Friday, April 30, 2010

Will Jones, Superstar!

Today I am taking a break from my regular blog activities to brag a little bit about our son Will, and ramble a bit about a few other things.  Will is pictured above (he's the big one!) with his cousin Ryder in NC last summer.  He is a great kid, who has been through a lot (6 moves in his first 11 years, among other things) and come out the other side just fine.  He has always been a great student and has won several awards and participated in many honors programs.  Yesterday we learned that a short story he wrote for a class at Sickles High School was entered in a creative writing contest- and won!  Will is going to be honored in May as the best 9th grade creative writer in all of Hillsborough County, FL.  The story was a cop story, written in a first person narrative, that his teacher actually thought was too creative to win.  I knew he was a gifted writer (he made a perfect score on his FCAT Writing Test last year); this just confirms it.  Marilyn and I are so proud of him for so many things.   This is just icing on the cake!  Congratulations Will; we love you!

This Sunday the family is headed to Orlando to see a couple of old friends.   After lunch with our buddy Jerry, we will be meeting our old friend Ken from Springfield Friends Meeting for dinner.  Ken is at Disney for a conference, and we are so excited to catch up with him.  We love catching up with old friends, and Will loves putting faces with all the names and stories he has heard over the years.

And finally, since I am rambling today, I can't let this post go by without mentioning the Tampa Bay Rays!  It is so exciting to have the best team in baseball right here in our backyard.  They are just hammering the American League right now, and with an all-star caliber player at most every position I don't see them slowing down much.  They are now 17-5.  Go Rays!

Tomorrow, I promise I'll get back to Hollywood and the recording studio.  Today had to be all about Will.  He is truly a blessing.  And Marilyn is not bad either...    :)  I thank God I have both of them in my life!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 29, 2010

CCM Countdown: 4A

Today my countdown of the 50 (OK, so it's more like 60 with all the ties!) Contemporary Christian Music albums that had the greatest impact on my life and ministry. This is our second number 4; we will move on to #3 next Thursday- and there will be no more ties!  To see last week's post and get links all the way back to the beginning, click here!

4)  THE GREAT ADVENTURE-  Steven Curtis Chapman-  1992
I was only vaguely aware of SC2 when I cam across this project in 1992, but it quickly became one of my favorites.  I used the title track on a couple of slide shows, including the epic 1993 Magic Tour show.  I also performed two of the songs in worship at FUMC-K.  The CD had a profound influence on my theology, my ministry and my musical tastes.  I still love it.

The album begins with Prologue, an instrumental that sounds like something out of a sweeping western epic and builds until we hear those first words:  "Saddle up your horses!"  The Great Adventure takes off, and is a song about living life for Jesus with passion and zest.  The lyrics never cease to inspire me; "Come on get ready for the ride of your life.  Gonna' leave long-faced religion in a cloud of dust behind...This is life like no other, this is the great adventure!"  Where We Belong talks about finding our place in God's world; That's Paradise speaks of how living for Jesus can bring heaven to earth; and Still Called Today reminds us that following Jesus didn't go out of style with the disciples.  Walk With the Wise encourages us to know the scriptures and hang out with people of God.  And Got To B Tru features a hilarious "rap battle" between SC2 and Toby Mac of dc Talk that reminds us to be ourselves.  And my classic "bonus" CD has a medley of a bunch of Steven's early songs performed at the Dove Awards in Nashville.  A truly great album.

Real Life Conversations-   1988
More To This Life-   1989
For the Sake of the Call-   1990
Heaven In the Real World-  1994*
Signs of Life-   1996
Speechless-   1998*
Declaration-   2001
All About Love-   2003
All Things New-   2004
*indicates albums also included in this countdown

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Bonus Post

I have never made two post in one day before, but here is a bonus from the I Don't Know If Anyone Cares But I Am Going To Tell You Anyway Department:

We are now officially a one car family after selling the station wagon yesterday.  I celebrated our new economical and environmentally friendly status by catching a bus at 6:15 AM this morning.  Seven and one half hours, six buses, two miles walked and two appointments and a lunch later, I was home.  This one car thing is a piece of cake...if you need me I will be home ALL DAY tomorrow!


I don't really remember how it happened to me. It may have been one of those jobs you get when you don't know that you should just say NO!   I know that when I arrived at FUMC-K there was a bit of a controversy about how John Willis did the children's sermon each Sunday.  He often used a muppet-type character named Hollywood to help him teach.  Hollywood did not have many fans among the adults of the congregation.  He wore a cowboy hat and a red bandanna and glasses (I can't believe I don't have a picture of him to share). They thought he was silly and childish (Yes, I know, and I'm coming back to how ridiculous that sounds) and that he took away from worship.  Some of the leadership even demanded that Hollywood's appearances be cut back.  Even the youth liked to pick on John and kidnapped Hollywood from time to time.  Somehow, it the midst of all this turmoil, I became the straight man for John and his muppet on Sundays.  It was quite a ride!

You see, when you were up on the platform talking with John and Hollywood, things could get very strange.  First of all, it was often hard to know who you were talking to.  John was no ventriloquist; his mouth was always moving, and their voices were not all that different; at least until Hollywood got excited.  It took me a while to learn who to respond to.  Add in the unpredictability of the kids who would join us up front, and every week was a circus!  I could almost understand why some people thought the whole thing was a little over the top...

But here's the deal; to the children that his messages were aimed at, Hollywood was a rock star!  They got him.  They could repeat everything he said to them.  I would walk across our campus during the week and the kids in our church school and child care would yell at me, "HEY!!!  You know Hollywood!"  It was amazing.  The more I was part of it, the more I came to understand what I came to call The Hollywood Principle.

The Hollywood Principle states that if we want children and youth to be a part of our churches. then we need to be willing to give up things for them.  For instance, if we want youth to feel like they are important in worship, then some of the music should reflect their tastes.  If adults are not willing to give up some of their preferences, we send a very negative message.  Hollywood taught me that.  He seemed "childish" because he was there for the children!  It really didn't matter if the adults "got him" or not- that is not who he was there for.  John Willis understood that is a big way.  We were never just "winging it" on Sunday mornings; we would work on the children's moment every Monday and Thursday, and then practice again at 8 AM on Sunday.  This moment of ministry connected John to the children of the church in ways you cannot imagine unless you sat where I sat on Sunday mornings.  It was an honor to be a part of it all. 

Hanging around with Hollywood was always cool, but never better than when I got to go into the recording studio with him...that story is coming Friday.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Youth Ministry Team

I had served Springfield Friends Meeting for eight years as their Director of Youth and Christian Education.  During that time my primary role had been that of youth pastor, but I also had other responsibilities.  Many other responsibilities.  I had had been the coordinator of Sunday School, recruiting teachers, picking curriculum and ordering supplies.  I had led the Family Life Committee, planning events for the church family, including our regular Wednesday night suppers.  I had worked with our senior citizens group, the Neighborly Club.  I had organized and directed our Wednesday after-school program for elementary students.  I did the "Children's Moment" every Sunday morning during worship.  And I would preach when the senior pastor was away.  I stayed busy.

My job at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee was much less frazzled.  I was the Director of Youth Ministries.  That was it.  My task was to minister to and plan programs, trips and events for 6th -12th grade students.  This was my passion and my calling, and I would finally be able to give it all of my energy and not feel like I was slighting another ministry.  I was so psyched to be in this new position.  But there was one part of this student ministry that would be very different for me.  I was going to have help.

