A Questionable Life

juryIt was after 11AM and she was counting out loud.  I listened carefully to see if my number would be called.  All she needed was fifty-four people and she now had forty-eight of them selected.  Maybe they  would not need me after all.  Then I heard my number.  I was selected to be part of a jury pool as juror number forty-nine.  We had been told that this was a criminal trial, but nothing else.  As I followed the other potential jurors into the small courtroom, I wondered if I would actually survive the jury selection process and end up on the jury or would I be dismissed somewhere along the way.  After being seated, we were told that the judge would be with us soon and let us know if we needed to serve or not.  Having spent the entire morning waiting, it seemed anticlimactic to hear that we might not be needed after all.

Our waiting continued in the courtroom as the judge took nearly half an hour before she joined us. Once she was seated, she proceeded to say something that none of us expected to hear.  With a very serious look on her face, she said, “You should thank your lucky stars that you did not have to serve on this jury.”  Given the fact that this same judge had spoken to us earlier in the day about the importance of serving on juries and how vital we were to the legal process, this seemed like the last thing she might have told us.  After that opening statement she went on to say that the defendant had just plead guilty when the weight of having to face a jury of his peers finally sunk in that morning.  Apparently this was a very nasty case that was one of the most challenging this judge had ever had to deal with and she was encouraged that the case did not have to go any further.  I was relieved that this man would face justice for his actions and that I did not have to be exposed to details of his shocking crimes.

Waiting to hear if you will be selected to be a part of a jury can be an anxiety producing process.  You don’t know what kind of trial it will be, who will be on the jury, who will be the judge, how long will all of this take and what kind of emotional toll will be inflicted on those who have to hear the details of the crime that was committed.  Looking around the room this past Monday morning, I could tell that I was not the only one with a lot of questions on my mind.  At moments like that, I have found that reading a good book is a wonderful antidote to anxiety and it is a great way to redeem the time.  Apparently, a few other people felt the same way as many had brought reading materials with them as well.  My book of choice was selected from a bag of books we received at our annual conference and it was called, “Surprise the World” by Michael Frost.

This engaging little book was a just what I needed at that very moment.  I had prayed that God would help me to select the right book for this occasion and my prayer was answered.  The premise of this book is simply this, “If all believers are leading the kinds of lives that evoke questions from their friends, then opportunities for sharing faith abound.”  As a person committed to sharing my faith, I often struggle to find ways to do that in the Christian bubble that is my daily experience.  Frost expounded on a unique method of developing new rhythms in our lives that center around five important habits.  He calls this practice – BELLSsurpise the world.

BELLS stands for Blessing, Eating, Listening, Learning and Sending.  He challenges the reader to consider blessing three people each week, one of whom is not someone in their local church.  This was not just a Christian version of committing to random acts of kindness, but an intentional choice to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.  Frost makes the important point that if the person does not “feel” blessed by our actions, then maybe we have not actually blessed them.  His suggestion that we should try to eat with three people each week, one of whom is not in our local church, was deeply impacting as I thought about how many meals I rush through or eat in silence.  Listening was a chapter on being intentional about setting aside time each week to listen to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit and to imagine what being Spirit-Led might actually look like.  Learning was a chapter on really getting into the gospels each week and “learning Christ” in a deep and sustaining way.  Sending was a great admonition to take time to journal about our activities of the week and who God had sent us to interact with.

This powerful little book started with stories about Roman Emperor Julian who had been disturbed by the reports of the “Galileans” taking care of the poor and feeding people who were not a part of the Christian community.   This kind of “subversive” activity was a hallmark of the early church and was a major reason for the explosive growth of this new religion.  Time and time again, these Christian did the opposite of what was expected by the local community.  They took care of the sick even when they were exposed to devastating diseases and shared their wealth rather than keeping it all for themselves.  One of the most provocative questions in the book asked what it would look like for Christians today to lead surprising lives that did not fit the stereotype.  As our world continues to typecast Evangelical Christians as hateful, small minded bigots, these habits of blessing, eating, listening, learning and sending seems more relevant than ever.

 

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Everyone Matters

everyone“You don’t know how important it is until you lose it”, Charlie said as he help up his hand to show that one of his fingers was shorter than the others.  He was missing the top part of that finger due to an unfortunate accident and that was not the only one.  Once Charlie commented that you could tell if someone was really in the printing trade by whether or not they had all their fingers intact.  Printing is a dangerous business and Charlie had done it for a long time.  This week, he was sharing his testimony of God’s faithfulness throughout his life and reminded us that even if you are missing some body parts, God can still use you in important ways.

