Expecting Serendipity

road markerI knew this was going to be a long trip, but I did not know that it would take almost two full days to get to my destination. Scott and I headed out early on Friday morning from Philadelphia to Orlando with an overnight stop planned in Columbia, SC at my parents’ house. Hoping for better driving conditions, I avoided I-95 and went down I-81 and everything was going great until we hit 10+ miles of traffic around Charlotte. After losing over an hour in that mess, we finally made it to my sister’s house for a dinner after over thirteen hours on the road.

We had a great time with my family, ate lots of food, got some much needed rest and planned for an 8AM start this morning. Right before I left my Dad made sure that I understood that I needed to take a side road to the main highway to avoid construction delays at their exit. As a dutiful son, I did just that and thought I must have been seeing things when we had to stop for a construction crew on the side road and nothing was happening on the main road. Was this a cruel joke? Had I misunderstood my Dad’s instructions? Within a few moments, I realized that in a bizarre coincidence, I had driven down that side road at just the time when a local foot race was being run and the police had everything stopped to let the runners go by. How could this have happened? We were going to waste precious time sitting there watching dozens of people go by and some of them (truth be told) were not even running at all.

As we arrived at the convention center many hours later for the trade show we are attending, I backed our van up the ramp and prepared to unload when I noticed something odd. Most of the doors to the building were closed and nobody else was coming or going. At just that moment someone came out of the doors and I asked them what was going on only to learn that the unloading period had ended at 5PM and nobody was being allowed in until the next morning. I could hardly believe my ears, but realized that I had no other choice but to come back when the doors would be open again. How could this all have happened? Was the world conspiring against me? My expectations of getting things done according to my schedule had been shattered and I was going to have to recalibrate.

Having made this trip to various cities around the country once a year for the same convention, I had lots of experience doing road trips and learning an important lesson that was reinforced again this year. While things may not always go according to my plans, if I am willing to listen and watch carefully, I am often astounded that God is in the midst of everything that is happening to me. He is still sovereign even when things don’t go my way. He will use all of my circumstances for my good and growth if I am willing to trust and obey.

As we were driving over the last couple of days, something wonderful was actually taking place inside that van. God was helping me to get to know Scott in an even deeper way and I discovered that Podcasts are a great way to spend time listening, learning and laughing while waiting. Candidly, I did not even know how Podcasts actually worked until Scott showed me that I had a Podcast app on my phone and it was actually quite easy to use. Suddenly, it all began to make sense why our President met a Podcaster in his garage recently to record an interview. Apparently there are quite a few other people listening to these fascinating shows and almost all are free.

I have often wondered why God seemed to have skipped the “patience” gene when he created my DNA and I have always been carefulserendipty not to pray for it either. Despite this, God is constantly at work in this area of my life chipping away at my desire for control and certainty. Little by little he is replacing those tendencies with a willingness to embrace flexibility and accept uncertainty. Slowly, I am seeing the joy that can come from unplanned moments when serendipity is allowed to flourish in my life and I can’t take any credit for it.

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The Favor of the Father

MomAndDadBeach2001It was a hot day, I did not have a hat on and I was beginning to sweat. I was standing next to the grave-site of one of my CLC colleagues who had died on the island of Trinidad and was listening to people sing hymns. I was still in shock that she had died and was getting more and more uncomfortable in the black suit that I was wearing. As I stood there, I could not help but remember that the person we were burying was hired by my Dad many years before and how much he and my mom would have wanted to have been at this event. Somehow, in a strange way I was now his representative and was walking in his shoes. In a great irony, it was only a few days earlier that I had watched with sadness how hard it was for him to walk at all.

It was on the island of Trinidad that I first remember understanding what my Dad did for a living and really being fascinated by his work. Our family had moved to the island to serve as missionaries and my Dad was learning a new skill. He had been a printer for almack familymost of his life up until that point, but was now learning how to run a bookstore. This was what God had called him to do and he took it on with gusto. I am not sure how hard this was for him to switch careers midstream in his early professional life, but I am guessing it was not easy. Despite that reality, I never heard my Dad complain about his work and instead saw a man who loved a challenge and embraced it wholeheartedly.