The "Youth Ministry Team" at Springfield had been very easy to communicate with, since I lived with her.  You see, Marilyn was often the only help I had with the youth there.  We would get parents to help on trips, and we did hire a couple of interns over the years, but for the most part it was just me and my wife.  At FUMC-K, the Youth Ministry Team was ready and waiting when I arrived.  Rev. John Willis had sent me a list of those who were helping out while they were waiting on me.  The list included Cathy Thacker, Andrew Lewis, Karen Biddle, Kay Hill, Jill Painter, Brad Watson and Carlene Heck.  It also mentioned a college student named Jerry Hanbery who might be around to help (although that first summer he led his own youth group in Orlando) and Pete Lynes, who worked some with Andrew and the youth choir.  Karen Hall would also re-join the team soon after my arrival, and Becky Watson and Michael McCleery would be around once college classes were over in May.  And Darin Miller was on the way!  It seemed like a cast of thousands to me, and I wasn't exactly sure how to proceed.  It became clear to me very quickly that all of these folks were helping because they loved Jesus, the youth, the church.  They wanted me to give them leadership and guidance.  They wanted to see our ministry make a difference.  We held a retreat at Alligator Lake (thanks to Dick and Kay Simmons) in early May, and we could feel God working among us to create His vision for youth ministry at FUMC-K.

My new role became that of "Shepherd" to this group of adults. They would serve as teachers and mentors and smalll group leaders.  And I would serve them.  I loved every minute of it.  Our monthly Youth Counselor meetings were always eventful and worthwhile, with lots of food and fun.  Our retreats were legendary, and you will read more about them in later posts here.   We would lose people as time went by, but there were always new folks (Karen Fry, Mark McKenna, Cindy Martin, Janet Cook, Wayne Cook, Sandi Lynch, Mike Mangun, Carol Kraus, Matt Schmidt, Dana Schmidt and more) ready to step up and fill the void.  In my six years at FUMC-K, I never lacked for help, and I still thank God for all of those with whom who I was privileged to share that ministry.   The picture at the top is from a Youth Counselor Christmas party in 1998 (I think) at The Grand Floridian.  You will hear more about many of these amazing people in the days to come.  They were not only co-workers; they were my best friends.

There was still one more job I had yet to learn about.  I was going to get to work with Hollywood...

Because of Jesus,

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Legend of Bob

One of the great challenges of going to a new ministry is learning names.  Everyone learns your name in a heartbeat; after all, you are just one person.  Trying to learn the names of your new co-workers, the youth, the parents and everyone else is a major undertaking.   Upon my arrival at First Methodist- Kissimmee I warned all of the youth it might take me a few weeks to get all of their names right.  In the meantime, I informed them, if I needed them and could not remember their correct name, I would simply call them "Bob."  This happened quite a few times the first few weeks.  Slowly but surely I learned names, faces, and how to tell a Teresa Reep from a Cyndi Reep!

There was one name I just could not remember.  Jennifer Minnigan (pictured) was an 8th grader who I took an immediate liking to; she would turn out to be an extremely memorable part of our student ministry.  But in those early weeks, she was quite often called Bob.  She was such a good sport about it, and we had so much fun joking about it, that even after I learned her name I just kept calling her Bob.  And I was not alone...

Jennifer just became Bob.  Everyone began calling her that, and it was soon the only name she answered to at church.  She told me recently that in those days people would call her house and ask for Bob, and her mother would be really confused because Bob was also the name of her ex-husband.  There were youth who were very active in those days and did not know her name was Jennifer- she was always Bob to them!

"Bob" was much more than just a name, though.  Jennifer was a leader in our youth group, someone I always counted on for insight and laughter.  It was like being Bob gave her superpowers and a secret identity.  She may not have been a "star" of the group when I arrived, but by the end of my first summer she was well on her way to my Hall of Fame.  She is someone who has stuck by me through good times and bad.  She and her husband Jun live here in Tampa and we had lunch just last week.  They are very active in their church and run a restaurant in Clearwater.  I know, even today, if I need Jennifer Minnigan Kuramochi all I have to do is call.  And her number would be easy for me to find; I just need to look in my cell directory under Bob.  Thanks for everything Jen- and welcome to the Hall of Fame!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sing Alleluia to the Lord!

Sing to the LORD a new song, for He has done marvelous things.  -Psalm 98

Another Sunday.  Another day to praise the Lord and lift high the name of Jesus.  Another day to experience the grace and forgiveness of God.  And yet, for me, Sunday is a day to remember how much my sin and stupidity cost me.  Grace is free; it is not cheap.

It has now been over three years since I stood in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning or a youth group on a Sunday afternoon.  There is so much I miss about student ministry;  I miss the relationships with the youth;  I miss the interaction with the youth counselors and the parents;  I miss the trips and the concerts and the programs.  But mostly (and especially on Sunday), what I miss is leading worship with the youth.  I miss standing in front of a crowd with my guitar and leading them in singing praise to the Savior.  There is something magical about choosing a song, playing it, and having a group sing it. The picture above is of me leading worship at the Kissimmee lake front one of my very first Sundays there.  I love the picture and I treasure that memory.   When you are up front, the voices come at you like a wave.  You can actually feel the passion.  You look out into a sea of smiles, of raised hands and of prayerful faces.  The music is the medium; but what you feel is a connection to God and to one another.  Every Sunday morning when I wake up I remember those feelings, and I pray that God will use the day to remind me of the blessings of my life, both then and now.

Of all the songs I have ever led, and all the places I have led them, nothing compares to leading Sing Alleluia with the youth of FUMC-K.  That simple little worship chorus, with the guys singing one part and the girls singing an echo, sounded like a symphony when they would sing it.  We sang a lot of great songs (Sanctuary, Prince of Peace, Lions, Radical Man. Where Justice Rolls Down and so many more- leave a comment and let me know what other songs you remember singing at youth group!) and sang a lot of them very well.  But Sing Alleluia was the song that always made it clear to everyone present that Jesus was present.  When I would quit playing the last time through and the acapela voices would fill the room, I had no doubt that the angels were singing with us.  So today, wherever you may worship and whatever you may sing, remember to "sing alleluia to the Lord."  Lift high the name of Jesus.  And do not take for granted the blessings you have today and every day.

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 24, 2010


The first Saturday after we arrived in Kissimmee Marilyn and I were invited to a baseball game in which one of the college students who helped with the youth group, Brad Watson, was pitching for Valencia Community College (I think).  They told us where the ballpark was, just off Sand Lake Road in Orlando.  We knew where Sand Lake was from our early Disney trips from Springfield.  So we headed out.  There was something we did not yet know about central Florida, however.  Many roads have more than one location.  A street will begin, then end, and then start up again in some totally random place.  Sometimes they will change names at one intersection, and then change back to the original name several miles down the road.  It can be massively confusing. 

We found Sand Lake down near the Florida Mall and began following the directions we had been given.  We soon found ourselves out near the Orlando Airport.  This was not good.  The area we were looking for was closer to where Universal Studios are now.  We drove and we drove; we stopped and asked for directions a few times; we got very lost.  It served as just one more reminder of how little we actually knew about our new area and our new lives.

