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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thank You, John Stott

I receive several weekly emails from various Christian publications, and I am grateful to notice how many of them recognize the passing of the man who in my heart and mind is the modern-day "hero" of world Christianity ~ John Stott. Unlike the majority of Christian leaders profiled in the media, John Stott was never at the center of a scandal. There was never a "gotcha" moment in the news, where the press caught him in some hypocritical lie or hideous photo. Impressively, Billy Graham named Stott as one of the 20th century's top 100 most influential people in the world.

I will not try to summarize his career here -- but please take a few moments later to read over these outstanding memorials to his ministry and life:
Perhaps the one that moves me most though was posted today the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof. I don't know if you read much of his work, but this is a stunning testimony to the power of Stott's work. As Kristof says in this column, "I’m not particularly religious myself," but then goes on to commend the humble, generous and hard-working evangelical Christians like Stott, laboring and advocating for the poor in quiet and consistent way. This says it all:
"I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties."
I want people who are "not particularly religious" to say those sort of things about me.

All of that being said, I want to use this post to note John Stott's impact on my life personally. Given the long span of his career, I've "known" him since I met Christ in 1976. Somewhere around the end of high school or early college I got my hands on perhaps his most famous book, Basic Christianity. Soon after I read a slim little volume that had a profound affect on me: Your Mind Matters (my copy had a weird graphic of a man's head from an autopsy or something - sorta creepy). It was a relief to find out that as I progressed through college that my faith could be intellectually rigorous as well. Then I read his commentary on 2 Timothy called Guard the Gospel. It felt like I finally "heard" and understood the sentimental tone of Paul's last letter after reading Stott's notes on it. I found myself snapping up every one of Stott's books as I could afford them.

But the one that made the tectonic plates shift in my heart and mind was his commentary on the Book of Acts, which was titled then The Spirit, the Church and the World. I read this in one of my early seminary classes (can I get a shout out for New Testament II, Acts to Revelation!?). He mapped out the history of the church in a very simple but profound way that was honestly like a shot of adrenaline to me in my early twenties. Maybe this won't fire you up, but I underlined and highlighted this paragraph back in the day:
But we should never be satisfied with a person's conversion. That is only the beginning. The same grace which brings a person to new birth is able to transform him or her into Christ's image. Every new convert becomes a changed person, and has titles to prove it, namely a 'disciple' or 'saint', newly related to God, a 'brother' or sister, newly related to the church, and a 'witness', newly related to the world. If these three relationships -- to God, the church and the world -- are not seen in professed converts, we have good reason to question the reality of their conversion. But whenever they are visibly present, we have good reason to magnify the grace of God.
Ah, such good stuff. He made theology interesting and something I could actually grasp!

Several other books serve as signposts in my Christian life... The Cross of Christ (Systematics II in seminary), his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Between Two Worlds (a life-changer on preaching), Why I Am A Christian (such fond memories of reading this with my small group who graduated in 1999)... ending with just last May, when I finished up my "Foundations of the Faith" class at Providence Hall for the year with Stott's final book, The Radical Disciple.

Can you see why I'm so attached? From the beginning of my faith, as a new convert in 1976, to where I am today, speaking to teenagers and pastors in 2011, Stott has been there. His crisp and logical explanations, executed with warmth and urgency at the same time, have walked me through countless passages of scripture. He made me fall in love with studying the Bible, with theology and apologetics, but perhaps most importantly of all, with living out my faith with integrity and commitment.

I had a personal "Stott sighting" myself years ago when he was speaking at chapel at Westmont College. I was in my late twenties, and could not believe the good fortune I had to hear him in person. Sadly, the students had no clue who he was, so in the few minutes before he spoke, they were busy visiting with friends or quickly cramming before their class that followed immediately afterward. I saw my chance -- he was seated in front and the seat next to him was open. He sat there serenely with his hands folded in his lap. I interrupted his peace and quiet, sitting beside him and introducing myself. (Yes, I know you can picture that quite easily!)

In his perfectly clipped British accent he kindly asked, "So do you live in one of the dormitories here?" I chuckled, telling him I was long out of college, and was in fact the Area Director for Young Life. He smiled warmly, said some nice things about Young Life and meeting the founder once (of course he did!). I asked him how often he'd been to Santa Barbara and he immediately brightened -- he went on for at least ten minutes about how much he liked "birding" here because of the fantastic array of birds present in our area. It was fantastic... I was chatting with my theological hero about birdwatching! (Which is why I selected the photo at the top, where he's wearing his beloved binoculars).

