Saturday, December 31, 2011

That Was the Week That Was

My 2011 definitely is going out with a bang, not a whimper!  This was an awesome week spent with awesome people.  My lovely wife Marilyn was on vacation, so she was at home.  My son Will was out of school.  And in addition, I was able to spend a great deal of time this week catching up with people from my past.  For instance, I had lunch on Tuesday with some great friends from Kissimmee. That group is pictured above.   Todd, Jocelyn and Lisa were all in the youth group at FUMC-K back in the 90's. Todd and Jocelyn both live out of state now, and I had not seen Jocelyn in person since around 1996. We spent several hours at a Chili's in Tampa just hanging out and catching up with one another, and it was truly a wonderful thing.

Then Tuesday night Marilyn and I shared a Taco Tuesday dinner with our dear friend Lisa Jewett, pictured above with me in New York a few years back on a youth trip with Wesely Memorial UMC.  Like my scarf?  :)

Wednesday for lunch we met up with another former Kissimmee youth, Brook Teoli (above with Marilyn and I).  Brook now lives in California, and I had not seen her in about 15 years. It was amazing to catch up and meet her family.  

In addition to all of those wonderful gatherings, I also got to spend a lot of time talking and texting with another old Kissimmee friend, Teresa Reep Tysinger.  It has just been amazing to catch up with her over these past few weeks. You know those people in your life that you can be apart from for years, and then when you see them again it is like no time has passed?  Teresa is one of those people in my life, an I feel blessed.

You know all the posts I write talking about youth ministry and relationships?  This week has been a perfect example of why.  Old friends sharing life together years after our youth group days have ended is just as good as it gets.  And I wouldn't trade these (and so many other) relationships for anything. Blessings to all, and have a safe and wonderful New Year's Eve!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best of 2011: The Sons of Thunder

(Originally posted on 05/06/11)

I was reading yet another great blog post from Kevin Weatherby over at a couple of days ago when I was reminded of one of the greatest nicknames ever bestowed upon a human being.  In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, we read a synopsis of Jesus calling the 12 disciples.  If you are like me, the disciple you can relate to the most is Simon Peter- because he was as big a screw-up as we are, yet Jesus built the church on his faith.  I would love to be a Simon Peter.  But also among the 12 are the brothers James & John, the sons of Zebedee.  Let me press pause and say that if the story ended there, James & John would already be awesome, because Zebedee may be the best name ever!  I would have fought to name my son Zebedee, but I enjoyed living with my wife and didn't want to spend all of my time praying to the patron saint of lost causes.  Still, just being the sons of Zebedee would have been cool enough.  But Jesus gave them a nickname that transformed them into rock stars. He called them"Boanerges," which means Sons of Thunder.  While no explanation is given in scripture, it is assumed by scholars (and me!) that this nickname was a reference to their bold and zealous personalities - illustrated by a later incident in which they wanted to "call down fire from heaven" to destroy the people of a Samaritan village who had refused to allow Jesus and His apostles to pass through on their way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56).  These guys knew what it meant to be passionate for Jesus.  They had the fire in their eyes.

And clearly their Master knew this. James & John were always there (along with Peter) when Jesus needed his "inner circle."  James would go on to be the first of the disciples to be martyred (Acts 12:2) and John would write his "revelation" from prison on the island of Patmos.  These were men who gave their lives to Christ, not just in word, but in deeds- in big, honkin', passionate deeds.  

So as I told Kevin the other day, I want to be part of a 21st century chapter of the Sons of Thunder.  This would be a group of believers who understand that following Jesus is everything. They would understand that being a people of love, grace and peace is not a weakness, but a bold stance for our Savior in this world we live in.  The modern Sons of Thunder should be a radical presence for Jesus in our communities, and a passionate thorn in the side of the institutional church.  I am not much of a joiner, but this is a group I want to be a part of- and soon!  I know I am not alone.  Kevin says he is in- and we are looking for more folks (male & female!) with thecajones to call down fire from heaven when the occasion calls for it.  Accepting such a call is not without risk.  Your passion may offend your neighbors and other Christians.  The love and grace you offer to others may baffle them.  You may be called upon to sacrifice for the cause.  You may receive a vision from God that will confuse people for the next 2000 years.  But when it comes to following Jesus, I am ready to make some noise.  I want to bring the thunder...

Let's be bold together and change the world.  Let's be radicals for Christ.  The 1st century Sons of Thunder helped turn their world upside down. The modern version could do the same.  If you're in, leave me a comment and let me know.  Seriously.  It's going to be a wild ride.  And we're going to have AWESOME t-shirts...

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Youth Ministry- The Good Old Days!

