Monday, April 30, 2012

What Church Should Be

After a Saturday that I spent following the merry misadventures of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (currently in session here in Tampa) on Twitter, my family and I headed out to Van Dyke Church for worship yesterday morning.  I confess that I went with a somewhat cynical heart after all of the politics of the previous few days.  But God had whipped up just the remedy for my attitude.  It was one of those days.  You see, I went for church.  What I got instead was a huge helping of Jesus!  The Holy Spirit was moving, and I came out refreshed and full of hope.  What happened, you say?  Let me tell you...

*  We arrived to find that over 175 African delegates to the General Conference were joining us in worship.  It was amazing to see and hear them as we arrived, mingling and speaking  in their own native tongues.  The sanctuary, which holds over 1000, was packed to overflowing.  I sat across the isle from the the seats reserved for our guests, and was absolutely amazed at the spirit they brought to worship.  The music was uplifting (including a saxophone; is it just me or is all music better with a sax?) and set a great tone for what was to come.  After some preliminaries, Pastor Matthew Hartsfield introduced our visitors.  We received a welcome reminding us that in order to complete the Great Commission it will require all of us to work together.  And then the French speaking portion of the delegates stood and sang to us- in French!  I recorded a portion and you can see and hear it below.

*  Matthew's message for the day was the third in his series called I Am.  This one was called "I Am Powerful," and it spoke to how we can do all things through Christ Jesus.  Matthew is a wonderful preacher on any day, but yesterday he just KILLED it!  He talked about how we in the church seem to shy away from our power, saying that "The church too often resembles actors in a poorly cast zombie movie.  We look like the living dead!"  He called upon us all to claim the power that comes from following Jesus.  He called us to "turn our tests into testimonies and our messes into messages."  And then he invited those who had never done so to commit to surrendering to the Savior.  Some 16 people raised their hands, and you could feel the overwhelming presence of God in the room.  And that presence was about to get HUGE!

*  It was already 12:10 PM or so when Matthew started the baptisms.  He warned us not to look at our watches. He also broke the news that the folks from Idlewild Baptist were going to be beat us to the Picadilly Cafeteria (we always go to Moe's, so that had no impact on us)!  Baptism Sunday at Van Dyke is always a great day, as they rent a big tank and do full immersions of adults and youth who have taken a class and are ready to take the next step with Jesus.  It is always very powerful.  But on this day, Matthew decided that was not enough.  As those who had prepared came forward, he invited anyone else who had never been baptized and felt led to join them.  And a dozen or so did just that!  If you are a United Methodist, then you know how radical this was.  The Pharisees in attendance were no doubt stunned.  If you are not part of the UMC, then I suspect you cannot imagine how out-of-the-box this was.  It was wonderful, and each new baptism was greeted with a roar from the congregation.  The African delegates were taking pictures and praising God for the outpouring of the Spirit.  You could not help but be moved when the final person- a young African-American man from the special needs ministry of the church who often sits near us during worship- was led into the pool.  He was hesitant to enter the water, but once he did he gave a holler and went with gusto.  When he came back up- resurrected into new life, as Matthew pointed out- the entire crowed was on its feet, applauding and giving praise to Jesus.  As I told my friend and Van Dyke staff member Rob Rose on the the way out, "That was unbelievable!"  The entire service was most definitely a God Thing.

So what should church be like?  Just like that.  People may come for church. But we need to give them Jesus.  Amen & Amen!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Things Jesus Said

Yesterday I heard yet another preacher laying out the prosperity gospel.  You know, the one that says that if you have enough faith (and give money to the right people) that you will be healthy wealthy and wise, and all of your troubles will magically sidappear.  So much for "Blessed are the persecuted," huh?   I am so profoundly disgusted by these preachers that I am out out of words on the subject.  Jesus, however, is not. Here are 6 scriptures recounting the thoughts of the Christ on the issues of wealth and poverty.  I hope they will speak to you today.  

Luke 4:16-19 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:   'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'

Luke 6:20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Matthew 25:34-36 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Luke 16:19-25 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

Seems pretty clear to me.

