Sunday, November 30, 2008


The following is from a sermon I presented this morning in all three worship services:

I heard myself say it. It was the last day of our mission’s trip to Costa Rica this last summer. I asked each of our team members to write down, in their journals, at least 1-3 action points they were going to take home with them after such a powerful experience. After leading trips like this over the past 20 years it would be easy for me to give other people this assignment being comfortable with the stack of action points I had collected from many trips past. I heard myself say it, gave team members the appropriate amount of time and then I started thinking about all the details to our trip home.

A day later at 32,000 feet flying somewhere over Central America on Taca Airlines God spoke to me. He clearly gave me the assignment of coming up with my own action points. I shuffled for a piece of paper, pulled down the tray table, turned on the little light, fought off sleep and wrote down two things: 1) Be with more people; 2) Simplify

As soon as I scribbled the second point I remember thinking, “Huh?” It wasn’t as if God moved my pen for me. There weren’t angels singing. I did wonder exactly what God meant by that little word. He quickly took me back over the previous 11 days and then over the years before. In the 11 days he showed me the plain and effective ministry in the quiet little town of Esterillos. No building, no major programming, no strategic task force meetings, no smoke, no lights just be with the people and live out the gospel. I had this same feeling on numerous trips to Latin America. I still recall a Mexican pastor’s office with nothing but a typewriter and I remember being envious.

I had a polite little argument with God, “Simplify, really? I can see that in Latin America. I can see it in the little beach town of Esterillos where relationships come first but how does that work back in Santa Barbara where people walk fast, drivers get mad, people are tired and the list of things to do becomes a badge of honor? How do I accomplish this?”

It was then God gave me another assignment: “Doug (I am paraphrasing what God really said!) try simplifying for three months and if you are still living it and feeling it at the end of that time then you can officially say, ‘I am simplifying.’” When I heard this I got it. I have doctorate in “Camp High.” “Camp High” (or “Vacation High” or “Victory High”) are what we experience after coming off a great event in our lives. During those great experiences we are “living the dream” and we come home determined to hold onto the feeling. We are determined to make changes or tell everybody else they’re doing it wrong. A short time later the feeling is gone and the great event is just another memory.

Three months . . . that seemed like plenty of time to know how serious I was about simplifying (even though I didn’t know what it meant). So . . . July 10 at 3:30am when I departed the Santa Barbara airbus in our church parking lot began the test of my second action point. It has now been 5 months and 10 days after the beginning of reality. What happened? What did God teach me? What does this have to do with you? How could this lesson affect the beginning of our church year we call Advent?

Look at 1 Kings 19: 9 – 13. Elijah had been running for his life when we pick up this story:
And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
10 He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

Studying this passage we can make four observations:
1) GOD ASKS THE QUESTIONS: Perhaps this is the question we should be asking ourselves this morning, “What are we doing here?” Elijah been passionate for the Lord to the point of burnout and so God asks him the question. He says, “So what is your purpose? Is this is how you want to be? Is this where you want to head?” I had been asking these questions. God does not want us to be alone in finding our life goal.
2) GOD LISTENS TO OUR ANSWERS: Elijah tells God about his life situation. He is overwhelmed, he is feeling alone. God lets him vent.
3) GOD PREPARES US FOR HIS ANSWER: You can almost hear God say to Elijah, “Okay, I asked the question, you gave me your answer and now go put on your seatbelt because I have an answer. Strap in!”
4) GOD RESPONDS IN THE QUIET: Elijah waits for the answer and first God sends the wind. The mountains tear apart and the rocks split. What was Elijah holding on to in that cave? Sounds like a category 5 hurricane to me! God did not answer in the wind.
Second God sends an earthquake but his answer was not there.
Thirdly God sends a fire. Was Elijah in California? God was not in the fire.
It was then Elijah heard the gentle whisper of God.
I like excitement. I can appreciate a good show with smoke, lights and special effects. God prefers the quiet.

On October 10 my three month probation of living a simplified life came to a close. I still liked the idea, I was still seeking to live it. God’s gentle whisper was getting through to me.
I am still working on what this means for me in the long haul. At present it is primarily an attitude. It is a quiet response to a noisy world. It is slowing down when I walk, it is making more room for more people, it is not packing my schedule so full there are not margins for the unexpected, it is not feeling guilty about finishing a to-do list, it is giving space for God to speak to me in the stillness. Do I have it down, am I perfect with it? No . . . not close, but I’m on the road. What are you doing here? How do you answer that question? If your life is defined by busyness and noise what is God saying to you in a whisper? Maybe your schedule is slow already. Are you hearing God? How can you help somebody else be still?

Monday, November 24, 2008


Last Wednesday night at FRONTLINE YOUTH we spent over an hour thanking God for His goodness through music, words from the Bible, prayer and words from the youth. As a part of the experience I shared 10 things for which I am thankful:

1) I have hope - As a youth pastor I walk with young people and their families through many situations. I have seen great joy and great pain. I have experienced both on a personal level. I can't imagine living this life without hope in Christ. The joy of the Lord is my strength

2) I have food - While so much of the world starves I have all the food I need and more. I am thankful everyday for the simple pleasures of food, good and bad.

3) I have a place to live - In my last post I talked about my dear friends who lost their house in a fire. Quickly they had options to live at least 6-10 places. Many places in the world people have no roof to cover their heads and those who have a roof are barely covered.

