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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The Spring List – 10 Must Read New Books

15 counter culture1. Counter Culture by David Platt – Seemingly overnight, culture has shifted to the point where right and wrong are no longer measured by universal truth but by popular opinion. And as difficult conversations about homosexuality, abortion, and religious liberty continue to inject themselves into our workplaces, our churches, our schools, and our homes, Christians everywhere are asking the same question: How are we supposed to respond to all this? In Counter Culture, New York Times bestselling author David Platt shows Christians how to actively take a stand on such issues as poverty, sex trafficking, marriage, abortion, racism, and religious liberty—and challenges us to become passionate, unwavering voices for Christ. Drawing on compelling personal accounts from around the world, Platt presents an unapologetic yet winsome call for Christians to faithfully follow Christ into the cultural battlefield in ways that will prove both costly and rewa15 Dedicatedrding. David Platt is one of my favorite authors and I look forward to hearing him speak at Urbana 2015 in December

2. Dedicated by Houser and Harrington – In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his followers to go into the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Jesus had said. But the very first “great commission” was really given much earlier—to parents. In Deuteronomy 6, God calls parents to the task of discipleship in raising their children. Discipleship is the greatest test for the Christian family today. In today’s busy world, many parents feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure what to do—or even where to begin. In Dedicated, Jason Houser is joined by Bobby Harrington and his son Chad, as they unpack the simple, practical, and essential practices of spiritually parenting and discipling children in the home. An inspirational training manual to equip parents, Dedicated will empower parents to pass along their faith to the next generation.  With so many millennials leaving the church, this a book that is necessary for “just such a time as this”.

15 Scary Close3. Scary Close by Donald Miller – After decades of failed relationships and painful drama, Donald Miller decided he’d had enough. Impressing people wasn’t helping him connect with anyone. He’d built a life of public isolation, yet he dreamed of meaningful relationships. So at forty years old he made a scary decision: to be himself no matter what it cost. From the author of Blue Like Jazz comes a book about the risk involved in choosing to impress fewer people and connect with more, about the freedom that comes when we stop acting and start loving. It is a story about knocking down old walls to create a healthy mind, a strong family, and a satisfying career. And it all feels like a conversation with the best kind of friend: smart, funny, true, important. In a culture that esteems platform building and crafting our public images so carefully, this book is a refreshing reminder about the power of authenticity.

4. The Prodigal Church – Jared Wilson – This book is not a tired rant. This book is not a reactionary15 The Prodigal Church diatribe. This book is a gentle manifesto against the status quo. In The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson challenges church leaders to reconsider their priorities when it comes to how they “do church” and reach people in their communities, arguing that we too often rely on loud music, flashy lights, and skinny jeans to get people in the door. Writing with the grace and kindness of a trusted friend, Wilson encourages readers to reexamine the Bible’s teaching, not simply return to a traditional model for tradition’s sake. He then sets forth an alternative to both the attractional and the traditional models: an explicitly biblical approach that is gospel focused, grace based, and fruit oriented.  As trusted member of the Gospel Coalition, Jared speaks with respect and authority on a critical issue for our age.  This book will be available on April 30th.

15 Mingling of Souls5. The Mingling of Souls by Matt Chandler – The Song of Solomon offers strikingly candid—and timeless—insights on romance, dating, marriage, and sex. We need it. Because emotions rise and fall with a single glance, touch, kiss, or word. And we are inundated with songs, movies, and advice that contradicts God’s design for love and intimacy. Matt Chandler helps navigate these issues for both singles and marrieds by revealing the process Solomon himself followed: Attraction, Courtship, Marriage … even Arguing. The Mingling of Souls will forever change how you view and approach love.  Having seen Matt Chandler in action and loving his previous books, this looks to be a vital resource on a hot topic.

6. Keep It Shut – Karen Ehman – Keep It Shut by Karen Ehman explores how t15 Keep It Shuto better control your tongue, knowing what to say and how to say it, and realizing when it is best to say nothing at all. From Bible times to modern times women have struggled with their words. What to say and how to say it. What not to say. When it is best to remain silent. And what to do when you’ve said something you wish you could now take back. In this book a woman whose mouth has gotten her into loads of trouble shares the hows (and how-not-tos) of dealing with the tongue.  Beyond just a “how not to gossip” book, this book explores what the Bible says about the many ways we are to use our words and the times when we are to remain silent. Even though we know that Scripture has much to say about how we are—and are not—to use our words, this is still an immense issue, causing heartache and strain not only in family relationships, but also in friendships, work, and church settings.  As a the publisher of Resisting Gossip, this book is a must read for me and my team.