But as with most of those reminders, there was great joy to be found in the journey.  We finally arrived at the game and got to see Brad pitch.  His father, Vern Watson, was there and we got to spend time with him.  Jill Painter was there as well, and we laughed all afternoon as she tried desperately to get Vern to stick to his diabetic diet- with absolutely no success!  We made two very good friends that day just for showing up to enjoy a baseball game.  It was a reminder of another sort- that God is present in all that we do.  Jesus is with us all the time, but especially when we are lost.  God is good all the time.  Our first Sunday was the next day, and we had so much to be thankful for.  The preliminaries were over- it was time for my first youth group in Kissimmee!  It was time to "Sing Alleluia!"

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 23, 2010

So Now What?

Having arrived in Kissimmee, put boxes and furniture in the house and gone to our first youth event, it was time to get serious about what to do first in my new role as Director of Youth Ministries at FUMC-K.  As mentioned previously, I had received letters from some of the youth and the adult volunteers welcoming me and indicating some of their hopes and expectations of me.  These letters were written at youth group on March 20, 1994- about one month before my arrival.  Most of these letters were excouraging and sounded as if the students were excited to have a new youth pastor on the way,  Others...well they certainly made me think.  Here are a few direct quotes (yes I still have the letters; go ahead and laugh!) from the kid's letters.  Names have been withheld to save any embarassment (but if you would like to guess, feel free to comment or e-mail me!).
  • "We look forward to your coming with much anxiety...I am not sure what changes you have planned."
  • "My favorite hobby is to start fires.  I hate cats and every time I see one I have no choice but to kill the animal.  I hope you are not a bug collector."
  • "I need to talk to you about me the day you get here April 14th."
  • "Brace yourself.  HA HA don't know what you are jumping into."  (This letter included a sketch of a man jumping off of a diving board into an empty swimming pool-  such encouragement!)
  • "Everyone here is excited you are coming.  I myself am not over enthusiastic, but I am glad someone is coming..."
If the youth letters left me feeling a bit nervous about getting started, the letters from the adults made it clear that the task was daunting and the expectations were high.  Those thoughts were made ever clearer by a survey I had sent to volunteers who were working with the group in advance of my coming.  I had asked five questions of them.  I wanted to know the strengths of the group;  the weaknesses; the primary needs, or where I needed to start; how they saw themselves fitting in; and finally, what had summer programs been like in the past.   Over and over again I read that the strength was the closeness and commitment of the students who were involved, except for the few who found that closeness was translating into cliques.  But now there were many less than had been there just a few years before, and people found that depressing.  Having had three leaders in two years, with me being number four, had left everyone a bit staggered.  The words that kept coming up were leadership and stability.  The good news was I would have lots of help; one writer told me that some Sunday evenings there were more adults than students at youth group.  The bad news was that there were more adults...

My normal approach would have been to work my way in slowly, seeing what was working and what needed to be changed.  After reading the letters and surveys and praying about it, I knew I needed to come in with the cannons firing.  This was a ministry anchored in the past;  both the glorious past of huge crowds and strong leadership, and the more recent past of failure and abandonment.  It was time to go forward and to do it with great energy.  Fortunately, summer was only 6 weeks away, and I knew I could show them leadership an energy like they had seldom seen before.  The survey responses indicated that summers had been pretty basic in years past, with a mission trip and what they called "Breakaways" to lake homes or houses with pools on Sunday afternoons.  At least five of the surveys stated that "anything I planned would be OK."  I had to laugh.  They had no idea who they were dealing with...YET!  I hope you all have a blessed weekend!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

CCM Countdown: 4

My countdown continues today as we reach the first of two #4's on my list of the 50 Contemporary Christian albums that had the most influence on my life and ministry.  To see last week's posting and get links all the way back to number 50, click here.

4)  JARS OF CLAYJars of Clay-  1995
Very rarely does any band, Christian or otherwise, produce an absolute classic on its' first try, but that is exactly what Jars of Clay did with this self-titled debut album.  Their sound was unique and their message was clear, and every song was like a symphony- complex, melodic and captivating.  We played this CD loud and often in the youth room at First United Methodist Church- Kissimmee.  The youth choir there sang a couple of the songs as well.  And later on we would do Love Song For A Savior as a worship song in Tampa.

Liquid opens the project with its' haunting "This is the one thing that I know" chorus and heavy violin sound.  Love Song For A Savior (see video below) captures so beautifully the relationship between Jesus and those who follow Him.  My personal favorite, Like A Child, reminds us all that we need to trust God like children trust their parents, and if we do, then our faith can move mountains.  It is an amazing song.  Other tunes include Art In Me, Boy On A String and Sinking.  The song Flood changed the way Christian music was viewed by those outside the church as the video was in heavy rotation on MTV (back when they played videos!) and the song was all over popular radio.  The song uses the thought of flood waters to help us see that only Christ can rescue us from drowning in sin.  The opening acoustic guitar rift still gives me chills.  The CD ends with Worlds Apart, which concludes with the lyric "because what I need and what I believe are worlds apart."  It is still often the closing number of their concerts, which are incredible- now.  Back in 1995 they did a lot of standing around on stage; so much, in fact, that we came to call being disorganized on stage "claying."  I never thought Jars would be able to top their debut album- but I was wrong.  This is the second of 3 Jars of Clay projects on this countdown...

Much Afraid-  1997
If I Left the Zoo-  1999
The Eleventh Hour-  2002
Who We Are Instead-  2003
Redemption Songs-  2005*
Good Monsters-  2006*
*indicates album also included in this countdown

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Get outta' town!"

The first official youth event that Marilyn and I took part in after arriving in Kissimmee was a "welcome aboard" dinner and pool party at the home of Dr. Jill Painter.  It was a great night and a wonderful opportunity to meet and greet many of the youth and adults who would be a huge part of our lives in the day ahead.  There was lots of food, lots of fellowship, and a few unforgettable moments.

I learned very quickly that Dr. Jill (in picture at right with Philip Christian, Brian Watson, Ben Thacker and a reclining Todd Willis) had a unique relationship with many of the students at FUMC-K, both past and present.  Several of them treated her very nice house like a second home- because it was!  They raided her refrigerator, went from the pool to the house while still wet and just generally behaved as if they lived there.  I could tell Jill loved every minute of it.  And the kids certainly loved Jill.  This was the first of many parties and meetings that took place at her home during my years in K-town, and the first of MANY amazing times that Marilyn and I spent with the good doctor- including the night our son was born.

I remember spending a great deal of the evening trying to put names and faces together, and trying to put all of that with the letters I had received from many of the youth before my arrival.  It was memory overload, but it had to be done.  I remember sitting in Jill's living room and just soaking in the conversations around me, trying to get a feel for this new group of youth, and feeling very much like an outsider.  I had just come from a place where I knew the lives of the students so well; I knew every inside joke; I knew who could be picked on and who was extra sensitive;  I knew it all!  Now I was starting all over, and feeling just a little scared about it all.  Maybe I wouldn't fit in.  Maybe I was in over my head.  I just didn't know.

