly left the store. I was heartbroken.

On the heels of this incident, I spent time training our team and preparing for the rare opportunity when another Muslim might enter our store. Given that we lived in a city with many who claimed Islam as their faith, I should not have been surprised that God would make that happen sooner that we had expected. Not long after, a self-identified Muslim couple came into the store looking for a gift for a friend and very curious about what a Christian bookstore was. Our team did an incredible job of making them feel welcome and two hours later, they were the last customers to leave our store that day. As they were checking out at the register, the husband looked asked, “Do you treat all your Muslim customers this well?” Not quite sure how to respond given how few Muslims ever shopped in our store, we quickly assured him that we did our best to treat all our customers with dignity and respect. What a turn of events.

Just a few years before this, I had had my own unfortunate incident in another part of the world. I was traveling with my wife to Central Asia to visit one of our teams that ministered in a predominantly Muslim country. After chatting with the local team about the city where they worked, I asked if they had any other bookstores nearby. They said that there was a Muslim bookstore, but gently suggested that I might want to think twice before visiting. Being a much younger person at that time and too naive to know any better, I quickly ignored their advice and went exploring. Sure enough, the store was right around the corner and I boldly crossed the threshold. It was not a particularly cold day outside, but it felt like I had entered an “ice box” when I walked in. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me as if they had never seen a westerner before, or at least one foolish enough to come into their store. As I looked up, I noticed pictures of Islamic Mullahs all around the walls and some that looked like the menacing images of the Ayatollah Khomeini I had seen before. Not interested in creating an international incident, I quickly left and wondered if I was going to be “followed” for making such a poor decision. Clearly that bookstore was not a safe space for people like me.

Many year after both of these events, I was in Bangalore in India and saw something that was equally unforgettable. As I was chatting with the local CLC store manager, I noticed that a group of Muslim women, all wearing burkas, had just entered the store. Assuming they were lost or did not know what kind of store we had, I was surprised to see them walk around, browse and act as if they felt quite comfortable. Turning to the manager, I asked if this was an unusual occurrence and he said no, they had many Muslims who shopped in the store as they sold greeting cards and calendars that appealed to a wide audience. He was quick to add, “We welcome whomever God sends our way.” I was deeply convicted and realized what creating a safe space really looked like.

Somehow Jesus was a magnet for the wrong kind of people and those that made other people feel really uncomfortable. He created a safe space zone wherever he went. No matter what kind of life someone had lived, whether they were a dreaded tax collector or a reviled prostitute, he welcomed them and actually conferred his dignity on them while taking on their revulsion. This happened so much that the leaders of that time often asked how he could “hang out with those kinds of people”. He didn’t care what these “bad sorts” were doing to his reputation. In an age when sinners are becoming bolder and bolder about promoting and even flaunting their sinful lifestyles, we have a wonderful opportunity. Rather doing our best to let them know how unwelcome they are in our presence, we can create safe spaces for them by letting them see that we are just like them and that they are welcome to join us in God’s presence. The truth is that we Christians are simply sinners saved by grace.

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Becoming a Supernaturalist

hearts of stoneIt’s hard growing up in a Christian bubble. For kids whose parents are evangelical heavyweights it can be nearly impossible. From Franklin Graham to Barnabas Piper, the stories of rebellion and struggle with doubt are all too common. This week, Warren Cole Smith, published an interview with Bart Campolo on World Magazine’s web page that was as fascinating as it was sad. I didn’t know Bart, but I did get to talk with him once before he walked away from the faith. He was responsible for administrative aspects of his Dad’s (Tony Campolo’s) ministry at that time and was really helpful to me and easy to chat with. His passion was incarnational ministry and living with the people he was serving in conditions of real poverty. He clearly was more interested in walking the walk than just talking the talk. Yet somehow, he walked away from all that he once professed to believe and today is the first ever “humanist” chaplain on the campus of the University of Southern California.

In the interview, Bart describes in great detail what led to his decision and made a very important statement,

For about 30 years, I became more and more committed to social justice, and loving relationships, and trying to heal broken people’s lives. In the context particularly of the inner city, I became less and less convinced that there was any supernatural reality. I came to this place where I was like, over time, I don’t think that the core narrative is true. My ability to believe in supernatural forces—I became a naturalist

At some point in our spiritual journeys we probably all come to a similar crises of faith – are we going to believe the narrative of the Bible, are we going accept the concept of miracles, do we really believe that God exists and if so He is really all powerful. This is the dividing line of true faith: either we accept that there is mystery in the Gospel and that there is a supernatural reality or we become rationalists who only accept “natural” explanations for what is happening in our lives.

