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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Heavenly Longings

spring sunsetThis was a really weird week. I was frequently torn between emotions of exhilaration and grief. Somehow it did not all seem to make sense. This time of the year in Pennsylvania is just spectacular and God outdid Himself once again this spring. Though the winter hung around like a bad cold, these last few weeks have been just glorious and well worth the wait. Every day, something new is blooming, some new color is sprouting and the earth is being reborn. The morning is brighter earlier and earlier, the temperature is just about perfect and the sunsets – oh the sunsets.

And yet – the creation continues to groan. The ground shook for less than a minute in a remote part of the earth and thousands died. They did not see it coming, they could not prepare and they were gone in an instant. I watched a video of a hiker on Mt. Everest as an avalanche suddenly overtook the camp. It looked like a white wall of snow just attacked and then it was finished. As they dug out, the scale of catastrophe became apparent and it was almost unimaginable. In that short space of time, tens of thousands faced their mortality. Who can watch these images and not be moved to tears.

As if that were not enough, images of a boy being dragged into a police van limp and unresponsive filled the airwaves. Sometime between being stopped by police in the Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester and arriving at the city’s western district police station in a van, Freddie Gray sustained an injury that killed him. He fell into a coma first, succumbing to his injuries in hospital a week later. Not surprisingly, anger at his treatment boiled over and the city seemed to erupt in violence. The images of buildings on fire, cars demolished and businesses looted reminded us all of how fragile a world we really live in.

Like a fog lifting off of a mountain, the images in the days following both events brought into stark reality the scale of what had taken place. Somehow though, in the midst of all chaos and destruction there were also images of redemption and restoration. As rescuers began to dig away at piles of debris and remove bricks from fallen structures, miraculous rescues began to take place. People who should not have survived did. Hundreds of pastors stood arm in arm in Baltimore to help restore the peace. Many concerned citizens went to the scenes of the looting and destruction with brooms and buckets to help with the cleanup.

At my moments of deepest despair this week at these tragic events, I was reminded of Revelation 21:4 where the Apostle John wrote, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Until that time comes, the earth will continue to groan and I will continue to long for heaven. Each sunset, each flower, each new plant is a reminder that our creator loves his creation and is revealing just a small portion of what He has in store for us on the other side. If we only see through a mirror dimly in this life, I can hardly imagine the beauty that is to come. In the meantime, I will mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who restore.

 

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The Little Publisher that Could

Train-Sculptures-00It seemed just like any other e-mail that I had received from customers in the past. This particular person wanted to order a larger than normal quantity of books and they needed to confirm some details about their purchase. I had actually been waiting to hear about this purchase for some time and was glad to be able to answer the questions. As I read the e-mail closely, however, I realized we had a problem. The books in question were needed for a conference in the Philippines and the customer had been working for quite a while raising the funds to buy 1000 copies. Unfortunately, when I got the e-mail, we had only four or five weeks before the conference was to take place and not enough time to ship the books in any economical way. It was time for an “only in CLC story” to unfold.

I quickly contacted our CLC team in Manila and asked if there was any chance that they could get these books printed locally for me and they said they would look into it. After some investigation, they found a printer who could work with us and we set about getting the files sent and paperwork signed. Within a few short weeks, these books were printed and delivered to the customer in the Philippines and the pastors were able to get the books at the conference and never knew about the heroics behind the scenes that made it possible. As we celebrated with our small publishing team here in the USA, I realized a very important truth that day – there are some things that small publishers can do pretty well. Flexibility and accommodating unique requests is becoming a part of our DNA.

Not long before this story took place, I had received another interesting request. One of our long time customers wanted a large number of a certain title for a special promotion. As we chatted, the requests and ideas kept coming. Could they have a special cover? Could they design the cover themselves? Could they have a new forward and back cover copy? Could they have their ministry logo on the book? By the time we had finished the conversation, it was clear that they wanted and needed a unique book and they were willing to invest time and resources to make that happen. Our team chatted about it and quickly concluded that we could make this work and a wonderful collaboration got started. After just a couple of months of working together the special edition of this book was completed and sent to the printer. All of this for what would have been a relatively small order for a larger publisher and most likely would have been denied.