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Night With Barney Fife

This vintage post from my days at Springfield Friends Meeting (1986-1994) first appeared on this blog January 29, 2010- back when I still had very few readers! It is one of my favorite stories.  Enjoy!

One of the more interesting things about living across the street from Springfield Friends Meeting for 8 years had to do with the church's alarm system.  Each evening either Max Rees (the senior pastor) or myself would set the alarm using a key pad.  This system would sound a very loud siren if anyone opened a door, or if motion was detected in certain areas inside the facility.  More nights than I can recount, usually around 2 AM, the alarm would go off.  Over the years we determined it was often set off by mice in the building.  Regardless of the reason, anytime the siren sounded Max and/or I would get up and walk across the street.  We would turn off the alarm and wait for the police to respond.  They would check the building, find nothing, and we would reset the system and go home.  

One particular night I responded to an alarm by myself and awaited the High Point Police Department.  Two very young deputies arrived and were determined to search the building from top to bottom.  I went with them to show the way, since they seemed determined NOT to turn on any lights.  As we headed down the first hall towards the worship room, one of them thought he heard something- and pulled his gun.  I could almost hear him saying "this is bigger than big Andy- big ain't the word for it!"  I could almost sense him taking his one bullet out of his shirt pocket an loading it in his revolver.  They told me to stay in the hall and they proceeded to check out the noise- and"Deputy Fife" had his gun out the entire time.  They found nothing, and as they came out and continued to search I asked if the gun was really necessary. I explained it would be much easier to tell the congregation about a stolen VCR or a broken window than to explain a blood stain in a Quaker meetinghouse.  Despite my protest,the gun remained out.

We headed downstairs and into the Youth Room.  Shining a flashlight and holding a gun, "Deputy Fife" led us through the old kitchen and pushed open the swinging doors that led to our basement space.  Suddenly he screamed "FREEZE!" and was down on one knee, his pistol pointed towards the far wall.  He told me to hit the lights, so I did.  As the lights came up, we discovered our overzealous deputy had gotten the drop on a life-size cardboard stand-up of Christian musician Michael W. Smith.  Fortunately he didn't fire, and since MWS was unarmed, the episode ended peacefully.  The search was discontinued and the HPPD officers left without much conversation. "Deputy Fife" never responded to one of our alarms again, at least not while I was at Springfield.  Perhaps, like the character on The Andy Griffith Show, they had to take away his bullet...

Still wondering what a youth pastor does all day...and all night?  Once again I repeat the true annswer- EVERYTHING!  Have a blessed day!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Summer 101: SHO-Time!

It's almost May.  Still need help with your church's summer student ministry calendar?  Summer 101 is here every Friday to help!  Help your church make the most of the very best season of the year for youth ministry- SUMMER!

One of the most popular ideas I ever came up with for my student ministries was called SHO-Time (Senior High Only).  The origin was simple enough.  For most of my 28 years as a youth pastor our high school students and middle school students met together on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights.  I wanted to begin doing some special programming that would allow each of those groups to do things on their own.  SHO-Time was a no-brainer.  I just picked a night and a restaurant and invited our high school students to meet me there, or to meet at the church if they need a ride.  I began the program in 1988; it was still going strong at a 5th different church when I left the ministry in 2007.  

Although SHO-Time began as a once-a-month school year event, it was also a staple of our summer programming.  The laid back, no "school night" limits atmosphere of summer allowed us to visit restaurants that were farther away or required more time to eat.  We always tried to alternate the more expensive places with cheaper ones to keep things affordable.  And during the summer we would often find ways to hang out after the meal, whether by going back to the church or out to a movie or miniature golf.  It just made for another awesome night of fellowship. Plus, it is a wonderful event in which to include your family.  My son Will grew up thinking every kid got to eat out with awesome high school students like he did!

