The Element of Surprise

img_3748Allen had a problem.  As the new manager of the CLC Bookstore he lots of ideas for improving the customer experience and wanted to implement them as quickly as possible.  One of the biggest changes he envisioned was replacing bookshelves that had been built many years before for a store twice the size.  These old shelves, while quite functional, were also too tall.  There were no sight lines from the front of the store to the back and things felt crowded.  His first suggestion was to simply make the old shelves shorter by taking them apart one by one and cutting them down to the right size.  He even took the time to try it out on one of the shelves.  While this could have worked, it would have taken a lot of time and energy – and God had other plans.

At the beginning of November, we were approached by a local church who had closed their bookstore and had beautiful fixtures.  Ironically, those very fixtures had been in storage for a year in the building right next to our bookstore.  Before disposing of the fixtures, they wondered if we could use them.  There was only one catch – we had to get them out of the storage and into our store by the end of the month.  Always up for a challenge, Allen quickly agreed and began moving the shelves into our store and putting wheels on each one so they could be moved easily for events that needed the floor space.  By the end of the month, the bookstore looked like an entirely new place with bookshelves that cost us nothing except the time to move them and the wheels to put on them.  What an answer to prayer.

Some surprises, like getting new book shelves are wonderful and easy to celebrate, others not so much.  Nearly a decade unwanted-giftago, pastor, speaker and author, Tom Elliff, experienced one of those not so nice surprises when he learned that his dear wife Jeannie had cancer.  Tom and Jeannie had a wonderful marriage, an impactful ministry that spanned decades and a deep belief in the goodness of God.  This news would impact their lives in ways they could not anticipate and ultimately resulted in a book that Jeannie insisted that Tom should write entitled The Unwanted Gift.  After nine years of battling with this disease and going in and out of remission, Jeannie went home to be with her savior.  On her deathbed, Tom promised her he would finish the book and this past October, we had the privilege of publishing it.  This terrible surprise is being used by God to help many other people deal with their persistent, perplexing problems.

As a person who normally does not like surprises, I have come to an important realization in recent years.  The Christian life is not predictable and God does not promise us the status quo.  In many cases, He asks us to trust Him when we can’t see what’s coming around the corner.  Recently we woke up to one of those foggy morning that happens when the seasons are changing and it was hard to see anything out the window.  It is easy to get depressed and frustrated by our circumstances that seem like a deep fog in our lives.  Somehow though, just like the fog, things constantly change.   Ultimately it lifts and there is bright sunshine again or a persistent rain comes and washes away the mist.  The key that I am learning is to trust the one who makes the rain, fog, sunshine and snow.  He loves me deeply and has my good at heart even if my circumstances say otherwise.

 

 

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The Teaching Bible

life-applicationIt was after lunch on Friday and I was helping to fill in at our Center City store doing what I love best – serving customers – when he walked in.  He was a middle aged man with a question written all over his face and he was walking towards the Bible section.  I walked over and greeted him and before I could ask a question, he looked at me and said, “Do you have one of those teaching Bibles?”  It took me a minute to grasp what he wanted, but it soon became clear that he needed a Study Bible.  His pastor had suggested that it might be time for him to begin teaching and preaching from God’s word, but in order to do that effectively, he needed a “teaching” Bible.  Just like me, he had one other problem, he needed glasses to read and wanted to see if the Bible would come in large print too.

After learning that he wanted a King James Bible, we began looking for options.  What a blessing to be in a store that has so many Bibles to consider.  We could have chosen a Thompson Chain, a Scofield or a plain old King James Study Bible, but we settled on the Life Application Study Bible in the end.  For my money, nothing beats the Life Application Study Bible in any translation for its use in helping people to understand God’s word and to apply it – which is the essence of teaching.  I suggested that we look at one of his favorite passages together and he quickly turned to a parable in Matthew.  As I explained how the notes worked, his eyes lit up and he began to get excited.  Maybe teaching the Bible would not be so daunting after all.