My Dad saw something unique in me from an early age. He knew that I loved to read and encouraged that habit by getting books for me and even reading to me himself when he could. Our family had a commitment to family devotions on a daily basis. One way that my Dad kept me interested in what could have become a tedious routine was to have me read the Bible story to the rest of the family. Sometimes he let me lead in prayer and always he made sure that we understood that this time was sacred and even more important that our meal times. He was deeply concerned about my spiritual welfare and let me ask him the thousands of questions that kept popping into my head as a child about life, God and what it really meant to be a Christian.

As I got a little older, I wanted to hang out with my Dad more and he found a way to make that possible. Despite the fact that he worked on Saturdays, he regularly allowed me to help with whatever he was doing. Sometimes I tagged along as he was setting up a bookstall in the local farmers market and on many occasions I just went to work with him and got lost in books, comic books and reading the newspaper in his office. Instead of considering me a nuisance, he embraced me as something of an apprentice. I learned what it meant to experience the favor of my father and began to grow in wisdom and stature as my heavenly father had done two millennia earlier.

dad in hospitalMy Dad no longer works in a bookstore, but he is no less of an example to me now than he was then. In humility, he asked for my help when he had a recent back surgery and I was delighted to be there for him. It was not easy to see him is so much pain, but I realized that the favor and love that he had bestowed on me was now coming back to honor him through the legacy of his four children and many grandchildren. I think the hospital staff must have wondered what celebrity they had on their ward as so many people came to see him, pray for him and wish him well. To God’s glory my Dad is recovering now and is in a lot less pain and walking far better than he had just a few weeks ago.

As I follow in my father’s footsteps and get older each year myself, it will be my joy to walk where heDad and I walked and to serve where he served. Some of the people at the funeral that day even commented how much I look like my Dad these days and I could not help but smile at that comparison. Though I know that my Dad would chuckle at that comparison too, he would also have another concern. He is far more concerned that I should look and act like another Father that we both serve and love. My greatest tribute to my earthly father will be to learn daily what it means to embrace Jesus more and more as my primary model for life and faith on this earth. Thanks Dad for making that your life’s greatest ambition. I am forever indebted to you for showing me an example of a life transformed.

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Finishing Well

finish lineThere are moments in our culture where things shift at warp speed and this was one of those weeks. It was bad enough that most of the secular culture was consumed in discussing the transformation of Bruce to Caitlin Jenner when the Christian blogosphere started buzzing about Tony Campolo’s publically coming out in support of gay marriage. The news about Tony was sad but not surprising as he has been moving in that direction for some time. What was much more surprising was that David Neff, who was the Editor-in-Chief for Christianity Today magazine until 2013 came out in support of Tony and his new views. Apparently, this caught CT by surprise as well and required a full blown public statement of their support of traditional/ Biblical marriage written by Mark Galli.

My friend Walt Mueller captured some of my own feelings on all this in his blog, Learning My Lines, and this is what he had to say,

“This morning, I looked across my desk at my book shelves. I looked at the shelves that are loaded with Bibles, commentaries, and theological texts. I realized that everything I learned in all those years of reading, listening, education, discussion. . . all those things that have shaped me, what I believe, my commitments, and how I do ministry. . . all those things are being called into question. Seriously. . . I wonder if I have wasted all my time, my money, even my life on errors and lies. I don’t believe I have, but the culture and even respected brothers and sisters in the faith would, I think, have me believe it’s all for naught.”

TransGlory2Glory_3D coverIt is at time like these that I am so blessed to be working in a ministry that is committed to publishing books “With a Clear Message” by “Trusted Authors”. One such book came out just this week called Transformed From Glory to Glory which was edited and compiled by Christopher Little. This wonderful new book is a tribute to the life and work of J. Robertson McQuilkin, former President of Colombia International University in South Carolina. Robertson was a leader with clear convictions about important topics like Bible Interpretation, Victorious Christian Living, World Missions, Christian Ethics and Christian Leadership. As I have been reading our published version of this book, I am struck by the consistency of his life that did not waver as he got older. In fact, it was in his later years that his Biblical convictions worked themselves out in practical ways that stand as a testament to us all. He will probably be best known for his sacrificial decision to give up the Presidency of the University to take care of his wife Muriel who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease as described in his best-selling book, A Promise Kept.

