2015 And Promises From “Back To The Future”

05031617A-thumb-800xauto-2672015 is around the corner.

And I have been waiting for this my whole life.

It seemed so far from my grasp when Marty McFly went back in time. Well, and into the future, which is what seemed so far away to a 10-year-old boy in 1987.  Going back to 1955 was pretty cool, but when he went into the future 30 years to the year 2015, that captivated my imagination.

I began counting off the years on my fingers until I discovered that I would be 38 years old the year that all of this cool stuff would be in my life. Yet that was older than my dad was. I never thought I would be that old.

Hover boards, tennis shoes that laced themselves automatically, flying cars and a lot of amazing stuff caught my imagination and whisked me into another time, a time of possibilities. Now, the futuristic things mentioned earlier have yet to come into practical usage by the public But some things have worked into our everyday life. We have seen TV with 500 channels which still blows me away that we can create content for that much television. And in this coming year, I am sure much of the future will be here. Surely. At least some of the newfangled things and predictions.

Some seem so possible. Some not as much.

Still, the most far-fetched of all their futuristic ideas was the World Series marquis that read Cubs and Angels. For a long time, I saw that as comic relief in a movie not rooted in reality but in fun and adventure. To me, a boy from Chicago who also lived much of his life in Orange County, these are my teams. And until 2002, I thought, this to be one of the most unlikely of all match-ups. The Angels were a laughing stock of an organization choking away their best chances in 1986 in drastic flame-out fashion and 1995. 1995 when a bunt turned into a game winning home-run propelling the upstart Seattle Mariners into the playoffs for the first time.

Okay, the Angels who were depicted by a Disney film needing actual Angels to help them to victory seemed like they really needed fantasy to be on their side. The marquis with their name had to simply be slipped in by a writer or producer with a soft spot for his hometown team. It was pretty unlikely to see them in the World Series, right. But they did make it once and won it all in 2002. And from that point, they have played competitive baseball most years. They are no longer longshots to play in the Series. 201 with the Angels in baseball’s World Series could be.

But the Cubs?

The Cubs have found incredible ways to bust the hopes of their fans on the few occasions they have had any chance of winning. Beyond that most years they embody their moniker of the loveable losers. They play, have fun and everyone loves them. Baseball on the North Side of Chicago has become more about hanging out with friends than goals of winning. Few people if any were alive the last time the Cubs won it all, so winning has turned from a distant memory to a dream. One has to dream to even think of this team winning as they have gone more than a century, that’s right a century without winning it all. 1908 seems further and further ago when we watch today’s highlights on an iPad or lowlights on our smart phone. There wasn’t even radio the last time the Cubbies one a World Series ring.

There wasn’t even radio, that simply boggles the mind. Maybe we should fold the sport, because we don’t still do many things that we did before the advent of radio.

The Cubs or the Flubs as many cynics like to refer to them seem as the most unreasonable team to put on a marquis. However, if that happened, you know it would garner big ratings. People would stop to see this most unexpected feat—The Cubs in the World Series. It may not have the Cache of the Cubs against the Yankees or against the Red Sox, the team that Theo brought back from the throes of another curse to win their first pennant in decades.

But to see Wrigley field host anything more than a meaningless summer game, would be beautiful. And for this fan boy, to see them host the Angels of Los Angeles in Anaheim would be the thing of dreams coming true. Only a few months ago, I thought the joke of Back-to-the-Future putting these two teams together in the coming year was as ridiculous as seeing flying cars go by my house next year. Well, they have missed on something that seemed so plausible, but they seem to be within reach for the former.

What seemed like  an Oasis in the desert , a figment of my mind’s eye, might be more likely now, no certain to happen as predicted by an insightful and forward thinking trilogy.

When the Cubs landed the coup of the offseason in Joe Madden, the mad-scientist of a genius baseball leader, they found their way toward respectability. Now, with a couple of trades and free agent moves, they have a team ready to compete filled with veteran stars, Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, Starling Castor and more and loaded with young talent. A few more minor tweaks, and they could meet last year’s team that boasted the most wins.

The Angels and Cubs not only could meet in the World Series, They will meet there. It is meant to be. Just ask Marty McFly. It is without a doubt. Biff has the sports book that guarantees it.

And when my two worlds collide, and the Cubs play the Angels for baseball’s championship, we can all believe in time travel.

Tell me why it won’t happen.

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The Beauty of Christmas: Giving is Better than Receiving

I asked our church a question that I need to ask myself again and again. Do we browse the Christmas deals, door busters, or whatever scares the pants off you enough to get you to the store or to drop the item into the online cart before you miss out for our own wish list or for the others that we are shopping for? Hmmm, Kind of a question that puts into perspective our proclivity to selfishness, a little part of that dark underbelly to Christmas in the 21st Century, the not so beautiful side of Christmas. But there is a part to Christmas that is overwhelmingly beautiful–giving.