As we finished the conversation and he purchased his teaching Bible, I could not help but think about how many places in Africa where this would not have happened.  Someone might have stumbled into a Christian bookstore or the Bible society and been looking for a teaching Bible too.  In all likelihood, they would have found would have been a small selection of reference Bibles with no study notes as study Bibles are often too expensive for anyone to afford.  It is no wonder that the pastors in Liberia in 2014, treated my gift of the New Living Translation of the Life Application Study Bible as if it were gold.  For many, that Bible would be there only reference library and their primary source for studying God’s word.

Fortunately, some of that is about to change in 2017 with the launch of the Africa Study Bible from the courageous teamafrica-study-bible at Oasis International.  They say that the Africa Study Bible will combine the clear, accurate text of modern translations—beginning in English with the New Living Translation—with study tools that reflect uniquely African insights and experiences.  This Bible was created because hundreds of millions of Africans know and love Christ. However, most Bible resources come from a Western perspective—cultures far removed from the reality of life in Africa.   I first met Matthew Elliott, President of Oasis, on my trip to Africa in 2008 and caught his passion for Christian literature for the growing church on this vast continent.  How excited he must be to see this dream becoming a reality.

I look forward to the day when these Bibles and many other study tools will be available to my African brothers and sisters at reasonable prices.  One thing I know for sure, they will greatly appreciate a Bible with teaching tools written from an African perspective that will help to explain and apply God’s word to a church that is growing by leaps and bounds.  Much like the Ethiopian man mentioned in scripture, there are millions of Africans today asking the same question – “What does this mean?”.  How exciting that in the years to come there will be many pastors using this new tool to help teach the Bible just like Philip did so many years ago.  What a great day it will be when I can serve alongside our teams in Liberia and Sierra Leone and help someone get one of these new Bibles –Thanks Oasis for making this possible.

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7 Habits of Highly Effective Christians

the_7_habits_of_highly_effective_peopleI have always been a fan of Steven Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The first time I read it, I was in my twenties and his concepts about focusing on important vs urgent issues in life have stuck with me through the years.  Recently, I have been pondering what makes an effective Christian.  To do that, I need to define what effective means in this context.  For the purposes of this blog post, I am defining an effective Christian as one who is growing in Christ-likeness and who is increasingly eager to share the “good news” of the gospel.  I have been very blessed to have people in my life who are effective Christians and who give me a powerful example to follow.  They would all say that an important aspect of their effectiveness is a total dependence on Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to live lives that honor and glorify God.

That said, I believe there are also specific habits that these same people developed over the years (through the power of the Holy Spirit) that enabled them to be more and more effective as they got older.  Here’s my list for what it is worth:

  1. A passionate commitment to corporate worship – these folks do not see church attendance as a mere obligation or requirement to be a “good Christian”. Instead they love entering the house of the Lord and being with their fellow believers.  They get strength from these times of fellowship, singing, teaching and participation in the sacraments.  Many volunteer for various roles in the church and some of these positions are not that glamorous.  Often I worship alongside them and even though they might not be the best singers in the world, they are making a joyful noise and I catch their enthusiasm.
  2. Small group accountability – effective Christians know that they cannot do life on their own. Spending time in small group settings where they can study God’s word, ask hard questions and do life with other likeminded believers is a highlight of their week.  This often results in impromptu meals together, camping trips and game nights where people can “let down their hair” and learn to be vulnerable.  On other occasions it means crying together over life’s tragedies and standing arm in arm to face an uncertain future.  Deep friendships develop in these groups and often some of these people are the first responders when any crisis does occur in the other person’s life.
  3. Persistent Prayer – prayer is never an afterthought in the lives of these people. These are not the kind of folks that pray for a few seconds before a test and hope for the best.  Instead, they develop a daily habit of talking with their heavenly father.  On many occasions, I am the recipient of those prayers and fairly regularly I am invited to pray with them.  It is one thing to read about intercessory prayer, it is quite another to actually pray with a real intercessor.  They do not let God go.  Instead they thank Him for His faithfulness and hold Him accountable to the promises in His word.  How many miracles happen after these times of prayer? I will never know – I have lost count the older I get.
  4. Soaking in the Word – reading the Bible is never a chore or an academic exercise. They see God’s word for what it is – His love letter to His people.  No matter their level of education or theological training, they spend time soaking in God’s word.  This includes regular times of devotional reading, Bible study and listening to other expound on the meaning of various texts.  Not content to just hear his word, they live their lives in accordance with its teaching.  It is a living and active part of their everyday experience.  Memorizing verses is normal and quoting those verses at just the right moment touches the lives of those they interact with wherever they are.
  5. Reading for renewal – these people take Romans 12:2 very seriously and choose not to be conformed to this world, but instead focus on the renewing of their minds. They clearly understand the idiom “garbage in = garbage out”.  They really want to know God’s will for their lives and they pursue wisdom in books that shape their thinking and living.  Books are always present on the nightstand, on the coffee table and on the side table next to their chairs.  These books are not for decoration on a book shelf, but for deep insight into the challenges they face.  Whenever they read a book that was particularly helpful, they talk about and share the book with others.  I have been the happy recipient of many book gifts down through the years.
  6. Witnessing as a Lifestyle – talking about Jesus is not hard or embarrassing. He has changed their lives and they want others to know about it.  This is not done in an off-putting or obnoxious way but in a genuine desire to see others come to love Him the way they do.  One of the best ways that I observed this in action is to see them give God credit for what He has done in their lives.  They are constantly pointing out his blessings, his creation, his incredible sustaining power and others simply want to know more about God as a result.  More often than not they are just answering questions and then leading people to make that all important decision to welcome Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
  7. Courageous Compassion – effective Christians notice people that Jesus noticed – the downtrodden, the lonely, the hurting and the despised. They make time for the mess and enter into tough situations.  While maintaining high standards of Christian conduct, they do not intimidate others with judgmental opinions and a “better than thou” attitude.  Instead, they see people as Jesus did – sinners in need of savior, lost and dying without him.  Most importantly, they see themselves like Paul did as the chief of sinners.  This perspective makes them safe for others to approach and often leads to conversations about faith, life and eternity.

So who were these effective Christians? – they are my spouse, parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coworkers and pastors.  My life has been greatly enriched by their lives and I only hope to emulate a small percentage of what they have poured into me.

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Eating Lunch in a Cloud

img_3643I ate lunch in a cloud this week.  You heard that right, I actually took a cable car to the top of the Monserrate Mountain in Bogota and ate lunch in a restaurant that was so high up, it was actually surrounded by a cloud.  Normally, I am not too good with heights, but taking the advice of a friend, I stared at the mountain as the cable car took us to the top and let my wife take pictures of the city as we came back down.  This experience typified my time in Bogota this past weekend.  It was short, memorable and almost did not seem real.

Deb and I came to Bogota to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the dinner-groupCLC ministry in this strategic country.  The celebration dinner was an elegant affair on the 30th floor of a hotel with an amazing view of the city that surrounded us.  Three hundred and fifty guests came to join the local CLC team in praising God for his faithfulness and to enjoy a wonderful dinner together.  It as a birthday party that I will never forget and a far cry from the humble beginnings of this significant work of God.

In the 1970’s WEC International had a small book room at the headquarters in Bogota.  The team leader put an unassuming young man named David in charge of helping the few customers that would stop by from time to time while he was out of the country.  David quickly realized that he had a problem.  He had to keep stopping what he was doing to help people get in and out of the book room as interest in this small selection of Spanish books was growing.  Ever the enterprising young person, he quickly noticed an unused garage location on the front of the property that could be converted into a store front.  After some prayer and persuasion, the WEC team allowed this new space to be used for new purpose and a new ministry was born.

