Sunday, November 30, 2008


Not a particularly aupicious or notable age, 53, but I have a feeling I'm going to look back one day and see that my 53rd year was, in fact, an important one in the story of my life. Back when I was 52 (!), I set some things in motion in my life that, going forward, describe a very different arc than the one I have been on for quite awhile. I am told this is a good thing. Whether or not it is good is immaterial at this point. It simply "is".

Having a December b'day is interesting because the calendar is always about to flip to the next year. Minus about 30 days, it gives me the chance to say "well that year was more or less all about...". So here's my list for the past eight years since the new millenium arrived:

2000 - I finish Grad School, Robin's accident, planted the Crown Valley Vineyard. Work at Marriage and Family Matters (the first time)

2001 - Kind of a blur. Full of Robin's recovery. Surgeries. Moved to our present home on Alondra. Church plant continues.

2002 - First of the new wave of college grads (Chris), JeanneAnn begins kindergarten

2003 - Chris and Colleen marry, Vineyard leases building in Rancho Santa Margarita, ministry trip to New Zealand, Robin graduates with BSN

2004 - I go to China with Ray Sharpe and get my world rocked. Robin returns to nursing work.

2005 - I turn 50 (big wup). Andrew graduates Biola and begins grad school at Talbot

2006 - Our 30th wedding anniversary!

2007 - Matthew completes Middle School. Book accepted for publication, rewrite begins (still waiting -- hopefully next April), Robin begins grad school. Colleen (Chris's wife) graduates APU with Masters

2008 - Closed CVV, launch VCMN, return to pastoral counseling, Chris graduates from Pepperdine with MFT degree, Andrew about to graduate Talbot with Masters in N.T. -- gets engaged to Britt!

2009 - Anybody's guess...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shut Up and Give Thanks

More than one person has observed that we have become a nation of whiners. But let's not forget that America is also the only large nation on earth that sets aside an entire day for the giving of thanks.

It is a fitting move for a people who value "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Dennis Prager reminds us that there is no possibility for true happiness without gratitude. That's why the entitled are never happy, he says. If they are blessed, they are only getting what they suppose they deserve. But the man, woman or child who understands that anything good they have in life is a blessing instead of what is owed them has the opportunity to feel that blessing deep within and to lift up their head and say "thank you" -- to God, to loved ones, to anyone who has so endowed them.

I have been working on a new little spiritual exercise lately -- to stop and take a moment in my day to give thanks for everything I see around me. Right now it would be: "Thank You, Lord, for a beautiful place to spend Thanksgiving, for Robin in the other room alive, well and thriving, for my teenaged son, Matthew who is almost as tall as me, bright, kind and mature. Thank you for JeanneAnn and her incredible engagement with life -- she wants to do EVERYTHING and she keeps me moving. Thanks for the food I can see from my chair -- pies, bananas, blessings abundant and for the excitement I feel knowing that Andrew and Britt and Chris and Colleen and Charlie and Annabel and others are going to fill up the next couple days with life and love.
Thank You for the incredible sight of sun glancing off ocean water while darker clouds cast their shadows. Thank You for the opportunity to communicate these thoughts, these sights, these feelings. Thank You for it all".

Happy Thanksgiving! Is there any other kind?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What the Church Can Learn From General Motors

The irony of the recent magazine cover celebrating GM's One Hundred Years of Greatness was not lost on this subscriber to Classic Cars Magazine. A more accurate title for the article might be:

One Hundred Years of Occasional Greatness Punctuated by Several Periods of Not Getting it Right in a Big Way which has Now Brought This Benchmark Auto Maker to its Knees Before Washington to Beg For its Very Survival. Or, something like that.

For a Baby Boomer who hit town the same year as GM launched the enduring automotive icons that are the '55 - '57 Chevys, it's mind boggling to witness this industry giant on life support. Sure, they folded up Oldsmobile's tent a few years ago, but what of it? Every corporation goes through changes, sometimes big changes, in the course of keeping ever-responsive to the demands of the market. But if the old saying is true that "as goes GM so goes the nation", then the nation is in trouble (which, by the way, it manifestly is). But what does this have to do with the Church in the West? Read on...

Christendom is like GM, only with far more than 100 years of greatness to its credit. In Europe, it grew so powerful that generations of Europeans could not imagine a lives -- or even the very State itself -- apart from it. Now, like GM, Christendom is wheezing -- barely alive. Its cathedrals, monasteries and other remnants of influence are scattered about the countryside like old Oldsmobiles and the State Churches are ornamental references to a time that will never come again.