I grabbed a couple of other opportunities to hear him speak to pastors in other years, and continued to be awed by his calm, steady approach to controversy and problematic texts. He was so confident in the gospel and appeared unflappable. He truly was a role model to me, as a pastor, as a scholar, as a leader, as a single adult, as a generous person. (He donated the proceeds from all of his books to provide study resources to Majority World pastors -- I mean seriously, John Stott was the genuine article!)

Though I could go on and on, I will end with a list of seven core elements of John Stott's work, as listed by Mel Lawrenz on his blog listed above. These words are a mission statement:
1. Make personal devotion to God in Christ our highest priority.

2. Live consistently, with integrity. Resist the temptation to develop a public persona.

3. Develop core disciplines like Scripture reading and mediation, prayer, work and rest.

4. Trust in the unchangeable truth of Scripture. Go deep in our study of it.

5. Prepare public talks with a focus on substance. Look for the connections and order of our ideas.

6. Value relationships with other leaders. Be a mentor without having to be called a mentor. Follow natural patterns. Don’t reduce discipleship to a program.

7. “Read” the truth of God written in the natural world. Stott was an avid ornithologist. His cumulative knowledge made him a world expert. This was both an avocation and an act of worship. Like many other Christian leaders, Stott practiced a full awareness of God’s presence and work, and that included participating in the creation with a developing sense of awe and wonder.

Praise God for the ministry of John Stott. How glorious that God chose to use such an understated, humble, lovely man to impact millions for so many years. Beautiful.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I Still Read Books - Part 2

The summer reading continues... while my first book took me (a few) weeks, I knocked down the second book in two days! I do not believe that indicates that this second book was WAY easier, but I will be the first to admit that I did not have to look up any words in the dictionary for this book. It also helped that it's summer and my schedule is nice and slow. So I had several uninterrupted hours to devour this book -- and let me tell you, it was a delight from start to finish.

The title, as you can see, is The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Jonathan is a friend of mine. He married a former student from my youth group, his lovely wife Leah, and I even assisted in their wedding. So I cannot promise a completely objective perspective.

That being said, I will tell you that I believe Jonathan is a very gifted writer and a prophetic voice in the kingdom. He is wise beyond his years, and I am still stunned over how many books he has already written!

I hate it when book reviews just give a Spark Notes version of the book, so I will not reiterate a laborious listing of quotes. I'll just share what spoke to me...

I was a kid who moved a lot. I went to 3 kindergartens (in one year, thank you very much), then moved after 1st grade, 2nd grade, and 5th grade. I made a commitment deep in my heart as a child that when I grew up, I would live in ONE PLACE. I was jealous of the kids who had known all their friends throughout elementary school, and who had teachers who knew their siblings. My experience of elementary school was mostly about being the new kid, spending the early months of the school year eating lunch alone, getting picked last for kickball and having my teachers mangle my last name over and over... and over.

Lest you think I'm just looking for your sympathy, I have come to discover that living in one place isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Even living in beautiful Santa Barbara has its downsides. And more than once I've really wanted to relocate and have a do-over.

But I had vowed to stay in one place and figure out how to make it work. Especially because I have no real extended family, I have wanted to have a family here. But as I have stumbled and tumbled through the bumps and bruises of that process, I have yearned for direction at times. And that is the beauty of this book. And Kathleen Norris says in the book's Foreword, "Committing to stability is never easy, but it is always worth a try."

Jonathan takes the practice of stability to a new place to me -- no longer is it a personal point of stubbornness, but instead, it is a spiritual discipline. He sums it all up so beautifully in his opening sentence: "This is a book about staying put and paying attention."

As I consider what it means to be an active member of the kingdom of God, hopefully persevering in faith and service as I seek to encourage others to do the same, it is easy to get discouraged. It feels like the divorce culture in America has obliterated this millennium's understanding of commitment. The threats of terrorism, tsunamis and a troubled world economy overwhelm us and make us want to withdraw and focus on ourselves. The internet puts the world at our fingertips -- then blinds us with such an endless parade of options that we can't stay focused on anything more than 6 seconds. How can anyone pursue "a long obedience in the same direction"? Jonathan says it this way: "Staying, we all know, is not the norm in our mobile culture." But he refuses to accept that, because "I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do not recognize our fundamental need for stability."

