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Letting in the Light

Robert Schuller has led his O.C. congregation for decades.

By Steve ThomasPublished: December 09, 2004

Robert H. Schuller raised the shade and let the light into mainline, Protestant Christianity in the second half of the 20th century. In partnership with some of the world’s greatest architects, he stripped away stone and stained glass to flood the interior of the physical church with Southern California sunshine, linking worshippers to the divine inspiration of nature. At the same time, he illuminated the mental and spiritual church by melding the insights of modern psychology to the Calvinist theology he is rooted in.

Robert H. Schuller’s life story embodies the California dream – which is the same as the American Dream, but with palm trees. The grandson of immigrants, he grew up on a poor farm in Iowa, not unlike the poor farms in Mexico and Asia from which new pilgrims to the Golden State arrive each day. He grew up in a house without electricity or plumbing where another language ­ Dutch ­ was spoken along with English. Hard work and education were his tickets out.

Like many California dreamers before and after him, he came West with little cash but lots of ambition and found success on the balmy plain between the San Gabriel Mountains and the blue Pacific. Arriving just south of the movie capital of the world in 1955, he preached his first sermon from the roof of a snack bar at a drive-in theater. The topic of the message, “Power for Successful Living,” was based on the words of Jesus: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can say to your mountain, move. And nothing shall be impossible to you.” It was a prophetic debut.

Over the next 50 years, Schuller would build a congregation of some 10,000 souls in Garden Grove, write more than 30 books, including numerous New York Times bestsellers, launch the megachurch movement through his Institute For Successful Church Leadership and create a television ministry that has been the most-watched religious program for more than three decades. He would step up from the tar-paper roof of the snack bar to the marble pulpit of a glass cathedral larger than Notre Dame in Paris, one of the architectural wonders of the world, where his preaching is heard not by 100 curious people through little speakers hanging on their car windows, but by millions of listeners in 165 countries.

Subject to widespread, sometimes vicious, criticism from fellow churchmen for his refusal to focus on sin, he has persevered for five decades in bringing a positive message of hope, love and self-empowerment to people in Orange County and around the world.

“Any competent history of religious life in America will have to devote space to Schuller’s ministry,” says Ronald L. Farmer, associate professor of religious studies at Chapman University.

“He is a wonderful, brilliant communicator . . . And many people around the world find his message hopeful and uplifting,” adds Dr. Benjamin J. Hubbord, professor and chair of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. “He will definitely be seen as an important figure” in the history of American religion.

“Schuller’s taste has been exquisite,” says Dan Heinfeld, president of LPA, the largest architectural firm in Orange County. “Our chapter of the AIA just gave the Crystal Cathedral the 25-Year Award. We give it to one building each year that has stood the test of time.”

“Orange County is fortunate to have such an impressive piece of architecture,” says Walter J. Richardson, chairman of RNM, another leading OC architectural and planning firm. “We are fortunate that someone like Schuller came along who saw the value of architecture in religion. I am not a church-going person myself, but the Crystal Cathedral is a spectacular building that has given Orange County a presence in the architectural world.”

Schuller made plenty of mistakes along the way. In what he calls “ a sad, sad time,” he got caught up briefly in the excessive anti-communism of the 1950s and hurt his reputation with liberal and moderate churchmen. More recently, he lost his temper in public and got in an embarrassing scuffle with an airline attendant that had to be settled in court. But no sexual, financial or other major scandal has ever touched him or his television ministry. In the late 1980s, after the lurid Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals, a rogue reporter infiltrated Schuller’s organization, offering to pay for negative information, verified or not, and couldn’t find anything damaging.

By clinging to his faith and refusing to be swayed from his vision of God’s will for his life, Schuller became not just a great church leader and spiritual teacher but that most Californian of all things, a celebrity.

“They are starting to treat me like Mother Teresa now,” he said in a recent interview in his office at the Crystal Cathedral. “When you get old enough, they don’t mind saying some nice things about you because, if they are wrong, you won’t be around that long.”