Youth Ministry, 1981 style!!!
(Originally posted 01/28/11)

Most of you know (because it says so right at the top of this page) that I spent 28 years in youth ministry. For the vast majority of the years from 1978-2007 I worked for churches and religious organizations. I witnessed a lot of growth and a lot of changes during those years. I was a part of one of the first generations of career youth pastors. Up until the late 1970's, youth work was something you did on your way to something else.  Can you believe that once upon a time people thought the only difference between being a youth pastor and being a senior pastor was age?  Most full-time youth leaders were hired as Associate Pastors or Directors of Christian Education and then thrown to the wolves, regardless of their gifts.  I was around when pretty much the only resources for youth leaders were the Ideas Books.  I was there when youth groups were after-thoughts for most churches, with no budgets and no staff.  I witnessed youth ministry become a priority in many churches, with all kinds of money thrown at the ministry. With one move in 1994 I went from a $800 budget to a $12,000 budget- for almost the same number of youth!  I worked at one church for $50 per month and did not get paid during the summer, because in those early days most student ministries shut down for those months. During those years I worked at a summer camp.  I served as the regional youth ministry resource person and event planner for Quakers in New England in 1985-86, serving over 80 churches, and was paid $14,000 for the year. In 2000 I took a position at a church in Illinois that paid me over $70,000 for doing less work than any other position I have ever held.  And now I am seeing churches cut staff and budgets as the economy impacts ministry.  At least 2 of the positions I once held no longer exist.  We have come full circle.

When I started there were no copiers, only messy, smelly mimeograph machines.  There were noVCRs, no PCs and no cable TV.  We did have film strips and CB radios.  The only CCM artists I had ever heard of were Amy Grant, Keith Green, Larry Norman and some lady named Evie.  A Praise Band was called a guitar.  I watched as the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention went from a once a year event with about 600 in attendance to the multiple city, many thousands of participants events we see today.  In those days Doug Fields was just a guy in Jim Burns' youth group.  When I started, GROUP was a magazine for the students in your youth group- and that was all.  No work camps and no magazine for leaders- just a long-since extinct event for students called the National Christian Youth Congress.  There is no truth to the rumor that Moses was in my first youth group- although  Duffy Robbins once told a seminar I had been his youth pastor.  He also told them I had been his mother's youth pastor.  Seriously!  But you get the point- I have seen a lot.

Lots of the changes have made student ministry much better and helped us have a greater impact in the lives of the youth we serve.  But sometimes I think we have changed simply for the sake of change.  We have bought into new ideas without prayerfully considering their full impact; we have been guilty of being trendy. In my humble opinion we have too often chosen program and style over relationships.  Tomorrow I want to share with you 7 Things I think I know about student ministry.  Some are out of step with current trends.  A couple may be a bit controversial in today's world.  Nonetheless, I want to share them in the hope that the lessons I learned may be of use to others.  I am no longer a youth pastor; I lost that great privilege in 2007.  But I still have a heart for it and a calling to it.  I have a 15 year old son, and seeing how he and his friends are being ministered to (or not) gives me cause for prayer and reflection.  If tomorrow's post ends up sounding like I am preaching, it is because I am!  Nothing brings out the passion in me more than talking about Jesus and student ministry.  

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Famous Movie Quotes (as heard at church!)

Today's "Best of" post is from May 12.  Please feel free to add to you own!

I love watching reruns of  Drew Carey's  Whose Line Is It Anyway? on ABC Family (actually Will and I DVR them each night and watch when he gets home from school) and one of their games recently inspired me to ask this question:  What if your favorite movie lines had been delivered at church or youth group instead of in their original scene? How might they be different? I have come up with a few- I hope my readers will come up with many more!  Here we go!
  • "I'll be long as the church next door doesn't get a Starbucks."  Terminator
  • "I'm going to give them an offering they can't refuse..."   The Godfather
  • "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes.  "Twas the youth group that killed the beast."   King Kong
  • "You shouldn't make me play Fluffy Bunny, Johnny.  My mother made me play Fluffy Bunny once...ONCE."   Johnny Dangerously
  • "Have fun storming the sanctuary!"   The Princess Bride
  • "What we have here is a failure to communicate... (OOPS- didn't change that one!)    Cool Hand Luke
  • "There are two types of people in the world- those who like Rob Bell, and those who don't..."    What About Bob?
  • "Frankly my dear, I don't give a dad blast the gosh darn blankety heck..." Gone With the Wind
  • "When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a church on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Bro, the strongest church in all of Nashvegas."  Monty Python & the Holy Grail
  • "Cinderella story, from outta' nowhere, about to become Trustees Chairman..."   Caddyshack 
  • "They've done studies, you know.  Be purpose driven.  60% of the time it works, every time."    Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
  • "Jesus is King of the World!"   Titanic
Let's face it, friends- sometimes the institution of the church is funny.  It OK to laugh.  I've said it before and I'll say it again-  I cannot survive a day without Jesus or laughter.  And they ARE NOT mutually exclusive.  Now let's hear your movie favorites, mangled for a little church humor!  I'll Tweet the best ones.  Have a great day!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best of 2011 - The Bucko Award

Today's post is the first in a series of vintage posts that were some of my favorites in 2011.  This post first appeared on April 2nd.  Enjoy!

On the classic 1970's TV sit-com Happy Days, Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) was a clean cut, all-American boy living in the late 1950s and early 60s.  He never used any language that would be considered "foul" by our standards today.  But when he would get angry, he would call someone a "Bucko."   As in, "Listen, Bucko- you can't talk like that to my girl!"  There was a girl in my very first youth group-Glenna Osborne- who used to call me a Bucko all the time.  In fact, when I moved on from that church they made me a wooden sign (Remember wood-burning kits?  Probably not...), honoring me with the first and only Bucko Award.

