On The Way to Harmony

I was driving to work one day recently when I noticed the sign. It said “Harmony Township”. Sure enough, I was driving from the suburbs of Philadelphia to rural NJ just outside of Phillipsburg, NJ and it was a place really called Harmony. Truthfully, the last part of my drive really is quite beautiful as you pass pastoral farmland and houses set back from the road with trees that almost seem to welcome you. I could believe that the people themselves really do live in harmony. What is there to fight about when you live in a place like this?

It is a great irony, that to get to this place called harmony, I have to travel on the death trap known as Route 22 that goes through Allentown and Easton. In only the two weeks that I have been commuting, I have seen at least five accidents and have had to traverse around vehicle debris on several occasions. This is partly because this area of the highway seems to be one long work zone with varying posted speeds and mostly because people just aren’t paying attention as they drive. When an accident happens, which is nearly everyday, traffic backs up and people don’t seem quite so harmonious.

Recently, I have been noticing that life is a lot like this. We all want to live in that beautiful state of harmony, but far to often we find ourselves in a traffic jam of conflicting opinions and impatience with whoever is in our way. How did we get here, where attacking another person’s perspective or their character is our first course of action? How did we decide that if someone belongs to another group, whatever it may be, they are wrong and worthy of our derision? What is it that leads us to criticize first and ask questions later? I think it might be the same thing that causes so many automobile accidents – simply not paying attention.

Recently, I had a meal with a long time friend that I had not seen in a while.   For ten years, we had collaborated on a major music festival in the Philly area and loved hanging out during the year to plan and dream about the next event. If you had asked me, I would have said that we were pretty close friends and that we knew a lot about each other. Then, like many times in life, things change, the festival was no longer happening and circumstances drew us apart. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to hang out, we were just busy. So I looked forward to seeing him and getting caught up. This time though, I decided to try something different. When we sat down to eat, I made a point of listening more, asking better questions and not making assumptions.

During that meal, I was astonished at what I learned. I already knew he was a talented engineer who had gone to the University of Pennsylvania and was also a great musician. What I didn’t know was how much we actually had in common. He had gone to a boarding school that had prepared him well for college and so had I. He loved books and read widely. So do I. He was challenged by the reality of hitting middle age and so was I. And yet, we also had some differences. He is African American. I am not. He grew up in New York City and I grew up in the Caribbean.   Despite these obvious differences, our commonalties drew us together again. We laughed, commiserated and talked for a long time. I only wish I had arranged this meal a lot sooner.

Paying attention matters. Choosing to listen, asking good questions and not assuming the worst in someone else can change everything. Jesus did this pretty well and is a great role model. So often, he noticed people that others ignored. He chose to go to places where he could learn about how people actually lived and worked. As I drive to Harmony Township this week, I will be thinking about whom I need to call to ask out for a meal. I look forward to being astonished again.

 

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The Legacy of Our (Fore) Fathers

Bryce Craig, President of P&R Publishing and myself

Some people are privileged to grow up in homes where their Dad’s are present and encouraging. I was one of those kids. My Dad helped me to wrestle with questions of faith, life and identity. At every step, he was bold enough to challenge me and loving enough to hold me accountable. His impact on me is deep and sustaining and continues to grow each year.

Like some truly blessed young men, I have had more than one Godly male influence in my life. My grandfather looms large in my memory and in the way that I chose to live my life. He had both a distinctly British conservative approach to life and a uniquely cheeky sense of humor. Given that I was his oldest grandson, I got to spend a lot of time with him and I treasure every moment we had.

Despite our close relationship, there was one way that my grandfather influenced me that he never knew. He died when I was seventeen and never got to watch me make adult choices. One choice I made in my late twenties was to join the organization that he founded and to impact the world through the power of the printed page. This choice would surely have pleased him as he was always “about his father’s business” and wanted this to be my life’s ambition as well. That choice came with great joys and great challenges.

