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An Enriched Life

It had been an impactful week already when I first saw the picture.  I was co-hosting a gathering of our team leaders from all over the Americas and we were sharing our stories.  Our Uruguay team leader Humberto was telling us about their mobile ministry where they use a van to take books and Bibles to remote villages and towns.  In the picture, an old man sat at a wooden table in a very simple home.  He did not seem to have much of worldly value and I wondered if he could even read.  Humberto smiled as he showed us the picture and then proceeded to the next image that showed several bookshelves of books and  chairs.

As it turned out, this man -Alberto – could not only read, but he was one of their best customers.  He had been buying and reading books for a long time and they were his treasure.  He took the time to number every one of the books and was even in the habit of lending them to other people in his church.  His collection was so large that it was really a small library.  Books had changed his life and he wanted to share that experience with others no matter what economic conditions they lived in.  He had invested his own limited resources in things that would matter for eternity.

This story from Uruguay had powerful resonance as we listened to the plight of our team in Venezuela.  The last few years have been a time of struggle and suffering as the economy of the country has collapsed and people cannot even find basic food and medicine.  Over the years, our local team had grown to eleven stores and a warehouse and had been a catalyst in the significant growth of the evangelical church in this part of the world.  They had also used vans and other vehicles as a part of a mobile ministry to take books to remote areas.  Now they have almost no books in the warehouse and very few books on the store shelves.  It is truly a season of mourning and lament in this once prosperous nation.

In a time when almost no one has money for new books in Venezuela, I couldn’t help but wonder how many old men had stockpiled their treasured books for just such a time as this.  Now that electricity is intermittent and it is often dangerous to leave the house because of protests and violence in the streets, it may time for people to take some of the books off the shelves and read them once again.  I can imagine that many people are reading and sharing books all over the country as they remind one another that God has a plan for them – a plan to prosper them and not harm them, plans to give them a hope and a future.  This may even be the beginning of a spiritual revival as God grips the hearts of his hurting people and reminds them of His love through the pages of His word that was purchased many years ago.

Getting books to “the least of these” in remote places all over Latin America is a hallmark and legacy of our global ministry.  In Ecuador, the local team even makes periodic trips up the rivers and into the jungles to visit the indigenous tribes with books ad Bibles.  Carlos, our team leader, remarked that it was amazing how hungry they are for new resources and that they often saved up their money to be able to purchase whatever was available.  He said that many of the tribespeople were Christians and the fruit of missionary work that had taken place over one hundred years ago.  They not only purchased and read the books we provided, but they are growing in their faith and some even had deep theological questions for our team.

Spending the week with my CLC family members who are diligently exploring new ways to make evangelical Christian literature available to all nations renewed my vision and passion for our work.  As I head back into the hustle and bustle of everyday work life this week, I know that I will be dealing with the reality that many of us face.  There will be the typical barrage of e-mails, meetings and projects vying for my attention and social media posts trying to fill every spare moment.  How I respond to this will be deeply impacted by that old man at the table with no computer, no phone and no internet.  He has challenges of his own, be he has chosen to live an enriched life by investing his money and time in things that will last and will change lives forever.

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Willing to Stay

This week I met a saint and he was dead.  No, I didn’t meet a ghost, I simply attended his memorial service and learned what true faithfulness really looks like.  Elwin Palmer was ninety-three when he went home to be with the Lord and had lived a full and impactful life, but not one that he had anticipated.  After serving in World War II, including participation in the Battle of the Bulge, he came back to the USA prepared to study Agricultural Engineering and to return to the poverty-stricken area of Mississippi where he grew up.  He hoped to make a real difference in the lives of the next generation of farmers and their families and he was on track to make that dream a reality when he met his wife.  Her commitment to world missions and his willingness to listen to the still small voice of the Lord led them to Colombia Bible College and then they joined WEC International.

WEC was founded by C.T. Studd and has always been a pioneering ministry.  Some people that knew Elwin felt that he too wanted to follow in CT’s footsteps and to be a pioneering missionary himself on the foreign field.  In the early days, Elwin helped the small WEC USA team get the campus in Fort Washington, PA ready for occupancy and spent many days and probably a lot of nights fixing windows and many other problems in the huge building that we call “the castle” today.  The large property in suburban Philadelphia had fallen into a major state of disrepair as it had been abandoned and then looted for several years.  My mother grew up in that building and often commented that the most important abilities of a missionary were flexibility and availability and Elwin exhibited those qualities every day.  After serving for a few years on the home staff of WEC USA and having gone through their candidate training program, Elwin was ready to leave for a foreign land to begin his “real” missionary career.