It is performance review time around our ministry this month and that means a lot of face to face meetings are taking place.  In my previous job, I was a Human Resources Professional and often coached managers on doing performance reviews.  For many of them, this was a dreaded time of the year and one of their least favorite activities.  As a leader in a Christian ministry I have come to see things from a slightly different perspective.  While sharing honest information about how someone is doing in their job can be intimidating, it can also be exhilarating.  It is amazing how people come alive when you ask the right questions and focus on their potential and not just their problems.  While I am certainly not suggesting that good performance reviews avoid the hard stuff, I am realizing more and more how strengths based assessment is critical to success in a growing organization.

Some people in an organization are hard not to notice.  They walk in and greet everyone they meet, they always have something to say in a group meeting and people are often seeking their advice.  Others are not that charismatic and will often do things to avoid being in the spotlight.  Both types are critical to the functioning of a healthy organization and neither is more important than the other.  I am so glad that God did not create us all alike or it would be a pretty boring world.

One of the people that I admire in our organization is Carolyn.  She is hard working, detail oriented and passionate about her work.  She is also someone that will never seek the limelight.  One of her many jobs in our ministry is to answer letters that we get from prisoners.  More often than not, these letters are requesting free books.  With a very meager budget and limited time in her day, Carolyn responds to these letters and send books as she is able.  While she occasionally gets a thank you letter, it is rare that she hears much else after the books are sent.  This past December that changed.

We were at the Urbana Student Missions Conference when a man stopped by our booth.  He looked at our logo and a big smile broke out on his face.  He proceeded to say that he loves CLC and began to share his story.  He had been one of those prisoners that wrote to us asking for books.  Carolyn had sent him three books including Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place”.  These books impacted his life so dramatically that they played an important role in his conversion and turning to Christ.  Now he was in St. Louis exploring options about how he could spend the rest of his life serving God.  When we got back from this trip, we could not wait to share this story with Carolyn and to show her the video of this man sharing the story himself.

As I meet with my direct reports for their performance reviews, I am amazed at the diversity of the people I work with every day.  Men and women, black and white, young and old.  Some are outspoken and opinionated, others are quiet and reserved.  Leading this team of talented people has been one of the greatest joys of my life.  Traveling around the world and meeting other CLC teams, I am struck by the same reality.  No two people are alike, but in Christ, we are one.  We share a passion to reach the lost with the truth of the gospel and love to see people transformed as they read great books.  Everyone matters.

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God Doesn’t Make Mistakes

mistake 2I was sitting by my mom’s bedside when she looked at me and said “God doesn’t make mistakes”.  She had been in the hospital for several days already and had not had much sleep the night before and yet this was her perspective.  A few moments after that comment, she looked at me again and said, “On some days it’s harder to believe that than others.”  This combination of truth and vulnerability are some of the reasons that I admire my mom so much.  She has always been a pillar of strength in our family and seeing her struggle so much this past week has naturally been difficult for all of us that love her.  I couldn’t help but think a little bit about Job who suffered so greatly in the Bible and yet was unwilling to curse the God who had created him.

Suffering is not a topic that I like to think about much, nor does the typical evangelical Christian.  We have been brought up to focus on things like overcoming, victory, and abundance.  Living in America, this this often resulted in the conflating of the American dream with “success as a Christian”.  We are used to hearing sermons on fulfilling our God-given purpose and accomplishing our destiny.  Rarely do we hear about what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction”, especially if that obedience results in any level of personal discomfort.  Even the recent emphasis on “living radically” for Christ and giving up a few of our creature comforts has not dealt much with the topic of long term suffering and pain.

For many Christians around the world this is not the case.  Pain, suffering, crisis and persecution are their daily lot.  Simply to identify as a follower of Christ can result in hostility, isolation and violence.  While I am not sure that American Christians are about to experience this any time soon, we are now beginning to face some jarring realities of our own.  We no longer live in a nation that even pretends to be governed by Christian values and self-identifying as an evangelical is to invite ridicule and disdain.  In the face of this, we have often reacted like wounded animals caught in a trap.  Far too often we lash out with reactions that are no better than the people who have mocked us in the first place.

This week, we learned that we will have a pretty tough choice ahead as we consider the next presidential election.  Neither candidate is an evangelical Christian and both espouse views that are antithetical to many of our core beliefs.  It is at times like this that it is harder to believe that God doesn’t make mistakes.  Somehow as our country moves further and further from a Judeo-Christian worldview and our leaders seem more and more ungodly, we are called to trust that God is still sovereign and knows what He is doing.  More and more I have to face the question of whether I can trust God’s heart when I can’t trace his hand.