IWA-cover_3DWe will be publishing a book this fall entitled, Improving with Age by Stuart and Jill Briscoe. It is their manifesto on aging well and focuses on the reality that the last season of a Christian’s life can be the best. All too often, however, this is not the case. Many well-known Christian leaders have faltered in the latter stages of life and occasionally this can occur in areas of their theological convictions. Far too many have found it tempting to take a Universalist or relativistic view of salvation right before they die. While it is admirable to want all people to make it to heaven one day, it is sadly misleading to make a Biblical case for this where there is none. Now we have Christian leaders taking positions on sexual ethics that are not just contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, but are at odds with thousands of years of teaching in the Christian church as well.

As I get older, I will be looking to the examples of people like Warren Wiersbe, Stuart and Jill Briscoe, J. Robertson McQuilkin and others like them so that others may say of me what Paul said to Timothy,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

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Precious in the Sight of the Lord

MarleneNothing will change your week quicker than finding out that a colleague and friend has died unexpectedly. Some habits are hard to break and checking e-mail on my phone first thing in the morning is one of mine. On Monday morning, I was stunned to learn that Marlene Ramroop had passed into the presence of her Lord on Saturday. She had been hospitalized for an illness shortly before this, but seemed to be recovering. Her recovery had progressed to the point that she and her husband were taking a late afternoon drive and decided to stop at the main CLC store (after hours) on the island where she worked. After she was finished getting what she needed, she asked Duncan to get the car ready and pull around. In the few short minutes that it took him to get the car prepared, she was called home.

Marlene was a special person and someone that I have known for over thirty years. She started in the CLC ministry in Trinidad as a 19 year old and was brought onto the team by my father who was in charge of the work at that time. Like many CLCers over the years, she started at the bottom (as a front liner) and worked her way up. At the time of her death she was the National Director for the work of CLC in the Eastern Caribbean and was responsible for overseeing the ministry in Trinidad, Antigua and Dominica. Her coworkers loved and respected her and were shocked by the news of her passing.

In addition to being a long time, dedicated CLCer, Marlene was a beloved mother and wife. Her son Josiah is now a young man and was the apple of her eye. Duncan, her husband has suffered with serious physical ailments in recent years and she was always at his side prepared to help in any way that she could. Many people would comment that she could hardly have a conversation without mentioning either Duncan or Josiah as they were so near to her heart.

After some quick discussion with my team, I decided to attend her funeral on Friday in Trinidad. There were representatives from all the CLC teams in the islands present at her memorial service as well as Gerardo Scalante, Regional Director for the America’s (and her boss). Even though it was a busy Friday morning in Trinidad, many people took time off from work to attend the service and the church was full of people who loved and appreciated Marlene.

My fondest memories of Marlene were at our international gatherings where she could always be comarlene in snowunted on to bring her smile and a kind word for all of us in attendance. One of the most memorable gatherings took place in Santiago, Chile where we actually went to visit one of the highest mountains in South America. This trip took us up the side of the mountain and involved over 50 hair raising switch back turns and ended in the snow. Given that Marlene worked in the Caribbean, snow was not an everyday occurrence. Many of us were even worried that she could make it to the top without getting sick.

To my surprise and delight, Marlene made it up the mountain just fine – though I did hear about her incredible grasp on the arm of her seatmate during the trip and several calls on the Lord for Him to preserve her. She was almost like a child in the snow and enjoyed every moment of that trip. She had come well prepared with a heavy coat, scarf and hat as was not going to miss any of the fun. Her laugh was infectious and made the trip memorable for all of us.

At her funeral, many people commented on how committed and organized Marlene was and praised her for her dedication to work and family. As the stories began to unfold, however, one theme stuck out – Marlene was a lifelong evangelist. Crusades were an early part of her faith journey and she loved to talk about the Lord that she served. Her son Josiah even told about her giving him gospel tracts to hand out in primary school and how proud she was when he had handed them all out. Even in her hospital bed, she could not stop telling people about Jesus. One person at the funeral told of her daughter that was in the same hospital as Marlene and how concerned Marlene was for her. Marlene would not even talk about her own physical problems until she could pray for this woman’s daughter.

Marlene may have gone to heaven long before any of us expected, but she is now in the presence of the one person that loved her most. We will mourn and miss her, but will also carry on in the ministry of presenting the truth of the gospel as we are her greatest legacy – her friends and family that love and serve the Lord just a little more today because of her influence in our lives.