SHO-Time can be easily adjusted to fit your group's needs.  If you already split high school and middle school students, then you could use it to do something special for your 11th and 12th graders.  I found that it was a good way to connect with students who may have "dropped out" of youth group- everyone loves to eat!  It's always cool to do something special for your older youth- and their friends! This is another simple program that attracts new students like flies to a smelly church van.  

One final note about SHO-Time (and this is HUGE):  No matter if there is only 1 student who shows up, NEVER cancel it.  When I started the program at FUMC-Kissimmee, the first couple of times only 1 youth (Connor Lewis, pictured above) showed up. We had a blast, and word quickly spread that this was a great evening of fun and fellowship.  Within a few months, SHO-Time became a big deal.  Never quit on your kids.  You can't make anyone feel important if the message you send is, "Just you is not enough."  It's all about relationships, not numbers.  (A side note: As I edit this post I just saw a tweet from a youth pastor praying that "our SMALL group will be BIGGER than ever tonight."  Dysfunction Junction, thy name is so often ministry...)  But if you are looking for an event that will get everyone talking,  join me next Friday.  It's time to put some mystery in your ministry...

Because of Jesus,

National Pretzel Day!

Today is National Pretzel Day across this great land of ours. I hope you are celebrating.  You may be wondering why this matters to me, or even how I am aware of this most unremarkable occasion.  It's simple really.  I have a friend I have mentioned here many times - Lisa Jewett - who is a first grade teacher.  Lisa knows every strange holiday and celebration because she uses them all as teaching moments in her classroom.  So Tuesday I went with her to Target to buy some pretzels for her class in honor of this day, and I was told the following story about the invention of the pretzel.  I thought it was pretty cool, and so I share it here today.  Actually she demanded that I share it and threatened me if I didn't!   I will warn you that I did no research on this- I am trusting Lisa.  So think of this as the Wikipedia version of the story.  It may be wrong, but it sure is convenient!

In 610 AD a French monk (he may have been Italian, but Lisa says French so we are going with it!) wanted to create a treat to give the children of the church for learning their prayers.  The idea for the design of the pretzel came from the position the children would assume while saying the prayers.  They would cross their arms across their chests, with each hand on the opposite shoulder.  This became the model for the crisscross in the traditional pretzel, like the one pictured at the top.  The name came from the French word (or Italian) for pretzel, which means "small treat."  The monk began passing out these treats to the children who learned their prayers, and a significant connection between snack food and faith was born. Catholics later incorporated them as a Lenten snack, and in fact used to hide pretzels at Easter right along with the eggs.  I have no idea when they migrated to Germany (where I had assumed they came from to begin with) or became so closely associated with beer, but once they did they also became a part of Lutheran heritage.  Who knew the pretzel had such a diverse religious heritage?

All of this pretzel talk has me wanting one of the big, hot soft pretzels from a NYC street vendor- with mustard.  I really need to get some place around here (besides movie theaters) to sell those wonderful things, and perhaps return them to their Christian significance as well.  I'm looking at you, Chick-fil-A!  Evangelicals need their own snack food! Have a marvelous NPD, my friends!  And please address all corrections to Lisa...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

49 Days of Grace: Billy

My 49 Days of Grace series continues today with Week 5.  

Time in the Ware County Jail passed very slowly. I mentioned last week my cellmate Ryan, who tired so desperately not to swear in my presence. But Ryan was actually my second roommate after my time in solitary. The first person I got to spend some serious alone time with while in jail was a guy named Billy. When they first put him in the cell with me, Officer Betty told me that he was a hard case who had been moved out of the general population because he had anger problems. She was hoping I might be able to help calm him down. I said yes, but the fact was I was horrified at the prospect of having to live with anyone in a cell, much less someone with a anger problem. I had seen prison movies. I had heard the stories. My prayer life got much better very quickly as Billy moved in...