The beauty of giving is what I love about the times we can get out and serve or bless with no strings attached. We are not giving to a charity that is offering us coupons, or half-off at Knott’s Berry Farm. We are not giving to get but giving to give. And our church has learned over its short lifetime to give and give. One of our favorite traditions comes each Christmas as we give to our partner church to help those less fortunate have a little more love during Christmas. Getting overlooked at other times of the year might be bad enough, but being overlooked at Christmas can simply turn a joyful season into a hopeless time of year. May that never be.

This time of year can be the most impacting, memorable, heart pounding—simply beautiful space on the calendar when we slow down to make it about its real meaning and motivations of kindness, mercy and blessing. This season opens us to  life-changing moments as Christmas runs deep with the work of Jesus. But not just his work once done long, long ago…his ongoing work in us that manifests in goodness shared all around. At least that is what it should be as those who can bless those in who have need.

Christmas should draw us together, rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, well off or underwhelmed, loved or unloved, difficult or easy, in similar ways that the cross levels the playing field. All are equal at the foot of the cross, and all are equally deserving of Christmas’ benefits as rich and poor gathered around the manger. The story of Jesus is for everyone from all backgrounds with no favorites, no secret codes that get us in early, no membership rewards, no extra benefits. Nope, we all share a common bond as humanity, a common identity as we share in that distinction we all carry as image bearers of our creator. Christmas should remind us to think of those like us but different than us, like us in that essence of humanity but different in background, heritage or story, like us in heart and soul, but different in social standing. Here we can help all have a little more equal footing as the baby born in that manger smiles bright on each of us with his love.

And hopefully reflected through us as we spread love to those in need of more love.

For me, I love the season of joy that Christmas brings. No matter what I might long for in this year, I love the opportunities where we get to be a blessing to others. One of my highlights of the year is how we can demonstrate our love for our partner church in a simple but profound way by giving toys to the children of their community, some in the church and some in the neighborhood.

About this time last year, our church, The Connection Churchpartnered with a struggling, inner-city, under-resourced church—Faith Community Church in South Central LA. The partnership emerged easily and wonderfully as God knit the hearts of two pastors together. Two churches led by pastors who look drastically different simultaneously share a common vision to love and serve their community with all the gusto that they can muster up.

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As we have aimed to come alongside a church that loves their neighborhood but lacks the resources to fulfill their vision, I love seeing the partnership develop over the year. And this Christmas has shown the fruit of a relationship forged in love. Last year, we were able to share a smidge over 50 toys for the church to pass out to their children and friends of their children. When we heard that some of these kids may not even get one gift for Christmas, our hearts simply broke. How could this be? We have not walked in their shoes, so we could not imagine what it must be like to wake up on Christmas morning to have no toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps there is not even a Christmas tree at the front window.

50 toys were handed out to 50 children. We saw God use us as an instrument of blessing to those who needed it the most.

But we heard that more could have been done. When we first initiated conversations with Pastor Perades so close to Christmas, too close to do more last year, we asked how many toys would they want/need. He further explained that if they had 50 gifts, they would have 50 children there to receive the gifts, and if they had 100 gifts, they would have 100 children there. As the word would get out, they would see children from the poor neighborhood flood to the Christmas celebration.

Therefore, this year we redoubled our efforts wanting to see twice the number of kids receive a ray of love during their Christmas.  People from our little church plant spread out throughout the shopping center, box-stores, and malls to gather toys and gifts for those less-privileged. They carefully selected toys that could be enjoyed by toddlers, preschoolers, youngsters, boys, girls, tweeners and children of all ages. When the collection time came to an end, we were able to take 107 gifts, plus-or-minus one to South Central. Christmas would not skip these kids once again.

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In serving and partnering, I love how we get to play our role and no more. We deliver the gifts a couple of days ahead of Faith Community’s Christmas service with no strings attached. They get to do what is best for their people, for their community, and we do not have to be there to receive the glory. Faith Community gets to be the visible representation of God’s love to the children and their families.

Now, let me explain why this giving gesture and participation with the needy has quickly become one of my favorite days of the year. We get to be a blessing on their terms and not ours. And blessing really becomes the movement of this partnership. The blessing is mutual as we learn and receive from them as well.

To me, the gesture of generosity is nice, but when Pastor Perades receives our gift, he shows such incredible gratitude which profoundly moves me. I tell him that I come just for a chance to eat good food at his favorite restaurants, but really, I come to feel the joy he exudes when God answers prayers. I am always blown away by how touched he is that people would get up out of their comfortable world to enter his and join him on his level for a bit. He shares story after story of how God meets them in their hour of need, never growing to callous to be amazed. Yet, I know his struggle of ministering in South Central is real. But I get to hang out with a guy who shows sweet perseverance through the struggle. His heart is so big, and his joy so great; he knows how to express the beauty of Christmas.

When he grabbed the bags with me out of our car, he just lit up. When we placed the bags down on the table and he lingered to look the toys and unwrapped presents over, while we grabbed more out of the car, I knew he was touched. When he suddenly and joyfully blurted these are the good toys, these are not no dollar store toys. No, these are the primo ones! We get Build-A-Bear, skateboards, Disney dolls, games and on the list goes for all ages to be blessed. He tells me all I need to know to know we are in the middle of a good partnership.

