The Soundtrack of the Mind

I was on a train again this weekend headed into Center City Philadelphia and noticed it.  For some reason the train car I entered was really full even on a Saturday morning and I discovered the only seat available was right in the front.  I had never been in the front of a train before and certainly not close enough to see the train engineer at work.  He had a window shade pulled down on his side window so all I could see were his hands.  That was enough though.  His strong hands would wait until the signal from the conductor and he would put the train in gear and we would get moving.  It was fascinating.  So fascinating that I almost missed seeing the young man beside me.  He was clearly a teenager, but seemed like he had an important task.  He was wearing an official SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) cap and jacket and was holding a clipboard.  At each stop, it seemed like he was recording our time of arrival and when we stopped suddenly, he made a note on the sheet of paper.  I presumed he had been hired to monitor the activity of this relatively new train that had recently been put back into service after having been repaired when cracks had been discovered by some inspectors and it became big news in our city.

Watching him work, I couldn’t help admiring how methodical he was and how much he seemed to enjoy it.  Then I saw something else.  Just like many other young people I knew, he was wearing earbuds and listening to something that held his attention as well.  Somehow, he could multi-task.  He recorded what he needed to, waved at passing trains, kept an eye on the conductor and even said “Bless You” when I sneezed.  Yet, the entire time, he was listening to something else.  It got me thinking.  I wonder what his soundtrack was.  Must have been something he enjoyed, because he seemed to be quite content and even focused.  Music can do that and so can the right words.  As I looked around the train, I realized that lots of people had headphones on or were reading books.  They were creating their own soundtracks – those patterns of words and sounds that come back to us over and over again when we least expect it and often need them the most.

Our minds are a lot like our stomachs.  What goes in shapes us in ways that we don’t expect, even though we are warned about it from childhood.  Eat junk food and you are going to be overweight.  Listen to lies and juicy gossip and we become suspicious and skeptical adults as the world continues to disappoint us.  My parents knew this and decided that my spiritual health was as important as my physical health and served up a healthy dose of biblical wisdom each day right alongside the casserole we were going to eat.  They shaped my mental soundtrack one verse at a time with a rigorous commitment to scripture memorization that was so natural, it was like eating the delicious rolls my mother used to cook.  Mom was really creative and relied on our unique personalities to make this process as normal as possible.  In my, case she knew that I had a competitive streak and decided to incorporate Bible drills into our weekly kid’s club.  It was never enough just to find the verse quickly, she wanted to see if we could quote it from memory and if so, you got an extra prize.  On our table for several years, we had a plastic box shaped like a small loaf of bread that held Bible Verses.  It was a big deal among us siblings to see who got to read the verse for the day.

I am so grateful for that spiritual nurturing of my mind.  When I am tempted to question God’s love, I remember that “he sent His only son…so that I might have eternal life”.  When I am tempted to give up, I remember that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.  When I get anxious and afraid, I remember that “I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind”.  As things look bleak, I am reminded “all things God works for the good of those who love him”.  These are not just nice sayings or spiritual platitudes; they are soundtrack of my life.  Yet, just like the food I eat, I must keep eating good things or my body will show it.  Resting in the truth of scripture should be a daily practice or my soundtrack begins to get warped or even worse, I start listening to other voices than the still small voice of my heavenly father.

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Why Does the Rooster Crow

It happened every morning for the last five days.  Just as the sun was beginning to rise a rooster began to crow nearby.  At first, I was annoyed, then I got used to it and eventually I looked forward to it.  Visiting the West Indies again, I was reminded how this sound is a part of the everyday life of anyone living in proximity to roosters and that seems to be most people on these islands.  Why use an alarm clock when God provided one in his own creation?  As I began each day with this familiar sound, I became curious about why roosters crow in the first place.  Why don’t cats, dogs or other animals get up first thing in the morning and create a cacophony of their own.  In doing some basic research, it turns out that there is a simple answer – God made them that way.  Their circadian rhythms are so attuned to nature that they can’t help but anticipate the dawn and announce it to everyone.