At some point during the evening everyone gathered in the house and John Willis made an official introduction.  Several little speeches were made about how happy we were to be there and about how happy they were to have us there.  John was talking about new beginnings and new excitement, but as often happens with a group of teenagers they had fallen into their own little conversations.  John's son Todd Willis, a high school junior at the time, was chatting with his good buddy Matt Wheeler about something as John welcomed us to Kissimmee.  Just as John was introducing Marilyn and I to the group, Matt said something Todd found difficult to believe, and Todd yelled out, "Get outta' town!"  Since it all happened at once, it sounded to everyone like Todd's response to his dad's welcome was to ask us to leave.  It was hilarious, and we roasted Todd unmercifully.  For the first time that night, it felt like home.  Somehow, with that one off-hand comment, Todd had broken my tension and reminded me that youth are youth no matter where you go, and that as long as I stayed faithful I was going to be just fine. 

For those of you who may be newer readers, each Thursday for the past several months I have been doing a countdown of the 50 Contemporary Christian Music albums that had the most impact on my life and ministry through 2006.  I have reached number 5, and it just so happens that the next three weeks will feature music that often rocked the youth room in Kissimmee.  I hope you'll join me!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Messing With Happy

As it turned out, Marilyn and I didn't have long to talk or pray about moving to Kissimmee.  We had only been back in High Point for a day when John Willis called and offered me the job as Director of Youth Ministries at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee.  I had known I was a finalist, but I was still surprised to get the job offer.  I told John we would need a few days to pray and make our decision, and so we decided I would get back to him on Monday.  It was a Wednesday night.  A decision had to be made.

There were so many factors to weigh as we talked about what to do.  I did feel God pulling me towards FUMC-K.  I felt like they had a need and that the gifts God had given me would fit that need well.  They would pay me more, and the house we would live in was much nicer that the one at Springfield. Actually, the people from Kissimmee kept apologizing about how small the house was-  if they could have only seen what we had lived in the previous 8 years!  (In keeping with tradition, the front door and the bathroom lined up perfectly!)   We loved everyone we had met from FUMC-K, and were especially fond of John and Pat Willis.  The church had wonderful resources for youth ministry, including a huge youth room and a $10,000 youth budget (the largest I ever had at SFM was $800).  There were many reasons to go.  There were reasons to stay as well.  Our extended families were all in NC at the time, although my parents were planning a move to Florida in a couple of years.  We loved the people of Springfield Friends Meeting, and they loved us.  There was no real reason to leave.  My grandfather's words just kept coming to us:  "Don't mess with happy!"  Sunday came, and we worshipped and led youth group and were still not settled on an answer.  We laid in bed most of the night just talking and praying and asking God to lead us.  And somehow, without any burning bushes or lightning bolts, by morning we knew.  We were going to Kissimmee.  We called John and gave him the news, asking for 60 days to say good-bye and get our affairs in order, and it was done.  We had messed with happy.

Over those 60 days, as we were crazy busy with youth stuff at Springfield (see EVERYTHING!),  we also became more and more clear that Jesus was leading us to Kissimmee.  John kept sending us pictures of people (like the one at the top, featuring Kay Hill, an unknown, Brad Watson and Teresa Reep in the back, and Jill Souther, Erin Bay and Cyndi Reep in front; this is one of the actual pics John sent me) so we could learn names and faces;  he sent me a list of the volunteer youth workers so I could begin contact with them, and I sent them a survey to complete.  He called me looking for the name of a Billy Joel song (it was River of Dreams) that he wanted to use with the youth on a Sunday evening.  We drove to Kissimmee once with Marilyn's Miata and left it, using that time to see what we needed for our new home.  Then on April 14 (after our final week in NC including TWO Billy Joel concerts, one in Charlotte and one in Chapel Hill!) we drove our rented truck and my car down, surviving a torrential thunderstorm in Jacksonville along the way.  We arrived to find 20 or more of our new friends ready to help us unload the truck.  It was an amazing start to a new chapter in our lives.  We were nervous and excited and ready to get started.  A dinner and pool party were planned for us the following evening at the home of Dr. Jill Painter, one of the youth ministry volunteers.  Everything seemed perfect.  Who knew we were about to be told to "Get outta' town..."

Because of Jesus,

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Black-eyed Pea? Really?

Welcome to all of my new readers from Kissimmee!  Please feel free to sign the Guestbook, leave comments, or e-mail me with your memories!

I stood there in the motel room shaking as I explained to Marilyn about the interview and about what Elizabeth Dykes and Jennifer Johns had expressed to me.  We had travelled to Kissimmee on a wing and a prayer, not expecting too much and glad to get away and get a couple of days at WDW, and now things had changed.  I told my wife that I could feel God working in my heart, and that perhaps we were exactly what FUMC-K was looking for.  We prepared to join Rev. John Willis and his wife Pat for a night out, and now we both had some serious questions to ask.

They picked us up for dinner fairly late in the evening on a Saturday night with thoughts of taking us out to show us around part of Walt Disney World.  A brief conversation made it clear that we knew much more about WDW than they did, so we headed for the Outback Steakhouse instead.  We arrived to find there was a two hour wait, so we headed on down 192 until we reached a now long-gone establishment called The Black-eyed Pea.  They served very unimpressive "home-style" food, but we had never eaten there and the wait was...well, nonexistent!  We did have a great conversation over dinner, and Marilyn and I both immediately fell in love with John and Pat.  From there we headed out to explore the Kissimmee institution of Old Town, a tourist trap of the highest order.  We walked around and learned a great deal about the history an culture of K-town.  We had a great time, but I would have to say that is was one of the least impressive nights of "wooing" I have ever been a part of.

The next morning we were picked up and taken to church, and things got even more bizarre.  The other candidate who had been interviewing when I arrived the day before was being shown around and introduced to the youth Sunday School classes.  We were met by a wonderful lady named Lynn Dykes (Liz's mom) who showed us all around, being very careful not to put us in the same place with the other guy.  I couldn't believe this was actually their plan, but it seemed to be.  We then went to worship and the off to lunch with a family that would become a huge part of our lives- Cathy, Ben and Sara Thacker.  The red carpet welcome continued with lunch at Morrison's Cafeteria (really, there are a lot of nice restaurants in K-town!), but again, we had a wonderful visit and continued to learn more about the history of the youth program at FUMC-K.  The more we learned the more excited I became.  And yet at the same time I still had no reason to believe I was going to be a serious contender for the position.

On Sunday evening I had been asked to lead the program at their weekly youth gathering.  We arrived at the youth room, and I half expected to see the other guy already leading the group...but he was not there.  When my turn came, I was prepared and energetic.  I did a 45 minute lesson on the Beatitudes without using a note (God bless Rich Mullins!), and got many of the students involved in the discussion.  Rev. Willis was very complimentary, as were many of the youth, and I left feeling very good about the whole thing.  The following morning John brought me to the church to meet some of the staff (see picture; from left to right: Ginny Johns, Nancy Boss, Donna Heck, Dick Boss, Jim Gilts, Jill Augenblick and Andrea Marland.) and to visit with him one last time. He told me that the search committee was meeting that night.  I left feeling like everything had gone as well as it could have, and that I still had zero shot at the job.  Except that, more and more, I felt like God was calling us to Kissimmee.  And what God wants...