Now, it would be cool to be there when the toys are actually received by the children, some more expressive and others more stoic, but this is not our day it is the children’s day. And St. Nick didn’t wait around to see the faces of people brighten; he gave to give knowing that was simply enough.

But in America, we like happy endings, so I needed to text Pastor Perades Sunday afternoon to catch his summation of how the event went for their church and community. I knew he was putting on the full-court press to get all the neighborhood’s kids there that were in need of a special Christmas treat, not just one more toy to add to their collection, but a real demonstration of love. He was grabbing people on our way out of the parking lot to lunch to make sure they knew what was up.

Thus, I anticipated a good report. But what I got really blew me away as I previously posted Pastor Perades thoughts of realism when it comes to giveaways. He has not found gimmicks to be as evangelistically fruitful as we often think. Yet giving away love should always be at the heart of how we live. After that, the rest is up to God. But when you tie together relationships, community, love, the story of Christmas and a bit extra in the gifts department and a few other factors I am sure I am unaware, you can get a great moment, a beautiful moment, a moment in which 16 people give their lives to Jesus. This is where the church lives out their mission on their own feet with a little nudge from their partners down the way in Orange County. Oh, imagine what could happen if more smaller churches partnered together. Hmm, sounds like a good post for the days between Christmas and New Year’s as we reflect on values for the coming year.

Christmas doesn’t get any better than when people accept the greatest gift into their heart, a gift that forever changes them. And Faith Community got to play a big part in helping see the gift of Jesus actualized in these people. And we played a part in that too, a small but essential part.

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What are your favorite memories of giving this Christmas?

Waking Up To My Calling

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I have told this story over the years in different venues from churches, to chapel at my alma mater to the class I teach at LPC—Multicultural Evangelism. But now, might be the time to share the story here, a little background on where I came from, and how I got to where I am. Oh, and to add in a missing piece to this story that has haunted me for a couple of decades–who was that speaker at camp?

I love sharing the crazy way that God worked with me or in spite of me to get me where he wanted me, the mission field. I still get chills thinking of how incredible God is at getting us to the places he wants us to be. I am blown away when I reflect backwards on the pathway God used to place me in the middle of where he wanted me—his calling.

The story of calling is an interesting thing. We don’t often define calling well, that mysterious thing that grips our heart and compels us onward in God’s mission. Calling is that thing we return to again and again when questions, doubts, and concerns assail us. We come back to a confidence that God has a purpose in what he is doing in and through us. Yep, “Calling” keeps us going.

My calling came to a distinct point of grabbing my heart 20 years ago, the summer before my senior year in high school. And I remember it vividly to this day. Sometimes, there are moments that simply burn themselves into your mind, memory burn. The distant memories surrounding my calling stick with me like it was yesterday.

At 17-years-old, I went to summer camp for the first time with my new church, the Foursquare church in Woodstock, IL.

You might ask, Why did I go? The same reason many teenage boys go to camp, because a cute girl invited me. This was reason enough to approach my football coach and ask out of two-a-day practice ahead of my senior year, ahead of my time to shine as a varsity starter. I gulped, gathered myself, and asked coach if I could get out of practice. It was not his favorite idea of the year, but he relented and allowed me 24 hours.

Yeah buddy!! I was on a solo mission as I drove my beater of a car the three hour drive into the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin to arrive at Spencer Lake Campgrounds. Tired, frazzled, worn out, but excited, I made it to camp. No matter, I had energy reserves ready to kick in. Quickly, I found the kids from my youth group at the line for dinner. That cute girl, however, was strangely difficult to locate. No worries, the dudes were around, and we were able to pass the time by being stupid guys.

Fast forward to the evening service. Worship was awesome. I sang, danced and praised my heart out during a hot August night in 1994. Anticipating a great message for missions.  That is when the disappointment set in.

The speaker was a guy that I had heard the previous Sunday at my church, twice. As I retold this story over the years, beginning with a graduation brunch with the then President of our movement, all I remember is that an old guy was speaking at our camp, an old guy who spoke twice at my church. I had no excitement for what he was going to say. Don’t get me wrong, I like the stories our elders have to share, but I was not looking forward to story time. I wanted passion, fun, and something that connected with where I lived as a teenager.

Now, my tired body, pushed to the limit by football practices, had nothing left. The adrenaline high of seeing my friends, of jumping around in a worship service, of being in the presence of God drained out of me. Quickly, I went from being alert, tuned in, and full of life to a drowsy boy. As soon as the speaker started, I knew he was giving the same message he gave at my church, a good message, a solid message on missions, but the same message. I was ready for something new, but had little ability to stay awake for the same message again.

The next thing I knew, I was jerking my head up, yanking myself awake. I couldn’t sleep through the only night of camp I went to, could I? The answer: Yes. I gave up the battle of trying to stay awake. My head stopped bobbing up and down, stopped pulling back awake, and gave in to the battle of sleep as I folded my arms over my lap and drooped my head down. And I was oblivious to the world around me for I don’t know how long, maybe 45-60 minutes.