I have kept this silly thing all of these years because I found it to be hilarious- and more than a little accurate.  I was an 18 year old college sophomore when I started with that group and had no idea what I was doing.  My efforts were often futile and we didn't accomplish much- except for growing together and loving each other in Jesus'name.  But the important part of the award is the last line- "Thanks for being someone we can look up to and laugh at!!!!"  Therein lies today's archaeological dig.

I read a blog this past week that very proudly pointed out the the United Methodist Church quit using the abbreviation UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) for their student ministries a number of years ago.  They discontinued the "F."  They felt like "fellowship" sounded a little too light and fluffy for the way they wanted their youth ministries to be seen.  It sounded too much like pizza parties, beach trips and lock-ins.  Well in the words of my old Quaker Lake Camp buddy Michael McGuinn,"Puhhhleeeeesssseee!!!"  Someone really decided that too much fellowship is the issue in student ministry?  Someone really believes that too much fellowship is the reason teenagers leave the church after graduation and never come back?  As I warned my Twitter followers on Tuesday night, I feel a rant coming on...

I am not sure where I first heard it, but someone once said, "Show me a youth pastor with no sense of humor, and I'll show you an empty youth room."  I'll go a step farther- show me a youth pastor who can't laugh at her/himself and I'll show you someone who is not being authentic.  They are on their way to becoming a Pharisee.  It's like someone decided there is an 11th commandment that states, "Christians shalt not haveth funeth"- or something like that!  Certainly we need to take seriously the things Jesus taught.  Certainly we need to be serious about loving one another and serving "the least of these."  Certainly we need to think seriously about the condition of our soul and our eternal salvation.  But when did it become some sort of bizarre doctrine to take ourselves so seriously?  It is my belief (and I can say this because I have lived it) that far too many of us who work with youth seek to fool them into believing we are more "together" than we actually are.  We are all Buckos- we are all sinners.  Students don't need false perfect examples- they need authentic women and men of God who acknowledge their failures and know how to laugh at themselves.  How can we possibly teach them about grace if we keep pretending we don't need it?  

Which beings us back to fellowship (For a definition, read Acts 2:42.  And yes, I know I sound like a broken record!~).  A youth pastor friend responded to my tweet about fellowship the other night by saying that some people he knew seemed to want to count "just hanging out" with students as part of their ministry.  He wasn't certain that it is a legitimate ministry.  OF COURSE IT IS!  Fellowship, hanging out, sharing one another's stories, creating a shared history- all of these things build the kind of Christian community that allow us to do great things in Jesus' name.  What do you think Jesus and the disciples did during the hours that are not chronicled in the Gospels?  They went fishing, sat around the campfire and ordered unleavened bread with tomato sauce from Papa Joseph's.  They hung out!  Had they not spent 3 years building bonds of friendship and trust, do you really think that group of ragamuffins would have been ready to turn the world upside down after Jesus ascended?  Would the early church have spread like wildfire without a commitment to sharing life together?  And I have to think that included in all of that time of fellowship was the ability to laugh with and at one another.  I can't imagine that they didn't give Thomas a hard time every time he said, "I doubt it."  I can't believe they didn't give Peter "the business" every time a rooster crowed.  Ted & Lee used to do this great scene from their show Fisheyes in which Peter and Andrew are lamenting how confusing Jesus could be, whether in his parables, his affection for random questions, or his doodling in the dirt.  It was hysterical to think about.  They laughed at themselves for not getting it- and we should be able to do the same.  Because the LORD knows there are plenty of times when we don't get it...

Everyone who does ministry must make prayerful decisions about what God is leading them to do in their specific situation.  I just know that looking back on 28 years (1978-2007) of youth ministry and hearing almost daily from former students (in part because of this blog) that there is nothing we did - not mission trips, not worship services, not bible studies, not anything- that has had a more lasting impact on their lives than the fellowship and laughter we shared together in Jesus' name.  I'm proud I was a Bucko for all of those years.  I'm glad I was someone they could look up to and laugh at.  Will your students remember you in 10 years because you could plan great events & teach a great class, or because you loved them enough (1 Thessalonians 2:8) to share life - authentic, failure-filled, laughter filled life- with them?  It's a question worth asking.  This isn't military intelligence.  "Fellowship" and "Ministry" are not mutually exclusive...  (That's a joke.  If you didn't get it, try reading this post one more time...  :D)  Now go hang out with some people and start changing the world.  In case you haven't heard, it's time for a Jesus Revolution!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, December 26, 2011

Survive & Advance

Sometimes Christmas seems like it is about surviving.  We seek to survive the shopping.  We hope to survive all of the eating and the parties.  Many of us need help surviving (or missing?) our family and friends,  And if you house is anything like mine, you hope to survive the total carnage that accompanies opening the presents.  In our particular case, that means avoiding the random attacks of our family dog, Conner.  He loves wrapping paper. He shreds it, rips and attacks it.  And after a little warm-up time, be begins to seek to remove it from packages that have not otherwise been touched.  As you can see from this picture, if Christmas morning were a competition, our home has a clear winner.  And don't you dare try to touch his new ball.  You can lose a hand that way!