Each and every day roosters do this one thing and do it very well.  They may be busy doing other things during the rest of the day and night as they prance around the yard with their tail feathers in the air, but without fail, they will crow every morning.   It is almost like God is reminding us of that verse that says if we don’t praise him the rocks and stones will cry out.  It’s not quite like hearing a rock sing, but listening to a rooster crow is a startling experience nearly every time.  Built into nature, God has a chorus of roosters all over the world reminding us that the day is coming, God is faithful and the sun will shine again.  No matter the weather, these roosters keep crowing.  It can be raining or nasty outside and they remind us that it is still daytime and we need to be about our father’s business.  They are ultimately faithful to one of the key purposes for which God made them.

Visiting our team this week, I needed a reminder of God’s faithfulness.  After sixty years of dedicated service, our local bookstore team on this bustling Caribbean island is facing major headwinds, some might even say hurricane force winds.  Yet, as I met with them, I kept hearing the rooster crowing.  Despite a lack of resources and with declining economic conditions all around, our dedicated team is listening to the still small voice of their heavenly father and not the lies of the devil.  Just like Moses, they looked at what was in their hand and decided to do something with it.  Even though there is very limited parking around our downtown store, a bus stop had recently been put in place several hundred yards from our front door.  Dozens and dozens of people stream by on their way to and from work each day.  With that in mind, the team set up a folding table out front and put some books and Bibles out for display.  Not surprisingly, people who had never noticed the store as they hurried by now stop to look at what might be available.  A few even go inside to see an even better selection.

As I get older, I am becoming more and more aware that God does not really care what we can accomplish for him.  The truth is that He will accomplish His purposes with or without us.  Just like He made the rooster to do one thing and to do it well, He cares about that in us first and foremost.  We were made to worship Him and He desires our worship above everything else.  My primary purpose on earth is to glorify Him and point people to His son, our savior.  What I am learning these days is that my worship is in my work.  They are not separate and distinct.  As I do my work with excellence and integrity, I bring glory to the one who made me.  What a joy to wake up every day and join the rooster in praising God as I and my CLC brothers and sisters open the doors to our stores one more time.  Congrats to my CLC Barbados colleagues for 60 years of faithful service and may there be many more.

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The Power of Reading Parent

I woke up to a familiar noise recently, one that I had not heard in a long time.  It was a mother reading to her children and the joyous sounds of learning and laughing.  Deb and I were staying in the home of a family with four small children over a weekend as we attended a mission’s conference in Lancaster.  It has been quite a few years since our children were that age, but I still remember the sound very well.  Typically, reading to children under the age of five requires a book with lots of pictures and a parent who can bring the text to life.  It can be slow going as kids point to the pictures, ask lots of questions and often want you to read the story again.  At some point in time, a small miracle happens as the child continues to grow.  There is that magical day when they begin to read for themselves and want to show mom and dad that they know the words.  What a delight it is when your child brings a book to you, curls up in your lap and demonstrates that they now know what the book is saying.

Reading to a child requires patience and persistence that can be in short supply these days.  Even when I was growing up, some of my friends had the television as their constant companion and quasi “baby sitter”.  The go to solution for many parents and children these days is some type of screen, often an IPad or other tablet.  In some families, every child has their own devise by the age of five and the addiction has begun.  While it is true that these devices can have books on them and interactive games, it is also true that parents are often leaving their kids alone to learn for themselves.  Taking time to sit with fidgety children who want you to read the same thing over and over again can be challenging, but it is worth it.  It may even be life changing.

Walt Mueller, the President and Founder of the Center for Parent Youth Understanding, recently reported on survey data that shows that teenagers aged 13-18 now spend nine hours a day on some type of devise and tweens ages 8-12 spend on average 6 hours a day on one.  Lest we adults think we are immune from this reality, the same research showed that the typical adult in the USA now spends nine hours a day looking at a screen – the same amount as a teenager.  The devise of choice for almost every age group is the smart phone, with laptops and tablets filling in the gap.  We are now more addicted to screens than at any time in history and while social media is intended to be interactive, it often reinforces isolation and despair.  Children at very young ages are comparing themselves to completely fake images on screen of the “perfect” lives of others and many are experiencing cyber bullying as early as middle school or before.