When I started coming to, dragging my sleepy head back into the world of the living, I heard the speaker beginning to call people to a response. He was wrapping up his message and concluding it with a call to mission. The speaker was calling people into two categories. One were going to be like ducks and another like beavers. The ducks would be those that would fly, would travel, would brave long distances to take the gospel to other peoples. At the same time, the beavers would stay back home, building, gathering, and compiling resources to support the ducks in mission. Both were needed. We needed those that would go, and those that would send.

But I was still catching up to the story. I wasn’t sure what this related to. In fact, I was still quite groggy and felt super confused. I was not from Oregon and did not know my zoology super-duper well. I wanted to ask what does this have to do with mission and evangelism. I was lost  in the middle of the analogy when suddenly the middle became the end.

The speaker began to call people forward in response to what God was doing in their hearts. He called those who felt the burden to go, to be like a duck to one side of the platform. Meanwhile, he called those committed to support, to resource, like the beavers to another side of the platform.

I couldn’t help myself as I was drawn out of my seat toward the front. I couldn’t say emotion of a great service grabbed me, no, this was bigger than that. I felt compelled to go forward and stand with the ducks, the group committed to go, to be on mission with God. There was no doubt in my mind where I should stand, although the cobwebs were still in my head keeping me from fully grasping what was happening. But I was there. I responded to the call for missions with my friends.

However, I completely rearranged what God was saying. I didn’t want to accept the going as the call and wanted to be a missionary to my people, to my city.

Long story short, I avoided the mission’s call to the best of my ability. I avoided the girls in Bible College with a call to missions. I ducked my calling without even knowing it. In my mind, I was staying on track to be a pastor, a church planter to Chicago, a missionary to my city. My plans made such good sense to me.

But all of this changed when I met my wife shortly after graduating Bible College.

When things started to get serious, she informed me of her calling to missions. Immediately, my heart dropped. I thought, how could this be. I worked so hard to get by without getting in a relationship with a missionary. She wanted to lay out the framework for how things were going, make sure her calling didn’t get derailed.

She gave me three options:

  • We could continue dating, and if things progressed, we could date while she served overseas for a year and get married when she comes back.
  • We could continue dating and if things led to marriage, go overseas together for a year.
  • Or, we could break up.

And the story ended happily ever after as we ended up going together as a married couple.

Soon I discovered this was my calling. Soon I came around to understand that I fulfilled what God spoke into me that night when I slept through the message. I became the missionary, the duck who would fly far to take the gospel to distant places. I ended up on God’s path all along even though I worked hard to get around it, to juke Him. He would not be juked or jived. God took me where he wanted me to be.

I found that it doesn’t matter if we forget our calling, as long as we stay close to God we will get where he wants us to be.

Now, for years, one thing plagued me. Who was the speaker? I usually remembered the different camp speakers who impacted my walk. I was good with names, but not this one. As a punk high school student who knew nothing about anything, I totally missed the significance of who this was. I went on my way never giving a second thought to who it was that spoke into my life. I could not tell you who that divine contact was for the life of me.

I told the story again and again merely calling him some old dude. But now, after years of serving overseas and now teaching on the subject, I wanted to know who it was. Who was this man that gave me a passion for missions?

Where could I turn to find the answer? I asked around to those from my church, to others who might know with no results. Finally, I sought the answer from the former camp director’s wife. I messaged her on Facebook and after several attempts, she sent me the answer. When I heard who the speaker was, I was floored. I could not believe it.

Don McGregor.

Yes, the one and only, Don McGregor. I was clueless at 17 who he was, but as a student at Bible College, I found him fascinating when he spoke in one of my classes on leadership. I still remember things he said there.  To this day, I have stored away some of the nuggets on leadership I learned from this giant in missions. But our interaction was short-lived. It was not for a much longer time later that I met him again.

In our last year as missionaries, we met the then, 84-year-old missionary statesman at a conference. He quickly became one of my heroes. As one of the pillars of Foursquare Missions, he blazed a path that still has fruit throughout Asia. Oh, and in his mid-60s, he spoke at my little camp, the night I awoke to my calling.

Tell me this. What was your calling like?

Stay Off The Grass

This post will take me back to my new series on things that make you go hmmm. And this one not only makes me go hmmm, but also makes me shake my head.

We must be living in a society that has solved all the big issues. We no longer need to worry about poverty, racism, fatherless children, war, terrorism, the threat of a nuclear winter, famine, drought, the outbreak of an incurable disease, or an alien invasion.

Why?

We are able to use our free time to make and enforce laws that keep dogs off the grass of public areas in our suburban cities.

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Yes, the grass. No, I am not talking about keeping the droppings picked up. I am literally saying, they cannot step on the grass with their doggy feet. Not even one foot.