At first Billy was very stand-offish, and I was very glad. But when you are locked in a cell together 24 hours a day, eventually you begin to talk. We stayed up very late one night and he told me his story. He had been convicted of statutory rape at age 19. The girl was 16. He served 3 years in prison and married her when he got out. He had two years of probation left and he would have completed his sentence and be eligible to have his record expunged under Georgia's first offender law (more on that in a later post). Just weeks before he could have been free of all labels and restrictions, he tagged along with some friends who stole a ridding lawn mower. They were busted, and Billy went down with them. He was now a 2 time loser, separated from his pregnant wife and angry at everything- but mostly himself. I decided that night that the only way Billy could get past his anger at the world was going to be to accept God's grace and forgive himself. And if I could show him that grace was real, then I could make a difference.

The following morning I got out my bible and began to read, as I did every morning. Billy asked me what "part" I was reading, and I told him John 8. The story of the woman caught in adultery, and the story of how Jesus calmed the mob and offered her forgiveness. For the next hour or so Billy talked about unbelievable it was to him that God could forgive him- and that anyone could still love him. I did my best to explain the love of God whose name is Jesus to this hurting, damaged young man as we sat in the most depressing place you can imagine. More importantly, I tired to show it to him in the way I lived in those circumstances. His pain made me focus on what was truly important. Over the next couple of days, Billy began to relax. His anger subsided. We began to talk about all kind of things and laugh together. And at the end of a week he was allowed to go back to the general population. Just knowing that I could offer him grace helped Billy believe that God loved him too. God was working in him. It was a great thing for him. And once again I was reminded that grace was not just a word. It is a reality.

I wish I could tell you that Billy went on to a life of peace and happiness. Truth is I never saw him again.  But God used Billy to continue to teach me the one basic truth I needed to learn over and over again as I dealt with my sin. I was still a blessed son of the living God. And nothing in that cold, scary cell- or in my bleak, uncertain future- could change that. Thanks be to God!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?"

Last night I was walking my dog.  That is not at all unusual.  I walk Conner every night, usually between 8:30 and 9:00.  Lately I have filled this time with phone calls and texts, entertaining myself while I walk.  But last night I didn't even take my phone.  It was a beautiful night with a slight chill in the air (so rare in Tampa this time of year) and a sky full of stars.  As I walked and looked at God's creation, I suddenly found myself singing. Again, that is not at all unusual- I sing to myself quite often.  Then I realized what song I was singing. It's a song called Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?  This gorgeous praise song, written by John Fischer (and published by one of my heroes, the great Yohann "YO" Anderson for Songs & Creations) in 1970, was a song we sang at camp in the early 70s.  The Quaker Lake Camp staff used to sing it when we led worship in local churches on Sunday mornings during the summer.  It had a great harmony part on the chorus that I loved singing with Martha Ratledge Farlow.  I had probably not tried to sing it in well over 20 years.  Yet there I was, walking under the stars, remembering every word and every note.  And I was worshiping.  Big time.  Too often we think of worship as something that happens on Sunday morning.  Worship is a lifestyle.  These words reminded me of that as I offered praise to my God last night.  I hope they will remind you today.  God is everywhere,  Look around you.  See the evidence. 

 Have you seen Jesus my LORD?
He's here in plain view
Take a look. open your eyes
He'll show it to you

Have you ever looked at the sunset
with the sky mellowin' red
and the clouds suspended like feathers?
Then I've seen Jesus my LORD


Have you ever stood at the ocean
with the white foam at your feet
felt the endless thundering motion?
Then I've seen Jesus my LORD


Have you ever looked at the cross
with a man hangin' in pain
seen the look of love in His eyes?
Then I've seen Jesus my LORD


Have you ever stood in the family
with the LORD there in your midst,
seen the face of Christ on each other?
Then I've seen Jesus my LORD

We don't have to search for Jesus.  He is already where we are.  The question is, are we too busy, too loud and too self-involved to see Him and to give him the praise He deserves?  May I suggest a nice quiet walk to put things in perspective...  Be blessed, my friends!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Thought For a Monday

I hear people say all the time that life isn't fair.  They say that they don't get what they deserve.   I can't speak for others, but I know myself to be a sinner.  I am not worthy of God's love and forgiveness.  Left to my own willpower and my own intellect, I would fail to be the man God calls me to be every single time.  I am often among the last and the lost.  I deserve punishment.  I deserve banishment from the Kingdom.  But because of Jesus, grace is available to everyone- and there is nothing we can do to earn it.  It is a free gift.  So whenever I have the urge to complain that life isn't fair, or that I am not getting what I deserve, I simply say-  "Thank you, Jesus!"

