Three Cheers for Quirky Heroes!

Two enchanting day trips punctuated our first weekend in Italy, with our entire group going first to Lucca, then Assisi. Lucca is a storied city, going back to the third century BC, and known for its intact Renaissance-era city walls and the composer Giacomo Puccini. Our group rented bikes and rode around atop the city ramparts, which are very wide, flat and park-like. We then walked the cobblestone streets, visiting churches, enjoying the town square, sampling the local cafes, and climbing a bell-tower with trees on top (the builders hauled up a lot of dirt to create planters). 

Biking on the ramparts of Lucca
Carrie and Elizabeth Whatley in Lucca
From the town square of Lucca, built around what once was a Roman amphitheater
Atop a bellotower in Lucca
Cappuccino is my favorite Italian drink

Our second trip was a picture-perfect day in Assisi, the home of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. This historic and charming community is perched on the side of a hill, with narrow streets leading up past numerous churches, shops and cafes, to the remains of an 11th century fortress (the Rocca Maggiore) at the top. We toured the two-level Basilica of Saint Francis, the pink and white marbled Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Chapel of San Damien, where Francis first heard God’s call to rebuild (reform) the Catholic Church. 

In front of the basilica of Saint Francis
The basilica of Saint Clare
Carrie and Fiore, the delightful owner of an olive wood souvenir shop
(and a father of three daughters who help with the family business)
Assisi is picture perfect charming

I’ve reflected a lot on the global impact of the humble and quirky Saint Francis. In revisiting his story, I find myself powerfully drawn to his deep and sacrificial life of faith yet also perplexed by some of his stringent ascetic practices. Of all the Italian Saints, he is the most popular in Italy and beyond. His contemporaries exclaimed that he lived out the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone else, except for the man who first preached it. When he embraced a lifestyle of poverty, he reasoned, “What could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige.” Yet Francis would sometimes throw himself into a bank full of ice during winter, staying there until every ounce of sinful temptation had gone. To avoid lust, he fixed his gaze on the sky or ground whenever he spoke with a woman. Though he was known for his infectious joy, he disliked laughing and idle words, not wanting to provide others the slightest occasion for laughing. 

If I met Francis today, I believe I would both admire him and be annoyed by him. One historian called him pathologically non-conformist. It is very clear that he loved God deeply. He loved and cared for his fellow humans and all creatures. He took sin and the reforming of his life and the Church very seriously. He cared for the poor and inspired countless others to do so. The impact he and Clare have had on Christians ever since is remarkable and undeniable. Francis and Clare raise heavy questions for me: Am I too soft and lax as a Christian? Were Francis and Clare too ascetic and self-abusive? Where does wisdom lie? 

One final thought for fellow Californians: Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions (with all the positives and negatives they brought), was a priest in the Franciscan order begun by Saint Francis. The city of San Francisco is named after Francis and Santa Clara after Saint Clare. Seven hundred years later and 10,000 miles away, the influence of this little hillside town of Assisi can be felt at the birthplace of Apple and Google. 

Highlights of this past week: 
Hosting our first dinner with six students
 Finding all the ingredients or substitute ingredients for our first dinner, including my chocolate chip cookies, which was harder than it sounds : )
 Continuing to learn basic Italian 
 Dinner with program director Elizabeth Whatley at her place
 This January, I have taken 30,000 more steps than in any month in 2018, with 10 days still remaining! 
 Weekend trip to the Eternal City (more soon!)

What I’m reading: 
 Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, by David Sobel 
 Rick Steves Best of Italy (Section on Rome), by Rick Steves 
 Twelve Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson 
 Finally Comes to Poet, by Walter Brueggemann 

What I’m listening to (Rick Steves’ Audio Italy):
Each of these audio tours is available for free on Rick Steves’ app. Carrie and I downloaded them before our trip to Rome and then listened to each as we walked through each of the following sites. It was like having our own private (and free!) tour guide. Shoutout to Brittany Joyner for telling us about these!!  
 Rome — The Colosseum
 Rome — The Roman Forum
 Rome — St Peter’s Basilica
 Rome — Vatican Museums
 Rome — Sistine Chapel
 Rome — The Pantheon
 Rome — Heart of Rome


Led By the Hand: Our First Week in Florence

I would not voluntarily trade the wisdom of experience for inexperience, or knowledge for ignorance, or fluency for inarticulateness, or understanding for incomprehension. Yet here I am in Florence, finding myself a novice yet again, whether in language or geography or local customs or even where to find what I need at the grocery store. 