2012-06-22 14.26.16

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Encouraged in Europe

11206939_10205641022122773_8953221562994814674_nFlying through the night is not my favorite thing to do. Despite that necessity, I was excited to visit Poland this past week to spend time with my CLC European colleagues. They had asked me to come as their devotional speaker for their biennial leaders’ conference. People from seventeen nations gathered in Krakow for a week of fellowship, training and spiritual development. What a great time we had.

Being a literature ministry in post-Christian Europe is no easy task. While many11206939_10205641012522533_4743431859470643222_n barriers to accessing Christian books have been removed in former Iron Curtain countries, new challenges have arisen. The population of evangelical Christians is quite small in most of the countries where we serve and Islam is on the rise. In addition, book retailing is more and more difficult all across Europe for Christian and secular organizations.

In the face of these realities, our teams are courageously standing firm and even innovating in some cases to be able to serve more effectively in their cultural context. Many are pursuing new opportunities in internet sales and book publishing. Some are focusing on wholesale distribution and others are concentrating on events and book tables at conferences.

IMG_1841As I spoke with person after person, I did not get a sense of discouragement, but of bold determination in the face of huge challenges. Our team in England is in the midst of a multi-year ministry transformation that involves moving a warehouse, rethinking e-commerce by establishing a vital new partnership and refocusing the retail stores to meet the needs of large Christian communities in the cities. The team in France is embracing publishing in a much more significant way and is thinking creatively about how to make this content more affordable and available in Quebec and West Africa.

While there have been many struggles to keep bookstores open across Europe, our teams have responded to this challenge and are finding new ways to get books in the hands of readers. One of the most important developments has been the growth of e-commerce in our ministry. In several countries, this is now a significant and growing aspect of their work. CLC Italy, France, Romania and Portugal have now created websites that are the primary on-line source for Christian resources in their countries. This means that their impact extends far beyond the four walls of their stores these days and reaches all parts of their nations. In a great irony, they are now reaching far more people than they ever could in any one store.

Some of the most moving stories of the week were from the Russian speaking countries, especially two that are closed to missionaries. IMG_1917We have a new leader in Russia named Nikita and he is excited about the new software they have recently installed that will make their work much easier to accomplish. God is on the move in these former Soviet republics and much is being done to advance the cause of the gospel. In several countries, we are now a vital communications link point for the entire Christian community.

11350714_10205641132965544_7235594439118439805_nGary Chamberlin reminded us all that “the cheese is still moving”. He encouraged us to see God’s sovereign hand in the midst of significant change. I had the joy of presenting messages on the subject of hope from the lives of Joseph, Esther and Nehemiah. I connected these biblical heroes to some modern day CLC heroes around the world. It was powerful to be reminded of how God has used these people to make a huge difference in their countries over the years despite massive changes in their contexts and a huge lack of resources. I love to tell stories of God’s faithfulness through the generations.

As the week came to a close, I was greatly encouraged. Each of our European leaders is facing significant challenges, but is doing so with a faith and courage that is contagious. I was asked to bring messages of hope and yet I came away with much new hope myself. It was wonderful to hear so many new stories of God’s faithfulness to His obedient servants. There are lots of choppy waters ahead for our teams in Europe and no one can accurately predict the future. Knowing this, our teams are preparing for the days ahead by changing what they are doing while remaining anchored in their faith in a God who never changes.

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The Voice of Vocation

vocationI first heard the voice when I was about 13 years old. I had started my first job at a CLC store in the Caribbean and right away I knew that I liked what I was doing. The voice said something like this, “Do what you love and love what you do.” It seemed natural to me to pursue those things that I enjoyed and to avoid those things that were no fun at all. Most children start life that way and soon discover that things don’t quite work like that – or maybe they do.

Like most young people I held a serious of low paying, tedious jobs during my teenage years and yet the voice kept speaking. At one point my brother and I were hired to water plants in an enormous outdoor nursery. It was hot, monotonous and boring work. Worst of all it was lonely. Interacting with other workers was frowned upon and this was a pretty solitary job anyway. Later on, I was hired to work in a fast food restaurant and something clicked. The work was still fairly routine, but I was asked to work on the register and that made all the difference. I discovered that I loved interacting with people, serving them quickly and watching them smile as I got their order right (most of the time). On many days, I had no idea how long I had been working until my boss told me it was time to clock out.