He then goes on to describe how we find this stability, this rootedness, in God... as expressed in committed community life.
Life in the house of God is life with other people who are every bit as broken and messed us as we are. We learn to dwell with God by learning the practices of hospitality, listening, forgiveness, and reconciliation -- the daily tasks of life with other people. Stability in Christ is always stability in community... Stability demands that we do the long, hard work of life with other people in the place where we are.

There, I've said enough. I promised I wouldn't just regurgitate a bunch of quotes. I've seen this book on sale with Amazon for $6... try to track it down and read it. It will force you to think about the trajectory of your life in some profound ways.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I am running across so many great quotes this summer... here's one I cannot help but share:

I Still Read Books

I'm not trying to sound superior in my title... I just have not (yet) made the dive into Kindle or Nook or iPad. I'm not against e-Book technology necessarily -- but I cannot deny that I still love the feeling of holding a book in my hand... seeing those books in my shelves... pulling them out occasionally to look for the underlined quote or section that my visual memory is recalling... Ah.

I'm on a sabbatical of sorts this summer. My contract to teach ended in June and I don't start up again until the third week of August. So I'm working about half-time and am grateful to say I have enough income to not fret over the temporary decrease. Instead, I'm using the extra time to read. Ah.

I've piled an ambitious stack of books in my room, and hope to chip away at a book per week for 6 weeks or so. I'm already a week behind, but I am not daunted. I have finished one and am halfway through another. I've even tossed one aside that bored me within 50 pages.

I hope to put some thoughts here after each one I read, so here goes on the first book of my summer reads....

Reader Alert: Unlike normal people, I'm not a let's-just-read-something-light-in-the-summer kinda gal. I relax by reading, period. Sometimes it's thick stuff, but often the need to concentrate on what I'm reading is even more relaxing. I'm a weird one.

I picked this book up for three reasons:
  1. I loved Friedman's book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church & Synagogue when I read it in a seminary class some 20 years ago, so I especially trusted him as an author. Generation to Generation was a game changer for me. Not only did it help me to tap into some of my own family stuff, it helped me to see how family systems are at work in the church. This really helped me understand the intricate relational dynamics swirling around me as a youth pastor. (Of course I wish I had been mature enough and smart enough to avoid the many pitfalls I still stumbled into, but at least I understood them, mostly in hindsight...)
  2. I had read an article that referred to this new book, A Failure of Nerve, and the quotes were really intriguing. I had to read more.
  3. Leadership. I really care about leadership -- how to bring it out in others (especially pastors), how to discern it in young people, how to identify it, how to live it out myself. There is a pile of lousy leadership books out there. After reading the quotes from this book in the article I sensed that Friedman had something different (and NEW) to say.
I promptly ordered the book, and started reading it as soon as I got it. Soon I remember one significant quality of Friedman's work: he is a rather dense writer. Not impossible, certainly, but not one to casually scan either. Be prepared to dig in, and perhaps only read in small chunks.

Friedman must've been one very smart cookie -- he was both a Marriage & Family Therapist and a rabbi, and consulted with countless organizations and congregations. His books roam through history, theology, psychology, hard science, sociology... But I think I enjoy his books so much because they are not "same song, different verse," especially when it comes to the qualities of spiritual leadership. He has truly unique, thought-provoking things to say. Here's a simple example:
A well-differentiated leader... [is] someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.

In my own work with pastors and church leaders, I find the most prominent areas where they (myself included) get stuck is in trying to remain in front of the many tasks, projects and people under our care. There is a huge tendency to get buried by the demands and urgency of them all, be drawn into all of their crises, and become deeply tired and overwhelmed. One ends up becoming a manager of endless to-do lists or worse, a firefighter consumed with putting out the "Fire of the Week." All of that is tremendously draining and a fast ticket to burnout.

Friedman reminds us that our job is to lead. Yet rather than follow the route of the leadership and motivational books one sees filling the stacks of airport bookstores (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motivational Leadership, Heroic Leadership, Oprah's Guide to Life, 50 Self-Help Classics...) Friedman avoids gimmicks and methods completely. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter, and stays there. He insists that the reader grapple with the deeper, more fundamental issues that percolate inside all of us. This "requires commitment to the lifetime project of being willing to be continually transformed by one's experience." Remember the subtitle: "Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix." Friedman insists on one leading out of a profound, ethically-driven sense of mission, purpose and calling. He made me really look at how much chronic anxiety is at work in every corner of American life, and how much I succumb to it. As he says, "Living with crisis is a major part of leaders' lives." It "comes with the territory." But the book then sheds tremendous light on how to lead in spite of all those dynamics at work. If the leader can stay above the reactive fray, then he or she can move from a "seatbelt" mentality to one of adventure and prophetic wisdom. I must listen to God far more than I listen to the emails, voicemails and appointments in my day. This quote says it all:
In the final analysis, the relationship between risk and reality is about leadership.