Our first day we awoke with no cash in our pockets, no food in our pantry, and only a vague sense of where to go to remedy these needs. After (eventually) succeeding in withdrawing cash from an auto-teller machine, we entered the highly popular Cafe Libertás, but were unsure how to proceed. The cafe has a counter to order pastries, a counter to order coffee, and a counter to pay. Did the sequence matter? Order, eat, then pay? Pay, order, then eat? Order, pay, then eat? Did I mention I don’t speak much Italian? We tried to take our cues by watching others, hoping not to embarrass ourselves. Order, pay, then eat worked for us, but I think several of the regulars did order, eat, then pay. 

Jesus once said, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  After our first week in Florence, I observe that I too must become like a little child, being willing to be taught, instructed, and led by the hand. I must observe carefully, listen attentively, ask for help, be both humble and bold, and abandon the security of what-I-know for the benefits of what-I-need-to-learn. 

We have been greatly helped this past week by our long-time friend and program director Elizabeth Whatley, by her co-workers and our new friends Alessio and Marta, the student Resident Assistants Meg and Warren, and many other kind-hearted American students and Italian townsfolk who have led us “by the hand” as we try to figure out our new normal. 

We find ourselves utterly enchanted by this historic city, wandering about with our necks craning upward, listening to the pealing of church bells, delighting in the combination of a good cappuccino with a cold winter’s day, being surprised whenever we round a corner and spy the magnificent Duomo, enjoying the Pepperdine students as we get to know them better, and feeling so so grateful for the opportunity to share this adventure together. 

Highlights of this week:
Walking around historic Florence
Getting to know the Pepperdine students 
Celebrating Carrie’s birthday
Learning to find our way around
Group day-trips to Lucca and Assisi (more soon!)   

What I’m reading:
Twelve Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson
 Finally Comes to Poet, by Walter Brueggemann
 Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary, by Rick Steves

What I’m listening to (Rick Steves’ Audio Italy):
“Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis”
“Michelangelo in Florence”
“Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces”

The River Arno with the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) behind us
With Conejo’s own Gabrielle, a student in the Florence program
The Duomo at Night
Skyline of Florence
The Students Surprised Carrie for her Birthday!
Celebrating Carrie’s birthday!
Ice Skating With the Students


Cottonwood Lakes, Eastern Sierra

inspire | inˈspī(ə)r | verb [with object]
• fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. • animate someone with (such a feeling). • breathe in; inhale. – New Oxford American Dictionary

Today, Carrie and I will board a plane bound for Florence, Italy, where we’ll spend the next four months. Carrie will be the visiting professor for 54 students at Pepperdine University’s Florence program. I will be on a ministerial sabbatical, which is designed to be a time of spiritual growth, reflection, and renewal, facilitated by a break from normal ministry activities and commitments. 

A friend of mine used to compare ministers with sponges that have absorbed a lot of water. Once the sponge has reached its saturation point, it can no longer do its job. But throwing away the water-logged sponge would be a mistake. The sponge simply needs to have the excess water squeezed out of it, and then it will begin to absorb again. A ministerial sabbatical works like this — over time, a minister’s capacity to serve and teach, care and lead, mentor and challenge, becomes saturated. He or she is less able to effectively absorb and bear the burdens of others. A sabbatical season provides the time and space for God to squeeze out the excess and breathe fresh capacity into the minister. 

You could also flip the metaphor. Over time, ministry gradually drains the energy, creativity, and vigor out of a minister, like water being slowly squeezed out of a sponge. Eventually, the minister can become like a dry husk, unable to pour out the cool, refreshing waters of Spirit-filled care and Christ-like leadership. A ministry sabbatical provides the opportunity for the minister to drink again in a concentrated way from the living waters found in Jesus Christ, in God’s creation, in Scripture, in great books, and in human-made beauty that reflects the glory of God. In drinking deeply of the good, the true, and the beautiful, a minister can thereby be refilled and refreshed in such a way that living waters can once again flow out of the minister and into the lives of others. 

In 2004, the Conejo elders adopted a sabbatical policy for our ministers which understands both of these metaphors: the need to replenish ministry capacity through renewal and the need to refill the wells of inspiration and creativity.  I am tremendously grateful for this opportunity afforded me by our elders, our ministry staff, numerous volunteers, and the entire congregation! My commitment to you is to use this sabbatical season with wisdom and responsibility. I will seek to balance adhering to my plans and schedule with embracing unforeseen serendipities and opportunities along the way. I will seek to balance times for quiet reflection with times of active engagement. And I will seek to balance my desire to document and communicate my experiences with a healthy resistance to posting a selfie at every turn. Thank for following my journey here. Arrivederci e Dio ti benedica! (See you later and God bless you!) 

The Final Countdown

On Friday, December 7, I reached the one-month-to-go on my countdown to sabbatical. I have been praying, preparing, and planning for this time of ministerial leave since 2016. This season of personal renewal will officially begin on Monday, January 7, when Carrie and I board a plane bound for Florence, Italy, where we’ll be living with about 60 Pepperdine students for three and a half months. We plan to return on Sunday, April 28, just ahead of the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. This sabbatical will provide a season in which I will be away from my weekly ministerial duties with time to become a student again, to refresh my spiritual calling, to reflect more deeply, to pray more unhurriedly, to travel and read more widely, to listen instead of speak, and to think afresh. 

