Tuesday, September 15, 2009

JOYA Scholars Kick-Off Event!

After a group of dreamers and educators met over the past nine months to create a program to inspire and prepare students from the Garnet Neighborhood to succeed in college, JOYA Scholars finally got underway on Monday!

There was a full house at the Garnet Community Center! Over 70 students and parents, Joya mentors, and advisory team members came together for the first time over dinner to learn more about the program.

Joya friends Luis Orona and Janette Castillo gave inspiring speeches of overcoming meager beginnings from the projects in Mexico and South Central LA, respectively. Students were encouraged to aim high and dream big; parents were exhorted to commit to their child's education, to supporting their child going to college.

Program Director Bianca Pena shared the mission of Joya to the students; Mentor Sandra Franco translated our hopes to the parents. Through it all, the message was singular: Each student was sitting there, specially invited, because we believed in them. We believe in their talents and dreams, their smarts and hard work. We believe they can succeed in life beyond what they can imagine. We believe they can change the world. Change their world. And if they wanted, we were there to help them.

Thanks to our most amazing team and the many generous and supportive friends of JOYA who gave of their time, talents, and money to make the evening such a success!

More updates to come as the program begins later this month with student and parent workshops, college tours, and mentoring.

Join us in changing the life of a student and and his or her family by donating or being a mentor. Visit us here.

Here's to breaking the cycle of poverty one student at a time!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

It's Been Some Kind of Year!

I've had me a tremendous last 12 months: We had to redo our hardwood floors 3x, all because an inadvertent nail in a baseboard happened to pierce a bathroom pipe the first time, and the repairs the second time weren't done right. My truck got hit twice, once at an on-ramp signal going to house church and the other while parked at a Starbucks, coming out of an Oasis meeting. Today, our house got broken into.

I write this not to invite sympathy (I realize these are mostly sufferings of the privileged, compared to the great injustices that exist in the world, but they still have a way of leaving one bruised and feeling vulnerable). I mostly write this to help me remember when all this was going on, to help me process. And how, in the end, I have to admit there is much to be thankful for despite the crumminess of it all. I'd much prefer that all this crap not have happened, but I am grateful for tender mercies nevertheless. Our floors did get fixed and redone - better than ever. My truck looks like new (at least the rear end does), though it's an old '96. And though there is some damage to the house and some rattled nerves, unbelievably nothing was taken and we were not harmed.

Unlike conventional evangelical theology which might suggest at this point that God is causing these things to teach us a lesson, I choose to believe that bad things happen partly because of our choices or the choices of others, but also sometimes because we live in a fallen world where evil and the accidental are a reality. That is not to say I have nothing to learn. Or that God isn't trying to teach me something. But I am saying this is not his method. I am saying that God does not cause bad things to happen so that I can learn something good. This would make God a horribly sadistic deity and I'd have to find some other line of work, because I ain't believing this nonsense and certainly not teaching it to others. Like any good parent, we don't have to cause bad things to happen to our children in order to teach them something good. Instead, we know that they will inevitably get hurt in the course of this life, and sometimes good can come of it as redemptive act - as something learned. A grace. Sometimes.

I don't believe the popular platitude that, "All things happen for a reason." I don't believe it because it's not true. It's nowhere to be found in Scripture. The plain truth is that many crummy and downright inexplicable things happen for absolutely no good reason. Yes, no good reason. So we don't have to feel pressed to turn bad things into good ones because we are convinced there is something God is trying to teach us - if we could only dry the tears long enough to see them. Instead, we can mourn the bad as bad, period. We can call the horrible horrible, the tragic tragic.

What Scripture does seem to reveal, however, is that the God of Jesus Christ assumes a fallen world in which people sin and are sinned against, and where both the beautiful and the terrible happen. The power of God is not to stop all bad things from happening, but that no bad thing can stop God's loving presence in our lives in the midst of bad things. The power of God is not to stop death, but to resurrect the dead.