This never happened and it devastated him.  The leadership of WEC USA at that time did not feel that God was giving them a peace to release Elwin and his family to serve overseas and probably had good reasons for saying so.  Whatever those reasons were, it did not sit well with Elwin and he certainly experienced his dark night of the soul wrestling with God over that decision.  Despite this, Elwin submitted to God’s will and to the leadership decision and stayed on the team.  He didn’t quit, despite being recruited at one point by a college that wanted him to serve on their staff.  Over the years he served in a variety of positions and was known for his wisdom, humility and faithfulness.  In 1968, to his great surprise he was nominated and elected to serve as the WEC USA director and he did this for the next fifteen years.  Countless missionary families received training and preparation for service under his watchful care and went to the field to serve God in very difficult circumstances.

Elwin’s later years were not easy as he was faithful to his wife who suffered from illness for many years and he was her constant companion and prayer warrior.  I only knew Elwin from afar through the eyes of his daughter Grace who worked in our ministry.  Her quiet commitment to excellence as she proofread manuscripts was a testimony to her father and his training and example of living the deeper Christian life.  Saying yes to Jesus was the hallmark of Elwin’s life even though it meant hardship and disappointment at key moments along the way.  His willingness to lay down his own ambitions for a greater calling is an example that will live on as one of his greatest legacies.  Many leaders, including myself, would do well to follow in his humble footsteps and to learn to love Jesus the way he did.  Sometimes, God’s will is for us to stay in the place he has planted us even when it is really hard.

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What Are You Bringing?

So, I have a confession to make.  I am a huge fan of potluck picnics.  For those not familiar with this particular tradition, this is a combination of a typical outdoor barbecue with the twist that the guests are invited to bring a dish along to share with others.  Given that I like to grill and eat just about any type of meat that exists and am an extrovert, these events are often the highlight of my summer.  With one small exception.  Occasionally and I mean occasionally, these events can get partially derailed by that guest who brings something “special” that only they appreciate.  If you are a fan of potluck picnics, you know what I am talking about.  Somehow, they show up with a wilted salad, a left over vegetable medley or my least favorite – anything (with the exception of coleslaw) that includes cabbage.  If you are like me, you hold your nose and walk right by that stinky cabbage and look for the fresh corn on the cob or the just baked rolls to compliment your pork barbecue or burger.

This got me thinking.  How does this happen anyway and why would anyone want to ruin a wonderful picnic with side dishes like this?  And then it hit me.  A lot of life is like a potluck picnic.  Every day that we wake up, we have a choice to make.  What are we going to bring?  How are we going to choose to interact with others?  Are we going to bring our best or just the leftovers?  Being involved in a ministry that deals with the public on a daily basis, I have been faced with this question a lot and am I not sure that I have always been the one bringing the corn on the cob or the rolls.  So why is that?

The truth is that I and many others tend to bring what we have into any interaction in which we are involved.  If we have a fridge full of fresh corn and oven full of hot rolls, we will bring that.  Unfortunately, more often that I would like to admit, my personal fridge is full of leftovers including the wilting salad and the day-old veggies.  Sometimes, if I am really honest, I even cook up a mess of stinky cabbage with my words and actions and then bring that to the party too.  Worst of all, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if I just make cupcakes too, it will make everything better.  As an eternal optimist, I am way too confident that simply “turning that frown upside down” will fix whatever needs fixing.

Recently, I have been convicted that to truly bring my best to the party, I need to take it to the recycling plant first.  OK, I know that sounds weird and may not even make sense, but hear me out.  As much as I would like to have fresh strawberries and scones in my fridge every time I open it, that just isn’t going to happen.  I will wake up without enough sleep, some difficult circumstance will produce anxiety and I am not always going to be my cheerful self.  So what can I do?  I have to take my stuff to the only place that can make any real and lasting transformation – the foot of the cross.  Only my savior, who died in my place and says “come as you are” will really be able to do something lasting and permanent about my stinky cabbage.  Sadly (for me), this is no magic formula and my left overs are not automatically transformed into prize winning potato salad.  Instead, my savior requires repentance and daily surrender to His plans for my life.  This process is painful and time consuming, but is the only way that I will ever bring anything worthwhile to party next time I am invited.