By 1976, the bookstore work had grown to three locations around the city and was growing faster than WEC had expected.  They encouraged David Peacock to discuss this with Ken Adams, the founder of CLC and solution was arrived at quickly.  These bookstores would become a part of the CLC International family and a new CLC country would be added to map.  David and his wife Bonnie, switched teams and became CLC missionaries with the mandate to help establish and grow this work.  As of this was not enough to keep David busy, he had simultaneously been starting a new printing ministry called Buenas Semilla (the Good Seed).  CLC encouraged his entrepreneurial spirit and allowed him to wear two hats for many years.

Today, the work of Buenas Semilla and CLC Colombia is remarkable to behold.  Both of the them have grown significantly over the years.  Buenas Semilla is the leading Christian printing ministry in Colombia with huge printing presses and thousands of books being printed each week.  CLC has thirteen bookstores, a major book distribution warehouse, a growing publishing operation and a recently developed social foundation. It is fair to say that these two ministries are leading the way for Christian book distribution in the entire country and beyond.

Any successful ministry can be evaluated by the numbers it produces.  How many people are coming to faith or growing in their faith as a result of this particular work?  In the case of CLC Colombia that number is in the tens of thousands and growing.  Not only is their local work expanding, but they have helped to start the CLC ministry in Panama, Ecuador, and Mexico.  But numbers can become dry statistics.  Today I saw some of the results with my very own eyes.

In a country that had very few seminary trained pastors, I was able to attend a church that is just about as old as the CLC ministry in Colombia.  After the preaching two middle aged men came forward to be baptized.  One of them is the father of a missionary couple sponsored by the church.  This church is mature and thriving and it is one of many across the city that God is blessing.  Forty years ago, evangelicals were a small part of the population and experienced suffering and persecution.  Today, many self-educated pastors whose only training was the books available at CLC have led a revolution of gospel impact.  Evangelicals are so important to the future of Colombia that they are impacting the voting on new laws that are being developed.  To God be the Glory for great things he has done.

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One Big Idea

antoine-2Antoine is an artist and a really good one.  I had traveled to Montreal last weekend to be with him and the local CLC team and was invited to dinner at his home.  As he invited me in, I immediately noticed how beautifully decorated his house was and that someone had clearly taken a lot of time choosing the artwork that adorned the walls.  What I didn’t expect was that he had created every piece himself.  Starting as a fine art student in university he had begun a lifelong passion of creating paintings, calligraphy and other objects that could have easily been in a museum.  Culture matters to Antoine and changing the culture for the better matters a lot.

Providing evangelical Christian literature in Quebec is a challenging proposition at the best of times.  There is a very small evangelical population, there are far fewer Christian books available in the French language and those that are available cost much more than the same books in English.  Despite this, an intrepid group of publishers, wholesale distributors and Christian bookstores has been making these resources available for many years.  Church leaders depend on these resources and every effort has been made to get more books into Quebec and at cheaper prices.  This band of brave leaders met this past May to talk about working together, about impacting their culture and being a part of a move of God in Canada.

Following that important meeting, which Antoine had hosted, he decided to poll the attendees for ideas.  Surely someone would come up with something that would provide the breakthrough they had been praying for.  Surprisingly, there was not even one idea – not one.  Antoine knew he had a problem as the group was going to reconvene this October to discuss what to do next and no one had suggested anything.  With that reality in his heart, he spent time praying, thinking, researching and getting alone with God during the summer and God answered his prayers.  It was a big idea and one that would not happen easily.

As Antoine considered his context in Quebec, he came across two important facts.  The evangelical Christian population may have been small but it was not declining.  In fact, some churches were growing and new people were coming to faith.  Immigrants from many other nations who were already evangelical believers continued to come to big cities like Montreal on a regular basis.   At the same time Christian book sales had been declining and this was true for all the publishers, distributors and bookstores.  While that might have been explained away by internet sales competition in other countries, most of these French Christian books had never been made available on Amazon or any other major internet reseller.  The clear conclusion was that Christians were reading less.  After talking with many other Christian leaders about this, Antoine had this conclusion confirmed time and time again.