No matter whose fault all this mess belongs to - you, me, the other guy, or the devil - God takes responsibility for it. First he weeps with us in solidarity with our pain. Then he offers us redemption. Sometimes in the form of healing and glimpses of mercy in this life. Sometimes only in the hope of resurrection in the next. Through it all, I can only confess and cling to the hope that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ - even when the reality of my circumstances seem to betray this truth. "Neither life nor death, nothing above or below, nor anything else in all creation" we are told. Apparently not even a warped floor, a dented bumper, or a broken window in a span of 12 months.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


A few years ago, a friend and I attended the Craigslist Foundation's Non-Profit Bootcamp - a one day intensive of training, networking, and idea-exchanging around improving and strengthening our communities. I was already serving as a director on several boards, but since the launching of Joya Scholars this year, I've had a more acute awareness of what's at stake in the connection between fundraising and our organization's mission, values, and philosophy - and articulating that to current and potential donors and volunteers. Recently I revisited my notes to find some helpful principles based on a keynote address author Kay Sprinkel Grace gave on fundraising:


1. People give because you meet needs, not because you have needs.
It's social investment, not begging. People give to what they value. Philanthropy is how love is expressed > with action for public good.

2. A gift to you is a gift through you.
People are not giving to your organization, but to impacting lives in the community.

3. All statistics about your reach must be enriched with stories of impact.
We must ask, "How do we enroll investors in the promise of transformation?" This must be measurable. Funders want to give and identify with work of high moral purpose (impact). We must answer: "How would the community (and world) be different if you received all your resources?"

4. Fundraising is not about money, but relationships.
Have a bigger goal beyond your financial goal. Donors expect: 1.impact, 2. issues, 3.investment, 4. involvement, 5. innovation.

5. It's not about you.
It's about the community. Internal marketing is as important as external marketing in helping the organization think transformation not transaction.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fallen Comrades

I've had several discussions of late on the moral failings of religious and other public figures (politicians mostly, and many self-professed Christians and Promise Keepers at that), trying to understand why these things happen and the dynamics involved, both for the fallen leader and those who must deal with the aftermath. I just e-mailed a friend my thoughts on just one aspect of the problem, an excerpt of my response below:

"In my opinion, part of the problem with pastors as well as politicians, and really anyone in positions of power, is that the system helps to create the dynamics that lead to people falling. It's not just an individual with a moral indiscretion, but a whole system that produces secret behavior and a value for appearances. Such contexts make it difficult, and nearly emotionally impossible for the broken to feel they can be honest, already believing no one would understand, that everyone would reject them if they new the truth. And often times, unfortunately, they are right to believe so.

In evangelical circles, we are enamored with "accountability groups." But by and large accountability groups don't work. Many accountability groups assume perfection, then expect confession, followed by some pronouncement of forgiveness, with the exhortation to do better. I am not against accountability out right. But I have a different starting point: I don't assume perfection, but failure. Addicts and other strugglers are not helped by being told to do better, but by belonging to other sinners who extend grace and acceptance, and a commitment of love and relationship where screwing up is, well, pretty much normal. In the company of sinners, a sense of not being alone empowers everyone to be honest, deal with pain, and get better - without the fear of being rejected.

What pastors need are not accountability groups, but friends. What pastors can get wrong about leadership is seeing people as a means for some other end, usually the growth of the church, versus people being the end in of themselves. Love is always the means and the end, because people are the goal. Pastors can help create churches in which the goal is something other than deep relationships of grace, a grace which allows us to look inside with honesty and tell the truth about ourselves - and that this is NORMATIVE for the community, of which pastor is chief sinner. Church is really about connection, and often times the way church is done does not allow the pastor to have deep connection with friends who can hear the saddness, frustration, and failings of the pastor, while speaking into the pastor's life with wisdom, grace, and encouragement. The pastor is often the author and victim of the system he (and it's almost always he) creates. In Haggard's case, the church responded to him exactly the way he taught them to! With little grace for other sinners and even less for himself, the result was inevitable. To top it off, Haggard was in an accountability group but alas it did no good. Sadly, he had no real friends.