Matthew 20
   1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
   3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
   “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
   7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
   “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
   8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
   9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
   13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
   16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

"When we don't get what we deserve, it's a real good thing!" - Newsboys
"The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair"-  Relient K

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Liberal vs Conservative

Can I make a confession to you?  I am sick of politics, to the point where I just don't care anymore.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but right now my primary complaint is the focus on political labels.  I am old enough to remember when the discussion of a candidate actually focused on his/her views and ideas rather than simply on which party they belonged to.  Those were the days when things like "liberal" and "conservative" actually meant something.  Now they are just labels, thrown around by opposing sides to stir up their fan base.  Then we add random beliefs and causes to the labels.  For instance, to be a "conservative" now means to be Christian, anti-gay, anti-abortion and patriotic.  If you happen to also be a fiscal conservative- which is where the label came from in the first place- that is just a bonus! (As a side note, the vast majority of our nation's debt over the past 32 years was built while a "fiscal conservative" sat in the White House.  That should give us a clue as to how ridiculous the labels have become!) We jump to the conclusion that anyone who supports a Republican candidate is all of those things, and everyone who supports a Democrat is not.  We then use those labels to separate us and to create division.  It's why political jokes are so easy to make.  Our system has become a cartoon, with each side fighting to be Foghorn Leghorn and blame everything wrong with our world on the Chicken Hawk.  Rational debate and discourse are currently on vacation...

We often do the same thing in the Church.  We label entire denominations and groups as "too conservative" or "too liberal."  And we do this based on our own personal theology. When I moved from the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends to the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends in 1985, I went from being seen as a radical liberal (or to paraphrase George Carlin, "a hippy-commie-pinko-socialist") who had trouble with salvation theology and altar calls to being the most conservative Christian anyone in NEYM had ever encountered.  Heck, I talked about Jesus and actually believed the bible!  I didn't change a bit- but my surroundings and how I was viewed (and labeled) certainly did!   Among Quakers, the group called "Conservative Friends" are consistently the most politically liberal.  Figure that one out.  So much of how you view labels depends on where you are starting from.  I have discovered this to be very true on Twitter.  Because so many people know me as a long time youth pastor and person of faith, it is assumed that I am a patriotic political conservative.  To be honest, I was banned from both of those labels the minute I confessed to be being a pacifist who thinks paying for wars in far off lands while people starve and our schools fail is a bad idea.  I could almost hear the screaming start immediately- LIBERAL!  But the truth is I am a conservative in some ways as well.  Like most people, labels cannot really define me.  I am an individual.  Still we continue to demand that the leaders of our country and of our churches fall into these categories- and stay there.  The fight becomes over which group is seen as right, rather over who may actually have a glimpse into the truth.  Heaven forbid we ever acknowledge that the other side may be partly right.  And so our wheels continue to spin...

If we are truly seeking to be Christ-followers, then labels like liberal, conservative, socialist, republican and patriot have no meaning to us.  We are defined by one thing, and one thing alone- the love of God whose name is Jesus.  Yesterday on my wife's Facebook I saw this quote: 

"I know...that some folks think I'm too liberal.  And I know that some folks think I'm too conservative. I want you to know that I really don't care anymore. I just want to be like Jesus. Sometimes being like Jesus means that some folks will think I'm liberal. Sometimes being like Jesus will mean that some folks will think I'm conservative. The labels just don't matter anymore. The only thing that matters is obedience to Jesus Christ." -Jim Harnish   I borrowed this from Becky Memmelaar who borrowed it from Scott Wagoner.  

