A Thanksgiving Reflection

I’m an unabashed Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade watcher.  (Wow, it kind of feels like I just took a huge risk confessing that . . . )

My Mom taught me to love the parade and I carry on that tradition in her honor.  The mood’s got to be just right.  So, I light a fire in the fireplace (just the fake gas log– air quality management concerns, you know), open both sliding doors in the family room to put a chill in the air (it’s tough living in Southern California!), prop my socked-feet up on the table and hug my favorite coffee cup full of goodness.  I usually do all this by myself.  I could never get the family excited about cartoon balloons, lip-syncing pop stars, Broadway song and dance exhibitions, and Al Roker’s weather updates.  (My family has, for some weird reason, settled on the National Dog Show as their tradition – honestly, I think it has more to do with sleeping in than anything else.)

If I’m honest with myself and spent some time with a therapist on this obsession it would reveal an odd romanticized connection to the Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, through which I probably filter my parade watching. (It always seems to be something like that takes the fun out of everything!)

I remember the Thanksgiving morning, following a Thanksgiving Eve worship service when I told the church, as part of my sermon, the sad tale that I usually watch the parade by myself.  That morning – just as Al yelled, “Let the parade begin!” there was a knock on the door and one of our Costa Mesa families marched in and watched the parade with me.  Now, that’s friendship!

The real inside scoop is that I use my “parade time” to take a journey down memory lane, to reflect, to give thanks for Kath and the boys, my family and friends, the incredible privilege I have to live out a ministry calling as a career, for the wonderful and messy country in which we live, to remember loved ones already in Heaven and their impact on my life, and to shed a few tears.

But, so far, there isn’t much about my Thanksgiving morning that isn’t repeated by millions of people across our country.  What’s the big difference-maker for me? It’s a recognition and a thankful heart for all that God has done for me in Jesus Christ!  Without that, it all comes up pretty empty.

King David got it right.  Try putting Psalm 100 at the “center” of your Thanksgiving.  Let your soul sing it out!

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness!

Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Now, that’s the right filter for a Thanksgiving Day!  May Your Thanksgiving Be FULL of the Celebrations of God’s Blessings in Your Life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

First Day

First Day photoWhen I was growing up, “first days” were usually chronicled by standing at the front door and having your picture taken.  It was just what we did and many families still do – just take a look at Facebook in the later part of August!  That memory was one of my first thoughts this morning when my “first day” as District President began.  So, of course, we took a photo! Here are a few things on my heart this morning:

  • First, thanks for praying for Kathy and me during a very quick and busy July as we said goodbye to the dear people of Christ, Costa Mesa, and took next steps in transitioning to this new role.
  • Since the convention, you have blessed me so much with your emails, cards, calls, responses to FB postings, and more. I am humbled by your warm welcome and encouragement.
  • You have overwhelmed me with your responses to my “10 Asks” that I first presented at the convention and now pray will guide the early days of our journey together. If you haven’t had the chance to become familiar with them, please click on this YouTube link and watch the presentation from the convention.
  • Keep your eyes open for information on what I am calling, The Grand Tour as I make my way throughout the District over the next few months. I’ve divided up the 4 Regions into 8 areas to facilitate easier gatherings of congregational members, leaders, and church workers for the purpose of listening and learning how the District can best resource, serve, and lead.  Time will be set aside in each area to meet with Circuit Visitors and also for private, prescheduled meetings with church workers who’d like to sit down one-on-one. Our Regional Vice-Presidents and Circuit Visitors will help me craft the details.
  • Finally, please join me today in giving thanks to God for President Larry Stoterau as he concludes his 18 years of incredible leadership of the Pacific Southwest District. He and Linda have been a blessing to all us.  I am so grateful that we will overlap for the month of August AND that he has allowed me to put his cell number on speed dial!

That’s it for today.  It’s good to know that God is in our tomorrows too. His baptism promises are good every day.  May He wonderfully bless your day too!

Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li (Part 3)

Mr. Li and IAs we sat down in their little living room Mr. Li said, “I want to ask you a question.”  He grabbed my hand with his left,  pointed at my white hair with his other, started laughing, and asked, “How old are you?”  “61,” I answered.  He was disappointed. He thought he had me. I was now the younger brother.