Friedman gives insight into all the various expressions of leadership in front of us: as parents, in the church, at work, in our culture. As soon as I finished this book I went back to page 1 and reviewed the entire book again, taking notes this time. (I mentioned I'm weird). I could go on and on with the value of this book, but I'll end with this simple quote:
Most of the decisions we make in life turn out to be right or wrong not because we were prescient, but because of the way we function after we make the decision.
Friedman reminds me that while I cannot control nearly anything in this world, I can certainly decide, in and through Christ, how I will respond to the things I face every day. As the Apostle Paul says,
I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lift Up Your Voices

Blogging went on hiatus these last couple of weeks as I got busy preparing to leave for a conference. I just returned from it late last night.

Attending GC11, the sesquicentennial ~ fancy shmancy word for "150" ~ celebration of the Free Methodist Church in the United States was like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant... impossible to sum up here. Suffice it to say that I was deeply blessed by the respectful dialogue, the prophetic speakers, the earnest and humble leadership, and the warm and genuine people that I met there.

I'm not gonna lie... I'm exhausted. It will take me several days to catch up -- on sleep, on routines, on work, on downloading my heart and mind after such a full time.

One place that was consistently a source of energy in the midst of such a jam-packed schedule was the nightly worship. These were unhindered times where I could sing really loud and cherish the facts that hundreds, if not thousands, of others were doing the same. Normal Sundays of a hymn or two and some more contemporary praise songs are usually enjoyable for me. But once every few years it is really fun to just GO FOR IT and get sweaty in worship! GC11 provided that, and I loved it. Keeps me young, right?!

Intense times like that keep me singing for several days afterward. So this evening I ran into this classic hymn, and immediately found myself humming it loudly. Even better, I spent some time poring over the verses. They are sheer poetry. Please take a few moments and consider their beauty, imagery and deep emotion.

Apparently, this hymn is a paraphrase of an ancient hymn first written by St. Francis in the 13th century. It's hard to believe something that sounds so relevant today could have been written so long ago. Open your eyes a little wider, and tune your ears a bit more thoughtfully to God's creation around you. We are so blessed!

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices, let us sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beams,
thou silver moon that gently gleams,
Refrain (R):
O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heaven along,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice, (R)

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day
unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise him, Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
let them his glory also show: (R)

And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care: (R)

And thou, most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
and Christ our Lord the way hath trod: (R)

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, Three in One: (R)

Words: after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226);
paraphrase of "Canticle of the Sun" by Francis of Assisi.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Arroz Negrito... ¡Muy Delicioso!

I'm still on my Food Network binge, and last weekend I watched a few (OK, several) episodes of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Crazy fun! Nearly everything I watch on this network doesn't make me hungry as much as it gets me excited about cooking.

BUT.... one item did make me ravenous. One of the chefs talked about a Salvadoran burrito he ate weekly when he went to college in Amherst. The way he described it made me want to book a flight then and there (though the restaurant review I found was less than glowing... I trust the chef.)

After some googling, I figured out how to come close to the recipe. The filling is a variation on a Salvadoran dish called Arroz Negrito. It's also really similar to Gallo Pinto, if you've been to other Central American countries.

My variation is a one-pot dish that I made in my rice cooker! While the fixins were brewing in the cooker I then proceeded to make my own corn tortillas, which I profiled in an earlier blog. People, it was G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S. This would be easy to make in a big pot on the stove as well - once you get to the cooking part, just turn it on to low heat and cover it until the rice fluffs up. Enjoy.

Serves 4

1 cup of white or brown rice
1 tbsp of oil
1 onion, chopped
minced garlic - the more the merrier
1 can black beans - drain the liquid into a measuring cup
1 small can diced green chiles - drain off fluid and add to black bean liquid
1 chopped green pepper (leave in chunky pieces)
1 chopped zucchini
1 tsp of chicken or vegetable bouillon
1 tbsp diced cilantro
Salt to taste


Sauté the garlic and onion directly in the rice cooker by turning it to "cook." Continue till onion is slightly translucent.

Add rice, the bouillon, the rest of vegetables, cilantro and salt

Mix together until it all starts to clump together. At this point add the beans. Stir together.