But Christmas is not about survival at all.  Christmas is about worship.  It's about looking at a world that worships stuff and deciding to worship the Babe of Bethlehem instead.  It's about realizing that there can be only one thing in our lives that is our One Thing - and the choosing Jesus!  Want to know what you have chosen this holiday season?  It's simple.  The things that have your mind's attention and your heart's desire- that is what you worship.  In 2011 I have written a great deal about the Jesus Revolution.  In 2012, my Tuesday focus will be on worship.  I look forward to sharing this journey with all of you.  

My family is at home with me for the remainder of 2011, and much like the local radio stations I will be offering a "Best Of I'd Laugh" for the next week.  I will re-post some of my favorites from the past year in the hopes that they may still seem fresh to you, my dear readers.  As we prepare for the new year and another round of failed resolutions, I ask you to consider these questions:  What has your mind's attention right now?  What has your heart's desire?  Jesus wants both.  Let's prepare to face a new year as people who put Christ first.  Blessings to you all!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Deliverer Is Here!!!

Today's post comes from Luke 2: 1-20 (The Message), because there is absolutely nothing I can add to this amazing story.  Merry Christmas, dear friends!  Christ the Savior is born!  Our deliverer is here!

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David's town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancĂ©e, who was pregnant.  While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.  

There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises:
"Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him."

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they'd been told! ~

Thank you, God, for the amazing gift of your Son.  May we, like those smelly shepherds, seek Him still....

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Letter From the Jones Family

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, 

and the government will be on his shoulders. 
And he will be called 
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  ~ Isaiah 9:6  NIV

Greetings friends from around the world!  It's Christmas Eve eve, and I hope you are each preparing for a wonderful time with family and friends celebrating the birth of our Savior!  At my house my Mom has arrived and settled in for the holiday season.  Will has been out of school all week.  Marilyn worked her final day of 2011 yesterday.  We are all together, ready for the upcoming Christmas traditions.  We have movies to watch (Scrooged and A Muppet Christmas Carol), meals to eat (hot dogs and Frogmore Stew) and a Christmas Eve candlelight service to attend.  The only thing missing is all of you.  I try to say it here often, but we consider all of you who were a part of the ministries we served, part of the this blogging community and part of my Twitter world to be in fact a part of our family.  2011 has been such an amazing year, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones and discovering that some of the most special people in my life- some of whom I thought I might have lost forever- are not only still with me but by the grace of God still love me.  You know who you are, and I treasure you. More than I can say...

My lovely wife Marilyn (with whom I celebrated 25 years of marriage this year!) continues to to enjoy her work as a Legal Assistant with one of the preeminent alcohol beverage licencing attorneys in the country.  She survives the commute to downtown Tampa each day to work with with a group of people she genuinely enjoys.  She spends lots of time volunteering as a band mom with Will's marching band and taking care of me- which as many of you know is a full-time job.  :)   Will is a junior in high school. He continues to excel as a student, having been inducted in the National Honor Society this fall.  He loves his music, including playing snare drum in marching band at Sickles High School. He also loves his drumline buddies like they were his brothers.  He is preparing to get serious about his future, applying to colleges and hoping to pursue a career in film making.  He and his mom spent 2 weeks with her family in NC and at Myrtle Beach this past summer.  They are not making their annual post-Christmas pilgrimage to Elkin this year, but we loved having her sister Carol and her husband Bill with us for Thanksgiving.  We are so fortunate to get to spend so much time together as a family.  Most Sunday mornings you will find us worshiping together at Van Dyke Church.  Some of our favorite things include watching TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Glee, Fringe and out favorite guilty pleasure, American Idol.; eating out (the staff at Chili's knows us by name, and Taco Tuesdays at Tijuana Flats are becoming legendary!) and going to movies.  The $6 before noon shows at the local AMC Theaters are a favorite- during the summer you can find us there most every Saturday!

I continue to play "domestic goddess" while seeking more opportunities to write for Christian organizations like Interlinc.  I just wish I could find a few more folks who would actually pay me to write!  I spend many of my days staying in touch with and seeking to encourage friends through various means, having just recently discovered the joys of texting. Earlier this year I published my personal confession on this blog, and was overwhelmed by the love, grace and forgiveness I received from so many of you.  God has been so good to me in 2011, helping me to once again discover ways to be in ministry.  My restrictions make travel nearly nearly impossible, which makes it difficult for me to see so many of you- but with God's help and some good fortune we pray that will change later in 2012.  I am so blessed.

We were not able to send many Christmas cards this year, so I just wanted to use this forum and take this opportunity to wish you all the most blessed of Christmas seasons.  Every challenge our family has faced over the past several years we have survived through faith and friends.  We are blessed and grateful to count all of you among the latter.  When we gather around the table for our traditional Christmas Eve hot dogs (complete with chili and slaw!) tomorrow night, it is our sincere wish that all of you could with us.  From all of us to all of you, A Very Merry Christmas!  And never forget this one essential truth- it's all about Jesus!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

One Solitary Life

Did you see the news story this week where Italian scientists announced the Shroud of Turin- the cloth that supposedly covered Jesus face in the tomb- is most likely authentic?  Once again those seeking to dismiss the Christ as a myth instead find evidence to support the biblical stories. It seems to be in vogue in 2011 to use Jesus and his followers as the focal point of jokes and and intellectual attacks.  The world sure can feel like a dark place.