We stayed in town and visited our friends at WDW until Tuesday afternoon, when we drove back to Tampa to catch our flight home. We weren't sure what to think.  We loved the people we had met, yet the interview process had been odd and unimpressive.  But still...there was something about the place that was calling us.   John had asked me to phone him that afternoon, so I called from the Tampa Airport and learned I was still in consideration and that the decision would be made in a couple of days.  Marilyn and I flew home uncertain of what lie ahead.  We had a lot to talk about and a lot to pray about.  But there was one thing we knew for sure; if we moved to Kissimmee, we were never again going to eat at The Black-eyed Pea

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Marilyn, I think we have a problem..."

As I mentioned a few days ago (see Thinking...), the autumn of 1993 found me thinking about looking around for new ministry opportunities.  I looked at some ads and made some phone calls but I was not very serious about any of the positions I encountered.  Then one day in late 1993 my GROUP Magazine arrived and in its little classified section there was a youth ministry position listed at First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee, FL.  I could not resist applying at a church that close to Walt Disney World, just for the fun of it.  I assumed a Quaker would have no chance, but I put together a packet of stuff including my resume and a copy of our summer brochure from 1993 and sent it out.  Marilyn and I laughed that maybe they would want to interview me and we could get a Disney trip out of the deal- but I seriously doubted I would hear back from FUMC-K.

So imagine my surprise a few days later when a phone call came for me at the office from Rev. John Willis, the senior pastor at FUMC-K.  He told me he had received my packet and that it looked interesting to them, especially the summer brochure.  He did a short phone interview (asking a lot of questions about our New York trips as I recall) and then asked if Marilyn and I would be interested in coming down to interview with the search committee.  I was stunned.  I could not believe they had any serious interest in me.  I checked with Marilyn and we decided to check it out.  The interview was set for early February, 1994.

We flew into Tampa because it was cheaper, and we rented a car.  They were putting us up at Larson's Lodge (now a Holiday Inn) on highway 192 near downtown Kissimmee.  Even with all of the time we had spent at Walt Disney World, we had never seen downtown Kissimmee.  It was quite a mixture of old and new, of quaint and rundown.  We still both had very mixed feelings about the whole adventure, but our basic premise was that we would have to be blown away by this church to consider leaving Springfield.  I arrived at the church for my interview only to find that they were not done interviewing someone else.  A guy with a broken arm (turned out to be my future-friend Andrew Lewis) came out and asked me to wait in the church library.  It was funny, but I was not the least bit nervous.  I really felt like I was interviewing them as much as the other way around.  After a short wait the other guy came out and I was ushered in.  The interview went on for about an hour, and I have to admit I remember being very unimpressed.  Andrew and Pastor John asked a few interesting questions, but for the most part they seemed more concerned about my ability to handle unruly youth than they were about my philosophy of ministry or my theology (although they were a bit curious abut Quakers).  Dan Autrey, the head of the search committee, also was curious about the trips we had taken in the past, and how Marilyn felt about a possible relocation.  I did learn a great deal about the church, however.  I learned that they had four wonderful years with Jorge Acevedo that had ended when the Florida Conference moved him to another church.  They next two appointed Associate Pastors who also did youth ministry had not worked out so well, each lasting about a year.  Andrew had been serving as the interim youoth leader while they serached.  Four leaders in four years had left the ministry wounded.  They were looking to hire a full-time youth pastor for the first time in a very long time.  This committee was taking that charge very seriously- but they were unsure of what they were doing.

There were also two youth on the committee.  Neither Jennifer Johns nor Elizabeth Dykes had said much during the interview process.  At the end of the questioning, I was asked if I had any questions.  I looked to Jennifer and Elizabeth and asked, "What do you guys want in a new youth director?"  Their answer was change my life.  Elizabeth looked at me straight in the eyes and responded, "That they stay."  I remember the shock that ran through my system as those words sank in.  For a number of years I had been leading a campaign to get youth pastors to commit to staying longer and making a real difference in the churches they served.  And now here were a couple of students asking for exactly that same thing.  I left the interview, knowing that John and Pat Willis were taking us to dinner a little bit later that evening.  I drove back to the motel with the overwhelming feeling that God was calling me to "mess with happy."  I walked in to the room, looked at my lovely wife and said, "Marilyn-  I think we have a problem..."     (to be continued...)

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Let Me Be There"

Today brings us to the end of my memories and stories about my years at Springfield Friends Meeting.  Although I am certain other thoughts will come back to me as time goes by, tomorrow I will be moving on to the process that took Marilyn and I from High Point, NC to Kissimmee, FL.  These past few months of story telling have been a wild ride, and I again find myself thanking God for all of the blessings we received from our time at SFM.  It has been so amazing to hear from old friends like Ken Hill, Ashley Goad Broadhurst, Beth Brown, Will Rees, Keri Vinson Johnston, Heather Beggs Varner, Cheryl Deal Meadows, James Robinson, Jill Gilbreth Bryant, Emily Beggs Hill, Mandy Beggs, Todd Farlow, Ann Saunders Hale, Charles Freedle and more.  I hope these memories have been good ones, and I hope to keep hearing from you in the days to come.  You guys mean a great deal to us.

I said yesterday that there was one moment at our farewell dinner that will forever define my relationship with the youth of Springfield.  After the pies in the face (and on top of the head- both Marilyn and I were covered in whipped cream!) the group wanted to sing one more song.  One last song.  For the previous songs they had sung that night, Bob Spencer, our choir director, had played guitar for them.  For this last song they wanted me to play.  They wanted to sing Let Me Be There.  The song was an old country/pop tune that had been a hit for Olivia Newton John in the 1970's, and that we had been singing at TNT for a number of years. I never thought of it as a spiritual song- it was just fun.  But as we sang it for the last time, the meaning of the words became crystal clear to me and the only thing that kept me from breaking down was the whipped cream in my eyes.  Here are those lyrics:

Wherever you go, wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know, I always want to be there
Holding your hand, and standing by to catch you when you fall
Seeing you through in everything you do

Let me be there in your morning
Let me be there in your night
Let me change whatever's wrong
and make it right (make it right)
Let me take you through that wonderland
that only two can share
All I ask you is let me be there (oh let me be there)

Watching you grow and going through the changes in your life
That's how I know, I always want to be there
Whenever you feel you need a friend to lead on, here I am
Whenever you call, you know I'll be there

I had spent 8 years "being there" for one of the greatest groups of kids anyone has ever had the privilege to serve, and the love we shared would remain strong for several years more.  God had called Marilyn and I to a new ministry, and we were going to be faithful to that call.  But as someone once wrote, "Miles may separate as life moves along, but the bond between friends will remain ever strong."  As I write this, I suddenly wish I had some whipped cream in my eyes...    I love you guys.

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 16, 2010

So Long...Farewell...Amen!

On March 30th, 1994, Springfield Friends Meeting honored Marilyn and I with a farewell dinner in the Fellowship Hall of the Meeting. It was quite a night. We had been so busy with packing, making plans for the move, trying to get things organized for our arrival in Kissimmee and doing all of the youth events we had planned that the emotions of leaving had not really hit us yet. Both of our families were there, along with a couple of hundred members of our Springfield family. It was a very emotional night, but it was also a lot of fun.  And it even had a Disney theme!