Publishing is a challenging business and getting even more challenging as the customer landscape and the demands of the reading public keep changing at lightning speed. In the midst of this whirlwind of change the flexible small publisher has a wonderful and exciting future. Print-on-demand (POD) technology and the growth of e-books have positioned us to be able to do things that we could only have dreamed of in the past. No longer do we have to print several thousand copies of a book to make it viable economically. At the same time, our ability to make quick decisions and respond to author and customer needs in a matter of weeks, not months or years provides us some unique opportunities that we are just beginning to uncover.

As the publisher for CLC, I am only beginning to understand the power of our global ministry to expand the reach of our authors around the world. Just this week we answered a request for a customer in the USA for some Spanish language editions of a book that our team in Colombia did not have in stock. Normally we would have had to wait months to get these books if they decided to reprint them at all. Instead, we made a quick agreement with of sister team in Bogota and got the rights to the files for these books and are doing a small POD print run locally.  We will be able to get these books in our customers hands just in time for their needed use. It is not uncommon for us today to acquire a new book from an author and ultimately see it published in multiple languages around the world. Our little publishing house is having an outsized impact for the glory of God.

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The Making of a Man

alex-and-brett-harrisI could not believe what I had just heard. I was only fourteen years old and had been invited by my grandfather to go to a church where he was preaching. I loved to hear him speak and had jumped at the opportunity. Right in the middle of his sermon, however, he had stopped and said that his grandson was now going to come up and share his testimony. I looked around to see what grandson he was talking about and then like a bolt of lightning it hit me – he was talking about me. How was that possible? He had not mentioned this to me beforehand and had never asked me to do something like this in the past. I was not prepared and I was sure that he must have made a mistake. Despite this, I got out of my seat, went to the front and said a few words. I cannot remember a thing that I said, but I will never forget that moment.

This week, I met with my friend Tim and he shared a similar memory from his teenage years. He was only sixteen and was getting ready to help lead a worship service with the rest of his youth group when his pastor walked in. His pastor said in a kind of offhand way, “So Whose Going to Preach?” Without thinking too much, Tim said “I’ll Do That.” Too his great surprise, his pastor took him seriously and Tim became one of the youngest people to ever preach a sermon in that church. Like me, he did not feel prepared, did not expect this to happen, but will never forget that moment. Today, Tim is a full time pastor and he began his journey to ministry that day as a sixteen year old.

Three years after that momentous event as a fourteen year old, I was called on again to speak in public. This time I was ready. My grandfather, who was my mentor and spiritual hero, had died and I was asked to speak at his memorial service. Despite my sadness on that occasion, I could not wait to challenge other young people to a life of service and sacrifice that he had lived before me. In the ensuing years, I have been called on many times to speak to groups large and small. While I was always an extravert and full of opinions as a young person, I had never seen myself as a public speaker. Somehow he had and he took the risk to give me the opportunity to exercise a gift that he saw in me. Who knows whether this would ever have taken place if he had not “called me out” on that fateful Sunday?

Sadly my experience and Tim’s does not seem all that common these days. While young people are often allowed to use their gifts in the context of youth ministry or a carefully controlled context, rarely are they allowed demonstrate these gifts among adults. Some of the most marginalized kids in the church are the most outspoken and opinionated. They are the ones who are always laughing at the wrong time, wearing attention-getting attire and constantly getting in trouble. Pretty quickly they learn what is accepted in a church environment and they conform or leave. Very often their conformity results in silence and passivity and ultimately a total disconnect with the church itself. They do not see how they fit in and find their validation in the accolades of their non-Christian friends. Future preachers, Christian workers and leaders of Christian ministries are walking out the back doors of the church or are falling asleep in the pews.

It seems like a new paradigm is needed. Like Jesus, we need to see people as full of potential and not just as problems to be solved. He found great worth in prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. It is high time that we do the same with this next generation of church kids. They may have very different views than we do and see the world through completely different lenses, but they are no less loved by God or any less important than we are. Who knows where the next Billy Graham will come from? Maybe he is a bored and distracted teenager sitting in the back pew of the church who is just waiting to hear his name being called? Are we willing to make that call?

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My Epic Panama Adventure

So this week, I had the adventure of a lifetime as I was able to take my son Mike with me to visit my brother and his family who live in Panama.  Here are some pictures of our time in paradise (or so I am told).

#15We arrived after an uneventful flight from Houston and loved the warm air that welcomed us to the tropics.