Suffice it to say, I don't want to be in a "successful" church where I am elevated simply because "I'm the man" or find myself emotionally isolated because the structure of the church points itself toward accomplishment rather than real relationship. I too am only human, a pastor who is one among equals. I want to lead in and through relationship and connection, starting with my own life of failure versus just getting things done so I/the church are seen as impressive. I need a different kind of church because I know the kind of person I am. I need a church for people like me. I need friends."

Thursday, September 3, 2009


It's been a blast teaching through the Book of Hosea on Sunday mornings after so much trepidation on my part, mostly knowing I felt called to preach on it but not knowing exactly why. What was the word for Epic? I hadn't a clue at the time. If you missed any of the messages, you can catch the series on our website.

From the feedback I've received along the way, the realization that 1) grace precedes sin and 2) that God is for us - even when our own experience living in a broken world betrays that reality - seems to have struck a chord with many. Too often in the evangelical world we are taught that the starting point of the gospel is "We are terrible sinners incapable of any good, deserving wrath and punishment." Our only conclusion, "O what a wretched wiener am I!" (worm theology it's been called), so "How could God possibly love me?"

Certainly we are sinners and incapable of faithfulness except by the grace of God. But the gospel doesn't start with "I'm a sinner." It begins with "I am chosen and loved." It starts with "God loves me and has prepared many good things for me to do and experience in this world." Sin is what messes things up, sin is what gets in the way of me relating with God and others so the good prepared for me can be realized. This is precisely the truth revealed in Hosea. It's God's way of making his love known. (Later in the NT, Jesus uses the Prodigal Son story to do the same thing.) The initiation starts from God's side (Hosea) to Gomer (that would be Israel/us), and what God initiates is love, what God gives is himself: "Go, marry..." is Hosea's instruction. God loves, cares, and believes in us. He wants relationship with us. He sees his people as his bride.

It is nearly unbearable to watch as Gomer goes wayward and Israel goes haywire in sin. But it serves to remind us that we all have a bit of Gomer is us, that every church, no matter how faithful, has its own Gomer story. But because we are first loved, that grace precedes repentance, we can rest assured that no matter how far gone we go, God never withholds relationship. It is precisely his love and kindness in the midst of sin that allows us to look honestly at our own unfaitfulness, knowing there is not a finger wagging back at us in shameful indignation, but a kind of hopefulness for us. With the God of Hosea, conviction of sin acts as a kind of mercy, a kind of gracious warning bell signaling that we have wandered needlessly away and are being called by name (wooed, for you romantics) to return to our first love.

That's why the book of Hosea is ultimately a story of redemption: "Go, show your love to your wife again..." A story less about Gomer and more about Hosea's bewildering commitment. More about God's unbelievable affection than about us getting anything right necessarily. That's why the first movement of the spiritual life is not to serve or worship or join a bible study, but to be found, to be loved. And learning to live out of that deep core of acceptance and affirmation is the only way to walk with God and offer a gift of love in return. A gift of grateful response and connection. The gift of us. Which is what God desires most of all.

To close our series, I plan to read from Frederick Buechner's beautifully earthy and moving reflection on "Gomer" from Peculiar Treasures, a piece which poignantly speaks to the depth of Hosea's love for Gomer, and God's love for us:

GOMER by Frederick Buechner
From Peculiar Treasures

She was always good company – a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosy about men and booze, a little loud, but great on a party and always good for a laugh. Then the prophet Hosea came along wearing a sandwich board that read “The End is at Hand” on one side and “Watch Out” on the other.

The first time he asked her to marry him, she thought he was kidding. The second time she knew he was serious but thought he was crazy. The third time she said yes. He wasn’t exactly a swinger, but he had a kind face, and he was generous, and he wasn’t all that crazier than everybody else. Besides, any fool could see he loved her.