My mom also said something this week that reminded me why she is such a great example of faith in the face of fear.  She remarked that during her stay in the hospital, she has had more opportunities to share the gospel than she had had in recent years.  Every person she meets is likely to hear something about the Jesus she loves and how she is relying on him for the strength to deal with whatever comes next.  This seemed like such a good illustration of how I am might deal with a world that seems scarier by the day.  Instead of hunkering down and bemoaning the direction America appears to be headed, I can choose to see this as one of the greatest opportunities for gospel advance in my lifetime.  It is certainly true that when the church of Christ has been ridiculed, mocked and persecuted at various times in history, this has often resulted in explosive growth.  May that be true of me and my generation of Christ followers.

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Real Heroes

rejectedI was speaking to a group of aspiring writers this week and decided to start with a group exercise.  I asked them all to stand and count to forty-nine with me.  They joined me in shouting out the numbers even though they had no idea why I asked them to do this.  As they sat down, I told them about an author I had just met the day before who had written eight books and was now a prominent journalist.  He told me that his first book got forty-nine rejections and it was not until the fiftieth try that he finally got a book deal.  For most of us getting ten rejection letters would be hard.  Getting forty-nine would be almost unbearable.  Pushing through to send that fiftieth proposal takes a special kind of perseverance.  Solomon is that kind of person.  Life had already thrown him a number of curve balls long before he sent the first query letter.  Nothing was going to stop him from accomplishing his writing dream even though it took six years to get there.  This kind of commitment is truly heroic.

Everyone has their own special people that they look up to.  It could be a favorite teacher, an influential pastor or just aRetirement good friend.  On Monday, I got to celebrate the lives of my personal heroes – my mom and dad.  They were completing forty-nine years of service in our ministry and fifty of their best friends were in attendance to celebrate the occasion.  My brother even flew in from Panama to surprise them and boy was it a surprise.  When my mom first saw him she shouted so loud that I nearly lost my hearing.  I was so glad to be able to capture the moment on video.  In a great irony, God had another challenge in store for them right around the corner.  The very night after the party, my mom got food poisoning and a really bad stomach bug.  It turned out to be so bad, that she ended up in the hospital where I am sitting by her side today.  It is at moments like this that I admire my parents the most.  My Dad has been at my mom’s side nearly the entire time and they are both trusting God in the same way that they have done their entire lives.

Some acts of heroism take a life time, some happen over years and some happen in moments.  Many of the most memorable happen because something went wrong and someone needs to change the status quo.  David Terry became one of my heroes this week.  One of our local churches had an important event happening today (Saturday) and needed two hundred books.  The order was placed and we assumed that the books were on their way.  Unfortunately there was a technology glitch and our sales rep never got the order.  By the time that we figured all this out, it was too late to get the books by any normal method of shipping and it looked like we were going to have to disappoint this church.  David did not let that happen.  He flew to the publisher in Grand Rapids, flew to Philadelphia and delivered our books on the same day, just in time for the big event.  You read that right – instead of making excuses or apologizing for the problem, he decided to solve the problem himself.  Who does something like that in 2016 – apparently David Terry does.  The next time I am tempted to make excuses myself or simply apologize, I will remember that heroes find solutions.

As I look to the future, I am glad to know that not all heroes are in comic books or movies.  Some of them are in real life too.  I hope that I may be able to persevere, trust God and find ways to change the status quo in people’s lives too.  Not that I will ever be a hero, but maybe I can inspire others to pursue their dreams, to live lives of real meaning and to find hope in Jesus who is the one true hero.

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Following in Their Footsteps

 I am not really sure why I did it.  Once when I was a young boy, I dressed up like a waiter and decided to serve breakfast to my mom in bed.  I put on dress pants, a white shirt and if I remember correctly, I even had a tie – a clip on to be sure.  Ironically, I am pretty sure I didn’t know much about making breakfast, but my mom seemed to appreciate the gesture anyway.  All I knew was that I loved her, appreciated everything she did for me and wanted to do something special for her.  I loved her cooking so much that I even tried to get her to consider opening her own restaurant.  Then I could really put that waiter uniform to good use.  That never happened though because she had a higher calling and one that would have a lifelong impact on me.