So what had changed.  The culture had.  Over and over, Antoine heard the same thing when he brought up this concern.  People were far too busy surfing the internet, watching movies and being distracted by digital options to consider the possibility of picking up a book.  In addition, the commitment to daily devotional time alone with God had eroded tremendously in the face of so many other ways to spend time.  A way of life, a Christian discipline and the joy of reading a great book was alluding an entire generation and it was having a huge impact in the church.  Pastors could no longer presume that the average congregant had ever read the books they were quoting from or even heard of the author at all.  Something really big had changed.

Clearly understanding the problem he was facing, Antoine decided to tackle it head on and came up with one big idea to present to the gathering in October.   What would it look like if every Christian committed to reading one hour a day?  What would it look like if an entire church committed to doing this together?  What would happen if reading became normal again and people started discussing the books they were reading as their lives were being impacted by the content?  What could God do with a small band of believers that were committed to changing the culture one book at a time? Maybe, just maybe, a movement would get started that would have an impact far wider than just the evangelical Christian church.

As Antoine presented this idea to the group, people got excited.  They leaned in and asked questions and then they did something even more important.  They volunteered to help.  Antoine asked for a show of hands of those willing to form the steering committee to get this idea off the ground.  Immediately a number of hands shot up and people began discussing what it might look like if this idea really took off.  I couldn’t help but think of Antoine the artist painting a different picture of the future for those in the room.  Just because the culture is moving in a particular direction, it does not mean that we have to go along for the ride.  He was seeing the mind as a canvas and books as a way to create beauty in a barren and desolate landscape.  What a reason for hope, excitement and common purpose.  I look forward to seeing this dream become a reality as this newly formed team begins to work together and creates a new culture of reading and reflection in the years to come.

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The Death of a Saint

img_2436On Monday, a saint died.  Not a Catholic priest or nun, just an ordinary person named Isaac who lived an extraordinary life.  After a long bout with cancer, Isaac Dweh, affectionately known as “Brother Isaac”, went home to be with his heavenly father.  What a family reunion they must have had.

It was a warm day in 2008 when I first met him.  I had traveled to Liberia on my first trip to Africa and had been looking forward to that day for some time.  I was finally going to get to meet two of my spiritual heroes.  Ironically they were both named Isaac.  Little did I know how much one of these men would affect my life.

CLC had established a Christian bookstore in this war torn country in 1947 and it had operated all the way up to 1996 when it had to close because of the fighting.   On the day that we had to finally close, Brother Isaac was the last to leave the store.  Unfortunately, in his desire to make sure everything was properly taken care of in the store, he left too late.  The rebels that were attacking Monrovia had now entered the city limits and set up road blocks.  No one could get by without their permission.  Isaac’s family lived on the other side of the checkpoint and he now had to wait in line to see if he could get through.

As he approached the front of the line, one of the rebel soldiers noticed the bookstore bag he had in his hands and signaled for him to step forward.  Isaac did not know if he was being singled out to be arrested, tortured or worse.  The young man looked at the bag, saw the CLC logo and asked if that was where Isaac worked.  Everything rested on his answer to that question.  Keen to tell the truth, Isaac said yes.  The soldier gave him a knowing look and waved him on through.  Somehow that bag saved his life.

I learned that story and many others from Isaac himself as we traveled together and he showed me what the capital city looked like now as it was beginning to recover from the war.  It didn’t take long for me to understand that this man was one of God’s special people.  As we were driving around Monrovia, Isaac mentioned that he needed to stop by the post office.  I casually asked if this was where CLC would have gotten its mail in the past and he replied that this was why he had to stop.  This did not make much sense to me since the ministry had been closed for so long until he explained that he had been checking the “CLC” mail for the last twelve years just in case someone was trying to get in touch with the ministry.  Not only that, he had paid the fee to keep this box for every one of these years.  What a man of faith.