This tendency towards rational explanations and a naturalist view of life are baked into the DNA of modern life. With so much technology all around us and new scientific breakthroughs nearly every day, it not entirely surprising. Our desire to control our own lives apart from a sovereign God however is as old as human existence. I am no exception.

As a teenager, I attended a Christian boarding school for my last two years of High School. Without a job and with parents who were missionaries oversees I was in the unenviable position of having very little spending money. This really bothered me as other kids from wealthier homes had allowances that allowed them to go shopping at the local mall and most importantly to be able to go on dates. I decided to take my frustrations to God and began praying for what I thought was impossible – a regular monthly allowance. Somehow, this was not a problem for Him. A few weeks later, I got an anonymous check for $25.00 and it kept coming every month for rest of my time at that school. My parents confirmed that this was not their doing or anyone else that they knew.

Here is the irony, there was a “rational” explanation for this miracle, but it made it no less a miracle in my life. My roommate overheard my prayers and when his aunt asked him if there were any boys who had a special financial need in his dorm, he was quick to mention my name and never told me. What I do know is this, God shaped me as a result of that experience. I began to trust Him for all my needs no matter what and knew that He could and would supply is His own ways. My roommate did not have to listen to my prayers, he did not have to tell his aunt and his aunt certainly did not have to do anything about it. I firmly believe that God worked supernaturally on my behalf in each and every one of those circumstances.

Looking for the supernatural is a tricky thing. Too often we are like the people who followed Jesus all over Galilee looking for signs and wonders and not being satisfied until they had seen another spectacular miracle performed before their very eyes. So many of these very people missed the most important miracle of all time – God came to earth in the flesh and dwelt among them! Before casting stones at the people who saw Jesus in person, it is important to note that we do the same thing. Not satisfied with the ordinary miracles happening around us every day, we seek our more and more dramatic experiences and manifestations.

To be clear, I personally believe that God can and does perform miracles today. I have personally prayed for people that were healed and seen “with my own eyes” demons being cast out. That said, the greatest miracle I have ever witnessed is the transformation of my own heart from a heart of stone to a heart yielded to an almighty God. In my flesh, this would have never happened. Only a God who loved me enough to answer all my questions, who put people in my life that walked with me in my doubts and never left me or forsook me could have made that happen. I am now an unashamed supernaturalist and know that this same God can still rescue Bart regardless of what he may have decided to believe.


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Poured In and Poured Out

poured outI was in eleventh grade and I had done something really stupid. In an attempt to prove that I was something other than an academically inclined nerd, I decided to write some incendiary words on the overhead projector in my U.S. History class just to get a reaction from my teacher. As expected, he was furious when he saw what “someone” had written, but even more frustrated when he discovered to my horror that it was in permanent ink. Given that I was attending a Christian boarding school, this teacher thought he would start seeking out the culprit by doing the obvious and asking for someone to admit they had done it. After a few moments of hesitation, I raised my hand and prepared to take my punishment. It was clear that my teacher was shocked that I (one of his best students) was the culprit and he told me in no uncertain terms how unacceptable my behavior was. But that was not the end of the conversation.

Probably because I had acted out like this, it had become clear that I was seeking some kind of “extra” attention. This teacher decided to take the bait. Instead of writing me off as just another obnoxious “know it all” student with a need to be noticed, he decided to pour himself into me. He became a mentor and a friend and changed my life that year. Little did I know that I would play three sports and that he would be my coach in all three. In the middle of the school year, he discovered that I was wrestling with some theological questions and he invited me to his house to discuss these deep issues at length. He recommended books for me to read and he challenged my assumptions while constantly pointing me to God and His word for the answers to my spiritual battles.

A few years later, I was attending a Sunday school class at my church and loved the teaching from one particular man. He seemed to know God’s word in great depth and could make almost any topic or passage in scripture come alive. I was very engaged in his class, asked lots of questions and enjoyed studying whatever issue that was being taught. For some reason, he noticed my interest and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. He invited me to “co-teach” a class with him the following semester on a particular book of the Bible. Up until that point, I had never really taught an adult class. I had lots of practice with kids and young adults, but this was an intimidating and exciting prospect. He offered to loan me his commentaries and gave me pointers along the way. Most of all, he simply modeled for me what great teaching looked like.