Being the grandson of a founder is not always easy. The stated and unstated expectations of others can be overwhelming. This past week, I made the momentous choice to leave that organization and to join another. In a great irony, it is also led by the grandson of a founder and I can relate well. P&R (Presbyterian and Reformed) Publishing is headed up Bryce Craig, grandson of Samuel G. Craig. Samuel was the editor-in-chief of a denominational paper called The Presbyterian when he was “dismissed” by those in authority. He went on to found the Presbyterian and and Reformed Publishing Company in 1930 with J. Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary.

CLC was founded amongst the tumult of the Second World War in England and P&R was birthed out of the modernist/ fundamentalist controversies that took place in America. Conflict has a way of sparking innovation. One of the first publications of this new company was a monthly journal called Christianity Today that was a conservative response to the liberal leaning elements in the Presbyterian Church. That magazine continued to be published until 1949 and then in 1956, Billy Graham acquired the journal’s name for his own magazine that is still read widely today.

Under the leadership of Bryce’s father, Charles, P&R grew from a small publishing house operating out of his house to an established presence in the evangelical publishing world. In 1982, Bryce became President and has provided steady leadership during several decades of growth and change. Today, P&R is known for its high quality academic resources and its influential books on Biblical Counseling and Christian Living.

In the years to come, I look forward to serving Bryce and the P&R team by leading the book acquisitions process. I have a feeling that both of our grandfathers will be cheering us on from heaven as we work together. Following in their footsteps will not be easy, but it will be worth it. They pioneered the way and we have the distinct privilege of honoring God by ensuring that their legacy of faithfulness impacts another generation, one quality book at a time.

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Taking A Different Path

We had been waiting to take this hike for a long time.  For two years since we had last been in England we had thinking about how much we had enjoyed walking along the cliffs near Porthleven and couldn’t wait to do it again.  As Deb and I prepared for the walk last week, we reminisced about the stunning beauty all around us and how grateful we were to be visiting this little bit of heaven on earth.  Walking through the fields and hedgerows to the start of the trail just got us more excited as we anticipated what was to come.  Then we saw the sign.  It said, “Coastal Diversion Path” and our hearts sank.  Apparently, some of the cliffs had collapsed and it was no longer safe to walk right along them.  Instead, there was a new path and it seemed to be leading away from the coast all together.

We could still see the ocean but were now being directed through different fields and strange hedgerows.  Our goal was to reach a place called “The Loe Bar” that was a sand break between the ocean and a large lake.  We didn’t know how long this would take or if we would even end in the right place.  All we could do was trust the signs and keep walking.  Along the way, we began to notice things we had never seen before; beautiful flowers that did not grow on the cliff sides, cows resting in the fields and finally a path through some woods that looked interesting and a little intimidating.  With a final effort, we took the path through the woods and sure enough we ended up on the path to the Loe Bar.  It was not what we had anticipated, but it was just what we needed.  A clear way forward.

Deb and I have been praying for a clear way forward for us in our next season of ministry and God has taken us on a different path.  It is one that we did not expect but is clearly His will for our lives.  After completing my sabbatical, I will begin working next week for P&R (Presbyterian and Reformed) Publishing.  I am excited to join their team as Acquisitions Director and will help spearhead their efforts to find new books and new authors in the years to come.  The company is located in Phillipsburg, NJ and I will be commuting this summer from our home in Fort Washington as we look for a new home in the Lehigh Valley.  After spending the last twenty-two years impacting the world through the distribution of Christian literature, I will now have the privilege of influencing what Christian literature is actually being published.

It has been the greatest joy of my life to work in CLC, the ministry that my Grandfather founded.  I will always love and appreciate the people that I have worked with and the teams that I have visited around the world.  CLC is in my DNA and will always be in my heart.  Going forward, I will remain a vocal advocate for what God is doing in the nations through the power of the printed page.  Taking a new path is not easy.  It can be scary and anxiety producing.  Walking with God, however, is worth the risk.  As I take these steps of faith, I know that I am not alone and that He will direct my paths no matter where they might lead.

Stay tuned for stories from the next season – it is going to be an exciting adventure.