Then the next words came out of his mouth, “You’re a Christian, right?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You know, I’ve always thought it was interesting that history is divided by the birth of Jesus, into BC and AD.  What do you think about that?”

Really? He just said that?  He just asked that?

Wow, God – talk about “teeing it up!” The Holy Spirit had definitely been doing some advance work in Mr. Li.

“. . . do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  Matthew 10:19-20

I flashed a quick smile at our team that shouted, “Pray!”  Mr. Li and I began a conversation that lasted for the next 40 minutes.

Stories shared.

Confessions spoken. “I have lived a bad life. Can God forgive me?”

Forgiveness promised. “That’s what Jesus came to do for you on the cross.”

Invitation extended.

While there was not a specific moment of confession of Christ as Savior – there was no doubt that God was at work in Mr. Li.  The transforming power of the Spirit through the Word was certainly to continue!

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7

As we concluded we asked Mr. Li if he would like a Bible, he eagerly responded, “Yes.” We promised we’d return in the morning to give him one. We did, along with the village pastor who had proclaimed the John 3:16 sermon Mrs. Yang had heard the day before.  (I had first met this pastor in 2007 and he actually has a photo of Kathy and me in his phone from that event).  Mr. Li gratefully received the Bible and a hymnal and welcomed the introduction of his new pastor.

It was awesome. God at work! Always.

Before we left, Mr. Li asked to take a picture with me.  As we stood side by side he made me promise that when I return to Yunnan I will visit him again. “Of course I will.  I am your little brother now.”

This is why we keep returning to the same region of Yunnan over and over – relationships! God uses every opportunity.  He is always working to advance His Kingdom.

Please pray for Mr. Li and Mrs. Yang.  I kind of think we’ll see them in Heaven some day!


If you missed Mr. Li and Mrs. Yang, Parts 1 and 2, or any earlier blog postings, please take a look at the archives.

Watch for the next post on “23″ and Other Stories of Faith – “Reflections from a Convention.” I’ll share my experiences and thoughts from being elected President of the Pacific Southwest District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li (Part 2)

Mr LiMrs. Yang came rushing up to where we were sitting. She thought that we had left for Kunming without saying goodbye. She was dressed up, wearing beautiful embroidered slippers, a silk blouse, a little makeup on her cheeks, and a radiant smile on her face. She sat with LeeAnne and Jamie, our team members from Concordia International School, Shanghai and talked. During the conversation, Mrs. Yang, told the story, with a shy giggle, on how she had wooed her husband many years ago by getting dressed in her finest clothes, walking to where he was working on a road crew, and serenading him with a traditional Chinese love song. It worked. And then, without hesitation, she sang it. It was priceless.

A small number of people began to arrive from the planting day in the fields, gathering for the 2:00 worship service. LeeAnne invited Mrs. Yang to join us – this time she hesitated. In all the years of living in this little village where the largest building in town was the church, Mrs. Yang had never gone. But God was at work – just the way He always is. As we walked upstairs to the sanctuary, she followed, sat down in the first row, right in front of the pulpit, (that alone tells you she’d never been in church before!) and next to a neighbor who helped her through the service. The young pastor was awesome. He told me later that, after seeing Mrs. Yang, he pitched his planned sermon, turned to John 3:16, (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”) and preached his heart out.

Mrs Yang - shawlWomen from our congregation had made over 70 hand-crocheted shawls for us to give as Mother’s Day gifts to the women of the village. That afternoon we selected a shawl for Mrs. Yang and headed to her home to present it.  It turned out that it was also Mrs. Yang’s birthday. Shortly after our entire team had settled in their living room they received a phone call from their daughter to wish her Mom a Happy Birthday. The way Mr. Li answered the call cracked us up! “We can’t talk to you right now. We have a house full of Americans.” We could just imagine his daughter’s response, “Dad, how much Baijiu have you had to drink today?”

As Mrs. Yang sat in the opposite corner of the living room, wrapped in a new shawl and a big smile, Mr. Li sat down next to me, held my hand, looked me in the eyes, and started talking. He had decided that he was my best friend. The conversation was amazing.

Watch for Part 3 in the next “Stories of Faith” posting.

Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li

Mrs Yang and Mr Li“You can come to my house.”

