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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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Surprised by Sabbatical

So, I have a confession to make.   I was one of those kids and maybe you were too.  You know what I am talking about.  We were the ones who couldn’t wait for the presents to get put under the Christmas tree, so we could start sizing things up.  It didn’t take us long to figure out what certain presents were or at least what we thought they were and more importantly – had Mom and Dad given the same number of gifts to each sibling.  When parents weren’t looking, our little fingers would sometimes feel the packages just to be certain they were what we had hoped. If we didn’t see that “big” present, we just knew it was being hidden for a last-minute surprise, but to be sure we left hints all over the place about what we really, really, really wanted.  Inevitably, Christmas would be judged not by how many presents we got, by how many presents were the ones we actually wanted.  While we liked to be surprised, we didn’t actually want “surprises”, especially if it involved underwear or socks.

So, what do you do when someone hands you a present from your heavenly father in a box marked “My Will for Your Life – Open Now”?  What do you do when you open the box and see a baton marked – CLC Leadership – and a note taped to it saying, “Please give to Jim”?  What do you do when you see a ticket below the baton for the ship called Sabbatical to a place called New Season?  If you are me, you check the tag to see if it really is for you and then you begin to wonder what this all means.  Does God really give gifts like this?  What if Jim doesn’t want the baton?  What is the ship Sabbatical really like and most importantly, where is New Season?  Then, I noticed the writing on gift tag on the box itself “From Your Heavenly Father because I love you” – P.S.  Jeremiah 29:11 is a promise for you too.

One thing I do know, when God speaks, it is pretty important to listen.  When the people of Israel ignored Him, they ended up in exile.  When Jonah took off in the wrong direction, he ended up in the belly of a whale.  When Peter took His eyes of Jesus as he stepped out of the boat, he began to sink.  I am not interested in being exiled, sinking in the sea or ending up in a whale, so I have recently handed the baton of leadership to Jim and begun a much needed, but quite unexpected Sabbatical.  Right now, I am sailing on the sea of uncertainty to a place called New Season and so grateful that I am not the captain of the ship.

For those of you that know me well, this will not be an easy journey.  As a Type A personality, I like being “about my father’s business”, doing things that matter and most importantly staying productive.  I tend to crave certainly and clarity, not ambiguity and vagueness.  As each day dawns, I am learning more and more that God works in mysterious ways and that His plans are not always my plans.  I am blessed that as I travel on the good ship Sabbatical, I have many friends who are coming aboard to visit and counsel me – some have even been on this ship before.  While I may not know where New Season is quite yet, I do know who rules that place and He is currently steering my ship.

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Surviving the Storm

It is one thing to accept the sovereignty of God as an abstract intellectual concept.  It is something entirely different to embrace this reality when you are in the midst of a storm.  On September 18th, our team on the lush and mountainous island of Dominica might have been tempted to wonder if God had forgotten them entirely when the lights went out during Hurricane Maria.   Only a few short weeks earlier, Hurricane Jose had passed just to the north of Dominica and while it missed them, it devastated the tiny island of Barbuda.  They were certainly hoping that Hurricane Maria would also veer away from them as well.  To everyone’s was surprise and horror a tropical storm became a Hurricane in less than twenty-four hours and passed right over them.  While the world learned about the terrible tragedy unfolding in Puerto Rico because of the same storm, no one heard from Dominica and many of us wondered who had survived.

I had just visited the team in January and was excited to work with them in rebuilding the ministry that had struggled in recent years.  The CLC bookstore in Dominica was established in 1948 and the local team has experienced many storms over the decades.  It is an immensely beautiful place that has often been described as a “mountain in the sea” and its mountainous terrain dominates all aspects of life on the island.  While the nearby island of Antigua is known for its 365 beaches (one for everyday of the year), Dominica is known for its 365 rivers that flow down the mountainside and into the sea.  These rivers are a source of life and joy most of the time, but during a Hurricane, they can be source of death and devastation as everything is washed away.

Waiting to hear from Davis, our team leader, was one of the most faith stretching experiences I have ever had.  With all power, internet and phone service knocked out, we had no idea how to get in touch with him or how long it would take for him to get in touch with us.  What little news we did hear was not encouraging.  Most of the homes on the island had been damaged, the airport was closed, and boats were being sent from other islands to rescue people and bring much needed supplies.  It was over seven days after the storm had passed that we finally got the wonderful news that Davis and his family were safe and so was our other team member Tajya.  While they were safe, the news about the store and their homes was not so good.

We quickly learned that “a river” had run through our store and it would be at least two months before the cleanup would be finished and that was a guestimate.  Many people on the island had lost their homes and all their belongings.  The electrical grid was badly damaged, and the internet was not going to come back online any time soon.  This recovery was going to take a while and the suffering of an already impoverished people was going to be acute.  God, however, had not forgotten the people of Dominica or our local team. Even as the storm hit, He was making a way where there was no way.

People and governments all over the Caribbean and even in the United States began to respond to the impassioned pleas of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and help began to arrive.  Our team in Trinidad arranged for two barrels of much needed food and supplies to be sent right away.  People opened up their homes to one another and made shelter available for as many they could.  Clean up began and the resilience of the people of Dominica was remarkable.  They had been knocked down, but they had not been knocked out.

On Wednesday, November 15th, our store got open again.  It is not a big space, but it is sacred ground.  Over the years, miracles have taken place as people’s lives have been touched by the power of the gospel revealed in the printed page.  Even though he still did not have electricity or internet service, Davis had cleaned up the store and knew he needed to open the doors once again.  Amazingly, he was able to use his mobile phone for texting and we began to work together again to get Christian resources to this devastated place.  We knew that when people go through a crisis like this, they often turn to God and have many unanswered questions.  With little else to do at home, this was also a perfect time to do some more reading than normal.  Our role is simply to help answer some of those questions with great Christian books and the Bible.  With the help of our generous partners at Lifeway Global Resources, we were able to get a large shipment of Bibles on its way and many other resources are going to follow.  Surviving a storm like this “puts flesh on our theology” as we understand that we serve a God who really is there no matter what we face.