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The Beauty of Our God

Walking around the the fields and hills above the village of Porthleven is a feast for the eyes.  This little place on the southwestern coast of England has been in the hearts, minds and mythology of our family for several generations.  My grandmother grew up here and was one of thirteen children.  Many of our relatives still live here.  Waking up each morning to see gorgeous green hills rolling down to the ocean is enough to take your breath away.  If that were not enough of a treat, a walking path has been established that takes you through the fields above the sea cliffs and down through the woods to a sand bar that divides the ocean from a lake.  All along the path are hedge rows, flowers and plants bursting with color and variety.  Ending my sabbatical with a week in Cornwall (the county where Porthleven is located) is a taste of heaven on earth and a reminder that I serve a God who delights in renewing his creation ever single year – without fail.

Taking a sabbatical has not been easy.  I am a person deeply committed to productivity and that means being busy most of the time.  For the last six months, God has called me to take a “time out” to learn more about Himself and about myself.  Despite the challenges, it has been completely worth the effort and surprising at nearly every turn.  To start with, I learned a lot about other people and the power of real relationships.  When my friends and acquaintances heard that I was taking some time off, I was delighted by the response I got.  Many of them had the courage to call or e-mail and see how I was doing and more importantly, they asked to take me out for a meal.  Instead of having to check my watch every few minutes to be sure that I was not missing a meeting or important phone call, I could relax and enjoy their company.  Time and again, I had the same experience.  I discovered that there were many things I did not know about them and our friendships grew.

In December when all of this began, I had a vague notion that I wanted to use the time to get healthier in every aspect of my life, but especially physically.  At first, that meant setting up long awaited doctor and dentist appointments and then things got serious.  I had my first colonoscopy and learned that I could actually go a full twenty-four hours without eating anything.  With a clean bill of health from the doctor and a new motivation, I embarked on a diet plan inspired by a book I had read called the Economist’s Diet.  It was written by two normal guys who both happened to be economists and applied behavioral theories of economics to eating and it worked.  They both lost a lot of weight and I wanted to do the same.  What I loved about their strategy was how simple it was.  The crux of their philosophy is that we do not need to eat three square meals a day.  Instead, we can do with one square meal and two smaller meals and be completely healthy and lose weight.  I am now half way to my goal weight and greatly encouraged that I now know how to keep the weight off.

Reading was always going to be at the heart of this sabbatical experience and was one of the most rewarding aspects of taking the time off.  I dug into classics like Tozer’s Pursuit of God, finished a new biography of President Ulysses S. Grant and devoured Visions of Vocation by Steve Garber.  While reading that book, I noticed a number of references to an author I had not read named Wendell Berry.  Discovering Wendell Berry and his agrarian stories from the fictional farming town of Port William in Kentucky was the highlight of the past few months.  He has a way with words that makes you believe he has actually lived every moment of what he is writing whether he is writing in the voice of a little boy or a grown woman.  I have never wanted to live or work on a farm, but after reading his books, I am now convinced that I want to live my life with a renewed passion for what God has created.

As I complete this sabbatical, I look forward to writing again about a God who loves me like no other and has created me to bring Him glory in all that I do.  Heading into a new season, I do so with renewed vision, vigor and vitality to serve and bring beauty into the broken places just like He has done with me.

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Our Miracle Season

A friend once asked me what it was like to live in Philadelphia.  Without much hesitation, I responded that to understand my city you had to understand it’s sports fans.  To say that Philly fans are “die hards” is to miss the point.  The mood of the entire city is often dictated by the wins and losses of our four pro-sports teams and far too often our shared emotion has been disappointment.  This was most prominently embodied in our beloved Eagles who have often been “oh so close”, but just couldn’t get it done – until this year.  When we won the Super Bowl this past Sunday night, I think that radio broadcaster Mike Quick spoke for the entire city when he said, “If this is a dream, please don’t wake me up”.  It had finally happened and many of us just couldn’t believe it.