Down on the farm
In his autobiography, “My Journey,” Schuller writes that he was born “at the dead end of a dirt road with no name and no number.” His father was a poor farmer with a sixth-grade education; his mother a hardworking farm wife with six children when Robert Henry Schuller, her youngest, was born on Sept. 16, 1926. The First Reformed Church, which his parents belonged to, was the most important building in the nearby country town of Alton, and the minister, or Dominee, was the most feared and respected person around. Drinking, dancing and cursing were taboo.

Despite the repressive aspects of his religion, and the forbidding manner of the Dominee, Schuller decided to become a preacher when he was only 4 and never looked back. His father, Anthony, had wanted to be a preacher, too, but had given up his dream when his parents died and he was forced to quit school and go to work as a farmhand.

A photograph of Schuller with his classmates at the one-room school he attended shows a chubby, smiling boy in overalls. He wasn’t good at sports and got by in the social worlds of grammar and high school by being the class cut-up and by participating in school theatricals and musical performances. Presaging his later embrace of architecture that is dramatically open to and integrated with nature, he loved the outdoors, walking alone in his father’s fields, fishing in a nearby river.

After graduating from high school in 1943 at age 16, he went on to Hope College, a Reform Church school in Michigan. His parents couldn’t afford the $70 tuition, but an older sister who was a schoolteacher pitched in, and Schuller worked as a waiter to earn room and board.

He excelled at English, speech and debate, and was introduced to psychology and Calvinist theology, subjects that excited him. During the summer between junior and senior year, he and three friends with whom he had formed a quartet went on an impromptu singing tour, traveling from church to church in a beat-up Pontiac all the way to Southern California. Stunned by the beauty of the mountains and ocean, Schuller had a premonition he would return for good some day.

At 21, he entered Western Theological Seminary in Michigan where he continued his study of psychology and became a scholar of Calvinist theology, creating the first topical and scriptural index to Calvin’s writing.

John Calvin, a French lawyer who lived in the 16th century, stands alongside Luther, Zwingli and Henry Tudor as one of the four leading thinkers of the Protestant reformation. The Calvinist, Presbyterian and Reform churches are just three of the denominations founded on his teachings. The common conception of those teachings is that Calvin focused, more or less exclusively, on the depravity and sinfulness of human beings, that he was a dark, dour figure who would have struck a match to a heretic to warm his hands.

As Schuller writes, this misinterpretation produced “generations of preachers who fed their parishioners a strong, guilt-generating, humiliating consciousness of ‘sin.’ Any sermon that made every person feel guilty as hell was a great sermon.”

In his own study of Calvin’s writing, Schuller found that the dark view of humanity that prevailed in his childhood church was a product of Calvin’s followers, not Calvin himself. As he read and reread Calvin’s four volume “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he discovered “a theology of hope and joy, liberating humanity from a shaming, blaming, cowering Christianity.”

Things were going good for 23-year-old Robert Schuller in the summer of 1950. In a whirlwind three weeks in June, he graduated from seminary with a bachelor of divinity degree, got married, was ordained as a Reform minister and installed as pastor of his first church.

Two years before while still a seminary student, he had been invited by the little church he grew up in to preach his first official sermon, much to the delight of his family. His organist that Sunday was a pretty, green-eyed girl named Arvella DeHaan. Schuller didn’t know her, but he was so struck by her that he tracked her down at her family’s farm and asked her on a date. She said yes and, after a two-year courtship, they tied the knot on June 15, 1950. Arvella has been an invaluable partner in her husband’s work ever since, serving variously as organist, television producer and chief advisor.

Things were going great, and then the young reverend hit a wall. The Ivanhoe Reformed Church of Dolton, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had 35 members split into two feuding camps, 17 members who had liked the previous pastor vs. 17 members who had disliked him, with one neutral elder trying to keep the peace. Showing an early glimpse of his trademark optimism and initiative, Schuller went door-to-door in nearby neighborhoods, recruiting new members to dilute the animosity in the congregation. He was successful in getting new bodies in the pews, but the people he invited seldom came back a second Sunday.

Schuller had won first prize for preaching his last year in seminary and he was proud of his dignified style and weighty sermons packed with theological arguments. But the newcomers thought he was a snooze. Arvella was the first one to set him straight. “Who are you trying to impress?” she asked him. “Your professors aren’t the ones who need your message.”