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Celebrating the Weird and Wonderful

It was nearly twenty years ago when I first met Rick and Susan.  Our little bookstore in Philadelphia had begun to grow and I went on a reconnaissance trip to Dallas.  I figured that if I wanted to learn about how to run a great Christian bookstore, why not visit the buckle of the Bible belt where there were more Christian stores at that time than in any other part of the country.  For a new Christian retailer like myself, it was like visiting the Mecca of our industry or more like seeing Disneyland for the first time.  I saw stores that were so big that four of our little store would have fit neatly inside the front half of the bookstore.  I saw stores that had gift departments bigger than my store and I saw stores that had Christian education sections selling as much paper goods as Staples.  Most of these larger stores had adopted the “runway” model with a different color carpet or tile for the walking area and another color under the fixtures themselves.  This created a clear path for the customer to find their way around the store.  In some of the stores, this was helpful, but I still felt like I needed a map to effectively navigate my way around.

At the end of my trip in Dallas, I decided to stop by a smaller store that I had been hearing about and that was when I met Rick and Susan.  Their store was not much bigger than mine in Philadelphia and had a totally different approach to Christian retailing.  Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they had chosen to be really important to a particular group of people.  As you walked into the store, you could tell right away that something was different.  Instead of “cookie cutter” fixtures from the latest store design catalog, they had a custom-built checkout counter that was as interesting as anything else in the store.  Their book selection was highly curated for the thoughtful Christian reader and I noticed the largest selection of C.S. Lewis titles I had ever seen in a Christian bookstore.  So much of what they were doing seemed counter intuitive to what I was being told about how to run a great Christian bookstore and yet it seemed to be working.

Recently, I saw Rick and Susan again.  They were attending the annual meeting of the Association of Logos Stores to which their store belonged and I had been asked to speak to the group.  So much has happened over these twenty years in the Dallas market that I could not help but think back to that trip I took years ago.  Today, many of those mega-Christian stores are closed and the largest chain of Christian stores in the country which had several stores in Dallas was liquidated this year.  Trying to be all things to all people even in the “buckle of the Bible belt” was apparently not working anymore.  Despite this, Rick and Susan’s store was still open and their strategy was still working.  They meant something special to the community they served and the community continued to support them.  Ironically, this was true for most of the Logos stores I met that day.

The Logos store owners are a group of weird and wonderful people.  Founded in the late 1960s during the birth of the Jesus people movement, this fiercely independent group of stores made it their business not to be like every other Christian bookstore.  Sometimes located in college towns, they sought to meet the needs of thinking Christians, doubters and seekers of truth.  This meant that their stores often carried a more eclectic selection of books from smaller publishing houses and even books from some secular publishers as well.  Most importantly, these stores were owned and operated by “book people” who read what they sold and were able to make recommendations that mattered to their local community.  While not all of these stores has survived the economic tsunami that our industry has faced in recent years, a strong core group is still serving their communities in places as far flung as Hawaii and Manhattan.

In speaking to the group, I affectionately referred to them as weird because they had not bought into all the latest and greatest training techniques and ideas that everyone else in the industry had.  Instead, they kept plugging away at being great Christian booksellers.  They spent time researching books, meeting with reps, reading the actual books themselves and continuing to daily curate a selection of books that mattered to their community.  Now they are poised for something new.  Instead of discussing consolidation, which is the trendy word these days for downsizing, they are planning for growth.  Some are considering how they could open a kiosk or mobile book stand.  Others are thinking about partnerships with local churches that might function as mini extensions of their bookstore on the weekends.  Still others are praying about whether or not this is the time to open a second location in their town.  Becky Gorczyca, the head of the Logos Association, is now actively courting new stores to join the group and looking forward to seeing how God can use the weird and wonderful to bless the world one local community at a time.

 

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A Mad Dash Down the Aisle

I was trying to keep up, but it was not easy.  My mentor and boss, Clara, was showing me the ropes of my first Christian Booksellers Trade Show (nearly twenty years ago now) and I was exhausted.  We had been going from publisher to publisher placing orders, looking at new books and quickly moving on to our next appointment.  Somehow, we visited and placed orders with eighty different vendors that week.  In preparation for this trade show, Clara had spent considerable time reviewing catalogs, checking in-store inventory and preparing orders.  It all seemed so time consuming and overwhelming.  The trade show itself extended over an area larger than several football fields put together and just getting from one appointment to the next could give you a good work out.  Was all of this really necessary?