This Sunday we will celebrate the coming of the Light into a world filled with darkness.  Jesus came to us as a baby, but it was his life, death and resurrection that would forever change us all.  Today I invite you to a Christmas tradition on this blog.  Read these words of faith, adopted from a 1926 sermon by Dr. James Allen Francis, and consider the full meaning of Christmas and who the babe of Bethlehem would become.  Not a myth.  Not a legend.  The savior of the world.

He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman.  He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter's shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he became a wandering preacher. 

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn't go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of those things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mockery of a trial. He was executed by the state. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. 

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind's progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life. 

My Deliverer is Coming...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

I'm taking a day off from writing. It's your turn.  Submit your funniest caption for this picture.  Best entry wins a classic Rich Mullins CD. Good luck!

Want something to inspire you this Christmas season?  Then check out my vintage post, I Celebrate the Day.  Have a blessed day, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"You Had To Be There"

In the late 1970's Jmmy Buffett was just another artist trying to make a living.  This was before the advent of Parrotheads, before he became a best-selling author, restaurant owner or tequila guru.  But even way back then, his concerts were not shows- they were events.  The late Dan Fogelberg, a friend of Jimmy's, was once asked to describe what it was like to see him live.  Fogelberg responded that no explanation could possibly do it justice.  He couldn't describe it.  Dan said,  "You had to be there!"  Jimmy liked that so much that it became the title of his 1978 live album, which was the first (of MANY) Buffett albums I have owned.

Over the years, I adopted those words as a sort of personal mantra for doing student ministry.  I never wanted the teenagers who went on trips or attended events at the churches I served to feel like we were just going through the motions.  I wanted them to feel like they were a part of something unique, something special, something that had not happened before and might not happen again.  I wanted them to walk into school on Monday morning and talk about how amazing youth group had been the night before.  And when their friends asked for explanations, I wanted them to feel like words were not adequate.  All that could be said was, "You had to be there!"  Right or wrong, I always felt that any method of reaching students that was predictable or too tame was destined to fail.  Jesus himself was always unpredictable and always pushing the envelope of what was acceptable.  As the Jesus Revolution gained momentum throughout the region in those three years Jesus spent preaching and teaching, you just know that as the word spread from town to town about this amazing Rabbi people were at a loss for words.  How could they describe what they were seeing?  I suspect that more than one person fell back on, "You had to be there!"

For the Jesus Revolution to truly take hold in our day and time, churches need to help our communities experience the awe and wonder of those first days of Christ.  We need to help people see that Jesus is not some simple man you can keep in a box, then whip out a teaching or two whenever it is convenient.  Jesus is a world changer, and he calls on us to world changers as well.  The power, love and grace of the Messiah cannot be contained in a manger.  The story of the first Noel should inspire awe and wonder. Because I guarantee you that a few days later, as the town of Bethlehem was still trying to figure out what had happened, some one asked one of those smelly shepherds to explain.  And I guarantee you that shepherd thought a moment, smiled, and the said to anyone who cared to listen- "There is no explanation.  You just had to be there!"  Amen & Amen.

My Deliverer is Coming...

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Eve Past!

I have so many great memories of the Christmas Eves from the churches I served over the years.  Today I look back at 8 of my favorite moments!

1)  The Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at New Garden Friends Meeting was always highlighted by Marilyn Burris singing O Holy Night.  The song still gives me chills because it always makes me think of her beautiful voice, and walking outside to porch of the Meetinghouse carrying our still lit candles into the crisp Carolina night.  Chills right now...
2)  At Springfield Friends Meeting I started a tradition of setting up "bag candles" on Christmas Eve to light the walk ways into the meetinghouse.  It was my gift to the people of Springfield each year.  The Christmas Eve service always felt like a big family gathering where you got one last chance to say "Merry Christmas" and remind people how much you cared about them.
3)  In our early years at Springfield we would leave after the candlelight service and drive to my grandparents home in Asheboro for dinner and a family Christmas party.  One year we arrived back in High Point late that night to find that thieves had tried to break into our home, but Max Rees had spotted them and called the police.  Our yard was full of flashing lights when we arrived, and it was all kind of scary.  It made us very thankful for good friends and good neighbors.
4)  I don't remember how it got started, but one of the traditions at Springfield was my wife Marilyn and Karen Chester singing the Amy Grant song Heirlooms each year.  Their voices blended so beautifully, and the words are so stirring- "My precious Jesus is more than an heirloom to me."
5)  Once I arrived at First United Methodist Church-Kissimmee I discovered that Christmas Eve was as much of a marathon as it was a celebration!  We would start in the late afternoon and do four services, ending around midnight.  The services were often all different, and they were most always very crowded.  To celebrate with so many people was a real joy, and staff members like Pastor John Willis and Andrew Lewis kept it all quite festive and creative.  Other staff members (and church members) would bring food for us, so we would have small meals in the conference room after every service.  Then I would go home at midnight and eat my share of our family's traditional Christmas Eve hot dogs!
6)  While technically not a Christmas Eve event, another tradition that began while we were in Kissimmee was attending the EPCOT Christmas Candlelight Processional.  For the uninitiated, this event runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas with three "shows" each evening.  A 400 voice choir, a full orchestra and a celebrity narrator (Marilyn and Will saw Neil Patrick Harris just last weekend) who reads directly from scripture tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a most inspiring way.  It is an overtly Christian celebration at Walt Disney World!  Who knew?
7)  We had multiple service as Wesley Memorial UMC-Tampa as well, but the year I remember most was the year it rained so much parts of the building and the entire parking lot was flooded- yet the people still came!  It reminded me that those of us who follow Jesus make such small sacrifices compared to the sacrifice Jesus would make for us.
8)  My favorite Candlelight service I was ever a part of was the year in Kissimmee when we had a master plan for the family service that worked like a charm.  To copy Andrew's brilliant idea, check out my vintage post, One More Sleep 'Til Christmas.  