Some years before this my family had moved to the West Indies to serve as missionaries.  As a little child, I had no idea what a sacrifice this was or why they had made this choice.  All I knew was that we lived in a hot place where most of the people did not look like me and everyone spoke with an accent.  Once in those early years, my dad was getting my bath ready for me.  We lived in a very small apartment with no hot water in the bathroom.  Apparently this was a daily routine for my parents.  He would heat up the water on the stove and bring it to the bathroom and mix it with cold water in the tub to get it to just the right temperature for us.   On this particular day, things did not go as expected.  My dad stumbled on the way to the bathroom and spilled scalding water down one side of his body.  I never knew till much later about the third degree burns that he suffered for me.

Ironically, this was not the hardest thing my dad had to endure.  During those same years in Jamaica, he learned that his sister needed a kidney transplant.  Despite the radical requirements of this need and the experimental nature of the surgery, he agreed to be the donor.  He still carries the scars of that surgery on his body today and yet I never heard one complaint in his entire life about making that choice.  Making hard choices was what God called him to do and he obeyed.

When it came to their children, both of my parents consistently put our needs ahead of their own.  In fifth grade I nearly bottomed out academically.  For an inquisitive child who was an avid reader, I was doing poorly and my mom wanted to know why.  After discovering that my problems centered around a teacher and her abusive treatment of me, she made a choice that would alter my life.  Rather than let this continue, she volunteered to be my teacher the next year.  This was a huge sacrifice as it meant that she could not be with my younger sisters who also needed her attention.  In the end her teaching rekindled my love of learning and all of the other kids in that school as well.  I would go on to earn an academic scholarship to college and graduate with honors.  In truth all the accolades I earned were due that that choice she made in sixth grade.

A week from Monday, I get to host a party for my mom and dad.  They are retiring from ministry after forty-nine years of service.  For the last twenty years, I have been following in their footsteps and serving in the same organization.  As a young adult, I was determined to chart my own course in life, but God had other plans.  Little did I know at that time that He was calling me to a life of service and sacrifice just like them.  When I did join CLC in my late twenties, I knew one thing for sure.  My parents had already set an example that I wanted to follow.  Very few people get to work alongside their parents for as long as I have.  I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life.

As they come to this important milestone, they have set an example once again of faithful service to the end.  My mother often says that they are not retired but “retreaded”.  They will not stop serving the Lord until he calls them home.  Whether it is in their local church, taking care of their many grandkids or trying their hands at some new ministry opportunity they will continue to set the pace for all of us who know them.  I look forward to dressing up once again to serve them both at their party and maybe this time I will be able to wear a tie that I can tie myself.

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Laughter from Heaven

stan jacobsThey still don’t know what really happened to him.  My friend went into the hospital for eye surgery and something went wrong.  He was put into an induced coma and then seemed to recover when they brought him out of it.  He was eating and talking and then … he died on March 31st.  When I first heard the news, I didn’t think it was possible that this vibrant, funny and active man who was younger than me had actually passed away.  Stan Jacobs was now home with his heavenly father, but he left a lot of people here on earth in shock and grief.  These kind of things just don’t make sense.

On Saturday, I made my way down to Chester for his funeral.  It almost seemed like the heavens were crying as big flakes of snow were falling in April.  My heart was heavy and my mind was having a hard time conceiving what had actually happened.  As I arrived at the church, I noticed that there were a lot of cars already there despite the inclement weather.  This was going to be a big event.  As I entered the church, I was ushered to the front with one last group for the viewing.  I hate viewings and had hoped I was going to miss this part of the service.  As I walked past the casket, I looked at Stan’s earthly body and could not accept what I was seeing.  How could he be gone?

Following the viewing, I turned around and realized that the church was packed with people.  There were no empty seats, so I made my way the balcony.  Even the balcony had no seats and I had to find a spot to stand that had a view of the front.  One thing I knew for sure, Stan would have loved this.  Standing room only even at his funeral.  During his lifetime, Stan was an amazing performer and had hosted many events as a Christian comedian.  In this final act, so many people came out to show their love to a man who had made them laugh that it almost seemed like a party.

Sure enough, I came for a funeral and a party broke out.  Right from the start, it was clear that this was going to be a joyous event and no somber affair.  The band was in the house, the choir was ready and the place had an air of expectation.  After introductory remarks, it all started with the blowing of the shofar.  With the sound of this ancient instrument ringing in our ears, we were encouraged to break out into spontaneous praise.  There was not a silent voice in the room.  A little bit later, a youth choir came up to sing and “brought down the house”.  A little boy, who could not have been more than ten years old, was the lead singer.  This was clearly not his first performance and he was amazing.  I could not help but think how praise was the antidote to grief and just what we all needed at this particular moment.