We love to take our dogs for walks around the neighborhood and even down to the beach. Our daughter, Ellie, loves getting out as much as we do, and she even loves walking the little dog, a black & white Bichon-shih tzu hybrid mix. Sometimes this little dog walks our daughter. She is trying, but the dog has a lot of heart and energy.

This really becomes a problem when we get to the little grassy patch between the street and the parking lot in front of North Beach by our house. This patch includes a trash can and a picnic table, oh and a small stretch of grass. I want to say decoration rather than grass with the zeal in which it is protected from getting denigrated.

When we walk the sidewalk that touches this grass, we have to be sure that Ellie keeps her dog from touching the grass which prompts her to ask the famous three-year-old question, why?

We try to remind her that we could get in trouble, big trouble.

This all goes back to one day. One day as we were walking along this path, and the dog stepped “over the line”, we were warned. Yes, warned against allowing our dog on the grass. I was shocked. I wondered if there was a practical joke going on. I wondered if video cameras would come out to say I was punked.

This is how it went down. At that exact moment, the pet patrol was driving by. I am not sure the actual title of this nice, middle-aged man. He was so gracious, almost as though he really did not want to enforce this ridiculous city ordinance. He told us we would have to pay $150 if our dog even steps foot on the grass. That is right. It is not a matter of defecating on the grass that would get us in trouble. Nope. Just the threat of making a mess will get us in trouble. And, no I am not talking about some cranky miser living next door who wants us off his grass.

This is public grass. Did I say grass. This is not a marble floor in the foyer of a mansion. This is not a plush carpet in the living room. This is not some posh neighborhood. NO, this is grass next to a picnic bench and public receptacle for trash. And if a little dog even steps on the grass, we could receive a ticket, a pretty hefty ticket.

Just say this out loud. We do not want dogs walking on the grass. Say that again. How does that sound coming out of your mouth? It almost feels inhumane. But let’s protect this grass, this precious grass from doggy paws.

This makes me want to bring a character from late night TV down here to my neighborhood to protest with me. I am reminded of the Conan O’Brien sketch of the insulting dog who would take things and insult them by saying this is good…good enough for me to poop on. But in fact, this grass is exactly that to a dog.

 

Maybe that is why dogs are prohibited from the soft place for their furry paws. Why not insure their doo-doo gets picked up? Nope, lets draw the line bright and distant from anything resembling sanity. Now, the strong arm of the neighborhood posh patrol has extended once again into silliness. Well, it is what it is, so we insure that our daughter and little dog stay clearly on the sidewalk and not the grass.

I am just curious, what person is so worried that a dog’s feces could be the undoing of society that they pass a policy that needs to be enforced. Are we really without a backbone to stop such invasions of our freedom?

I am not saying that I want dog doo all over my neighborhood. Is it not good enough to enforce people picking up after their dog? Now, we must enlist more draconian laws to keep dogs off of public grass.

What is next? No smoking in public?

But seriously, Could we do something about the foul language that gets spoken in public? Now, that filth gets into my daughter’s ears when she walks in the parks with me. That is hard to  clean out once it has gone into her ears.

For real, what is next?

No dogs in public?

What did these nice dogs do to mess with these people? Dogs are man’s best friend. Dogs are so kind, and in tons of YouTube videos just being cute as can be. Can we please have some sanity, and let our dogs walk on the grass once again.

What are some of the crazy ways that your neighborhoods have exercised their authority?

Questions And Answers And More Questions

I can’t get into too many details, but I had one of the most rad experiences of my life recently.

handofgod1I got to be a consultant for a new TV show coming out next year on Amazon Prime, “Hand Of God”. This show stars the incredible Ron Pearlman as a morally corrupt judge who goes through a mental breakdown after his sons (PJ) suicide attempt. We find PJ on life support.

The twist: The judge, (Pernell) found God in the midst of losing his mind, and now he feels compelled by visions of God to seek out the mystery killer of his son. The show includes a shady pastor (Julian Morris) and others who have questionable motives. This show delves into the deep waters of faith, morality, ethics, hearing God’s voice, and much more. With the judge as the main character, they will look at how we like to find ways around the rules.

I am stoked for my cousin, Ben Watkins, writer and creator of the show. Formerly, he wrote and produced the fast-paced drama, Burn Notice. About a year ago, I was at dinner with my cousin and asked what was next for him as Burn Notice wrapped up. He was excited to share some of the projects on the horizon, but unsure about saying something about all of them. The controversy of Hand of God caused him to feel the nerves of telling his cousin, the pastor/missionary about this one, which was his brainchild. But he went for it, unpacking the plot and drama of the show.  Immediately, his pitch grabbed my attention. I loved the fact that this show would deal with issues, ask questions that don’t often get asked in pop-culture. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up with anticipation and hope that this show might get off the ground. You never know.

As my insides spilled with excitement for his idea, I said something to Ben that stuck with him as he went to work on the show and pitching it to the studios. What I loved about this idea is that it asks questions when most shows that deal with religion give answers, simplistic answers, this concept begs us to think and ask questions. This story will give compelling drama, while drawing us into the narrative and cause us to ask questions we don’t often feel comfortable asking. This show will walk a razor thin line of entertaining and disturbing us.