My prayer is that each of you will encounter Jesus is some new way during this Christmas season.

My Deliverer is Coming...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday Shout Outs- Christmas Edition!

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through my blog,
I was looking for someone to bring me Egg Nog!
I'm making fudge and balls of sausage and cheeses,
all so we can celebrate the birth of Jesus!

OK, so I am no poet.  But it is that "most wonderful time of the year," and I am getting so psyched to celebrate with family and friend.  Today's shout outs will be a little different, and as I remember some special groups of people and share my Christmas wishes for them.  Even if you are not mentioned by name, please know who important you are to me, and remember that this is the season of the giving of the greatest gift even give- the love of God whose name is Jesus!  Now on with the shout outs!

  • To my family- Marilyn, Will, my Mom- I wish you didn't have to put up with me.  But you do.  And I am blessed because of it!
  • To some of my oldest friends who I know occasionally stop by - Steve Semmler, Lisa Moran, Tammy Foster, Beth McGalliard, Denise Langley and Carl Semmler- I wish the gift of health, continued vigor and zest for life.  And plane tickets to Tampa.  Because we really miss you all!
  • To some of the people who supported this blog a long time, and through their support brought so much joy back into my life, I wish the gift of happy times with family and friends this holiday season.  Thank you Lisa Spires, Meagan Halquist, Cindy Martin, Charles Freedle, Connor Lewis, Kelly Trace, James Robinson, Millie Simmons, Caitlin Esry, Bethany Esry, Brook Phelps, Lauren Cacciatore, Debbie Davis, Jennifer Kuramochi, Jocelyn Session Ward, Todd Willis and so many more. Your friendship has meant more to me than you can ever know.
  • To my dear Tampa friends like Lisa Jewett, Hal & Joanne Gastler, Zach Wehr (and Jackie!) Nina Mock, Alexandra Smith and Stephanie Owens I wish the gift of a blessed holiday season.  And maybe dinner with my family.  Now THAT'S a gift!  LOL
  • To old friends with whom I have new and wonderful connections these days- friends like Wayne Cook, Cyndi Browning, Jeremy Godwin, Marie Allen, Ashley Broadhurst, Darin Miller and so many more- I wish the peace of Christ in your hearts and an understanding of the words of Jesus when he said to his disciples, "Let today's own troubles be enough for this day."  Old friends are the best!
  • To my Twitter family, who somehow manage to put some jazz in even the worst of days, I simply wish that somehow, someday, we will meet face to face and be able to share our joys and concerns in a more traditional manner.  If that means I'm getting old, so be it!  To Jason Huffman, Christie Weatherby, Jenn (Sis) Ganley, Robert Damron, Angie Battle, Amy Nabors, Kevin Weatherby, Sam Lassiter, Stacey Rocque, Tracee Persiko, Tom Zalatnai, Eric Hendrickson, Beth Green, Len Evans, Patti Gibbons, Heather Campbell and a few hundred more- thank you!
  • To Teresa Tysinger and Jerry Hanbery, dear old friends who manage to bring a smile to my face every time we speak, I wish the gift of a getaway weekend in Spanish Wells.  Not together of course- that would be scandalous!  I just know they could both use some R & R.  And if you know Teresa, be sure and ask her about her rockin' new haircut!  :)
  • To my dear old friend Becky Memmelaar, who has been through so much this year and shown such incredible faith while doing so, I wish a few non-eventful months.  Rest for her weary heart.  And the knowledge that while we cannot be with her in SoCal, we are with her in spirit and in prayer.  Always.
  • To all of the former students I served in various places scattered around the country, I wish for you the gift of happiness, and for us the gift of re-connection.  I love being in touch with so many of you; I wish to be in touch with all of you.  You will never know how much you mean to me.  Well, I guess you do now- I just told you!
I guess I'll stop there, although I am certain to have left out some folks who mean the world to me.  My wish for everyone this Christmas season is that the Light of Christ will shine brightly in you and through you, bringing joy and peace to everyone you encounter.  You have all brought so much of that joy to my life...and I thank you. 