When he shared his problems with a denominational superior, the man gave him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” That book led him to read Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Like Schuller, Peale was a Reform Church minister, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, the denomination’s largest congregation. While a seminary student, Schuller had seen Peale preach and dismissed his simple diction and emotional style as unworthy of a real, serious minister. Now, Peale’s book electrified him.

He gave up his heavy, argumentative, judgmental presentation and began to preach a simple, positive message from the pulpit. He rediscovered the “entertainer” who had told stories and wooed audiences at plays during his school days. He also took a fresh look at the gospels and noticed that Jesus had a simple, story-telling style and a predominantly positive message.

“Miraculously, lives in our tiny congregation began to transform,” Schuller writes. “The congregation began to grow… I realized that every sermon I preached should be designed not to ‘teach’ or ‘convert’ people, but rather to encourage them, to give them a lift. I decided to adopt the spirit, style, strategy and substance of a ‘therapist’ in the pulpit.”

“The Christian faith is the ultimate emotional support system,” Schuller says. “It connects you with a God who is generous and affectionate and encouraging. The Psalms, for instance, are therapy pieces of literature that provide great emotional and psychological support.”

Schuller was pastor of the Ivanhoe church for 4 1/2 years. During that time, Arvella gave birth to the first two of the couple’s five children: Sheila, born April 17, 1951, 10 months after the Schullers wed, and Robert Anthony, who now shares the Hour of Power pulpit with his father. By the time Schuller’s denomination sent him to Orange County to start a new church, the congregation had grown from 35 to nearly 500 and was housed in a new sanctuary designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Franklin Olson. It was Olson who first encouraged Schuller to pursue architectural excellence, telling him that he should never let financial considerations force him “to compromise on the fine details of design” when building a church.

“Come as you are in the family car”
When he rolled into Garden Grove with his wife and two children, pulling his worldly goods behind his car in a small trailer, Schuller’s ministry had a net worth of only $400. But his timing was terrific. Orange groves and strawberry fields still covered much of Orange County, which had a population of about 500,000, but raw, new subdivisions, like the one the Schullers moved into, were steadily encroaching on the agricultural land. A few miles to the north, Disneyland was under construction. It opened for business on July 17, 1955, just 4 months after Schuller preached his first sermon at the Orange Drive-in Theater. By 1970, when Schuller’s television show the “Hour of Power” went on the air, the population had tripled to 1.5 million. By the end of the century, it had doubled again, to 3 million. Schuller’s church grew up with the county.

He launched his ministry in a drive-in not to be different, but because he couldn’t find a hall or building to rent. The criticism that would plague him to this day began immediately. A fellow Reformed Church pastor called him up and chewed him out for daring to preach in the “passion pit” of a drive-in theater, where, God forbid, teenagers had been necking the night before.

Schuller was shaken by the harsh rebuke from an older minister, but he followed his vision. Before long, the drive-in was packed each Sunday and the fledgling congregation, chartered as Garden Grove Community Church, decided to build a traditional chapel.

Designed by Los Angeles architect Richard Shelley, the church still stands about three miles west of the Crystal Cathedral, at Chapman and Seacrest. Schuller didn’t have the money in hand to hire a good architect, let alone build the church he wanted, but he went ahead on faith and the 250-seat chapel was built and paid for.

Schuller’s drive-in ministry had attracted a number of faithful parishioners who had handicaps that prevented them from attending a normal church, so the 29-year-old pastor kept both locations going, preaching two sermons each Sunday morning. In his spare time he went door-to-door in Garden Grove and the surrounding cities, asking people what they were looking for in a church and inviting them to attend his services.

Before long, he decided to combine the two services by building the world’s first walk-in/drive-in church. The idea met strong resistance in the congregation and his treasurer, clerk and secretary were among a group of 40 who quit the church. Schuller was “stunned with grief” by the loss of these trusted friends but he persevered. At Richard Shelley’s suggestion, he contacted Richard Neutra, now recognized as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, to design his ­ and God’s ­ new building.

They turned out to be soulmates and between them created a masterpiece of modern architecture. Neutra, author of “Survival Through Design,” an influential work of modernist theory, believed that nature displays the most elegant of all architecture and that people must build in concert, not conflict, with the natural world. His design included a vast glass wall facing south, extensive landscaping and a number of outdoor pools and waterfalls. The pulpit was positioned by a large glass door that slid back so that Schuller could preach to the indoor and drive-in congregations at the same time.