Many of the different groups that we had been involved with showered us with gifts. The children's ministry sang us a song to the tune of The Mickey Mouse Club theme. Marilyn was presented with a quilt made by the toddler Sunday School class she taught and put together by our dear friend Karen Chester. Our own Sunday School class honored our contributions to the annual Ham & Egg Supper by giving Marilyn an autographed apron and me a plaque with a golden spatula recognizing my talents as "The Egg Wizard."  Lewis Farlow did a one-man skit in which he spoke with God about our moving, and it was both touching and hilarious. Lewis, the late Toland Swaim and I also got to perform as a bluegrass trio one last time. I received a Hawaiian shirt and a Mark Rumley-style pink hat from the youth. We got a Mickey Mouse alarm clock from the Family Life Committee.  Marilyn was made "Secretary for Life" by the women's circle she had been of. Tim Terrell presented me with a portrait of myself dressed as a woman from a fundraising Womanless Beauty Pageant we had done a few years earlier. And then there was the youth group. They took about an hour of time, doing skits, singing songs and telling stories. As usual, they were neither organized or prepared. But they were awesome. Erin Moran, Jill Gilbreth, Mandy Beggs, Beth Brown, Mary Mercadante and others told tales of youth group events.  My two favorite moments were very different in tone. The kids used a skit to hit both Marilyn and myself in the face with whipped cream pies and cover us with "silly string," as we had done to them so many times over the years (although we never did use silly string...but whatever!). It was great fun and we loved it and understood it as an act of love.  Many of the older folks there that night did not, and thought it was terribly disrespectful.  Such is life in student ministry- often the rest of the congregation doesn't get it! I'll tell you about the other moment- my lasting memory of the youth of Springfield- tomorrow.

The event ended with Max Rees sharing with us an official "minute" drafted by the monthly meeting recognizing Marilyn and I for our contributions to Springfield. If you aren't Quaker, you may not appreciate what a big deal it is to have this done for you- it means future generations will read of your ministry. That was followed by the presentation of a very generous love offering from our adopted church family. The tears flowed freely all over the room as we prayed together and said a final goodbye and amen. We stayed around a long time that night and hung out with some of the youth, which is when we took the picture on the right. Marilyn and I still have the video of that night, which also included personal messages from many of the students. We have shown it to our son Will, and we watch it on occasion to remind ourselves of the amazing 8 years we spent sharing life with Springfield Friends Meeting. We were blessed in so many ways, and we praise God for that time. See you Saturday for one final Springfield blog.

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

CCM Countdown: 5

My countdown of the 50 Contemporary Christian Music projects that had the most impact on my life and ministry through 2006 enters the top 5 today.  To see last Thursday's post and get links all the way back to #50, click here.

5)  ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET-  Larry Norman-  1972
Number 5 takes us all the way back to the very origins of CCM.  Larry Norman is often called the first Christian rocker, and this album is on every significant list of the most important Christian albums ever recorded. It is also the oldest album on this countdown.  Billboard Magazine and Time Magazine both took notice of Larry's work.  His songs have been covered by well over 300 different artists.  His mixture of lyrics concerning the radical nature of Jesus and awareness of the culture we live in were way ahead of their time and set standards that the CCM genre has quite often failed to meet.  This album was recorded in London under the watchful eye of George Martin, the Beatles famed producer.  Larry passed away in 2008.

Every song is a miniature sermon, and almost every song was controversial at the time it was written.  The Outlaw (see video at bottom) tells of the many ways the people of Jesus' time tried to define Him, and concludes by pronouncing Him the Son of God.  Why Don't You Look Into Jesus? explores the ways we try to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives with drugs, sex and alcohol when the answer is clear:  only Jesus can fill the void.  I Wish We'd All Been Ready talks of preparing our hearts now for the second coming of Christ.  The line "the Son has come and you've been left behind" was an inspiration for the best selling book series.  I Am the Six O'clock News condemned network TV for their coverage of the Vietnam War.  The Great American Novel questioned the morals and methods of the American government in ways that almost seem more appropriate today.  And the anthem of the Jesus MovementWhy Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?, asks the question that drove the church to open the doors to electric guitars and drums.  Larry's words, "I ain't knocking the hymns, just give me a song that has a beat.  I ain't knocking the hymns, just give me a song that moves my feet.  You see, I don't live them funeral march 'cause I ain't dead yet" caused quite a stir in 1972.  They would still rock the boat in many churches today.

Upon This Rock-   1969
So Long Ago In the Garden-   1973
In Another Land-  1976
Something New Under the Son-  1981

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


In early February of 1994 I accepted a call to be the new youth pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee, FL.  I'm going to skip ahead today, Friday and Saturday and tell the story of what happened at Springfield Friends Meeting after Marilyn and I made our decision; the story of how we made that choice and our arrival in Kissimmee will begin on Sunday.

Once our decision had been made, and the task of telling the people I worked with and for began. It was not an easy task.  A few people- Max Rees, Judy Rees, Rick Harward and Neal Thomas- already knew of the possibility because they had written incredible reference letters for me.  Telling everyone was difficult; telling the youth seemed impossible.  I broke it to them one Sunday afternoon at YFYF, and there was lots of crying and lots of hugging.  Once we were past that, I told them how much I loved them and that they needed to know we were going out with a bang, not a whimper.  We began to talk about what they wanted to do over our last 8 weeks together, and their answer was simple-  EVERYTHING!  I explained to them because of finances and school schedules we could not do a major trip during the time, but other than that I would try to do everything they asked of me.

The list of requests was extensive.  They wanted one last Rec Around the Clock, one final Quaker Lake Retreat, one more Movie Night, another Kyoto's Night and every other special event we had ever done!  They asked for specific things to happen at both YFYF and the newly renamed Monday night program, MARS, right down to which songs they wanted to sing and which games they wanted to play.  They wanted it all- and I gave it to them.  We crammed a year's worth of programming into two months, and it was amazing.  We even planned an "alumni" trip to Disney for the following December so our college students would have one last event together.  Combined with trying to hit the ground running in Kissimmee and packing after almost eight years in our little house, I have never been more exhausted than I was when April arrived.  But it was so worth it...

The relationships I had worked so hard to foster over the years could have easily drifted away once they knew I was leaving.  They could have felt deserted and unloved.  They could have even felt let down by God.  We did pray a lot and cry a lot during that time.  But because of the effort and care we gave to those last 8 weeks, everyone felt energized and important.  By the time of our "going away" dinner on March 30, we were closer than ever to the youth.  That night could have been tear filled and joyless.  Instead, it was one of the best nights of our lives.  You can read about it Friday.  See you tomorrow for another CCM Countdown Thursday!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Random Ramblings (Springfield Edition)