Give or take a little, she even loved him back for a while, and they had three children whom Hosea named with queer names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would be scoring a prophetic bullseye in absentia. But everybody could see the marriage wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.

While Hosea was off hitting the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as may night spots as she could squeeze into a night, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental. It almost killed him, of course. Every time he raised a hand to her, he burst into tears. Every time she raised one to him, he was the one who ended up apologizing.

He tried locking her out of the house a few times when she wasn’t in by five in the morning, but he always opened the door when she finally showed up and helped get her to bed if she couldn’t see straight enough to get there herself. Then one day she didn’t show up at all.

He swore that this time he was through with her for keeps, but of course he wasn’t. When he finally found her, she was lying passed out in a highly specialized establishment located above an adult bookstore, and he had to pay the management plenty to let her out of her contract. She’d lost her front teeth and picked up some scars you had to see to believe, but Hosea had her back again and that seemed to be all that mattered.

He changed his sandwich board to read “God is love” on one side and “There’s no end to it” on the other, and when he stood on the street corner belting out

How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
For I am God and not man,
The Holy One in your midst (Hosea 11:8-9)

nobody can say how many converts he made, but one thing that’s for sure is that, including Gomer’s, there was seldom a dry eye in the house. (Hosea 1-3, 11)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New Music (Mostly)

After what seemed like a drought as long as the one we're experiencing in rain-challenged Southern California, there's finally a crop of new music worth listening to and artists worth seeing, which I'm hoping to do in the next several months. Here's some of them:

MAYER HAWTHORNE "Strange Arrangement"
A throw-back to my days growing up listening to 1580 KDAY and KJLH, part Motown, part Philly Sound with inflections of the Stylistics and Blue Magic. Heard him last month on KCRW and wondered first, "Is this KCRW?" and then, "What old school group is this?" Find out it's a White dude in Los Angeles via Michigan. Planning to see him next Thursday at the Roxy. Track recommendation: "Maybe So, Maybe No", "Strange Arrangement"

Another find from KCRW. Got a kick out the fact that the band actually tweeted me back after I gave them some props, couldn't believe it! A San Fransisco-based trio of very cool, groovy, electronica, with dreamy vocals. Hoping they make a stop in LA sometime. Track recommendation: "Complicated Two", "Electricity"

KATE EARL "Kate Earl"
Prized her debut album, and the follow up features her lovely voice couched in a more produced, poppy sound with the hope, I imagine, of reaching a broader audience. Got to see her twice at the Hotel Cafe a few years back and actually got to chat with her, a really sweet person. Happy to see her doing so well, Single of the Week and Top Ten on iTunes last week. Track recommendation: "Jump", "Melody"

FRIENDLY FIRES "Friendly Fires"
The record has been out for awhile now, but loved listening to this UK band during the summer (esp. "Paris"), and they're touring now. Can't help but listening and being transported to another place, usually some sweaty disco somewhere. Track recommendation: "Jump In the Pool", "Paris"

PHOENIX "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"
Another album in rotation for summer, especially after seeing them at the Wiltern in June. Rick and I had a blast! More synth-based, catchy pop from these Frenchmen. Track recommendation: "Lasso", "Listomania"

Also Zee Avi, Artic Monkeys, Metric

80 Million Unexploded Bombs

Today, I heard this heartbreaking if not infuriating feature on NPR/PRI about the decades-long condition in Laos which continues as a result of steep poverty in that country and the blind eye of other nations, including apparently, the U.S. It's almost hard to believe this goes on.

Here is the trailer to the story:
"When you have no money and no opportunity to make any, you’ll do just about anything to survive. That can include risking your life for a few dollars a day. This is what many kids and adults do in the southeast Asian country of Laos. They trek into the forest to look for scrap metal they can sell for cash. The danger is that that scrap metal consists largely of bombs left over from the Vietnam War."

Listen to the Full Story here.
More Info: MAG (Mines Advisory Group)