As the years flew by, I became the manager of the bookstore, installed new technology, read extensively about best practices and attending training seminars and workshops.  We began using the internet to look up product information and place orders and learned about the benefits of just-in-time inventory.  One of our distribution partners was located in the same state and we had the great fortune of being able to place orders by 4PM and got next day delivery and free freight.  If our primary book distributor did not have something in stock, we simply cascaded the order to another distributor and never had to deal with the book publisher at all.  Who needed product catalogs and long meetings with reps if you could look everything up on a website?  Efficiency was king.  We were dashing into the future.

Over time, we got really good at using our technology.  The young people we hired learned our systems quickly and even taught us “older folks” a thing or two.  Then it happened.  So much change had happened in such a reasonably quick period of time from when I had first started that I didn’t notice it at first.  One day I was listening to one of our team members helping a customer and it became clear there was a disconnect.  The customer has asked for a particular book by a well-known author of the past and this team member had never heard of it.  She offered to do a quick product search on the computer and nothing came up right away.  Without blinking an eye, my colleague turned to the customer and said, “I’m sorry, it doesn’t look like we can get that book for you.”  Since I had been trained by Clara many years before never to give up that quickly when helping a customer, I offered to do some research and get back to her.  We called the publisher of the book and learned that the book was still in print, but had a slightly different title and a new ISBN number.   At that moment, it struck me that maybe this was not our first customer that had been disappointed by our technology.

When that light-bulb went on, I began to listen and observe our customer interactions more and more and realized that we were frequently defaulting to what was available in the system.  This was also true for the way that we ordered.  We simply allowed this wonderful technology to tell us what had sold well in the past, what we were currently out of stock of and what was a suggested order.  While this does work pretty well, it does not account for new items that we had never had in stock before or unique items our customers wanted that were not in the system at all.  Something had to change.  We had to become curators again and not simply good technologists.  In fact, it was time to embrace the lessons of the past.

Abandoning the technology was not the solution, but using it differently was.  We needed to take time to meet with vendors again, learn from their vast product knowledge and then apply our store metrics and systems to their suggestions.  More importantly, we had to find way to become great booksellers again.  This would involve actually reading new books that were being suggested to us, listening to customer recommendations, becoming detectives to discover “the next big thing” and reading blogs and on-line book reviews on a regular basis.  Then we had to share our stories again.  I remembered how Clara used to rave about particular books and authors she loved and how those moments impacted our customers.  That needed to become our reality as well.  A simple question like, “What are you reading right now?” became a great conversation starter with our teammates and customers.

As I head to the International Christian Retail Show in Cincinnati in a week, I am looking forward to interacting with the next generation of bookstore owners and managers and encouraging them to follow this path.  While most will not be placing eighty orders and the trade show floor is considerably smaller these day, the lessons of the past still hold.  We need strong partnerships with our publishers if we are going to run successful Christian bookstores.  We need to be more committed than ever to be subject matter experts that are “ready in season and out” to help make life changing recommendations to our customers and to love what we are doing as we open the doors every day.

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Peace at Last

We watched in silence as the man and woman in white Naval uniforms folded the flag.  I had never seen anything like this and had never been to a military funeral before.  Bob Hornish, who had served his country faithfully in the 1940s, was being laid to rest and being given full military honors.  They folded the flag with such precision it was as if their life depended on it and they gave it to Bob’s oldest child and his only son.  This was a moment of honor and recognition that I will not soon forget.

Bob is my brother’s father-in-law and a very generous person.  He was a man who led by example and would not want people to know all the kind things he had done.  After leaving the military, he became a school teacher for his entire professional career.  As a committed believer, he made his local church, New Hyde Park Baptist in New York the nexus of his life.  It seems like there were very few tasks that he did not perform as a volunteer over the years.  Whether it was on the mission’s committee, serving as a deacon or working with the curriculum for Sunday school, he was always doing something to support the church and its growth.

I had the privilege of attending Bob’s memorial service the night before the burial and was deeply impacted by the people that shared about his impact on their lives.  Everyone from the janitor to a young man who grew up on the same street where Bob lived told of his love of life, love of his family and love for God and his church.  Over the years since my brother married his daughter, I had met Bob several times.  I cannot say that I knew him well, but what I did know, I liked.  He doted on his grandkids as if they were his own and took a genuine interest in others.  He wanted to get to know my family and even sent us gifts on occasion to support us in our missionary endeavors.