She was bright-eyed with a confident and beautiful smile. Behind her neck rode a farmer’s rod, smooth and shiny from years of being held by her hands and the friction of her shoulders. At each end swung buckets from which she had carefully ladled water at the base of each plant growing in her field. On her head rested a cap of camouflaged fabric with matching shoes and knotted laces on her feet.

We had spent the last two days in a small Yunnan Province village located in a rural area of southwestern China. It was community of 140 people; a blending of Han and Miao people living side by side in a village with a name that means “unity.” The community had been created a couple of decades earlier when the government moved several groups of isolated people, living high in the mountains, to a place where services and utilities were more readily available.  It was, frankly, easier to create a new village than it was to cut roads and string utilities.

Our time in the village was in support of a health advocacy project with our longtime China partners. We were conducting door to door interviews in hopes of acquiring a baseline understanding of the village’s health awareness with the goal that the project’s future steps would help to improve their quality of life, reduce the devastation of childhood dysentery, and minimize the negative impact of improperly handled agricultural pesticides.

Our recent attempt to interview an old woman, blinded by the shiny yellow-gray cataracts in her eyes, had been declined and, as we stood at the gate in front of her house discussing where to go next, up walked Mrs. Yang.

“You can come to my house.”

We followed her through the narrow streets to a house on the perimeter of the village, overlooking a small canyon through which heavy trucks rumbled in and out of a coal mine. As barking dogs announced our arrival an elderly man appeared, surprised to see a small group of Americans trailing his wife into the courtyard.  After putting the buckets away, she confidently invited strangers into her home with the usual Yunnan hospitality that included tea, nuts, and fruit. She was proud of her home and excited that it was full of Americans. It was clean and tidy, in contrast to many of the places we had visited in the village. Upon sitting down on the sofa, the first thing I notice was a combination refrigerator freezer that sat proudly in the space between the living room and the kitchen – something I had never seen before in a village.

We were introduced to her husband, Mr. Li. (Chinese women don’t take their husband’s name in marriage.) Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li had been married for over 50 years and had raised three daughters who were married and now lived outside of the village with their own families and their husbands’ parents. As part of our interview we learned that Mr. Li had gone to school through 5th grade while Mrs. Yang was illiterate; she could not read or write. While they planted and maintained a field to grow what they needed to eat, they made their living off of a small herd of 40 goats.

When the interview concluded, we thanked the couple, shook hands, posed for photos, and headed back to our base. Little did we know that this simple conversation had just set the stage for something wonderful that God was about to do.

Watch for Part 2 of Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li in next week’s post.

A Special Announcement – Part 2

Earlier this week I announced that one of the short stories I wrote for “23” and Other Stories of Faith has been accepted for publication in the September issue of the Lutheran Witness (the magazine periodical of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).  The story is called “Herb and Vi” and was originally posted on this blog back in March.  I am excited that thousands more will soon be blessed by the wonderful story of this humble couple’s faith and trust in God!  Please share this good news with others!

On Monday, May 28th I reposted Part 1 of Herb and Vi.  Here, now, is Part 2.

Herb and Vi (Part 2)

Herb and Vi were able to sleep in their own bed almost to the end, even though it was on the second floor of their home.  They had installed a stair lift when Vi started having trouble getting around.  A baby monitor provided the connection between the bedroom and their caregiver’s base of operations downstairs at the kitchen table.  Each night the monitor witnessed to the caregiver of Herb and Vi’s faith, their confidence that God would walk with them through their final valley.  As they had done every night for 69 years of marriage – before they went to sleep – they held hands and prayed together Psalm 23.

Herb completed his journey ahead of Vi.  We got the call on a Wednesday night about 8:30.  My pastor partner, Glenn got there before me.  He was already upstairs with Vi and family when the caregiver welcomed me with a hug.  Herb’s body was in the hospice bed in the family room but his soul was already in Heaven.  Vi was dressed in her flannel nightgown, in bed and propped up with pillows, eyes full of tears.  We mourned with her the way Christians do – with hope, the confidence of eternity, and the certainty of reunions in heaven.  Together we lived out St. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

As Vi lay in her bed, Glenn and I each took a hand and declared with her the faith that she and Herb confessed every night of their marriage.  We had done this together many times over the last months.  Tonight it was different.  As Vi spoke the psalm and emerged on the other side of the valley, an incredible thing happened.  She dropped our hands and reached her arms out toward the heavens as if directing a chorus of unseen angels.  As she repeated the phrase over and over again, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” her fists punctuated the heavens.  With each word bony hands and arms were thrust into the sky.  Words were declared with a volume that we had never heard from this gentle woman.  “AND I . . . WILL DWELL . . . IN THE HOUSE . . . OF THE LORD . . . FOREVER.  FOREVER!  FOREVER!!  Her right hand hung in the air until the ringing of her words died.  And with that, this valley-walker lay back against the pillow and closed her eyes.