Add enough water into measuring cup of bean & chile water until it makes 2 cups of water. Put this water into rice cooker. Stir well.

Cover and cook!

Serve warm and garnish with pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream, sliced avocado... use either as a filling for burritos or soft tacos, or just piping hot in a bowl!

Other possible vegetables to include:

1/2 can of diced tomatoes - use fluid from that to add to black bean water
corn kernels
diced cabbage

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ruth Schmidt: August 20, 1938 - July 5, 1996

Today I celebrate the most remarkable woman I have had the privilege of knowing. We lost her far too soon. It's especially hard for me to believe that it's been 15 years since her passing. Nevertheless, I think of her so often. Furthermore, I apply the things she taught me nearly every day.

It's impossible to summarize all that Ruth Schmidt was... She was married to Don, mother to Scott and Stacy, and a remarkable Marriage & Family Therapist. She was instrumental in founding the Counseling Center at Westmont College - if you're ever there, there is a lovely sitting area dedicated to her out in front.

I first met Ruth when I was working for Young Life, in the mid-eighties, and she and Don were faithful donors. Somewhat soon thereafter though I realized it would be valuable for us to meet for counseling. After a few months, our relationship mutated from counselor/client to mentor/mentee. I learned a great deal from her about boundaries, how to express expectations, and how to not work (quite) so compulsively...

But perhaps more importantly, we took trips to their beloved cabin at Mt. Hermon. We shared a love for kitties. She calmed my heart when I had to make large "asks" in my fundraising. From Ruth I learned how to put on a classy event; how to buy just the right present; how to cook... but most crucial of all, I learned volumes from her as to how to face death with incredible courage.

In 1992, right when she and Don were starting to enjoy the fruits of retirement, she started experiencing some strange symptoms. At first it appeared she had had a stroke, but the ongoing heaviness in her legs and changes in her speech finally led to the painful diagnosis in Spring 1993 that she had ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). This hit me like a guillotine. I had grown so incredibly fond of Ruth and could not imagine life without her. Furthermore, to imagine the profound suffering she would be facing seemed unfathomable. (In my immaturity I wish I had thought more about how this affected her!)

Somehow I mustered the courage to ask if I could be a part of her journey into that "long good night." Always the giver, so generous, she said yes, though I imagine she would have wished for more privacy. Four to five of us would rotate coming over one afternoon a week to assist Don with some of Ruth's care. For close to three years this was part of my weekly schedule. It was always a delight to be with her, but it was (sadly) never easy for me. I had so much to learn in terms of what it means to be with those whose end is coming a little sooner than expected.

Perhaps most jarring for me is to look back now and see that this deeply painful passage with Ruth would prepare me for the later loss of my friends Matt Steele (Oct 1, 2006) and Claire Carey (Aug 14, 2010). My goodness, life is so hard. But I can say I am changed by knowing such remarkable, lovely, outstanding friends.

In reflecting on how I spent those last few months with Ruth, I mostly have regrets. I wish I had held her hand more. I wish I would have sat and visited with her, and not just busied myself nervously with some of the tasks that appeared necessary. I wish I had told her everything I felt, and how much I loved her. I would have listed everything she taught me, and what things I would do in the future because of her impact on my life.

The incredible part about Ruth was that I think she already knew those things...

Ruth's parting gift to me was a fantastically generous gift that allowed me to make a down-payment on my house. Given what I had been making in my work in youth ministry, I never dreamed that would be possible. Because I always lived in tiny, dingy apartments, Ruth had hosted so many events for me over the years in her amazing home on the Riviera -- Young Life fundraisers, dinners, Bible studies, parties for leaders... Near the end, she told me she wanted me to be able to keep doing that in my own home. What a woman.

Perhaps most wondrous of all (and creative of God) is that about 4 years after Ruth's death, another Ruth, my friend and housemate, moved in. Like me, her own ministry prevented her from being able to afford a home, but because of Ruth's Schmidt's generosity, she has been able to live here comfortably and affordably.

I end my memories with this -- Ruth shared these lovely words with us a few months after she announced her diagnosis. Once again, she sought to minister to those around her, even in her own dark time:
Be at peace.

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;

Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely
through all things;

And when you cannot stand it, God will carry you
in His arms.

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;

The same everlasting Father who cares for you today
will take care of you today and every day.

He will either shield you from suffering or will give you
unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and
imaginations. (St. Francis de Sales)
Thank you, Ruth Schmidt. I am forever changed.