In 2012, we re-opened the CLC bookstore again and not surprisingly, Brother Isaac wanted to be a part of the new team.  He diligently worked with the store manager, James Cooper, to get the store open and to serve our customers who were delighted to learn that CLC was back and that Brother Isaac was too.  In both 2014 and 2016, I was privileged to help host a pastor’s training conference for hundreds of local pastors from Monrovia and some of the interior cities as well.  At each of these events, Brother Isaac was in charge of the huge book table and was always surrounded by people asking questions about the books.  He loved to serve and people could tell.

One day during the first conference I noticed that some other people were helping him serve at the book table.  I asked who they were and he introduced me to his wife and son who were volunteering their time.  Ministry was a family business for the Dwehs.  Even though he and his wife were no longer young people and their resources were meager, their family continued to expand as they offered help and support to extended family members including an infant who had just been born.

One of CLC’s core values is sacrifice and Brother Isaac lived this out on a daily basis.  Despite his failing health this year, he came into the bookstore on many occasions to serve as best he could.  I saw him in March and was amazed at his resilience in spite of the pain.  He never seemed to stop smiling.  What a big smile God must have had when he welcomed Isaac home to his eternal rest.dave-and-isaac

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A Fresh Move of God

wind-of-changeI can still remember the scene even though I was a little boy.  It was Sunday afternoon and a bunch of long haired young people were gathering on the lawn outside of one of the main buildings on our campus.  CLC had generously agreed to let these folks play guitar, sing and worship the Lord in their unique style right on our property.  Even more interesting one of our team members was helping to co-host these events.  As a small child, I couldn’t help wondering who these people were that looked so different than me and my parents and I remember asking my mom who they were.  She said, “They are Jesus People and they love the Lord too”.  Little did I know that I would come to embrace their music as my own in the years to come.

Every generation needs a revival and for those just a little older than me, the foment of the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in a major move of God.  This “Jesus People” movement was catalytic in the lives of thousands of young people in America and around the world.  Hippies were coming to faith in huge numbers and changing the church as they did.  Many conservative churches were not so welcoming of these long haired youths with their desire to play loud music and worship in new ways.  Despite this, the evangelical church did adapt, and new churches were formed like the Calvary Chapel churches that embraced these new converts.  When God moves like this, new methods of doing church are often the result.

For my parents’ generation, the Billy Graham Crusades were at the heart of what God was doing in America.  A fresh move of God began in tent meetings in California with this tall southern preacher and began to impact the entire country as hundreds of thousands gathered in stadiums to hear the gospel message.  Many older Christians today can point to that pivotal moment when they responded to the call of God and went forward at a crusade.  Often these new converts became new members of local churches and these churches began growing in significant numbers.  They did not look like the churches of the past any many emphasized a return to preaching the gospel and using robust choruses and hymns to draw people in.

Interesting, Christian literature has always played a crucial part in the revivals.  During the Jesus People movement, books like “The Late Great Planet Earth” created an urgency to respond to the gospel message and Francis Schaeffer’s “The God Who is There” provided the intellectual underpinning for many skeptical young people.  Carl Henry’s “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” was a foundational spark for Billy Graham and his team.  Henry even became the first editor of Christianity Today Magazine that Billy Graham founded.  God used the powerful words in these books and many others to create an awareness of need and to draw people to himself.

It has been a long time since anything approximating a revival has happened in America.  The closest thing might be the Promise Keeper’s movement in the 1990’s that gathered thousands of men together in stadiums across the country.  Sadly, that movement faded and nothing on that scale has ever happened again.  In the years since, we have seen the rise of the mega church, the multi-site church and the splintering of the evangelical church into many “tribes” and factions.  It is almost hard to identify the center of evangelicalism anymore as the writers and editors at Christianity Today can attest.

We desperately need a new move of God.  We are a forgetful people and each generation needs their own experience of His power and presence.  Most researchers will point out the precursor to revival is almost always prayer and repentance.  If ever there was a time that we need to get on our knees again, it is now.  I am praying that God will empower a new generation of writers, speakers and influencers to present the good news in a way that is compelling to millennials and those coming after.  Only a fresh experience of our awesome God will change the trajectory of this nation and those leaving the church in such large numbers as they become adults.  Come Holy Spirit Come!

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