Some of my general plans for the ministerial leave include the following.

  • January. Orientation classes in Florence, intensive Italian, day trips to Luca and Assissi, weekend trip to Heidelberg, Germany (a first for Carrie and me together). 
  • February. Educational field trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, including visits to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Gold and Spice markets, the Dubai Museum, a desert safari, and an exchange with the University students of Sharjah. Spring break trip to Athens, Greece with daughters Jessica and Michaela (another first for Carrie and me together). 
  • March. Travel break trip to Croatia with daughter Jenna, weekend visits to Lausanne, Switzerland and Barcelona, Spain. 
  • April. Weekend visit to Venice, and weeklong trip to Athens and the Greek islands. 

In addition to the above “big-ticket” travel plans, I also plan to pursue the following enriching activities: visiting a wide variety of worship services and cathedrals throughout our travels; reading widely, including books by or about citizens of Florence including scientist Galileo Galilei, poet Dante Alighieri, sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti, architect Filippo Brunelleschi, philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, and the dynastic Medici family; engaging with the extensive cultural offerings of Florence, including the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the da Vinci museum, the Bandini gardens, and the San Marco church and monastery; serving the students as a house parent, spiritual life mentor, and role model for cultural engagement as well as sharing in weekly house worship times; enjoying various running opportunities as they arise. 

One of the greatest challenges of preaching as I experience it is having to open my mouth each week and declare that which is faithful to scripture, practically relevant, and potentially life-changing. Ecclesiastes 3:7 says that there is a “a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” After nearly twenty-eight years of preaching, a ministerial leave will provide a season to keep silence, listen, and be still before the Lord. I invite you to pray for me throughout this upcoming season that my silence will be fruitful. 

I am grateful for the kind support which our elders and staff have given as we’ve been preparing. I am grateful for the encouraging comments many of you have shared with me as well. I invite you to be praying for what God will do in me this winter as I pray for what God will do in all of you. May we all continue to encourage one another to love and good deeds for the sake of God’s Kingdom. 


“It’s a dangerous business… going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” 
   —Bilbo Baggins

It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly a decade since I went on my 2009 ministerial leave. That time away was a tremendous gift to me, a time in which I could be away from my ministerial duties and weekly commitments with time to become a student again, to refresh my spiritual calling, to reflect more deeply, to pray more intensely, to travel and read more widely, to seek out mentors, and to think afresh. 

For the past several years, Carrie and I have been praying about a special opportunity for my upcoming ministerial sabbatical. About a year ago, we learned that Carrie had been accepted as the visiting faculty for Pepperdine University’s program in Florence, Italy. Her appointment is for January through April of 2019. With the blessing of Conejo’s elders, I am planning on taking my ministry leave during this time-frame, joining Carrie and about sixty students for that semester.

My theme for this season of renewal is “Inspiration.” The city of Florence is, of course, the birthplace of the Renaissance, a movement of rebirth in 14th through 16th century Europe that emphasized classical ideas and writings, inspiring numerous artists, sculptors, scientists, authors, politicians, architects, and Christian leaders. Florence is full of churches, museums, parks, palaces, and bridges to visit; among these, there will be inspirational places in which to reflect and observe, read and write, pray and worship.

With Florence as a base of operations, I anticipate many opportunities to travel to inspiring places, both in Italy and abroad. We anticipate day trips to nearby places in Tuscany such as Assisi, Sienna, Lucca, San Gimiagno, and Oretzo, as well weekend visits to Rome, Venice, and Cinque Terre. Farther afield, we anticipate visits to Spain, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Croatia, and a Pepperdine field trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I am especially looking forward to taking Carrie (and daughters) to see my childhood home, school, and church in Athens and visiting Heidelberg, Germany together, both for the first time. Such travels will afford some wonderful opportunities to reconnect with my past and to dream about the future. 

We’ll be living in downtown Florence in a villa with about 60 Pepperdine students. My responsibilities to the students will be as house parent, spiritual life mentor, and role model for cultural engagement. We’ll participate in weekly time of house worship for the students and I’ll also provide an occasional guest lecture for Carrie’s speech/communication class. This engagement with students will provide opportunities both to be inspired and to inspire.

Please be in prayer in anticipation of this upcoming time of ministerial sabbatical. Please pray for God to guide my preparations so that I might utilize this gift of time well. Pray for our congregation that we may be energized by the additional opportunities for leadership and service during this season. Pray for all of us as we look ahead and ask, “How can we bring the blessing of Christ to our community and world?”