I first met Stan many years ago when he came to our bookstore as the host of the Gospel Poetry Slam that we began holding on a monthly basis at that time.  This event was designed to highlight Christian poets, psalmists, spoken word artists and musicians.  Stan would start things out and within just a few moments had everyone laughing so hard we were nearly crying.  He found humor is the smallest things in life and loved to poke fun at the “pomp and circumstance” that surround so much of the life of the church.  He would later move on to host events with some of the best known gospel music artists of the day and even made it on television.   Every time I saw him, he always had a smile on his face.  He was such a great comedian that he often didn’t even have to say a word and I would find myself laughing.  All it took was a certain look.

As the little boy in the youth choir was belting out the song, I couldn’t help but think that Stan was smiling down on all of us a laughing himself.  He knew we were grieving, but that the God he served would wipe away every tear.  I can’t wait to see Stan again one day and hear his melodious voice as he tells one more funny story.

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Taking the Donkey

donkeyI heard her tentative voice at the front counter.  She was an older woman about to finish her purchase when she asked the question.  Do you have a King James Bible with large print at a good price?  It was not the first time that I had ever heard this question as I had served many customers in the years past who asked the very same thing.  This time, however, she was not asking me.  She was talking to Van Hayes, one of our dedicated team members who was following in my footsteps and serving with excellence.  It didn’t take Van long to find a couple of Bibles that fit her criteria.

We did have King James Version Bibles that were in large print and were reasonably priced.  She showed them to the woman and listened to her questions.  As this senior saint was about to make a choice, she asked if we had this Bible in a black cover.  Unfortunately, we did not.  Van quickly pointed that the lavender one she was holding in her hand “looked good on her”. With that remark, a decision was made and the Bible was purchased.  As she was finishing the transaction, the woman mentioned that her old Bible was just getting worn out and she needed something new to replace it.  I could just imagine all the highlighting, underlining and writing in that old Bible and the many trials and triumphs this woman had seen as she read it every day and trusted in the promises it contained.

Bibles are the lifeblood of the Christian experience and the core item sold in our stores around the world.  Most of our teams start the day reading a passage of scripture and considering its meaning for their lives.  Recently, I had the joy of being a part of these devotional sessions with our team in Sierra Leone.  It was close to Palm Sunday and the team was reading about Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  They discussed many aspects of this famous story and focused in on what it must have been like for the disciples to “take” the donkey from its owner just as Jesus has asked.  Sometimes our Christian life requires obedience when we have no idea how things are going to turn out.  Just like these disciples we are called to do our masters bidding and trust him for the outcome.

I could not help but see the irony in studying this story in our bookstore in Sierra Leone at this particular moment in time.  We had just been discussing how difficult it was to serve in a country that “does not have a reading culture”.  It almost seems like the height of foolishness to be operating a Christian bookstore in a place where people do not like to read, it takes weeks if not months for books to arrive from America or England and sometimes these books are not affordable for the average person.  Yet here we were, reading the Bible together and agreeing that God calls us to do things that we might not understand.

At that point, Alie chimed in with a comment or two about the passage and I was delighted.  You see, Alie, comes from a Muslim family.  He had joined our team several years ago and was captivated by the truths of scripture found in the meager books and Bibles that we had in stock.  He also asked lots of questions of our team and began to be drawn to a new found faith.  Determined to follow a different path, he asked his father for permission to become a Christian and was graciously granted his request.  Today, Alie helps others to find answers to their questions in the pages of the only book that will satisfy the longings of their hearts.    It is for people like Alie that we have bookstores in this predominantly Muslim country. IMG_2800

This week, I found myself browsing our Bible section after overhearing Van serve her customer.  It was a little overwhelming to see the breadth and depth of selection of Bibles we had to offer.  No wonder we had the Bible this woman was looking for.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for our team in Sierra Leone.  Despite the lack of a “reading culture”, the Bible is actually required reading in schools.  When I asked what Bible the kids were using, our team said it was the RSV version, but they did not have any in stock.  There is such high demand for this one particular Bible that the Bible Society could hardly keep it in stock themselves and did not have any to spare for us.  Twice during the recent Ebola crisis, our team ran out of Bibles.  My heart skipped a beat as I thought of all the hoops it would take to get more Bibles to Africa and then I remembered my Lord’s simple instructions to take the donkey.  My job is simply to obey and to ask for what God has already prepared.

 

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