Because of Jesus,

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Grown Up Christmas List

There is no denying that as we grow up (or at least older- as Jimmy Buffet once sang "I'm growing older, but not up...") Christmas loses some of its magic.  The wonder we feel as children when told the stories of Santa, the reindeer, the elves and the sleigh full of toys is seldom replicated in our adult lives.  The restless nights on Christmas Eve as we strain to here jingle bells or hooves on our rooftops.  The mad dash to the tree on Christmas morning to see what is there for us.  There is a sense of awe and wonder, a true feeling of belief in something, that makes Christmas magical for children.  They may know that the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus...but it is Santa in whom they truly BELIEVE!!!

This year, I am determined to recover that sense of awe and wonder.  I have every intention of filling my heart with the joy and amazement of Christmas.  All it takes is to truly believe in something- or someone.  And that someone is Jesus.  This time of year we often hear the birth stories of the Christ, but do we really let them soak in?  Do we really believe?  Is it harder to believe that a jolly old fat man brings presents to all the children of the world, or that God sent His only Son as the gift of salvation for all the world?  Is it more difficult to believe in flying reindeer, or a star that guided wise men from hundreds of miles away over a period of several years?  In either case, belief comes from faith.  When we are children, our belief in Santa Claus is what drives the spirit of the Christmas season.  As adults, it is our faith in Jesus that must fill our hearts if we are to experience the true spirit of Christmas.

It would not be Christmas around the Jones' home without the music of Amy Grant.  This year, one particular song has been stuck in my head- My Grown Up Christmas List.  You may know it better as sung by Kelly Clarkson or Michael Buble, but for me it will always be Amy's song. The song is a prayer that the world may find true peace and real joy. I have been talking with a growing number of friends over the past few months who have been telling me stories of feeling emotionally beaten up by life.  Spouses have let them down.  They worry for their children and the world they are growing up in.  Financial strife is taking a huge toll on their lives and families.  People- including people I really love- are hurting.  And the more we hurt, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a faith that gives us the joy we so need at Christmas.  People- even people of faith- begin to ask, "Where is God in this mess?" So this year, as I seek to refill my soul with the joy and wonder of this season, my grown up Christmas list has become quite simple.  I will pray for the healing love and the joy of Jesus Christ to overwhelm the lives of those who are seeking relief from these pressures.  I will pray that we may all find peace in the arms of the Prince of Peace.  I will pray for all of us to become a people that believe as strongly in the Babe of Bethlehem as we used to believe in Santa.  I don't have money; I don't have material things I can give to my friends.  I do have time, and this Christmas I intend to spend a little less time around the tree and a little more time on my knees.  I hope you will join me.  Our world needs Jesus.  Enjoy the song.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Santa & Cal

Beth, Wheels & Terri visit me at the Outlet Mall
Like many youth pastors, early in my career I worked many second jobs, but there is no doubt as to which was my favorite.  For several years I was a mall Santa Claus at Christmas.  You know the guy- parents bring children to sit on his knee so a photographer can take a $20 Polaroid picture.  That was me!  Actually, I enjoyed it so much (except for occasionally being wet on!) that in later years I would moonlight at the job, working at strange locations like an Express Lube in Kissimmee.  I still own my Santa suit.  It was a joy to bring smiles to the faces of so many kids- and of course, when they knew about it, the students in my youth groups would show up as well.  I eventually wore the suit to youth Christmas parties.  It was, for the most part, a wonderful experience.

In 1981 I was working at an Outlet Mall in Greensboro, sharing Santa duty with an older guy.  When we weren't playing Santa we also worked at a kiosk selling leather hand bags, brief cases and trinkets.  This man (his name has long since escaped me; I'll just refer to him as Santa) had spent a number of years in the Navy and had lived in the Baltimore area before moving to NC.  He, like me, was a huge sports fan and much of our conversation concerned the current NFL season and the upcoming baseball season.  Santa was a huge Baltimore Orioles fan, and he told me one day of a young man who had grown up in the same neighborhood in Aberdeen, MD that he had lived in.  This young man was a player in the Orioles farm system who was ready for the major leagues, according to Santa- and he was a better person than baseball player.  His name was Cal Ripken, Jr.  Santa was right; Cal was ready for the big time.  He joined the Orioles in May of 1982, and at the end of the season was named the American League Rookie of the Year.  In 1983 he took another step towards greatness and was the A.L.  Most Valuable Player.  He led the Orioles to a World Series victory.  I couldn't help but think to myself at the time that old Santa had really been on to something...

Fast forward to September 6, 1995.  Cal Ripken, Jr. is playing in his 2,131st consecutive game for the Orioles, breaking Lou Gehrig's record for most consecutive games (see picture at top).  The entire sports world stops to watch and pay homage to Cal- for simply showing up every day.  Cal Ripken, Jr. was someone we could all identify with.  He had done something incredible without doing anything spectacular.  He was a guy who despite fame and fortune, despite bumps and bruises and despite everyone doubting his motives had simply shown up and done his job for what turned out to be almost 17 years- a total of 2,632 straight games.  He wasn't celebrated because of his great baseball skills; he was celebrated for being exceptional at the ordinary.