Occasionally, I find myself helping in the toddler nursery at our local church and I love it.  Our nursery is filled with picture books and there is no screen in sight.  More often than not, I am able to grab one of the books and begin reading to a child.  Almost every time, the same thing happens.  Children that were fussy stop crying and more than one child crowds around me to see what the book has to say.   Then they start pulling books off the shelf and bringing it to me to read.  It is amazing how quickly an hour goes by as we all get lost in a Bible story and imagine what it must have been like to be David, Noah or Samuel.   It is hard to believe that simply reading a physical book to a child is becoming counter-cultural these days.  I for one plan on being part of this counter revolution and instigating the curiosity of children one book at a time.

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Independents Day

jubilee-bookstoreI turned the corner and saw it and it nearly took my breath away.  There were books everywhere and on so many different topics.  It looked like someone had taken an entire Christian bookstore and transported it to the Pittsburgh Convention Center.  As a bookseller myself, I could only imagine how much work it must have taken to transport these books and to display them for sale.  No matter, I had found it and like a kid in a candy store I began browsing the merchandise.  Who needs Disneyland anyway when I had found this.

This wonderful bookstore had been curated, transported and set up by a friend and fellow book lover, Byron Borger.  His bookstore, Hearts and Minds, located in Dallastown, PA is nearly legend in my world and I have been meaning to visit for a long time.  Now I got to experience it first hand at the Jubilee Conference.  His reputation had proceeded him and I was not disappointed.  In fact, I was overwhelmed with the variety and selection he made available.  Like many of the students at the conference, I was not even aware that there were Christian books available on some of the topics he featured.  He must have had over 100 different topical options including books on faith and the arts, faith and vocation, faith and the sciences and on and on.  It was simply amazing.

The Jubilee Conference is sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach (The CCO) which is a large campus ministry organization that began in Pittsburgh in 1971 and now has 261 staff members on 116 campuses in the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West.  Byron served with the CCO doing campus ministry prior to starting his bookstore and had been integrally involved with the Jubilee Conference for many years.  The conference brings together students from these campuses and their campus ministers for a weekend of training, worship, and fellowship – and some book buying.  As I discovered, Byron made book buying such an important part of the conference you couldn’t help but buy books as he clearly made the point that reading Christian books is a vital part of Christian maturing and discipleship.

Before each main session during the weekend, the host on the main stage invited Byron up to discuss books.  You could feel the passion for reading oozing out of him as he talked and you could also sense a buzz in the room as thousands of students listened to what he had to say and considered what books they were going to buy.  His talk always included a slide with the book covers for people to see and he typically mentioned at least five books per session.  In all, he must have promoted over twenty to twenty-five separate books in just two days.  I have never seen anything like it and I realized I had a lot to learn about effective book promotion.

So what was the result of all this.  Throughout the weekend, hundreds of students visited the bookstore, browsed and bought books.  In talking with some of them, I quickly came to understand that they saw this a spiritual investment, not a commercial transaction.  Even though the books were only discounted 10%, I hardly heard anyone complaining about prices.  Instead, I heard many people exclaiming that they could not get over the vast selection and wished they had a bookstore like this in their town.  For many that will mean taking a trek to Dallastown as there are not too many stores quite like Hearts and Minds.

With the news breaking this week of the liquidation of the Family Christian Store Chain and 240 Christian bookstores closing around the country, I could not help but wonder if this is the time when that just might be possible.  Could Christians entrepreneurs around the country rise up and consider opening new Christian bookstores just like Hearts and Minds?  Could the Christian bookselling industry follow in the footsteps of the secular bookstore industry when the Borders chain closed?  Will this be our Independents Day?

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Into the Battle

battle-verse-2We never really talked about it.  I knew my grandparents had lived through the horror of the Second World War in Britain, but it was not a topic of much conversation in our family.  To learn more about it, I had to read the book that my Grandfather wrote called “The Foolishness of God” or Norman Grubb’s story of the founding of CLC called “A Leap of Faith”.  In both cases, however, it was not the difficulties or deprivations of the war that they focused on.  Instead, they highlighted the steady hand of their heavenly father leading the way to victory.  It is true that both books were written many years after the war was over, so that certainly had an impact on the way the story was told.