Oh, and I am a big fan of Ron Pearlman.

As Ben told me about his show, and we talked about the God issue in the show, he suggested I might be able to help down the line as things unfold. And things did unfold, slowly as they do in LA. The show got pitched, green-lighted for a pilot, and eventually picked up by the studio.

Fast forward a little more than a year. Now, they are working on writing nine episodes for the first season. This is where I received an invitation to help them in the creative process. The writer’s had questions about Theology, ethics, and the practical nature of building a church. Ben asked me to come talk with the writers about upcoming storylines, those lines that dealt with the issues of God, the Bible and the young preacher.

I had the privilege of dialoguing with some bright, energetic and super creative folks developing a story. I got to see behind the curtain of how something gets brought to life from that place in the ether, the void of our mind’s eye to the TV. I was like a kid in a candy store wanting to ask so many questions. But I was there to give answers.

My job: Talk to the writer’s room about this show. I felt like this was “ask the blind pastor” on steroids. I had no idea what I was getting into or who I was going to talk too much like when I first started this thing that spawned the name of this blog on a community college campus. Apparently, I have not told that story here. Note to self: Write a story or two about the origins of this blog title.

I came to find a few minutes before going into the writer’s room that of the seven writers including my cousin, only Ben was a Christian. The others were primarily Jewish in background with one being a former Christian and now a Buddhist. This gave for a beautiful pallet of diverse views when it comes to the God topic.

Since,  I did not know them, and they did not know me, we needed a common place to begin. And with the backdrop of this show dealing with religion, why not start there. I decided to get these guys and gals looking at the Bible with questions about what the Bible says about violence, marriage, divorce and more. I hoped for more, but the first two questions sparked plenty of conversation points including curiosity, the provocative, and the sublime. I loved one guy who said he had read the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible , but it had been a long time. He is reading the Bible again for the show. He quipped, don’t tell me how it ends. And that made me smile.

At one point he brought up a section he had been reading in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s daughter Dinah was defiled. In response, her brothers, the patriarchs of Israel tricked the people of the city into all getting circumcised. While recovering in pain, the brothers of Dinah took out the people. This writer asked about violence. What do we do with a story like that? On the one hand, it is brutal, devious, conniving, and so wrong.  But those people did rape Dinah, the sister of Jacob’s 12 sons, so they got what they deserved, he thought. We were talking about the Bible, the ethic of God, and really digging in. It was fantastic as we dove into our session of sticky topics that often get treated as black and white while we live in a grey world.

As things progressed, we moved from the open dialogue which helped me get a sense of their background to talking about the storylines. We had great questions and interchange of discussion. The 90-minutes flew by in the blink of an eye. It felt like we ended as soon as we started. So much ground had been covered, and yet so many more questions were hanging out there waiting to be handled. Would there be more time, another opportunity?

Questions led to answers which led to more questions. I love the mystery and the open space the Bible gives us. I also loved the opportunity to share God’s heart behind the designs he has on us, the grace he has and love for all peoples. In every way, I took the opportunity to paint God as one who loves the world and wants us to know him deeply.

But the end was only the beginning as we sat down and talked more over lunch. Here, I really got to answer questions about my faith. Whatever went on in the writer’s room must have opened their hearts to more questions. I sat with one of the writers and a writer’s assistant at lunch as they dialogued openly and vigorously for another hour plus. I loved when  this writer said to me that he had never met a pastor before. What a privilege for me to be the first pastor this witty, smart writer could meet.

As we sat talking over lunch, one of this writer’s first questions to me was do many people in my field have a similar interest in the arts like I do. Sadly, I thought, no. In between taking bites, I told him that most in my field either uncritically consume the arts of movies and television or condemn it as filthy or unfruitful. Pastors often talk about the stuff of TV as unedifying and ask their people to stick with things that build them up. In fact, until the last 10-15 years, the arena of the arts was often completely overlooked by the evangelical church. We did not dialogue over the stories of the movies, the meanings, the messages, the questions raised in this medium. We did not talk about ways in which we could engage the culture around us through conversations about film and TV. We did not talk about the shows that brought us flawed characters like House, Batman in the latest installment of Christopher Nolen’s version, Clint Eastwood’s cranky character in “Grand Torino”, and many more. We have not often found ways to use the arts as a platform to talk about faith.

In fact, as I grew up in the church, I often felt an aversion to the arts, to the discussions of metaphor and symbolism. I felt uncomfortable in the ambiguity of questions and possibilities. However, over time, I have enjoyed getting into conversations about story. I have enjoyed how story can capture our imagination and open space for discussions about so many more things. I felt thrilled that I could now be on the inside talking about story and how story can shape how we see the world. I had the chance to help shape a small part of this series and the story undergirding what will come of this show. I sure enjoyed the time I had with these writer’s and wish them the best with their new venture. I look forward to more opportunities to contribute as more scripts are being written.