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Engaging Change

We knew something was wrong, but we were not sure what it was.  Our team had hosted a donor banquet and it had gone really well.  Lots of people had commented that it was their favorite one yet and that they had a great time that evening.  The speaker was dynamic, the music was good, and the food was delicious. Despite this and all the hard work we had put into preparing for the event, the results were not what we had hoped for.  In fact, after subtracting the expenses for the banquet, it was the least successful fund raiser we had held in many years.  Something had to change, and we knew it.

As we began planning for the banquet again this year, our committee met earlier than we ever had and began brain storming.  The first few meetings were rough.  We knew we had to hit the reset button, but we had been doing this banquet the same way for so long that it was hard to truly “think outside the box”.  After lots of discussion, we agreed that we had done a good job of entertaining people in previous banquets, but not such a good job of engaging them.  One of the team said it best – “We have to connect with people’s hearts”.  With engagement as our mandate, we decided to put everything on the table, take a big risk and reinvent the entire event.

First and maybe most risky, we decided to eliminate our silent auction.  This normally took place in the hour right before the banquet and had been a key part of the fund-raising strategy.  While many people liked this aspect of the evening and looked forward to it each year, it did nothing to convey what we as a ministry were all about.  After much discussion, we decided to create an interactive “CLC World” event that would highlight our work in eight countries of the world.  There would be artifacts, books, Bibles, images, maps, flags and fun facts on each table.  Our very creative graphic designer came up with a really interesting Passport concept and people got it stamped at each table they visited.  When they completed the tour, and had all eight stamps, they got a free book.

As we were making plans, one of our leaders suggested that if we wanted to truly engage our donors, we had to start by engaging our CLC team members first.  It was quickly decided that we would have two team members “adopt” a country table and be responsible for collecting the artifacts, setting up the display and then standing at the table to share about the country and stamp the passports as people came by.  We took an entire chapel session to explain the new concept and to ask for feedback, we held a group training session two days before the banquet and then we debriefed as a team.  The momentum and excitement about the banquet was palpable in our building in the days leading up to the big night.

The second big decision we made was to create a theme for the night and to agree upon a compelling project to fund with an achievable, but meaningful financial goal.  Reaching the heart requires good story telling, so we decided on the theme – Your Story Matters: How God empowers ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.  We picked three compelling stories from the life of our ministry and recruited passionate story tellers to tell them.  We decided to stretch out in faith and seek to fully fund the launch of the Africa Study Bible in both Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2018.  This would require $10,000 after all expenses had been taken care of.  It was doable, but would not be easy.

One last thing we decided was to ask our worship leader to come up with songs that would enhance the stories and help reinforce the ideas we were presenting.  Little did we know that he would write three completely original songs that were the highlight of the evening.  As we opened the doors this past Saturday night, people came streaming in and some were disoriented by the new set up.  Very quickly, however, they got adjusted and started exploring and learning.  With surprisingly few technical glitches, the program got underway after the dinner and people were captivated.  We were even blessed to have one of the contributing editors of the Africa Study Bible share some of the unique features of this wonderful new resource.

Right before we closed, a representative of the Bethel Deliverance Church and their pastor Bishop Eric Lambert came to the front to make a special presentation.  To everyone’s surprise and delight they made a donation of $5,000.  This same church had sent over seventy people to attend the banquet and were clearly engaged with our ministry objectives.  After counting up all the donations that came in designated for this project through the banquet, were amazed that a little over $15,000 was raised.  After banquet expenses were deducted, God had blessed in such a marvelous way that we were able to fully fund the project and we had met our goal.  Lesson learned – trust God, take risk and be willing to change.  Even more important – engage your team if you want to engage your donors.

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The Most Anticipated Books of the Fall

Recently, I asked three friends and fellow book lovers to share their most anticipated books for the Fall.   I hope their choices inspire you as you choose books to purchase, read and share with friends.

 

Byron Borger – Founder and Proprietor of Hearts and Minds Bookstore and author of The Booknotes Blog.

 

  1. Awaiting the King by James K.A. Smith
  2. Place Matters by Coz Crosscombe and Bill Krispin
  3. Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller
  4. Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church by Winn Collier
  5. Spiritual & Religious: The Gospel in an Age of Paganism by Tom Wright
  6. Venite: A Book of Daily Prayers by Robert Benson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Thomsen – Book Buyer for Greg Laurie’s Harvest Church Bookstore and former Chairman of the Board for the Christian Booksellers Association

 

 

  1. Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas
  2. Making All Things New by David Powlison
  3. Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp
  4. Living Life Backward by David Gibson
  5. Is All Scripture Inspired by J. C. Ryle
  6. Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas
  7. The Problem of God by Mark Clark
  8. God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew Walker
  9. Steal Away Home by Matt Carter
  10. Martin Luther by Vopler Leppin
  11. Long Before Luther by Nathan Buzenitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Smith – Co-Author of SLOW CHURCH and the Editor of The Englewood Review of Books

 

 

  1. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
  2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs
  3. The Art of Loading Brush: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry
  4. What Will Soon Take Place: Poems by Tania Runyan
  5. The Ninth Hour: A Novel by Alice McDermott
  6. Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World by Jon Huckins and Jer Swigart
  7. Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians by Nancy Haught
  8. Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith by Karen Wright Marsh
  9. Can You See Anything Now? A Novel by Katherine James
  10. Unafraid: Moving Beyond a Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin Corey

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