As I watched Cal take a victory lap around Camden Yards after the record became official, I couldn't help but wonder what his accomplishment had to say to people of faith.  I think it says a great deal.  Scripture says "and what does the Lord require of us?  Do justice; love mercy; and walk humbly with God."  In other words,God wants us to show up!  Every day.  No matter our sin, no matter our mood, and no matter our circumstances.  Just show up and do our best in the name of Jesus.  We are not called to do OK under the circumstances; we are called to let God lift us ABOVE the circumstances of our lives.  But we do have to show up.  God doesn't need more superstars, God needs more everyday players. Santa was so right.  Cal Ripken, Jr. was someone special- just like all of us who are created in the image of God.  All we have to do is refuse to take a day off, even when we are no where near our best- and we too can be in the Hall of Fame.  It's called the Kingdom of God...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Christmas Bonus

I first posted this story in December of 2009.  To tell you the truth, I had forgotten I had already told it here once.  But it's the story that is on my heart today, and so I share it again for your Christmas enjoyment.

I worked for churches for a lot of years.  You would think that if any organization would understand the significance of Christmas and the birth of our savior, it would be the church.  And for the most part, that is correct.  But while the corporate world often gives a monetary bonus to their employees during the Christmas season, none of the churches I worked for ever did.  I received all kinds of gifts from youth and their families, and I never felt cheated.  But still...

There was one quasi-exception to this.  While I was at Springfield Friends Meeting, every year a wonderful older lady named Margaret Ellington would give a cash "bonus" to staff members.  Margaret was not some wealthy widow who liked to throw around her money to impress people.  She was a secretary for a furniture company who was still working at the time.  She shared her money from her heart- and as such, it was both significant and generous.  It was not much money, but that wasn't the point.  It was what it represented- a gift of true love and caring for us.  As the great literary character Barrington Bunny once said, what Margaret gave was "a free gift, with no strings attached."  There were people in that church (and many others) with a whole lot more money who would have screamed to the heavens if the church tried to give the staff a bonus.  Margaret just took matters into her own hands and shared the love and the spirit of the season with us each year.  

The gift of the Christ child was one of unconditional love, given to people with faults and flaws, and given with no strings attached.  Margaret's gifts to us were the same.  I pray that this Christmas season I will give from the heart and honor the birth of Jesus and the gift of grace that He gave me.  Thank you, Margaret, for all you gave and all you taught me.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Smelly Way To Save the World

Each year at Christmas one of the grand traditions of the Church is to read the birth story of Jesus from Luke 2. I have read it so often (and heard Linus recite it so many times on A Charlie Brown Christmas) that I pretty much have it memorized. Some of it almost seems normal now, when in fact there is not a single normal thing about the story. And the part that always gets me is when the angels appear to the shepherds. The big announcement that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was coming to earth was delivered in a field outside of a no-name village to a bunch of stinkin' sheep-herders. Absolutely ridiculous.

I mean, if God really wanted to make a splash with this birth you would have thought the angels would have appeared to the Roman rulers or the Jewish high priests. He might have tried a huge fireworks display and sky-writing event over downtown Jerusalem. That would have gotten the word out big-time. That could have made the rich and the powerful head for the stable that night, bringing honor and glory to the newborn King. Heck, they probably could have even gotten Joseph and Mary a room! But shepherds? Scripture tells us that they were "abiding in the fields" when the Heavenly Host (Is it just me or does that sound like a jazz band to anyone else?  Gabriel on trumpet, of course...) showed up. Of course they were! You know why? Because they smelled so bad no one wanted to be anywhere near them. Shepherds weren't even allowed in the temple in those days, because they were too nasty to go through the ritualistic purification required to worship there. They spent all of their days and nights in the field with sheep because no one else would have them! But when it came time to announce to the world that He was sending His only Son to save us, God turned to this smelly bunch of uneducated Hebrew rednecks. And they obeyed. They went to find the baby in a smelly barn, surrounded by smelly animals and laying in a disgusting manger- no doubt with animal slobber all over it (as a side note, I hope moms everywhere will note that Jesus and millions of other kids lived very healthy lives BEFORE the invention of the disinfectant wipe.  I'm just sayin...). And in the midst of all of this smelliness, hope was born. The world was saved, though no one knew it yet. When those stinkin' sheep-herders bowed to worship that baby, they represented us all. We are all totally unworthy of being in the presence of God, and yet because of the man that baby became we are all invited. How ridiculous!

The Jesus Revolution was going on right from the very beginning. God used a no-name girl from the least respected town of a pitiful little province to bring His Son into our world. He had him born in the most humble of circumstances, and sent His angels to the least likely witnesses anyone could think of. Before ever speaking a word, Jesus told the world that everything was about to change. Power, wealth and prestige were going to give way to the weak, the poor and the smelly. And yet so many of us have still not heeded that message.  I encourage you today to be willing to get a little smelly for Jesus. Find ways to connect with those who are "abiding in the fields" and are being ignored by our society. They have much to teach us. For the Jesus Revolution to take hold in this world, we all need to be more like the shepherds. My friends, it is time to get out there and stink, because God has shown over and over again He will use the smelly to change the world. How totally ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as sacrificing your only Son to save a bunch of sinful humans...   Amen and Amen.

My Deliverer is Coming....