15 The Day I met Jesus7. The Day I Met Jesus – Frank Viola – a fascinating journey back in time as Viola and Demuth retell the dramatic accounts of five women who met Jesus. Each narrative is told from each woman’s unique perspective, yet tightly grounded in the Gospel accounts and faithful to first-century history. Elegantly written and profoundly stirring, this book blends creative narrative with uncommon insight, spiritual depth, and practical application.15- Seeking allah One of my favorite books of 2013 was Frank Viola’s book, God’s Favorite Place on Earth.  I really love his prose and can’t wait to read this new book.

8. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi – In Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi describes his dramatic journey from Islam to Christianity, complete with friendships, investigations, and supernatural dreams along the way. Providing an intimate window into a loving Muslim home, Qureshi shares how he developed a passion for Islam before discovering, almost against his will, evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and claimed to be God. Unable to deny the arguments but not wanting to deny his family, Qureshi’s inner turmoil will challenge Christians and Muslims alike. Engaging and thought-provoking, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus tells a powerful story of the clash between Islam and Christianity in one man’s heart—and of the peace he eventually found in Jesus.  This book is getting a lot of buzz in evangelical circles and should be very thought provoking.

15 what does the Bible9. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality – Kevin DeYoung – In this timely book, award-winning author Kevin DeYoung challenges each of us—the skeptic, the seeker, the certain, and the confused—to take a humble look at God’s Word regarding the issue of homosexuality. After examining key biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments and the Bible’s overarching teaching regarding sexuality, DeYoung responds to popular objections raised by Christians and non-Christians alike, making this an indispensable resource for thinking through one of the most pressing issues of our day.15 Preaching  Coming from one of today’s preeminent Biblical scholars and pastors, this should be a must read for all of us looking to address this critical issue of our age.  This book is available on April 30th.

10. Preaching by Tim Keller – Pastor, preacher, and New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller’s wisdom on communicating the Christian faith from the pulpit as well as from the coffee shop. Most Christians—including pastors—struggle to talk about their faith in a way that applies the power of the Christian gospel to change people’s lives. Timothy Keller is known for his insightful, down-to-earth sermons and talks that help people understand themselves, encounter Jesus, and apply the Bible to their lives. In this accessible guide for pastors and laypeople alike, Keller helps readers learn to present the Christian message of grace in a more engaging, passionate, and compassionate way.  Once again Tim publishes a book with a one word title that will probably become one of the most important and sought after books on this topic.  I am not a preacher and yet can’t wait to get my hands on it.  This book is available on June 9th

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Finding a New Gear

gear boxI arrived late, which for me meant that I was 15 minutes early. In years past I would have gotten to this event about an hour before people started to arrive as I used to be the host. CLC’s annual VBS (Vacation Bible School) workshop is an event that I had inaugurated and implemented for many years when I was in charge of CLC’s retail stores. This year, I was invited to attend and say a few words, but I had no organizational responsibility. It felt very freeing but also a little weird. I had handed off the baton and was now watching others run this particular race.

So often in life, it is easy to get stuck in one gear, in one season and find it very difficult to move on. We spend a lot of time getting a certain job or raising kids or learning a new task and then things change. It is time for us to retire or find a new job, the kids grow up and we have mastered the task that took us so long to learn. Because we all enjoy stability and being good at something, when we are called to do something new, we can become unbalanced and irritable. Some of us actually begin to struggle spiritually and ask God why things have to change at all.

Rather than expect things to stay the same, I have found it very helpful to plan for change, to anticipate a new move of God in my life and to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead. At this time of the year in Pennsylvania, we have a major problem – huge gaping potholes. I find myself doing the same thing over and over again – complaining about the hole I just hit or maybe narrowly missed and not keeping my eyes looking at what is coming down the road. By doing that I seem to hit every pothole on that stretch of road and getting even angrier. If I would simply take the time to pick up my head, stop complaining and prepare for what is coming, I might not hit so many bumps in the road.