As the preacher spoke about Bob at the memorial service, my mind was drawn to a particular verse in 1 Thessalonians about how we are instructed to live our lives,

and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody

Bob did work with his hands a lot as model trains were both a hobby and passion for him.  You could not know Bob and not know about his love of trains.  His life was not always easy, but he faced his trials with a quiet confidence and faith that was an example to others.  At the memorial service, it was clear that a few “outsiders” were in attendance and it struck me that Bob’s life was not lived in vain.  Every day he lived, he did so as an example of leading a quiet Godly life and in death he left a legacy of faithfulness that will live on long after he is gone.

In an age when it seems that everyone is trying build a bigger and bigger social media platform (myself included), Bob chose a different path.  He didn’t care about a public persona and actually shunned the limelight.  Instead, he plugged away at the tasks that God had given him – loving others well.  The outpouring of love at his memorial service demonstrated that he had done his job well and could finally find his “peace at last”.

 

 

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Impossible – Difficult – Done

I was making travel arrangements when it hit me.  My two boys were going to be in a wedding and not as ring bearers.  They were old enough to be groomsmen for one of their best friends.  How did we get here so fast?  What happened to endless soccer practices and reminders about homework?  Then I read my last blog post and realized that I just wrote an entire post about pulling a muscle in my back.  What happened to that young guy who could play soccer all afternoon and help a friend move his apartment in the evening without even noticing a twinge?  OK – I admit it, I am a “man of a certain age” and definitely hitting that midlife hard.  In my case, it’s just with a little less concern about what crazy car I might purchase and more thought about how I might effectively use all this time.  Who knew that midlife came with extra time in the package and so many great choices about how to spend it.

This week, I met someone who is on the other side of midlife and still going strong.  Ed seems to have just begun to hit his stride after a life of accomplishment.  Not satisfied to work at a significant company in an important role, he stepped out and started his own when he was fairly young.  His ambition, however, was not to line his own pockets, but to see God’s kingdom expand and that the least of these have real opportunity.  Answering the call of a friend, he accepted the responsibility to help turn around a group of bookstores in Nigeria and led that effort for over a decade while still running his own company.  As those stores began to thrive again, he founded a not-for-profit with his son to make great Christian books available all over Africa at affordable prices.  In recent years, he has cheered and steered the efforts to help the Africa Study Bible become a reality all while serving on the board of strategically placed foundation.

When we met, Ed was excited, not to talk about the past, but to dream about the future.  He is convinced that something unique is going on in Africa with the proliferation of cell phone technology, the growth of print-on-demand equipment and the rising of African authors.  In his work with the African Study Bible, he had rubbed shoulders with numerous African theologians and authors, but was well aware of the lack of indigenous African publishing.   Is now the time for that to change?  Could a truly African publishing industry be developed and nourished so that in the years to come, it could flourish?  A younger man like me could see all the obstacles, but Ed seemed to simply see possibility and I began to catch his enthusiasm.  It was contagious.  Most really big visions are like this and Ed has really big vision.

As we were talking, he reminded me of a quote from the famous pioneering missionary, J. Hudson Taylor that had been a real motivator for him,

“I have found there are three stages to every great work of God: first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”

Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish theologian and pastor once said, “Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.”  That thought seems to haunt Ed as he looks at the future.  In talking about his vision for indigenous publishing for Africa he admitted that we were in the dreaming stage when things seem impossible and he couldn’t wait to get to the difficult part.  With a wry smile on his face he looked at me and said the Africa Study Bible was once impossible, then difficult and now it’s done.

Thinking about the years ahead, I realize that I have not been promised even one more day, but I have been promised that God will be faithful.  Why not dream a little?  Can I believe that simply providing Christian books and Bibles to the world is not enough?  Will I settle for the conventional wisdom that says that Amazon, Google and Apple will provide all Christian books at some point in the not distant future?  No way – I choose to envision a different future where a band of bold believers remembers how books change lives and dedicates their lives to being a part of that change.  A world where new Christian authors emerge, new publishing methods are embraced and many more people find Jesus in the pages of a book. A world where the local Christian bookstore is once again an oasis in a cultural desert and a source of life in world gone mad.  I choose to be a person of peace and to push back the darkness right where God has placed me.  What adventure is right around the corner?  If Ed’s life is any indicator, it is something pretty big.

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