The silence that followed echoed across all of creation. None of us could speak as tears choked us.  It was the holiest of holy moments that I have yet to experience.  Vi’s Herb was in Heaven.  She knew it with all her heart and she knew that she would soon follow him.  She did.  Viola Wilhelmina Theiss made her final journey through the valley on July 25th at 97 years old – five months and eight days after Herb.  Oh, how I would have loved to be there for that heavenly reunion.

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”

A Special Announcement

I am pleased to announce that immediately prior to my recent departure for China I received notification that one of the short stories I wrote for “23” and Other Stories of Faith has been accepted for publication in the September issue of the Lutheran Witness (the magazine periodical of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).  The story is called “Herb and Vi” and was originally posted on this blog back in March.  I am excited that thousands more will soon be blessed by the wonderful story of this humble couple’s faith and trust in God!  Please share this good news with others!

Here, again, is the story of Herb and Vi” (posted in two parts)

Herb and Vi

Vi was “the older woman,” born in 1919, 2 years and 3 months before her beloved Herb. She never let him forget it and he’d always remind her.  She left her childhood home of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska at the age of 22 for San Diego, California to work at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation.  Like thousands of other women during World War Two, Vi served her nation as a “Rosy the Riveter” working in the defense industry building B-24 Liberator bombers and PBY Catalina flying boats.

Like Vi, Herb was a Lutheran.  As a matter of fact, the Theiss family were pioneer Lutherans in California, having found their way from the mid-west center of Lutheranism to establish congregations and schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Herb’s dad, a pastor, spent his life serving churches throughout California, eventually leading the family to San Diego.

Herb was in the Army during World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater, obtaining the rank of Master Sergeant.  And, like so many other Lutheran couples after the war, it was at a Walther League young adult event that Herb and Vi met.  It was a love story that would last for over 69 years of marriage.  Growing up in San Diego, where the weather for sports was always perfect, Herb lived and breathed baseball.  One of his proudest accomplishments was as a starter for an American Legion baseball team that played for the national championship in 1938.  But Herb’s greatest feat was hitting a homerun when he married Vi.  She was a baseball nut!

Vi loved the Dodgers.  Herb loved the Angels.  Fortunately their National and American League allegiances allowed for a peaceful coexistence until the day the world shifted on its axis and interleague play was introduced.  In addition to being a pastor, husband, and father, it is important to confess that my next most important self-identifier is that I am a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, almost from birth – the Giants moving from New York to San Francisco two years after I was born.  And so it was perfectly normal for Vi and I to take great joy in picking on each other as participants in the greatest sports rivalry of all time – the Dodgers and Giants.  The three of us often talked about how our days, and even life’s rhythm itself, was impacted by the performance of our teams.  Each day a new game, a time for a fresh start, a field on which the drama played out, and valleys full of the great joys and deep disappointments.

Herb and Vi were pillars at Christ Lutheran Church and School, Costa Mesa, California, the place where I have served as lead pastor since 2006.  For more than 20 years, Herb led a Saturday morning Men’s Bible Study that mentored more men, husbands, and sons in Scripture than most Bible teachers will ever experience.  They were examples of faithful living, no matter the challenges of life’s valleys.  Unlike many in the church, they didn’t step aside as age crept up and life slowed down.  They kept serving the Lord until the time in life when their bodies simply wouldn’t allow them to keep up the pace that had defined them for so long.  The day that Herb handed off the leadership of the Saturday Morning Men’s Bible Study was one of the toughest days of his life.  He yielded simply because, at 93, he could not maintain the quality of his leadership.  While both had various issues of health as they got closer to heaven, it was really old age that led them into life’s final valley.

Please watch for Part 2 later this week!