One way to prepare for the future is to realize when something needs to stop in your life. Has something worked its course and should really have been finished, but you keep working at it anyway? A few years ago, I was organizing the biggest event of our calendar year. It was an outdoor gospel music festival that attracted thousands of people and was a “keystone” event for our ministry. I had been privileged to be the founder of this event in 1999 and was excited about entering our 10th year. The year before, we had fireworks and this year, the mayor of Philadelphia was scheduled to attend. Despite this, right in the middle of our planning, a series of events took place that made it abundantly clear that this was likely to be our last year to be able to host this event. My first inclination was to fight this possibility tooth and nail and then I realized that this was actually God’s will and not a series of unfortunate circumstances. He had orchestrated things such that He had my attention and I could not ignore the facts or pretend things would just “work themselves out”. Instead, I made it clear to our team that we would celebrate this 10th year in a special way and embrace it as our last.

In holding on to the past or the present, we can actually prevent God’s best from taking place in our lives. He has new adventures for each and every one of us, but we need to be willing to listen what God is saying to us. Many of us need to follow the example of Paul in Philippians 3: 13 & 14 where he says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” It may not be easy, but it will definitely be fulfilling.

As I sat in the audience this past week, I had the distinct joy of watching others walk where I had trod and observing them navigate challenges I had already faced. To my delight, they chose different methods of overcoming obstacles and had added features to the event that I had not thought of. Who could resist attending an event sponsored in part by Chick-fil-A? In my new season of ministry, God is stretching me to pour into the lives of other leaders both inside CLC and among the many churches that we work with. I may not know what is around the corner, but I am “looking to the hills from whence cometh my strength” and expecting great things from God in the years ahead

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A Well Read Marriage

reading togetherIt first started on a long road trip with my wife many years ago. We knew that we had many hours ahead of us in the car together and probably had already made mental notes about how to spend that time. For quite a while we were busy making sure that our young boys had what they needed and playing the typical games that all parents play to keep their kids occupied noticing the countryside that we were passing and the cars that were driving in the same direction that we were. After a while the boys drifted off to sleep and we began to listen to some music, checked out if there were any local radio stations we might like and talked about what was going on in our lives. Then out of the blue, Deb said the words that would change our lives, “Would you like me to read to you?” While we were both book lovers, we had different tastes in books, and I was not sure this was a particularly good idea. Besides, wasn’t this a bit childish? Without hesitation, though, I quickly said yes.

I am not sure what that first book was, but it very well could have been one of the books from the Mitford series written by Jan Karon (as we read all of those books together over the years). I do remember being rapidly drawn into the world of Father Tim and the fictional town of Mitford, NC. To that point, I had not been a big fan of Christian fiction and had never heard of this author. As Deb read, I could not believe how quickly I got wrapped up in the story and did not want her to stop. The writing was actually quite good and the story was really compelling. I was hooked, not just to high quality Christian fiction, but to the idea of reading out loud with and to my spouse.

As the years have passed, this activity has not always been as consistent in our lives as I would have liked. In some years, we primarily found time to do this on long trips where we first started the practice. In recent years, however, that has really changed. Deb and I now talk quite a bit about books that we would like to share by reading them together. It has become a subject of joy and anticipation for each of us and is not something that we have to find time to do. We can’t wait to carve out more time each day for this activity.

I am often asked how I have time to read so many books and I have previously written about several other practices that I have incorporated into my life to make that possible. This concept of reading out loud to each other, however, has had many other positive impacts aside from allowing me to check one more book off the list of books that I had planned to read. As we are now moving into the early stages of the “empty nest” syndrome and our boys are now young adults, we have more time available to us that used to be consumed by the realities of parental responsibilities. Far too many couples seem to draw apart at this stage of life as they discover that their interests are diverging. We were tempted by that too. Deb likes to draw and do artwork and I like to watch soccer. Our reading to each other has changed all of that for us now. While we still love art and soccer, we love reading even more and delight in the shared experience of discovering a book together.

Reading out loud to your spouse is not a guaranteed formula to fix a broken marriage, but it is a great way to strengthen a friendship. I have learned so much more about Deb by learning about the literary characters that she loves. We often find ourselves translating real life with references to books that we have just finished. After twenty five years of marriage, I am constantly amazed at how much more I have to learn about this wonderful person that God has placed in my life. As we do this more and more in the years to come, I look forward to seeing how God will reveal more of Himself to each of us as we apply these same principles to His word and more great Christian books.