The original Neutra buildings, completed in 1961, sit behind the Crystal Cathedral. They form a U shape with fountains and gardens in the open space. The quadrangle was completed in 1968 when Neutra’s Tower of Hope was built. With its 90-foot-tall, illuminated cross, the 12-story building was the tallest structure in Orange County for a number of years and the only skyscraper-type church facility in the world.

Taken as a whole, Neutra’s campus is one of the finest examples of classical modern architecture to be found anywhere. An exterior staircase on the tower is one of the most magical elements, appearing to rise heavenward without any support like a modern-day Jacob’s ladder. Walking around the buildings and courtyard — which are always open for visitation — creates a soothing psychological state, a sense of inner peace and harmony.

“I think that the Neutra sanctuary is still the best building in Orange County,” says Heinfeld. “With its use of glass, stone and wood, it is the type of model we look to when we design buildings at LPA. There is something about that space that has a real impact on you when you enter it. I cannot imagine a better place to go to church.”

“There is something spiritual about architecture,” Schuller says. “It can create an emotional impact into the human personality. I have learned as much [about the nature of reality] from my association with architects and architecture as from my theological education. Architecture helped make me the person I am.”

Schuller is a lifetime member of the AIA, a rare honor for someone outside the profession. “He was made a lifetime member because of his patronage of architecture,” Heinfeld says. “He demands and gets the best out of us. He follows through and gets it done.”

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The Crystal Cathedral
By the mid-70s, Schuller’s congregation had outgrown Neutra's church. Tormented by seeing people who needed solace turned away for lack of space, Schuller hired Philip Johnson, another of the century’s most noted architects, to design an all-glass church that would seat 3,000. Co-author of “The International Style,” a text that set the tone of modern architecture for decades, Johnson was known for his daring designs. When he heard Schuller’s idea, though, he shook his head.

“It’s impossible,” he said.

Schuller didn’t think so. Before long, Johnson caught his vision and they embarked on a five-year endeavor that culminated on Sept. 14, 1980 when the Crystal Cathedral opened its doors to the world.

Building on the campus at the corner of Chapman and Lewis continued through the 1990s into the new millennium, as the campus itself grew to encompass 40 acres. The Family Life Center, a large building that houses a 370-student school and the Hour of Power offices, was designed by Gin Wong and made possible by a gift from Athalie Clarke, an Irvine heir.

The International Center for Possibility Thinking, which houses a museum, gift shop and visitors center, was designed by Richard Meier, the architect who designed the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and other important buildings. John Anderson, president of the American Institute of Architects, attended the March 2001 groundbreaking for the Center, another indication of the high regard the profession has for Schuller.

Over the years, Schuller has been criticized for “wasting money” on fancy buildings that could have gone to feed the poor and clothe the hungry. He has two responses: “First of all, there’s not a penny in those buildings,” he says. “All the money went to truck drivers and glassmakers and steelworkers.” He also points out that you can only arrive at a true sense of the cost of architecture by amortizing it over time. The longer a building lasts, the less it costs per unit of time or use. Just 25 years after it was completed, the $20 million cost of the Crystal Cathedral seems paltry in a county where three-bedroom houses by the water now go for more than $1 million.

“I expect the cathedral to last to the end of civilized time, “ Schuller says. “It will have to be maintained, of course, but it won’t wear out.”

“I was hungry, and you fed me”
The scope of Schuller’s ministry grew along with the campus. In 1969, he launched the Institute for Successful Church Leadership, which in turn launched the mega-church movement. Instead of building an empire under his control, Schuller shared his ideas and techniques with pastors of all denominations.

The core of his message was ­ and is ­ that pastors should think of themselves not as churchmen building up their denominations, concerned with creeds and theological correctness, requiring people to conform to their rules and regulations, but as missionaries reaching out to meet people’s needs and bring them to a knowledge of God.

“The church age is not dying,” Schuller says. “It is dead. Theological seminaries have long taught graduates how to be church pastors, to minister to members of a denomination. I started an institute to teach the principles of preaching in this new mission age.”