As I entered my college years, I tried to listen to the voice even more and chose to study Human Resources Management and worked as a Resident Assistant in the dormitory for two years. The intricacies of human nature greatly intrigued me and I was delighted to learn that I could use this curiosity in the business world. People are fascinating creatures and never cease to disappoint as a source of opportunity and challenge. Working with people on a regular basis is never boring.

During my early working career, I discovered another reality. Many people that I spent time with had not listened to the voice at all or simply ignored it. So many of my colleagues saw their work as drudgery or worse and had a “clock in and clock out” mentality. Their view of work was that it was something to be endured on the way to the weekend and hopefully it would afford some kind of monetary benefit. Far too often, these same people became bitter about life and were no fun to work with at all. I quickly decided that I did not want to become one of them.

In my late twenties, I discovered that God had something to say about this voice of vocation. If I continued to pursue those things that I enjoyed about work, I would find fulfillment, but not ultimate fulfillment. That would only come if I was willing to surrender completely to His will. After a time of wrestling like Jacob in the Old Testament, God got my attention and shaped my will to His. While there have been many turns in the road since then, I have no regrets. It has not always been easy, but God has made my work a delight and made me useful for His purposes.

Looking back, I wished that I had realized earlier that God himself was speaking to me through those critical moments. He made me for a purpose and wanted me to discover His will for my life’s work. It was true that I could do what I loved and love what I do, but that was only the first part. A far deeper satisfaction comes from seeing that what I do is making a difference in other people’s lives for eternity. Nowadays I get to work with people who generally have a different view of their work. While what they do may have routine, even tedious elements to it, they typically do their work with joy and satisfaction. Some of my team members around the world actually risk their lives to open a bookshop each day. I am humbled to work alongside these men and women who took time to say yes to God and allowed him to transform their work into a sacred and satisfying vocation.

 

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Our New Reality

realityThe Pew Report on America’s changing religious landscape hit the blogosphere this week with a bang. It seemed as if all the major Christian media outlets and bloggers had to weigh in on the new data that was revealed. For those that did not see the report, the big news was that the number of people who call themselves religiously “unaffiliated” has risen significantly in the last seven years. In addition, the number of people that consider themselves a Christian of some type dropped by 7.8% in the same time frame. The data showed that the Catholic Church and Mainline Denominations suffered the largest declines, while Evangelicals remained flat over that period.

Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, did some excellent reporting on all of this and made some really interesting points in his blog posts. In his post entitled, Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways From Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, he made the following statement:

The cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy. Because of this, the statistics show (on the surface) that Christianity in America is experiencing a sharp decline. However, that’s the path of those who don’t read beyond the surface. If there remains a relatively stable church-engaged, convictional minority, and there is a big movement on self-identification, that means that the middle is going away. Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.”

So what does all of this mean for those of us that work in the world of Christian publishing and book retailing? It seems to me that the “purifying” of Christianity in America is a good thing for all of us. For too long, secular publishers have seen Christian publishing as easy money for books that have no significant spiritual value, are theologically suspect and are often written for the very nominal Christian that are now disavowing Christianity in larger and larger numbers. Maybe they will reconsider how many Christian vampire books really need to be on the market and whether or not sticking a Christian celebrity on the cover and selling it in Wal-Mart is really an effective strategy going forward.

Christian retail stores have been aware of this trend for a long time now and many stores have closed in part because they depended on the foot traffic from people who saw Christianity as part of the “inspirational” lifestyle they were creating for themselves. Appealing to “cultural” Christians is no longer a viable business strategy for most Christian retailers and some have pursued a different path – crafting stores that are resource centers for the church and a place of exploration for those that want to understand what convictional Christianity is really all about. Those that are still pandering to the Christian subculture that birthed the concept of a Christian products industry are going to struggle more and more in the years to come.

I am personally excited about the reality that calling yourself a Christian publisher or retailer is going to mean something again. Maybe we can move away from the moniker of “purveyors of Jesus Junk” or “sellers of inspirational content”. Instead, may we reclaim our mantle as producers and distributors of gospel-centered resources that will extend God’s Kingdom around the world. This changing landscape in America may spell the death of nominal Christianity, but it could also be the re-birth of Christian publishing and retailing. I long for the day when we no longer call ourselves an industry and instead see ourselves as a part of a movement – the Jesus Movement.

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