In America, the Church looks alive and well to the casual observer. One can turn on their TV, their radio or their computer and see what appears to be evidence of a thriving spiritual community with money, influence and a bright future. Drive down the street in your Chevy and you can see church after church standing on corners with invitations to "come grow with us"! But this is as deceptive as the rows and rows of gleaming new GM products lined up on a local car lot. The fact is that the traditional church in America is, by and large, about as relevant to emerging generations of Americans as the latest Buick. Like The General, The Church got suckered into thinking that it didn't have to do anything differently in order to command respect and buy-in. Like The General, the time has come for The Church to learn a lesson... fast.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is committed to The Church in a far different way than He may be committed to GM. That means there is hope. But if the plan of the Church is business as usual until the next Great Awakening hits, the road ahead will be more than rocky, it will be like trying to negotiate the Pike's Peak classic on a riding lawnmower. "I know your deeds," Jesus said to the church at Sardis, "you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Revelation 3: 1, 2). Those are words that could be applied to General Motors, but they were written to a Church in trouble. We who love The Bride cannot afford to ignore them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Best Movie in a Long, Long Time

It's called "Young @ Heart" and is a documentary about a real life chorus made up of senior citizens who perform the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, James Brown and a host of others in their own inimitable way. Watched it last night during our traditional Tuesday "Movie Night at the Faris House" and I won't soon forget it. When I wasn't laughing out loud, slapping my knee (or the couch) in joyous disbelief, I was pointing my finger at the screen and shouting "amazing!!!" I confess that I also found myself repeatedly brushing back tears and shaking my head in silent wonder.

The director of the chorus, Bob Cilman, stumbled into this gig in the 1980's quite by accident while helping to serve seniors meals in Northhampton, Massachusets. Since then, "Young @ Heart" (the name of the chorus) not only performs locally, but has actually gone on tour to places as diverse as jails, various locations in Europe and even Hollywood. Since the average age of the singers is 80, the going can be tough. Imagine trying to memorize all the words to Life During Wartime or Schizophrenia as an 80-something and you can see why. But Young @ Heart can not only dazzle you with their rendition of I Feel Good, they can also move you to tears with their version of Dylan's Forever Young or Coldplay's Fix You. Stunning.

Not only is this film uplifting and powerfully heartwarming, it is, to me, a sign of The Kingdom. These are, above anything else, real (average, normal) people -- some of them more truly talented than others -- but all with something to share if we will just pay attention. Cilman's devotion to these seniors is clear, but he does not baby them. He asks alot and gets alot. And we are the benefactors of their hard work.

The glory of God in the everyday, the plain, and "the least of these" comes shining through this remarkable movie experience. Do I recommend you drop everything and watch it tonight? No kidding!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It Takes Courage

I shouldn't like the film The Perfect Storm as much as I do. On a lot of levels, it doesn't give us much to like. The characters are not entirely loveable or admirable, their values and reasoning are questionable, and the ending is, well, all wet. Still, the picture I have in my mind of the Andrea Gail climbing the face of sixty foot waves at full throttle grabs at something deep in my soul. Perhaps it is because it just might be the perfect image of the virtue of courage.

As a stand alone virtue, courage does not get as much attention in the Bible as do faith and love. But there are, of course, places where the need for courage is powerfully underscored. One of these is at the opening of the Old Testament book of Joshua. Here, Joshua, the young leader of the Hebrews and successor to Moses, is standing on the banks of the Jordan preparing to take the land of promise at last. God counsels him to "be strong and courageous, because you will lead this people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous..." (Joshua 1: 6, 7).

In a sort of New Testament parallel verse, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love" (I Corinthians 16: 13, 14).

Faith may see the vision. Reason may discern the obstacles. Hope may rally the resources. Love may inspire the devotion. But is is courage that shoves the throttle forward in the face of whatever and ruthlessly drives us into the possibilities for better or for worse.

I am reminded by my son's recent engagement that it takes courage to get married. I am reminded by my wife's recovery from her devastating accident that it takes courage to roar back from the brink and pull down a bigger piece of life. I am reminded by my own new call as a Christian leader that it takes courage to defy convention and break new ground. It seems that courage is required if one is to step out and experience anything truly worthwhile.

"Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it" (Ezra 10: 4).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Falling in Love With the Gospel (Again)

My experience at the Organic Church Greenhouse training in Long Beach this weekend had an unexpected (and welcome) side effect -- I found myself falling in love with the gospel again.

This renewed love affair with God's Good News has been sparking up ever since I turned my attention towards establishing the Vineyard Community Mission Network. But things definitely went to a new level this past weekend as I met and heard from several people who clearly and demonstrably love the gospel and believe in its power to change lives.

As a local church pastor, I had been consumed for so long with pastoral care and church life (no regrets, mind you, but true) that a singular passion for taking the gospel to folks who need to meet Jesus on their own turf had taken a back seat in my life. But, that is beginning to change thanks to the new commitment to God's mission that is at the heart of VCMN.