I would love to come back here and there to this experience as a fertile ground to dialogue further about their questions–What is a pastor? Why do we try to get around the rules, what does the Bible say about slavery, violence and so much more.

What are your thoughts about the arts and faith?

Short Term Teams

Mission-TripsRecently, I was talking to a missionary friend who echoed my sentiment with a little more force.

He said, I don’t really like 90% of what teams do. Now, missions is awesome. I love missions, and I teach missions, and I am leading a team to Russia in the summer of 2015.

So why would I say, I don’t like a lot of what teams do. Why, indeed?

Let me preface by saying, I still see a valuable place for teams, just (and that should be read with a long drawn out pause), just as not as much place as they have been given.

Some say, Mission trips help us a lot more than they help the people we are going to help. Granted. And that is okay. That doesn’t say it helps the local people not at all. And why would we expect anything else. Why would we think we could go through with a mission, even a short mission and think we won’t be changed as we serve God. To think we will stay the same and loads of other people will be dynamically changed makes us more the savior and Jesus more the instrument of our saving work.

Of course we will be changed. Why not?

We are saving our pennies, nickels and dimes and praying for months. We are getting on a plane and leaving the mundane for the otherworld. We are stepping out of our comfort zone into a spiritual warzone. If we are not changed, and maybe changed for a lifetime, I don’t know what else could change us.

Note: To the jaded person who doesn’t get changed through this, or forgot how impacted you were, peel back some of the layers covering over your heart to let the light shine in a little.

But we should be doing some good for the people we are coming to serve. Here are some questions that help us assess the good of a short trip.

  • Are they feeling served?
  • Is there more prework by the local ministry than worth the good in the trip?
  • Is there more follow-up/cleanup after the trip that distracts from the daily and weekly rhythms of the local ministry?
  • Do we make the local ministry look boring when we are gone?
  • Are there strong relationships with the people we connect with and the local ministry that can lead to fruitful ongoing relationships?

There are more questions, but the ability to do some good, some invaluable good is possible. It just takes balance and thoughtfulness beyond what we are thinking about from our vantage point as the team.

Now, I often hear people over react and say that we are going too little for the purpose of the trip. To this, I say, slow down. Hold up a moment. Maybe we get our expectations out of whack a little too easy as Americans who feel we can change the world by simply showing up. We did in WWI and WWII, we did in a lot of things. We landed on the moon for crying out loud. But we are only human, and only so much can happen in a two-week trip in which we don’t know the language, our cultural understanding is limited at best, and our relational equity is minimal.

I guess, I will lean on a life axiom: Happiness is when reality and expectations meet.

All we can really aim to do is plant a few seeds. Isn’t that what Paul said his ministry was. And that turned out pretty powerful. Oh, but that is because he worked in partnership with the local people and other missionaries like Apollo’s. And he knew that God did the real work. If we think we are the ones who do it, then we are sadly mistaken.

There can be a value to short term teams. Teams can help supplement what is already happening. Teams can add encouragement. Teams can be a short in the arm at the right time. Teams can illustrate what serving means as Americans come to serve on the other end of the world where hierarchy matters, and the rich Americans are getting down and dirty. Teams can play a role in mission as long as it is the right role. Short term teams have their place, but we must know what that place is–partnership.

Partnership tends to be an easier word said than done. As mission trips have grown in popularity and possibility the world grows smaller, and the mission to reach the world seems closer.

The past 20 years or so has seen an emergence, no a revolution in how we pursue mission and being involved with mission. IT is as though with the advent of technology, we think we can do anything and everything including save the world with a short term trip somewhere. Many times we end up leaving a wake of disaster as the local leaders have to clean up the mess and apologize for the arrogant, self-absorbed Americans who came on a Jesus vacation and not an opportunity to serve and learn. Why spend the big money if we are not going to do the hard pre-work to make partnerships that last.

I don’t know why, but way too many teams just go. Sometimes, they do not even call ahead. They just show up. Other times, they think they are working in partnership when really they have worked out a plan that works for them. A lot more strategy, planning and talking was done when a lot more listening and praying needed to be done.

An African saying says working with teams from the West, mostly American, is like dancing with an elephant. Everything gets stomped in the process. We are big, we are bold, and sometimes we don’t even realize what we are doing.

However, many teams do a good thing. Many teams do the hard work of listening, investigating and matching skill, talent, calling and local need of the host people. They do this through relationship which leads to partnership. This can happen and happen well. This is what should happen. But way too often in this revolution of Short term teams, we feel like doing a trip is doing missions. A trip is such a small slice of missions.

The big deal is the follow up. This is why it is important to find people who know how to do this part of ministry and partner with them.

This is why I am excited for the trip to Russia we are doing. We get to partner with some super cool people who love Jesus and know how to disciple. We get to impact young people, and see lives changed for a life time. We get to make long-term impact even if it is only a glimpse of what we see from our limited time and effort. We can have confidence that we are simply one piece in a larger puzzle of Great Commission ministry. We can see our work as simply one of the threads in the gospel tapestry God is putting together. We can be a paragraph in the incredible story God is writing. We just need to find where and how we fit in as we come alongside local ministry in true partnership.