As my blogging about my years at Springfield Friends Meeting (SFM) draws to a close this week, I have a lot of random thoughts from those years that don't quite merit a post of their own.  I will share many of them with you today, so just jump in and hold on!  And as always I would love to hear your comments and stories- e-mail me!
  • I loved going to sporting events and seeing the youth play (in return they got to watch me play for the always entertaining SFM softball team each spring).  I always got into the games and became just another idiot fan pulling hard for "my" team, no matter which of our high schools or middle schools was playing or which team our kids were cheerleaders for.  Thanks to the Moran family I even learned to appreciate (be it ever so slightly!) soccer.  Perhaps the most exciting sporting event I have ever seen in person (and I have seen a lot) was watching Jeremy Godwin (pictured at right with Jennifer Simmons) win the NC state heavyweight wrestling championship his senior year at the Greensboro Coliseum.  Jeremy was loosing with just seconds to go in the match, when suddenly he escaped, flipped his opponent over and pinned him!  It was just simply amazing.
  • In December of 1987 we had the first ever Friend Day at SFM, and the meeting room was packed!  It marked the beginning of a new enthusiasm and new spirit of outreach for the Meeting.  I think they still do the event.
  • During my time at SFM we hosted a number of youth events for North Carolina Yearly Meeting, including Saturdaze '89.  We had groups from all over the state come in and we had a great program including Doyle Craven in The Orkrah Wimpy Show. 
  • Speaking of Doyle...his leadership and faithfulness inspired me in so many ways during his tenure at the Yearly Meeting youth director, and to this day I still consider him to be one of the best youth pastors I have ever known.  His "career" in ministry ended when he announced he was gay.  Shortly thereafter, a "witch hunt" began in NCYM and anyone who had been close to Doyle was at the top of the list.  One of the most surreal moments of my life was the day Max Rees called me into his office to ask me if I was gay...I wasn't, by the way.  Not that there's anything wrong with that...
  • I had two official college-age interns during while at SFM.  Tim Fountain, who had been in my youth group at New Garden Friends (and is pictured, on the left with Amy Simmons, Todd Farlow and myself) and Rebecca Howard of Quaker Lake fame.  They were both awesome, and they paved the way for the coming of Jerry Hanbery once I reached Kissimmee!
  • On September 13, 1993 we changed the name of our TNT program to MARS (Mondays are Really Special?).  I have no idea why...but everyone who showed up was given a Mars candy bar!
  • While serving SFM I worked with Youth Specialties on promoting a National Resource Seminar and and Understanding Your Teenager workshop, both of which we hosted.  I also was published as an author for the first times, writing articles for GROUP Magazine and Quaker Life Magazine.  I also wrote a chapter for a GROUP curriculum aimed at 4th and 5th grade students, and I actually got paid for it!  All of these things helped me establish a reputation outside of NCYM.
  • Most of the posts about my Springfield years have been about the things that worked.  I could do another 100 posts talking about the things that didn't, or that didn't work for long.  We tried 10 different ways of starting small groups that never took off.  We kept trying new ways to get students more involved in leadership, but that never really happened.  I planned three small-scale mission trips that no one ever signed up to attend.  But the important thing was that we kept trying new things...
  • We did 8 Youth Sunday worship services while I was at SFM, and each of them was moving and well least they were after the first one.  I went on a rant at Monthly Meeting about how the youth were not just cute and sweet and the church of the future, but how they had important things to say and were a part of the church NOW!  Never heard any of that cute and sweet stuff again...
  • I got to preach a couple of times a year when Max was away, and here are a few of my sermon titles from those years:  We Didn't Start the Fire, I Won't Back Down, The Heart of the Matter and I Go To Extremes.  Anyone see a theme there? 
  • Marilyn and I were both in the choir and got to work with three wonderful choir directors- Brenda Haworth, Laurel Zeiss and Bob Spencer. Laurel taught us what became the official anthem of the church, In This Very RoomMel Downing had been the organist for nearly 30 years before we arrived and remained in that position until his passing last year.  He was a Springfield institution.  One of my all-time favorite lines came from Brenda's husband, noted neurosurgeon Chester Haworth.  When Brenda asked the choir what we should do to honor Mel for 30 years of service, Chester responded "I think we should bronze his organ..."   I am still laughing!
There are so many memories, so many stories to be told from those years- but it's time to start wrapping it up.  My service to SFM ended with a bang, not a whimper, and the stories of how it all came to be are coming in the next few days.  Enjoy!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, April 12, 2010

Low Sunday

The rest of this week will be devoted to wrapping up my Springfield years, and next Sunday I will begin my journey to Kissimmee and a whole new set of characters and adventures.  But today I want to jump ahead a bit.

Easter weekend is one of the best weekends of the year for most every church.  Van Dyke Church in Tampa, where my family now attends, is no different.  Van Dyke is a very large church that draws nearly 3000 people to three worship services most every weekend.  This Easter there were well over 4000 in attendance for four services.  The Sunday after Easter (and the one after Christmas) is known in church circles as "low Sunday."  You expect to see a drop-off in numbers because all of the C & E church-goers are done for a while.  Yesterday also happened to be the first Sunday of Spring Break here, so the crowd seemed especially thin- although at Van Dyke that still meant we had a large crowd.  As I looked around the sanctuary yesterday, I remembered this moment from days gone by...

The spring of 2001 found me serving the Union Church of Hinsdale in the western suburbs of Chicago.  A large, very traditional church, we had just celebrated Easter with great pomp and circumstance.  A huge crowd had filled the building to overflow.  Trumpets played, handbells rang out and choirs sang.  It was quite a spectacle.  The following Sunday one of our Associate Pastors, a young man named Mark Toole, was preaching.  Mark was one of my favorite staff members I ever worked with, both as a pastor and as a person.  He currently teaches world religions at High Point University in NC.  I was sitting up in the pulpit area with Mark, as I was the scripture reader that day.  Mark rose and looked at the crowd, which was sparse, certainly compared to the previous week.  He addressed the congregation with the following thoughts (my paraphrase):  Remember last Sunday?  Remember how the choir processed in with the trumpets playing?  Remember the amazing sound of a full choir and the great handbells?  Remember how amazing you all sounded as we proclaimed that Christ the LORD is Risen Today?  Remember how the crowd filled not only the sanctuary, but the overflow area as well?  It was truly a wonderful day and the people of this community filled Union Church.  So today I just have one more question.  All of that captures the feel of what Mark said.  His next question is a direct quote that I will never forget.  He paused, starred into the crowd and asked loudly and firmly, "So where the hell are they?"  The congregation erupted in snickers and gasps and outright laughter (that would be me...).  The point he went on to make, at least in my mind, was very basic.  How can, each year and all over the world, so many people hear the message of the resurrection and then go back to living life as if it never happened?  Why are we more concerned with beating the Baptists to the best lunch spots than forgiving our friend who hurt us?  Why is it that so many people walk away from our churches each week saying "What a nice service" instead of proclaiming "Jesus is alive...and THAT IS AWESOME!"  I wish I knew the answer, or even understood how such things can happen.  Thanks Mark, for stepping out of the box for a moment that never fails to remind me that Jesus is to celebrated every day!  I mean can you have a "low Sunday" when you are walking with the Savior?

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tiger Woods & Forgiveness

My favorite definition of GRACE:  "There will always be a second chance...and you will always be on your FIRST try!"

In case you live under a very large rock and haven't heard, Tiger Woods is playing golf at the The Masters this weekend.  He has had a few issues over the past few months (DUH!) and the whole world seems to have an opinion on the man and his transgressions.  Now I don't know Tiger personally (My wife Marilyn did meet him; back in the late 1990's she and her boss went to his home in Orlando to complete a real estate closing on the land where his current Orlando home now sits.  Her memory is of a classic young bachelor whose home was furnished with golf clubs, and she got his autograph for our son Will.)  but I do have some thoughts on one aspect of his story.