“People criticize Dr. Schuller for not quoting scripture enough, and for adapting the gospels to what people want to hear,” says Glenn A. DeMaster, executive pastor at the Crystal Cathedral, one of eight ordained ministers on Schuller’s staff. “Most of the criticism comes from people within various churches who are used to doing things a certain way and used to a certain kind of ‘religious’ language. But when you are establishing a mission you have to learn about the culture of the people you are trying to reach and use the language and illustrations they understand. Many people in Orange County don’t know the difference between the New and Old Testaments. And many people who see Dr. Schuller on television don’t even know what the bible is. Quoting scripture won’t impress them. So Dr. Schuller has always thought in terms of ‘How do I connect with these people? How do I get them to take one step closer?’”

Thousands of pastors have absorbed Schuller’s ideas about the mission age in seminars at the institute and gone out to build great churches of their own. Among the alumni are Bishop Charles Blake, who pastors an 18,000-member church in Los Angeles; Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest where 23,000 people worship each Sunday; Frank Harrington, leader of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, the largest Presbyterian church in America; and Sundo Kim who pastors the 50,000-member First Methodist Church in Seoul, Korea, the largest Methodist Church in the world.

Shortly after starting his leadership institute, Schuller began the “Hour of Power.” It went on the air Feb. 8, 1970, and has continued ever since, reaching hundreds of millions of people during the course of 35 years with Schuller’s positive message of human potential and divine grace.

Crystal Cathedral Ministries, as the church has been called since 1980, operates dozens of local ministries focused on children, students, singles, older people, Hispanics, people in grief and people struggling with addictions. The New Hope suicide prevention hotline has been open and staffed with trained counselors 24 hours a day for 36 years ­ ever since the Tower of Hope opened for spiritual business with its illuminated cross visible for miles across the floodplain of the Santa Ana River.

According to Dr. Beverely Muffin, director of Community Missions, the church also participates in many charitable causes and community partnerships that provide food, clothes and other assistance to the needy. “We work with the Orange County Rescue Mission, The House of Hope for abused women, the downtown L.A. Mission and many others. We collect and distribute thousands and thousands of cans of food and items of clothing. We have a full spectrum literacy and ESL program and we partner with the Lampson Elementary School, which is near here and has a lot of disadvantaged kids. Last year, we provided a new book to each child and organized a summer reading program in which about 1,000 K-thru-5 children read more than 700,000 pages.”

“We are very fortunate to have a wonderful community partnership with the youth services staff at the cathedral,” says Lampson Principal Lynn Matassarin. “The volunteers spend 90 minutes each day with the children, organizing games and activities. Last year, the church donated bicycles to the top readers in each grade.”

Take up your cross and follow me
Seen from a distance, Schuller’s life looks like a spectacular success. Iowa rube comes to la-la land and hits the bigtime. Everything he touches turns to gold. And his life is, in fact, a triumph. But it wasn’t an easy one. The man has suffered along the way. He suffered schism within his church in the early days, financial challenges and headaches beyond belief, criticism and ridicule, personal trauma and family tragedy. But he never gave up on God, and, apparently, God never gave up on him.

When he was still preaching at the drive-in, the associate pastor of his church turned against him and accused him of heresy because of his integration of psychology with religion. Schuller was acquitted in a trial in denominational court, but he was so depressed by the betrayal, and felt so alone and unloved, that he prayed to die. Not once, but night after night, pleading, “God, take me out gracefully, please. A fatal heart attack will do just fine. Amen.”

Eventually, when he didn’t die, he prayed for mental and emotional healing and, according to his autobiography, received it in miraculous fashion.

During the planning and construction of the Crystal Cathedral, he ran up against a series of financial roadblocks and booby traps that would have defeated most people. When he embarked on the plan, the cost was estimated at $7 million. But inflation was high and it was a unique project. The cost kept going up ­ to $9 million, $13 million and finally more than $20 million. His faith wobbled but didn’t break. He kept forging ahead, never knowing if he would have the money to complete the project or if it would end in colossal failure, proving all his critics right.

Similar financial and credibility problems attended most of his large building and ministry projects. Audacious ideas are easy to accept once they are carried out by someone with guts and vision, but tend to raise a lot of eyebrows and attract naysayers when they are first broached.