#12Mike was ready for our hike on the first day and enjoyed seeing his cousins again

#7After a vigorous hike, we reached an overlook and had an amazing view of the city

#10Panama City is a really big place and growing larger all the time

#17CLC’s store at the Albrook Mall is one of the nicest in the world.

#9What a joy to see Milton and Marisol Cheng again.

#11It was a delight to meet one of our customers purchasing a book that we first produced in English in the USA.

#5No visit to Panama would be complete without a visit to the Canal – one of the wonders of the world.

#18Being a good literature missionary, I did have to find an appropriate place to read.

#19Jim and I enjoyed some very tart lemonades and yes that was our “actual” view.

#21Nobody can tell that we are brothers since we look so different.

#16Given that this was an educational trip for Mike, he was required to order his own lunch in Spanish and did a great job.

#3In the middle of the week, we traveled to the incredibly beautiful city of El Valle de Anton

#14The color of the flowers was stunning

#4Mike got to zip line for the first time

#2I got to ride a horse for the first time

#6Mike loved exploring the outdoors

#13I tested out the many rickety bridges

#20Jim and his beautiful family

#22Mike and his cousins – always the protector.

#1One of my favorite pictures from this week and a reminder of God’s incredible creativity.

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Observations from the Field

ObservationsFor some people it comes in the middle of a good book. For others it comes as they close the last page and sigh. For me it comes as I talk with people about the books they are reading. It is that moment of enlightenment when a person realizes why they like reading so much. It could be that character who finally makes sense in the mystery novel or the book that finishes with the “perfect” ending. Whatever it is for you, it is something that is addicting and makes you want to experience it again and again.

This week, I got the chance to get out of my cocoon of an office and spend some time in the field making observations about this bookselling ministry that I am a part of. Once again, I was reminded why I like books and bookselling so much. My colleague and I were working on a series of short videos created in each of our stores that can be used at our team conference later this year. As a part of the videotaping process, I randomly asked a number of customers if I could ask them some questions. Amazingly, a few said yes.

As we began talking with these various people, it became obvious that while much has changed about the bookselling process over the years, some things remain the same. The reason that people shop in our stores was as varied as the people themselves, but there were certain themes:

1. People want a unique variety and selection. While Amazon may have unlimited selection, it can never compete with the unique curated selection of books in a well-run bookstore. If, for example, someone wants a generic selection of Easter books based on data and best seller lists, they can find this on any number of on line booksellers’ websites. If however, they want a hand-picked assortment of books that have been chosen “just for them”, they can only do that in a store like ours.

2. People want to touch, feel and see an item before making a choice. For some people, they even like the smell. Book purchasing is still a sensory experience. While some would like to postulate that bookselling is really commodity business, I beg to differ. It is amazing to watch a person shopping in a bookstore as they browse shelf after shelf before making a final decision. Rarely do they simply look. Most of the time they take the books down, open them up and read a few pages before putting it back. That tactile experience cannot be replaced by a computer.

3. Amazon does not offer hugs or prayer. Time and time again our customers expressed gratitude for the ministry that takes place in our stores every day. People come in looking for a product and instead meet a person uniquely placed to make a difference in their lives that day. There aren’t many stores where you can walk in and ask for prayer as a normal course of business. The emotional uplift that a person experiences just walking in our doors is palpable as some simply smile as they cross the threshold.

4. People need an Oasis – Over and over again, I heard people comment that our stores were places of peace and tranquility in the midst of a busy and chaotic world. Some people actually stop into our stores just to experience this atmosphere, hear some Christian music and to become inspired by the books they discover. Another emotion that people often described was joy and delight as they located the book they were looking for, found “the perfect gift” or simply realized there was a place like this bookstore that could be their “third place” in the heart of the city.

5. People need People – most gratifying me of all the themes I heard that day was the reality that people really like interacting with people when making a book or Bible purchase. Almost all the customers I interviewed mentioned how much they appreciated our knowledgeable staff and getting personal recommendations. These are not the typical “if you bought that book, then you will like this book” suggestions made on line, but specific ideas about books and Bibles that have really impacted the lived of other people.

At the same time as Family Christian Stores is working its way through bankruptcy proceedings and long established independent Christian stores around the country are closing their doors, God is still blessing the local Christian bookstore in the city. This collection of missional resource centers in the Philadelphia area is still a vital connecting point for the community. What a blessing it is to serve alongside the men and women who keep the doors open, welcome people in and offer to share the love of Jesus and the joy of the Holy Spirit each and every day.

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