If more teams could put in the pre-work, the ground work, and build long-lasting relationships, we could see the revolution of short term m
ission trips turn this world upside down. Yet how do we get there?

Maybe you can help answer that in the comments.

Exploiting The Pain

divided1-300x225After reflecting on the Ferguson story that once again has arrested the attention of our nation, or at least the 24-hour news cycle this week, I have some thoughts, some deeply felt thoughts.

On Tuesday, I was riding home from the class I teach at Life Pacific College. On my ride, I like catching up on the news of the day, at least the news that KNX, the am radio wing of CBS which broadcasts pretty straight down the middle news has to say. What would the news be on this day? Well, a lot of coverage of the Ferguson story, or the boiling protests and bubbling anger within the black community.

What made me more than a little frustrated was not a sense of reporting, but a sense of exploiting I picked up from the news. And this is not the sensationalistic, splashy, frenzied Fox News or MSNBC. No, this is the straight-laced, professional, broadcast news. They had multiple reporters on the scene covering the several hundred protesters marching around South Los Angeles through much of the city. On Monday, these protesters marched for three hours.  On Tuesday, they were prepared for the same thing.

But our attention spans are so limited, we don’t have time to have our news actually listen to both sides and have a conversation. We don’t have time to listen to the concerns of what people are feeling. We get sound bites. We get the most loud, bombastic, and impassioned people to talk for a moment. We don’t get the news asking the black families what has them so scared, angry and disenfranchised. Why is this case in Ferguson creating a spark that spreads from Time Square to Martin Luther King Jr. boulevard in LA? Why is a nationwide movement taking place. Nope, we don’t have time to ask those questions or to connect the dots. But we do have time to be on the scene in case things go south. We’ll be there for the big story, the ratings, the gossip.

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We get the news in there to play their part in drawing out the extremes on both ends. The extreme finger pointing on both ends. The most divisive on both ends. We have the news ready to report when the story gets juicy enough, but not there to give us the back story, to share the depth of pain that people feel over this story which is just one more in a long line of injustice, or at least perceived injustice. And perception is reality.

But we have the news on the scene.

These reporters kept talking about how polite the protesters were, how civil. It was almost disappointing to the reporters as if they were hoping for a better story, more drama, something that would bring ratings.

This quickly made me relate in my mind the awful nature of our news which is more about ratings—if it bleeds, it leads. We are an exploitive society. And that saddens me. It was like we had cameras and microphones as close to these hurting people simply waiting for a match to be lit and a firestorm to start. I thought of the humanitarian organizations that take pictures of children in slum communities to raise money for the organization. The poor children get splashed across the internet, social media, and into fund-raising newsletters in order to bring in more money.

To me this smells of one word. Exploit.

And all we are doing is perpetuating a problem. The black community feels not only hopeless and stuck, but without a voice into the process. They are not simply poor, but have little power to affect change. They feel like they are getting the short end of the stick once again. They have so much pain and frustration, and yet all we can do as journalists is to escalate a difficult situation into a worse story. We as the American media racing to keep up with so many channels and an oversaturated sense of content and information to tell a bigger and more dramatic story. Yet, the powerless and hurting people in the inner-city continue to be disenfranchised and have the faces played across our television sets.

At the same time, those that have not walked in their shoes shake their heads with disbelief. They ask, what is the big deal? Why are there so many angry black people?

I was talking to one of my friends, who pastors a church in the inner city. He said, he just doesn’t understand why people don’t get what they don’t get.

This makes me sad. We have a segment of our society that doesn’t get it and another that is simply hurting and wishing they could make it clear. Now, we end up having a lot of seething, white hot anger over this situation. We can get camera’s onto the most outspoken on either side to show how divided, how far apart we are from solutions. It simply saddens me.

We have a tragic story, a story that should not have happened. And now what is lost in the middle is the actual truth. No one will accept a real story. Now, we have perceptions, misperceptions, and lots of emotion. Rather than truly being heartbroken as a nation over a tragic story, a loss of life, a precious life no matter what is said. We as Christians should know that more than anyone. Every life matters to God, and his redemptive nature is always working to make something beautiful out of our story.

But rather than a nation moved to tears, we are moved to anger.

If you have a friend who comes from the black community, simply listen to their story. Ask them what they hear from all this noise. Ask them what they see. Listen. Cry with them.

I know I am, and my heart breaks for a community that has been looked at with prejudice for far too long. I pray that we do not simply keep an endless cycle of sensational stories that remind us of the divide. I pray that the next time something tragic happens, we can find healing in the waters of misunderstandings. I pray that we can be proactive and go across racial and socio-economic lines to befriend one another. I pray that rather than extending the divide with story after story, we can find ways to reconcile.

For me, I will start by listening more? I want to know what they see, what they feel, what hurts them? I want to feel their pain more. I want to empathize. I want to see the humanity in their story, their life.

I feel hopeless at times, but I know there is hope. I know we can do better.

What are some of your thoughts from this overly public story?