Philadelphia is a city of traditions and of some strange beliefs, especially when it comes to our sports teams.  For many years, the city fathers had determined that no building could be built taller that the hat on top of William Penn that stands atop our beautiful city hall.  In 1980, our baseball team won the World Series and then in 1983 our basketball team, the Sixers won the NBA Championship.  We were on a roll until somebody voted to change the rules and buildings began to soar into the sky far higher that Billy Penn’s hat.  For the next twenty-five years, our city would not see another championship of any kind.  In 2007, some of the construction workers in the city decided not to take any more chances with fate and created a miniature version of the William Penn statue and put it on top of what was the tallest building at that time.  Wouldn’t you know it, the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.  This past year as the new Comcast Center soared past the old one, the statue was duly placed on top of that building.

While I do not personally give much credence to these superstitions, I do love the stories and mythology that have united our city over the years.  This Eagles season was so special and created stories that we will be talking about for generations to come.  From the moment that a rookie kicker cleared a 62-yard field goal early in the season, you could tell something unique was going on.  Instead of the typical solo end zone victory dance that tends to highlight one superstar player, the Eagles chose to celebrate together.  Their end zone festivities after scoring a touchdown became the talk of the town as they did new things every week highlighted by the now famous “bowling pins”.  When our star quarter back went down with a season ending injury, you could almost hear the gasps of sadness and disbelief all over the city – was disappointment just around the corner as it so often has been? Not this year.  With a grit and determination that our city is famous for, several key players embraced their new underdog status and created a new mythology when they purchased real dog masks and wore them for interviews after one of the victories.

For me as a Christian and a Philadelphia sports fan, I couldn’t help but notice how often some of the leaders on the team including both quarterbacks freely referenced their faith in God.  Even more interesting was that the sports media allowed them to share openly about a belief in Jesus Christ as their savior and not just some vague interest in spirituality.  While it is true that many players in the NFL have talked about their faith in the past, there was something different about this Eagles team.  They did not just talk the talk, they walked the walk.  Humility and a Christlike attitude seemed to be the hallmark of many of their actions including baptisms taking place in the pool at their training complex.  When the team the coach Doug Pederson, the quarterback, Nick Foles and tight end Zach Ertz all gave credit for the Super Bowl victory to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it was more than just platitudes.  While I wish it were true that simply talking about your faith would guarantee a victory, I know that is not reality.  There are many football players that were not in the Super Bowl this year that have a deep faith in Christ too and many who experienced suffering and even humiliation during the season.  What I do know is this, when Carson Wentz and Nick Foles had a massive platform to share whatever they wanted with the world, they chose to glorify God.  I only hope that as I am called upon to share what I believe from time to time that I will be so faithful and – GO EAGLES.

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The Hammock in the Living Room

It was really cold in Pennsylvania this month.  So cold, in fact, that my boys and I decided the best antidote would a road trip south to visit my family in South Carolina.    With weather forecasters using words like Bombogenesis to describe recent snow storms, it seemed like a great time to get out of town.  While we had been planning the trip for a little while, it happened to coincide with a major change in the weather and we couldn’t wait to feel the warmth again.  Promptly at 7AM on the designated morning the four of us piled into our little Honda Civic and took off.  This may not seem like a big deal, but one of my four passengers is over six foot seven inches tall and would be “eating his knees” for most of the trip despite riding shotgun.

Sure enough, ten hours later, we made it safely to Columbia and a big meal prepared by my mother.  We had taken our preferred route down Interstate 81 and made the obligatory lunch stop at Cracker Barrel.  This was a momentous occasion as we were able to introduce my boy’s best friend to the wonders of Chicken Fried Chicken and I was able to enjoy my favorite Chicken and Rice entrée that is only available on Saturdays.  There is something that is just soul satisfying about driving through the Shenandoah Valley as you head south on Rt. 81.  It is so beautiful and quite the opposite of the death defying trip that you can encounter if you make the fatal mistake of taking I-95.  Nothing can crush the soul quite so much as the traffic snarl that is the beltway around Washington D.C.