This week, a friend of mine unearthed some correspondence that shed a little more light on that dark time.  Ken Adams (my grandfather) was writing to Norman Grubb and said, “I can’t wait for this war to be over so that we can begin to expand by 10 or 20 shops!”  The year was 1943 and VE day was still two years away.  The bombing of London was still fresh on people’s minds and hearts and the fledgling little ministry called CLC was barely two years old.  In the midst of this Ken Adams was longing for the end of the war like everyone else, but not so that he could experience peace and quiet.  He saw things through spiritual eyes and realized that a different kind of war was also raging all around him and he couldn’t wait to take the battle to the enemy.  He was looking to go on the offensive.

“Being on a war footing” was the mantra of many Christian ministries during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  While the rest of the world paid attention to fallout from World War II and the growing Cold War between the superpowers, these ministries decided it was time for the gospel to be preached in every corner of the earth no matter how remote these places might be.  WEC International even had a magazine of that era entitled “World Conquest”.  It was during this same period that Campus Crusade (now Cru) and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades were born and flourished.  New technology allowed the gospel to be broadcast on radio and television and the world grew smaller as planes could now transport evangelists to virtually any part of the globe.

Seeing the spiritual battle that was now growing in intensity, the leaders of CLC and new organizations like Operation Mobilization (OM) realized the need for refueling and new ammunition for troops on the front line.  Bibles and books were produced in many languages, young people went door to door with free Christian literature and gospel tracts were being printed and distributed by the millions.  New American publishers like Zondervan and Baker Books joined the ranks of stalwart British publishers in producing books for an increasingly literate world.  In one of the most important developments of that era, Cameron Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942, one year after CLC.  It was clear that as people were coming to faith for the first time all over the world, they would need Christian literature to help them grow and mature as disciples of Christ.

Today, a world war is in a distant past.  I grew up in a generation that did not even experience the draft and has grown accustomed to an all-volunteer military.   The enemies of freedom have changed, grown more creative and utilize innovative tactics that are increasingly hard to predict.  That is also true of our ultimate enemy.  With the advent of the internet, communication has exploded and so too has sin and deprivation.  At the very same time, it seems like the church has forgotten who they are fighting and far too many battles take place with fellow saints with one theology claiming the high ground while shooting at brothers and sisters.

The devastation is all too clear around us.  Casualties pile up within evangelical circles while our enemy grows in strength.  He no longer has to convince people to choose other religions, he just has to assure them that believing “nothing” or a little of everything is the path to happiness and ultimate satisfaction.  In my world, this carnage looks like stores closing all over the place, publishers selling out and distributors shutting their doors once and for all.  It is time for a recognition of the real battle, a willingness to understand the tactics of the enemy and then a developing plan for taking the battle to our enemy once again.   While this will require creativity and innovation, it will also require humility, repentance and prayer.

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A Mountain in the Sea

dominica-mountainI had been warned.  The island I was about to visit would not be like any other I had ever seen, and I have seen a few.  Growing up in the West Indies, I had a pretty good idea what a Caribbean island should look like, but Dominica did not fit the mold.  As we began our descent in the small plane, clouds seemed to swallow us up and prevented me from seeing much out the window.  All of a sudden, I could see lush green forests climbing a mountainside and a mountain that was so tall it was covered in clouds.  How in the world was this plane going to land on a mountain?  With the wind currents swirling and my stomach beginning to churn I realized that this was going to be an interesting trip in more ways than one.  Fortunately, our pilot had had likely taken this route many times and expertly landed on the only flat space that was long enough for a runway.

After we cleared customs in the tiny airport and collected our bags, we found our van driver and joined three others headed to the capital city of Roseau.  Part of my original warning about Dominica was a reminder that the airport was on the other side of the island from the main city and that it could take a while to get there.  What no one could have prepared me for, however, was the trip over the mountain to get to the city.  I stopped counting the number of switchbacks early in the trip and simply prayed that my rumbling stomach would calm down.  Mercifully, one of my traveling companions was an experienced traveler to Dominica and was able to tell me a few things along the way a keep my mind off the harrowing trip we were taking.  In the end, we apparently arrived in record time, in just over an hour.  Not a moment too soon from my perspective.

This wild and beautiful island has many things to recommend it including three hundred and sixty-five rivers – one for every day of the year.  Inhabited but just over seventy thousand people, most live in houses clinging to the mountainside or in the capital city itself.  Interestingly there are even remnants of the indigenous inhabitants of the island, the Carib Indians, living in forest preserves dedicated for their use.  Given its location in the string of islands that make up the Eastern Caribbean, it has often been in the path of a hurricane or tropical storm.  These fierce storms with very high winds can be devastating and cause the rivers to wash people, houses and their possessions right into the sea.