I find myself in a very different place these days with my hair (what little I have left) growing whiter and my energy level slowing down. I am no longer the youngest person in my organization and people are often looking to me for advice and input. On many days, it can be quite exhausting trying to respond to all the demands on my plate. Despite this, I have discovered something wonderful. Pouring myself into others can be as gratifying and rewarding as having others pour themselves into me. Relationships are a lot like a bank account – the more you put in, the more that you can take out. As a leader, I am learning more and more about making relationship deposits these days and trusting that God will get the increase.

This weekend, I have had the joy of watching Godly Christian leaders pour into the next generation of church planters. Men who have “been there and done that” are speaking into the lives of “young bucks” rearing to get into the thick of the battle. Interestingly, there are more than two generations represented at this conference, and the same men who are teaching what they have learned also took time to honor a 75 year old pastor who has blazed the trail ahead of many current urban church planters and set an example for all who would follow in his footsteps.

As part of that middle generation, I had the pleasure of selecting books for the conference book table and helping these next generation leaders choose resources that will bolster them for realities ahead. Who knows how God will use this bounty of scheduled lectures, unscheduled interactions, and perhaps even a particular book from our book table to help guide and grow the urban church this year? Maybe what we are doing this weekend will be game changer for a conference attendee just like those countless lessons, conversations, and books have shaped my spiritual journey.

thriving 2015

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Just Because

poetry slamIt used to happen a lot. When I managed a Christian bookstore, every local author and musical artist saw me as the gatekeeper to a missing ingredient in their career. That missing ingredient was the ever elusive spot on our store shelves and hopefully a book or CD signing. At first I was resentful of how often these conversations took place and how much time it took to explain our process for handling these requests. Our store just didn’t have room for every new self-published book or newly recorded CD and I was supposed to be spending my time providing resources that people were actually looking for. Besides all that I hated having to say no so often.

Fairly quickly, I realized that I needed to do something about this deluge of local “talent” or it was going to drive me crazy. We needed a forum to make it possible for us to celebrate the artists in our community and not just treat them as a frustrating interruption in our daily routine. As I began to get to know people in my city and to hear their stories, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of talent and their desire to share this with as many people as possible. I also realized I could not do this on my own. It was out of this frustration that the “Gospel Poetry Slam” was born. Secular spoken word events were happening all over the city, but no one was really providing a space for Christian artists to share their talent.

With the help of some friends from a local gospel music recording and distribution company, we opened our doors on Saturday evenings once a month for an open mic night that would become a signature event for our store. With very little store staff (often just myself and one other person), we provided the space for the event to take place, allowed my friends to host and facilitate every aspect of the evening and something remarkable happened. People began paying a small “cover” charge just to get into our store after regular hours to attend this event and often to perform. It was incredible to see the talent that existed and was often overlooked. On any given night, there were musical performances, poetry, spoken word, book readings, comedy routines and lots of fun. We always allowed the performers to feature and sell their products if they had just published or recorded their material and people would regularly buy these books and CDs.

Today, I no longer manage a bookstore on a day to day basis, but I still value the power of a generous spirit. It never ceases to amaze me how we can so quickly evaluate another person on the basis of their ability to help us. This even happens in the church. We meet someone for the first time and find out what they do and immediately start making mental calculations about how valuable they could be to us and our objectives. If they are not an “influencer” or worse they want/ need something from us, it is amazing how quick we find a way to end those conversations. As a person who considers himself an influencer, I can be the “chief of sinners” in this area and have to constantly remind myself of Jesus’s example. He often seemed to choose the worst possible people to connect with if he was looking to build his platform and improve his reputation. Instead, he intentionally hung out with outcasts and very needy people who regularly took more than they gave.

It occurs to me that Jesus would not have made a good client for a modern day talent agent. He always seemed to choose to focus on people that made the disciples cringe. If he wasn’t eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, he was healing the unclean and untouchable. His motto seemed to be “just because”. Wherever he went he looked on people with enormous compassion and just because they needed to be fed, he fed them; just because they were sick, he healed them; and just because they were sinners, he forgave them. He did not make cold calculations of their value to him nor did he put barriers between himself and the crowds. He walked among them, called for the children to be brought to him and ate at their tables. This week I look forward to experiencing a few of those “just because” moments myself as I allow Him to guide my steps. Who knows what may happen?

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