One of the main reasons for visiting my family in the south besides the warmth and great meals that my mom makes was the opportunity to see the cousins again.  My two boys are in their twenties and my one sister’s four kids are ages 4-8.  In many families that age gap would be a problem, but not so much in ours.  The cousins seem to adore each other, and the young ones couldn’t wait for play time with the big boys.  The two youngest kids are twins and we got to visit the local zoo together on one of the warmest and brightest days of the week.  My other sister has four kids as well and we enjoyed spending time hearing about life at their house amongst chickens, dogs and visiting with cousin Jacob who has just started college.

My favorite moment of the week was with the hammock in the living room.  My brother-in-law Chris is a fun-loving guy and a great dad.  One day, while his wife was out of town, he decided that what the living room really needed was a hammock.  Hammocks had been a fixture of his growing up experience in Mexico and part of his life ever since.  In the middle of our trip, we came over for dinner and had devotions with their family in the living room.  Sitting in the hammock, Chris read from the Jesus Story Book Bible and then we sang choruses together.  It was amazing how we did not need hymn books to know the words to the songs.  My parents had instilled in us a love for singing (despite my lack of any ability to stay on pitch) and the words just flowed.  As my grandmother would have said, “it was a foretaste of heaven”.

Heading back at the end of the week, I couldn’t help but think about the blessings of worshiping together as a family.  We are all at different places in our lives, but worship centers and bonds us like nothing else.  No matter how crazy things get, we have each other and we can always sing those choruses to be reminded of our loving heavenly father and his care over us for so many generations.

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What You Can See When You Slow Down

For many years, our family has had a tradition of going to Center City Philadelphia on Christmas Eve and seeing the sites of the season.  This typically involved a stop at the Comcast Center (after it was built), shopping at the Christmas Village next to City Hall, and an obligatory visit to the Macy’s Christmas Light Show and Wanamaker Organ Concert.  Sometimes we even stood in line to see the Dickens Village display – one more time.  This year with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday and our boys’ schedules being so busy, Deb and I decided to do something different.  We decided to go downtown on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and to take things at a slower pace.  We did visit the Comcast Center and the Christmas Village (which was surprisingly busy for it’s second day to be officially open).  After that we walked through City Hall, skipped Macys all together and decided to do something we had never done before.

We had always talked about walking through the Society Hill neighborhood and seeing some of the buildings that had withstood the test of time.  On the way, we stopped at Washington Square which was once the heart of the city’s thriving publishing industry.  With no agenda and some extra time on our hands, we simply sat and watched people walk by.  We could not help but notice the diversity that makes Philadelphia so special.  As we headed on our way, we started walking south on 5th Street when an elderly gentleman noticed us looking at one particular building.  He must have thought that we were tourists and asked if we wanted to know more about the place we were standing.  For the next few minutes we were given a free guided tour of that part of the city with recommendations about what to see next.  Based on his input, we headed down Spruce Street to the river and found the homes we had been looking for.  These old houses were so interesting and beautiful that before we knew it we were at the river.  Walking back to the train, we took a different route and commented about how much we wanted to take this same walk again someday.

Walking is something that I am learning to love again.  I have always enjoyed hiking the various trails near our home, but so often my time was limited by a very busy schedule.  Recently, one of my colleagues who knows that I am on sabbatical invited me to take a walk with him over the lunch hour.   He mentioned that he had a new trail he wanted to show me.  Having walked most of the trails nearby, I was interested to see where we would be going.  Sure enough, he took me to a park that I was familiar with, but not the walking path.  How had I lived so close to this path and never seen it before?  As we walked together, I marveled at the beauty of the light shining through the trees and glistening off the creek.  The trail was wide and well taken care of.  It had a long wooden bridge and some interesting side path options to choose from and seemed to follow the creek for a long way.  When we were finished our walk, I was so delighted by this discovery of a new walking trail that I decided to bring Deb back later that day to experience it one more time.

Slowing down and walking gives you a new perspective.  You cannot see things quite the same way when you simply drive by or are in a hurry.  I marvel more and more at the God who took time to create all this natural beauty for our enjoyment.  I rejoice in having friends who want to show me new paths and who care enough to slow down to walk with me.  I look forward to discovering new things this year as I take time to see what God wants to show me on His adventure trails.

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