4) I have medical help - Tomorrow I will go to a dentist who helps me keep my teeth and prevent infection. In two weeks I go for a medical with my doctor who supports me in living a healthy life. Many in our world are lucky to see a doctor for a few times in their life and some may never see a dentist.

5) I have money and resources - I am blessed to work in a church where I am justly paid and supported. My basic needs and the needs of my family are supplied.

6)I live in a peaceful country - Our youth ministry supports four children: one in Ecuador, two in Ethiopia and one in the Congo. Our little boy in the Congo daily faces the threat of war and violence around him. I do not have that fear in the U.S. thanks to those who bravely protect us.

7) I live in a free country - Yesterday our church had a big outdoor Thanksgiving dinner and time of worship without fear of the police coming to shut us down and haul the pastors to jail. Last week I watched our President and President-Elect from two different parties peacefully sit down together.

8) I have a church family who loves me - After 24 years as pastor in the same church I am still overwhelmed by the love and care of this congregation for me and my family. I never take this for granted.

9) I have a family who loves me - My home is my castle. It is the place I can always count on for unconditional love. Through the gift of technology my home spreads to two college student children in Seattle and Boston. Their calls and encouragement add to the love of my high school daughter and wife.

10) I have a God who loves me so much He sent Jesus - I could never give enough thanks for the love, grace and mercy of God in my life to give His own Son so that I would receive the gift of eternal life.

What are your ten things?

Sunday, November 16, 2008


On Sunday, November 9, our family spent the evening with our dear friends, the Elliotts, at the home of our dear friends Russell, Allison and Travis Smelley. We enjoyed a meal together and shared our lives as we have so often done over the years. On Thursday night November 13, around 6pm, a vicious firestorm ripped through their neighborhood. Though Russell, Allison and Travis survived, their house did not. Everything but the few things they could quickly gather was destroyed.
In the days since I have thought about all the things I have known in their house over the years. I could describe to you the set up in great detail. Those things are now only memories. Possessions collected through a lifetime have succumbed to fire and floated as ashes.

Sadness and a sense of tragedy have rolled over me. The "pause button" has been pushed on my life and I am once again taking stock of what really matters. I do have lots of wonderful things I would be sad to lose. Would I rather have them or my life with my family? You know the answer.

The Smelley family may have lost their house but their "home" continues to live. One thing we can count on: we will one day part with all we possess but we are lovingly owned by God and in Him we always have a home.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thanks to My Favorite Veterans

Lately I have been thinking a lot about people who have greatly influenced my life, beyond my parents (who have provided the greatest influence). In my work with youth I often ask them to identify people who are having the greatest impact in their own lives. It's good for me answer the question as well.

On this Veterans Day it is a fitting time for me to thank two more people who served our country faithfully and who have loved and invested in me, even at a distance: my grandpa ("Pa") and my uncle Jim.

While Pa died many years ago his influence continues in my life. He was a World War 2 veteran who survived a deadly attack on his platoon and then imprisonment by the Germans. It was not until years after his death, following my first viewing of the film, "Saving Private Ryan" that I really began to appreciate what he had sacrificed in the horror of war and captivity. As a Grandpa he lovingly played with me, made things for me, sang with me and showed me how to enjoy the simple things of life. Thank you, Pa, for showing me love and happiness in spite of the hate and sadness you experienced.

My uncle Jim is still very much alive. He is Pa's son and so when we made the long car trip from Maryland to Ohio, as a kid, I looked forward to an uncle who loved to play, laugh and tickle me until I cried. In later years we competed in sports and had long talks from time to time. In the late '60s he was drafted in the army and served a few years in Vietnam before finally retiring as a Lt. Colonel. In the army God gave him the opportunity to mentor and train many men who were no doubt influenced by his Godly character and witness. My respect continued to grow over the years as I followed his career in the army and then into ministry. Even today, I wanted to call him, but he is in Nepal, still in ministry, spreading the love of Christ. Thank you, Uncle Jim, for sharing your love and wisdom with me. I am honored to be your nephew.

Honoring these two men, I must ask, who I am influencing today through the love of God?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


In 1977 I graduated high school in Rockville, Maryland. It was at that time I felt God calling me to consider full-time youth ministry. I had no idea what youth ministry would look like for me over the years but I knew God was leading me. About the same time a man in Santa Barbara, California was beginning his full-time youth ministry. Little did I know that our paths would intersect and he would become a mentor to me in long-term youth pastoring.

After graduating college, then seminary, Nancy and I surprisingly moved the entire length of the country and settled in this coastal town for my first full-time ministry assignment. In September of 1984 I attended my first Santa Barbara area youth leaders network meeting. It was there, for the first time, I met Dennis Santos. He had started paid youth ministry later in life but had loved youth many years before. Here began an enduring relationship between a Catholic youth director and Protestant youth pastor. Over the years we did activities together, ate many lunches and prayed for one another. On Saturday, October 25, 2008 I had the honor of attending Dennis' retirement party . . . from youth ministry!

Dennis "finished well" and I know he is still not finished. We'll have many more lunches. This man of God who has impacted hundreds and thousands of youth will continue to love, pray for, care for, teach youth and care for me. Thank you, Dennis, for all you have taught me and for the inspiration you give to finish strong and finish well. I'm right behind you.