I keep hearing and reading that Tiger's reputation and popularity have a chance to be rehabilitated because USAmericans are such a forgiving people.  On that I am afraid I have to call a giant BS!  We might be willing to forgive Tiger, because let's face it- what he did has no effect on us.  We are happy to give second chances to politicians, celebrities and athletes who fall because their sins rarely hurt us.  You can hear this is people's comments about El Tigre.  They say, "I hope he comes back; he messed up but he deserves a second chance.  But if I had been Elin I would have kept beating him with that golf club!"  We seldom forgive those who hurt us.  We are willing to consider redemption if they EARN it.  It's not really forgiveness if it is conditional.  It's not forgiveness if you are willing to overlook it because it didn't happen to you.  It's not forgiveness if you tell someone you forgive them and then hold their sin over their head constantly to remind them how guilty they should feel.  But typically this is the kind of forgiveness we offer in our culture.

Jesus saw forgiveness is a very different light.  When asked how often you should forgive someone, he said "70 times 7"- a infinite amount of times.  He told the parable of the prodigal son (a guy who really knew how to sin!) to illustrate that when we fall, God waits for us with open arms.  We don't have to "do" anything to earn God's grace; it is simply waiting for us when we turn back to God.  And God not only forgives, He forgets.  Our sins, once given to Him, are buried on the ocean floor.  The old saying is so true; "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make Him love you less."  As followers of Jesus, we are called upon to share that kind of love and forgiveness with the world, but we seldom do.  We attach so many strings...

I find myself feeling a little sorry for Tiger.  Certainly no one approves of what he did (hate the sin, love the sinner!) but many seem to have forgotten that he ever did anything else.  I have been through some of what he is going though on a much smaller scale.  I have been publicly condemned for my sins.  I have felt the power of God's amazing grace in the form of unconditional forgiveness from my family and some wonderful friends.  I have felt  conditional forgiveness from some who want me to earn back their love.  And I have felt rejection from some who choose to throw stones.  But mostly, I have felt the overwhelming grace of God reminding me not of my guilt, but of His love for me as shown through the sacrifice Jesus made on all of our behalves. I have learned in new and amazing ways that while I might not be able to earn back your love, I do not NEED to earn anything from God- I already have it!  Jesus doesn't want us to feel guilt; Jesus came that we might be free of our guilt and live an abundant life.  It is Satan (the accuser) who loves guilt, who wants us to forget the grace Jesus came to offer us.  Our pastor, Matthew Hartsfield, is fond of saying "the next time Satan reminds you of your past, just remind him of his future."  God wins!  I feel sympathy for Tiger because he is facing so much and trying to do it without Jesus.  He is facing an often cold, often unforgiving world without the knowledge and comfort of grace.  As someone who has been there, I just cannot imagine that.  Because of Jesus, I know that I know that I know that I am still a beloved child of God, and that God can and will use me in this world.  My sins- your sins- do not define us before God.  Jesus does.

Today's bottom line- when you fail to forgive, or when you seek to use guilt or to make someone earn your love, you are being used by Satan.  It's time that we Christ-followers started offering grace to a world that so badly needs it.  And that begins by offering it to the people who have hurt us most.  Have a blessed Sunday everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Long Time Ago When We Was Fab..."

Before they were part of my youth group, they were a part of the Quaker Kids Club.  On Wednesday afternoons during the school year I would drive the van and pickup students after school from our local elementary schools and bring them to Springfield Friends Meeting.  We did crafts, music, Bible stories and more, and we had a lot of fun.  It was a great feeder program for our student ministry.  All of the students pictured remained active all of the years I was there.  From left to right:  Stacy Gilbreth, Allison Rees, Ben Moran, Natalie Whitaker, Emily Beggs, Erin Moran and Mandy Beggs.  Most of them have families of their own now, and I still treasure the great times we had together.  After all these years we are still part of the family of God, and I love them all!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 9, 2010

Thinking...About Thinking

In the autumn of 1993 I started thinking.  Some of you may laugh and ask if this was the very first time I had undertaken the task.  Those who know me best (Marilyn) know that in reality I over think most everything.  My mind is constantly in motion, and unfortunately not always considering things I should be thinking about.  But following the huge success of that summer's Disney trip, I had begun thinking that perhaps it was time for me to leave Springfield Friends Meeting.  The average length of tenure for a youth minister in those days was about 14 months.  I was entering my eighth year at Springfield.  My thinking was serious and I began to consider my options.

Why?  I had flirted with leaving a couple of times in the previous year, but nothing had gotten serious enough that I ever had to accept or refuse a job offer.  But I had thought about it.  There were four main reasons that I began to think that the time was coming. 
  1. I had dreams and goals that I wanted to accomplish as a youth pastor, and it was becoming clearer to me that most of those would not happen if I continued working among Quakers.  The denomination was so small and so mysterious to non-Quakers that it was difficult to see much future growth coming.  We had been drawing families to church through our TNT program, watching as their kids became involved with us and the parents went to other churches. Even in our community, where Quakers had been present for over 200 years, some viewed us as a strange, cult-like faith.  The denomination was also very divided theologically, and I was very weary of all the infighting.  And I could see absolutely no situation among Friends that was a step up from Springfield- I already had the best Quaker youth ministry job in the country. 
  2. Perhaps I had accomplished all there was for me to accomplish at Springfield.  We had done some wonderful things together, and the just finished trip was incredible.  I just wasn't sure if I was the person to continue leading them into the future- maybe the kids needed a change too.  Plus, the imminent retirement of long-time senior pastor Max Rees was going to make major changes in the Meeting.  I wasn't sure what part God was calling me to play in that transition. 
  3. I hate to admit it, but if I am being honest then I have to say that money was an issue as well.  I was not being compensated at anywhere near the level of my peers in other denominations, but we could live with that.  What frustrated me was that our budget for student ministry was only $800 per year.  To do the ministry we were doing, to reach out into the community and offer programs and events that would help us change lives, we needed far more.  Springfield just could not afford more.  They supported the youth in every other way imaginable, but money was just tight.  Marilyn and I were spending a good deal of our income on the youth.  We did it because we wanted to, but should not have to be that way.
  4. One of the tests I have always tried to apply to a church that I work for or one that offers me a position is this:  If I didn't work at the church, would I want to attend it?  That question was becoming harder for me to answer about Springfield.  I loved (and still love; even 16 years later we consider it home) the Meeting, but some of my worship preferences were changing, and I knew Springfield was not going to change as quickly as I would like.  Contemporary music was not coming to worship anytime soon.  The use of drama and video in worship was still a long way off.  Even something as seemingly simple as changing the order of worship from one week to the next was a struggle.  I was reasonably certain that there were not many people in the congregation, even many of our dear friends, who felt the way Marilyn and I did.  It was something we had to think about.
So with all of those reasons to think about leaving, why was it such a tough decision to start looking for a new ministry?  First and foremost, I loved the people I worked with.  I loved Max and our secretary Millie.  I loved the congregation.  I loved the students in our ministry and could not imagine leaving them.  And most importantly, I had not felt a clear calling from God on what to do next.  I was still just thinking.  The other reason I was hesitant was something my Grandfather Jones had taught me many years before.  He always said, "Don't mess with happy."  The late great Jim Valvano often said the same thing.  Marilyn and I loved where we were, and the people there loved us.  We were very happy.  In order to move on from Springfield, we would have to mess with happy.  I knew it was something that would require much prayer, and maybe even a "burning bush" from God to make it all clear to me.  The "bush" would come a little later.  For the time being, it was all just thinking...

Because of Jesus,