Along with his professional trials, Schuller had his share of personal and family problems. In 1978, his daughter Carol, then a teenager, was in a motorcycle accident that shattered her leg and sent her flying into a ditch filled with runoff from a slaughterhouse. Infections threatened her life for months and her leg had to be amputated. In 1984, Schuller’s son Anthony, by then an ordained minister, went through a painful divorce. In 1992, Schuller suffered a freak head injury that nearly killed him. Eight hours of emergency brain surgery left him unable to write, speak or think clearly for weeks, and took him a year to fully recover from. Not too long afterward, he underwent angioplasty after a near heart attack.

But trials and tribulations couldn't defeat him. Through it all, he kept growing as a person and spiritual leader. He refused to take refuge in dogma or to be fossilized within a stagnant institution. He kept his mind open to new ideas, kept studying psychology, attending the top international conferences on psychiatry and psychotherapy and applying the latest concepts from that world to his mission as a therapist/preacher. He cultivated the friendship of world renowned thinkers such as Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search For Meaning,” and the founder of Logotherapy.

And Schuller never gave up on his vision of building God’s church in California. “I came here to build a church,” he says. “And I thought it should be one of the great churches of the world.”

Asked to name Schuller’s best quality as a leader, DeMaster cites his stubbornness. “Dr. Schuller never surrenders leadership to other people or groups when he feels strongly that the church should go in a certain direction. A lot of his success is due to the fact that he will not allow anyone or anything to distract or divert him from the vision God has given him.

“Another thing I’ve learned from him ­ maybe the most important thing ­ is that God gives us dreams bigger than we can comprehend. The line he uses on us all the time is, ‘If we can figure it out, it’s probably not God’s idea. But if it’s such a big idea that we can’t figure it out, then we better pay attention because God will have to be in it if it is going to happen.’”

A good and faithful servant
At age 78, Robert Schuller seems to be approaching the end of his active ministry. He is still an inspirational speaker in the pulpit of his landmark cathedral on Sunday mornings. But he is several years into a planned transition aimed at handing the television ministry over to his son Robert Anthony Schuller.

“I’ve never seen a ministry make the transition from father to son very successfully,” says DeMaster. “But I have been very, very pleased by the way things are going with Robert Anthony stepping up into more of a leadership role. I think the response from the television audience and congregation has been growing as they see the two of them together, with Robert Anthony picking up more and more things, and his dad a little bit less and less.”

Up close, greeting a visitor and talking in his office, Schuller shows his age. The years of heavy stress and often-lonely struggle have left their mark. A big man, he moves across the room with careful steps. His eyes are a bit bleary and his thought process, while still clear, is slower than it once was. He sometimes gropes for names and statistics, turning to an aide to fill in blurry spots in his memory.

But he has a powerful, inspirational presence and his enthusiasm is undiminished. Still curious, perceptive and excited about life, he is currently correcting galleys for yet another book, “Don’t Throw Away Tomorrow,” slated for January publication.

“Yes,” he answers, when asked if he is content with his life’s work. “I think I have done what I came here to do. The campus is complete and the church is debt-free.”

Asked about his relationship with God after 55 years of ministry, he says that God is “always present. I’ve gotten to the point where I see God in everything now. He is working within all of us, whether we know it or not. You called to make an appointment and I said ‘Yes.’ Now we are talking and God is here too, inspiring the questions you ask and the answers I give.”

Asked what his message to Orange County is today, he smiles and says, “Oh, just tell them to come and see us. And be sure to mention my new book. It has some great new stuff in it.” OCM

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Readers Feedback:

Comment at 2/3/2009
he was chosen- probably out of his humble station in his human journey. I think philosophically, that he delivers the most purest form of the christian experience of modern times, and I believe that his experience of christ is true-pure and contrived by his theological heritage and reflective nature as an individual. The beauty of christian academia is that rationality often intertwines itself with faith in such a way that those drawn to live by the resurrection realize that their lives become emblematic of their conviction. I see Dr. Schuller inthis light. His life has exemplified christ's.His message was so strong in my life that I wanted to walk to garden grove to meet him. He "Won and influenced me many years ago !"
Comment at 7/1/2009