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The Wounds of a Friend

tsunamiThe news hit this week like the first massive wave of a Tsunami coming ashore. Family Christian Stores, the largest chain of Christian bookstores in America, was declaring bankruptcy. While some may have known that they were struggling, none of us knew the extent of the problems or that this was imminent. In their public statement about what had taken place, Chuck Bengochea, president and CEO, said the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company “took on too much debt” due to declining sales and was hit by the 2008-09 recession and the digital revolution that has changed the sales of books, movies and music. MLive Media Group reported that the chain, which has stores in 36 states, suffered a 25% sales decline since 2008 as they only had $230 million in sales in 2014, down from $305 million in 2008.

This event on the heels of the closure of the Borders book chain in 2011, speaks to the reality of how hard it is to run brick and mortar bookstores in the internet age. That said, it probably also says as much about the peculiar challenges that face the Christian book retailing marketplace as anything else. In its heyday, the Christian bookstore in America represented the public face of a strident evangelical community on the ascendancy. Today, both muscular evangelicalism and Christian bookstores are in steep decline. For some of us that have toiled in these vineyards for many years, the changes that have taken place in the society around us have not been easy to watch and far less easy to adapt to. For many independent Christian stores, closing the doors was an easier choice than accepting the reality that America itself has become a mission field.

In a great irony, the day after Family Christian Stores declared bankruptcy, Publishers Weekly ran an article entitled, “Indie Bookstores Fill Void Left by Borders”. In describing what was going on with secular independent bookstores, writer Judith Rosen said, “Four years later, the bookselling landscape is changing once again. After several solid years, independents are looking at adding locations and taking back some of the physical bookshelf space that had been lost.” The truth is that ABA (American Booksellers Association) have actually been growing 6-8% a year since 2008, during the exact same time period that Family stores were losing customers in droves. Apparently, the digital revolution, is not affecting everyone the same way and not all bookstores are suffering equally.

Proverbs 27: 5 & 6 says,

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy”.

This week it feels a little more like we were stabbed in the back by a friend as much of the debt that Family Christian Stores will be shedding in this bankruptcy process will fall to the feet of Christian publishers who may not be repaid at all. One publisher alone (Harper Collins Christian) is owed a staggering $7.5 million dollars. Unfortunately, these publishers who are considered “unsecured creditors” fall in line behind two financial intuitions that were secured creditors. The secured creditors themselves are owed tens of millions of dollars. The reorganization plan that was made public involves selling Family Christian Stores to a new entity sans the debt. At this point in time no one knows what the courts will approve and who will actually get paid what.

Looking forward there are many lessons to be learned. Building and sustaining a Christian retail empire with huge amounts of debt is not viable in this day and age. Relying on a robust and growing evangelical Christian community to visit and support your stores may not be a reality either. Most importantly, doing business as usual and expecting different results is as one person has said, “the definition of insanity.” How FCS emerges from this tragedy may depend as much on the store/ business model they choose as anything else.

The Christian publishing community faces many difficult decisions in the months ahead. Mark Taylor, the President of Tyndale House recently said, “We hope Family Christian can survive as a chain of stores. No one except the banks and the attorneys will get any money from FCS if we force them to liquidate.” I am sure that is a sentiment shared by many others. One of the most challenging decisions, however, may be the question of the continuing relationship with FCS. The courts have approved their ability to pay for products purchased and shipped to their stores after February 11th out of daily operating funds. It will be interesting to see if suppliers who stand to lose millions will actually continue shipping new books at all.

For those of us that are left in the wake of this Tsunami, we will have to ask some tough questions of ourselves. How do you respond in love when you feel betrayed? How do you treat a Christian who has wronged you? How do you help your brother get back on his feet again when he has made decisions with which you don’t agree? Most importantly, how do you respond to a crisis of this magnitude in the Christian community as a skeptical world is watching?

I pray that this will drive us all to our knees to genuinely pray for the leaders of Family Christian Stores and for the thousands of employees of both this company and many others that may be affected.  May this be a “Phoenix” moment for us all as we see something new and wonderful rise from the ashes of a catastrophe. That will only happen if true repentance and humility mark everything that we do in the days to come.

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