The people who inspired me this weekend ranged in age from a girl 11 years old to several people in their early 30's. One young man had formerly served in full-time pastoral ministry until he made the choice a few years ago to reshape his lifestyle in order to be available to a new call. This led to him take a job in construction and to delve into the underground music scene in San Diego. Before long, he and his wife were opening their lives and their time to the new relationships they were making with people who were not believers -- sharing meals, sharing interests and -- eventually -- sharing Jesus.

One of the folks they befriended was Leonard; a young man whose knuckles were tatooed with letters spelling the words "p-u-r-e e-v-i-l". Leonard also sported tatoos of two naked women on his forearms. A sign that things were changing for Leonard was when he spontaneously began to use a Sharpee pen to paint a sort of bikini covering over the delicate parts of his naked women tatoos in deference to his new friends. Leonard eventually gave his life to Jesus and began sharing Christ with others he knew. This became the basis of a new "church" made up of new disciples who were discovering life in Christ for the first time.

The young man telling us this story was neither boastful nor sensational. Indeed, his presentation was refreshingly matter-of-fact. But there was no missing the deep love for the life-changing power of the gospel in what he shared. He was "the real deal".

The things I experienced at this training quietly affirmed that my own decisions to reshape my life and ministry hold promise if I maintain the courage to follow through. I found myself inspired to not only open my own life and time up to people who need to meet Jesus, but also to influence the people I lead to do the same -- in ways, of course, that are meaningful to them.

One of the central messages I heard this weekend continues to resound within me: our focus should be on generously sowing God's gospel seed in good soil rather than on "trying" to make plants grow. The latter, we were reminded, is something only God can do.

Friday, November 7, 2008

My BIG FAT GREEK House Church

Real life has a way of interrupting our fantasies -- even our Christian fantasies (like the one that conceives all my Christian "brothers and sisters" as a perpetually mature, harmonious happy family). Few environments jump us back into reality more quickly (and sometimes jarringly) than a house church environment.

Sure, in a larger church "family" you can skillfully maneuver your way through the crowd to be with your favorite people before and after the carefully-tailored worship service with the best possible music, first rate preaching and multi-media bedazzlement of the week. But in the house church environment of a dozen or so people, you see quite a lot more of what there is to see about each other -- which can make for some very interesting interactions, indeed.

So that's the agony and ecstacy of real Christian "fellowship" -- not the chit-chat of coffee and donuts in the "fellowship hall" at 11:30 a.m., but the blood, sweat and tears of real human interaction with people who can make your heart sing one minute and sink the next. House church reminds us that, as in the case of our family of origin, we do not necessarily choose our companions for the journey. They are given to us, for better or for worse, by forces beyond our control.

These people are "family" in the most meaningful sense of the word. They stretch our generosity, they delight our hearts, they try our patience, they hold our hand and ask us to hold theirs. They provide us with our best stories and, sometimes, our worst headaches. Living the faith up close and personal with them teaches us irreplaceable lessons about ourselves, about God, about community and about growth and change. There are those of us who won't settle for anything less.

As the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding winds to a close, the narrator and chief character of the movie (Toula) sums up her clan by observing:

"My family is big and loud but they're my family. We fight and we laugh and, yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And wherever I go and whatever I do, they will always be there". And all the house church folks said, "amen".

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Faith is Not How You Feel

"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted". (Matthew 28: 16, 17)

I'm a feelings guy. Always have been. My feelings figure strongly into how I see my world. That's why, as a Christian, I have had to pay attention to the way my feelings color my spirituality. Do I "feel" as if God is near? Do I "feel like" I am in His will, doing the right things at the right time? You get the idea.

One of the things that comes up for me specifically in this regard concerns feelings and faith. I notice that as I am moving forward by faith, my feelings can swing wildly between Herculian invicibility and pitiful, whimpering doubt. If my feelings were an accurate and actual guage of my faith, then my faith would be subject to many rises and falls. But the record shows that, in the end, my faith has been a pretty stable and growing thing -- despite whatever doubts I may feel at a particular time. That's because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is. Even the most faithful (see the passage above) have their doubts -- even while worshipping the Living Christ as He stands in front of them!

In the end, faith is a matter of what we decide to believe in and the actions and behaviors that follow our choice to believe. Don't get me wrong: I love feelings of inspiration as much as anyone (and probably more than many!). But if I only "have faith" when I feel inspired, my faith will ultimately prove flaky.

Maybe that is why the monthly publication of the Billy Graham evangelistic organization was entitled DECISION and not HAPPY HARMONIOUS BLISS.