In August of 2015, Tropical Storm Erika did just that, killing thirty people.  It was the deadliest natural disaster in Dominica since Hurricane David in 1979 and was a “gut punch” to the local economy and especially the roads system that went over the mountain.  Amazingly, by the time I arrived this past week, much of the repair work on the roads had been completed, but the effects on the economy were still impacting daily life.  Despite this, the people I met were resilient and hardly mentioned the storm at all, instead focusing on the future and what they could do to make things better.

Our CLC team has faced some storms of their own in recent years.  For a number of reasons, sales have declined significantly and the devastating storm only exacerbated the situation as people had little money to buy Christian resources when they needed to replenish the necessities of life.  In the face of this reality, I was delighted to find a highly committed team in a beautiful store located in the heart of the city.  They have made the best of a bad situation and purchased very carefully so that though they have a lot less products than they would like, it is a highly curated selection designed to meet the needs of their customers.

dominica-team

It is clear that they are still meeting important needs as several long term customers attested to the value of our store and its impact on their lives.  One local pastor made a point to let me know that virtually his entire leadership library had been purchased in our store and he relied on our staff for recommendations every time he came in.  Another person took me aside to share how God would often prompt him to visit the store and miraculously he would find just the exact book he was looking for and needed at that moment.  In looking at their meager resources this truly was a loaves and fishes story.  2017 will be a make or break year for this team, but I am confident that the God who helped establish this first CLC outpost in the Caribbean exactly seventy years ago this year will sustain and strengthen them for what lies ahead.  He is not finished with them yet.

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Christon’s Store

christonI didn’t think it was possible.  How could you be driving for two hours on a Caribbean island and still be on the island?  We had left the guest house near the airport in Trinidad and were headed to Point Fortin which takes some getting to.  As we drove along, I saw many of the familiar sites of my childhood on this most southerly place in the West Indies. The bamboo poles in many front yards still have Hindu prayer flags on them and funeral pyres still burn bodies for cremation along the ocean front.  Trinidad is a multi-cultural melting pot of peoples from Africa, India and even China.   Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and Christian churches dot the landscape and compete for hearts and minds.  This is a place of warm breezes and hot religion.

We pulled up to the small CLC store on the bustling main street in the town that is affectionately referred to simply as “Point”.  As we walked into the store we were greeted by the local staff and a young man I had not been introduced to before.  His broad smile would make anyone feel at home and he told me his name was Christon.  We quickly began talking about the opportunities and challenges facing this team and they shared about many things that God was doing.  Alice, the manager, made a point of mentioning a renewed interest in the occult among young people and I remembered how real spiritual warfare is on this island.  It was at that point that Christon spoke up and said, “But let’s not forget the blessing of having CLC in the midst of all this” and I could tell he had a story to share.

Christon had a troubled childhood and came from an admittedly dysfunctional family.  Despite this God got ahold of him at the age of nineteen and he became a follower of Jesus Christ.  Wanting to grow in his new found faith, he made his way to the CLC store and connected with Alice when she discovered that he had a unique problem.  While he desired to learn more about God and Christianity, he could not read, at least not very well.  Seeing the desire in his heart, she did not let this become an obstacle.  She started by reading to him from the Bible and little by little, she taught him to read on his own.  As grew in his faith, he did not keep it to himself and became a witness to many others of the power of God to change a life.  Today, Criston is twenty-eight, active in his local church and a part time helper in our store sharing his love for the Bible with anyone who will listen.

As we drove away along the long pot hole ridden road back to San Fernando I could not help but think about what life would be like for a nineteen-year-old in Trinidad who could not read.  So many other young men in similar circumstances have been drawn into the drug trade and with the high rate of murders on the island, many are gunned down in the prime of life.  In a very real way, God used Alice and that little store in a faraway town to transform Christon’s life and push back the darkness that consumes so many young lives.  Now Christon is helping other young people to hear about the power of the gospel to see that the occult is a short cut to death and destruction.  I can’t wait to come back in a year and hear what God has done through his surrendered life.

 

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