Seven days ago I was in Southern California. The sun shone, every day. The nights were cool. The attitude, everywhere, was chill. The coffee was exquisite and the avocado toast was mind-blowing. Fish tacos – EXCELLENT. The scenery? Well, there are no words. Every day, the Pacific. Every day, the mountains. Every evening, the sunset.
Every stinking day.
And I met Rick Warren and we had our picture taken together, and in that span of five seconds I was yakking instead of posing.
I traveled to Southern California to attend The Lobby, a conference / networking event sponsored by the Small Group Network, grown out of Saddleback Church. It was unlike any church conference event I’ve ever attended – and there have been multitudes. I can easily say that it was the most productive, profitable investment of time (a scant 45 hours; I left wanting more, but in retrospect, it was just the right amount of information and time) and resources (the fee covered lodging – at the event location – and major meals, which were outstanding) that I’ve experienced in the ministry world.
I could wax poetic about the entire experience. My journal is full of things that are still – a week later – reverberating in my head. Those things will serve me well in weeks to come.
Speaking of journal; they gave us a bona fide mini-Moleskin with the network logo on it. Sweet!
But I’ll refrain from sharing all my notes. I want to tell you instead about Rick Warren. And I must say first this: that I went in skeptical, jaded from too many encounters with celebrity pastors and a distaste for the culture we’ve created with our spiritual leaders. I was prepared to be unimpressed.
I was wrong.
I took a lot of notes; Warren speaks quickly, tangentially, creatively; every other phrase is powerful. Memorable. Quotable. His passion leaks through in every sentence. He taught some specific content, and he did it well. He is a master wordsmith, and he communicates well.
But what spoke to me most profoundly was his posture as he spoke about the death of his youngest child by suicide. Four years ago, Warren’s 27-year old son Matthew took his life after struggling with mental health issues and deep depression. He spoke openly and with a raw vulnerability about his journey through that time.
His honesty connected deeply; my soul began to leak in empathy and in the reality of the fear and pain in my life, as I have walked through parts of that valley with people I deeply love. In those moments of openness, I experienced something quite unexpected; a connecting and a bonding in a room of 150+people that revealed and reflected the truth of what we were all there to affirm:
We’re better together.
When we share our lives openly, authentically, with hands open and hearts vulnerable; when we take the risk to open ourselves to others, our entire experience of life becomes deeper. Richer. Fuller.
More like who we’re meant to be.
Rick Warren said many things that rang true; I have a long list of his quotable utterances. They were meaningful, and I will not forget them. His honesty – his willingness to talk about his pain, to refrain from preaching and pontificating and instead simply speak his truth and share his pain – gave us a point of connection, as parents whose children suffer. As people who grieve the grip of mental illness on those we love.
But for the purpose of this post, I will share the one that resonates most with me; the one that reminds me of the paradox of faith in Jesus. In many ways, this short sentence is the culmination of so much of what was shared around tables and by the speakers.
It is imperative that I lean into this truth – for myself, for my family, for my team, and for those we serve. Here, in a nutshell, is what I brought back from California:
In God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit.
I learned a lot at The Lobby; I made great connections. There are people I believe I’ll see again, who will make my life and work better.
But this truth; this is what I need to remember. We are surrounded by brokenness; it is within us, it is without us. Everywhere, we see pain – or we see the desperate edges of hidden pain, leaking out beyond the edges of well-kept lives. We see people in pain, we see people causing pain. In the midst of that pain is this truth: Each of us is created by God. Each of us matters. We are called into the mess, to love one another; to live it, to offer ourselves to our neighbors so that they might taste and see that they are loved, that the One who made them is good, that there is redemption and restoration for all. In remembering my own brokenness, I embrace the humility that most resembles the One I follow. In this humility, I can serve with purpose.
Truly, we are better together. We are not just called to believe – we are called to belong.
Warren said he took pictures of each of us because he would pray for us – by name. I believe he meant it. When I sat beside him, I leaned in and quietly said My daughter is bipolar. I would covet your prayer for her.
And I know he heard me.