And I thought to myself, "Self- you've heard that somewhere before."  It says it right at the top of this blog- It's all about Jesus!  Now that is a label I can live with-  Jesus Freak.  How about you?

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Shout Outs!

Greetings friends and neighbors,and welcome to an overdue edition of my Saturday Shouts Outs!  It's been 3 weeks since I last shouted and there is plenty going on in the world around me.  If this feels a little heavy on news from my old friends at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee, that's because it is!  The rest of you need to get busy!  So here we go...

  • Jacob Lupfer (FUMC-Kissimmee) and his bride Cara Swan welcomed a bay daughter, Amelia, to the world on Wednesday night.  She was 21 inches long and 7 pounds, 14 ounces.  I know her grandparents Sam & Leila, Uncle Matt (and Aunt Kristen) and Aunt Lindsey are thrilled to welcome her too.  Congratulations, Lupfer family!
  • Kelly Jeck Trace (FUMC-K) was nominated for the Orlando Business Journal's Women Who Mean Business Award in the "Women To Watch" category.  It's great to see Kelly get the recognition she deserves for her amazing work with Kissimmee Main Street.
  • My Twitter family- Jenn, Christie, Robert, John, Jason, Amy and others - has been especially loving and supportive this week.  I may have to start a Twitter Hall of of Fame to go along with the youth group one I already have...
  • I really miss getting together with Lisa Kraus Spires, Caitlin Esry (FUMC-K) and assorted others for our Saturday lunch extravaganzas.  It has been far too long, and we need to fix this problem!!!
  • Tomorrow is the birthday of one of my favorite people in the world, Millie Simmons (Springfield Friends Meeting)!  Millie was my boss secretary during those great years at SFM, as well as the mom to a couple of great youth group kids, Amy and Jennifer.  Celebrate in style, Millie!  We love you and miss you!
  • Speaking of birthdays, I have had a blast this week doing a daily birthday reminder for my friend Liza on Twitter.  Her birthday is also tomorrow.  Due to an auto-correct error on my phone, I recently sent her a tweet and addressed her as Lizard.  Since then she has become the slight lesser-known superhero, Lizardella.  We are still looking for costume ideas. If you are on Twitter, be sure to send a birthday greeting to her- @itslizawithaz.  And be sure and tell her Carl sent you!
  • After my 49 Days of Grace post entitled I Lost My Face this past Wednesday, I received a text from Jennifer Minnigan Kuramochi (FUMC-K) that simply, "I lost my face.  Thank God for make-up!"  Bob never fails to crack me up...
  • It's official!  If you haven't heard, Teresa Reep Tysinger (FUMC-K) and her hubby Eric and daughter Emma are moving to Texas!  Eric is starting a new job in Dallas and Teresa will be working for the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth.  They are heading out in early May, so be sure to be praying for the Tysinger family!
  • Got a text from Todd Willis (FUMC-K) telling me that his lovely wife Kristin's father is having some serious health issues.  Please lift that family up in prayer.
  • I recently reconnected with Dana Schmidt (FUMC-K) on Twitter!  It was great to hear from Dana.  Her hubby Matt is on Twitter, but silent to this point.  :)
  • Marilyn, Lisa Jewett (Wesley Memorial UMC) and I are back on our regular schedule of having Taco Tuesdaze every week around 7:15 PM at the Tijuana Flats in Westchase.  As always, all are welcome!
  • I got a message Thursday night from Connor Lewis (FUMC-K) who had been MIA from social media for a while.  He assured me he is doing fine and still reads this blog regularly.  Always glad to hear from one of my all-time favorite youth!
  • I had brunch on Thursday with Jerry Hanbery (FUMC-K) at Cracker Barrel here in Tampa.  It;s always great see Jerry.  And everything is better with gravy on it! 
  • And finally, Ken Hill (Springfield) just finished his second Boston Marathon, while wife Gilly ran in a 5K the same weekend.  We are proud of both of you, and we hope you are in training for the run to Tampa...   :)
So there you have it.  By the way, I still am looking for a reunion planner.  Or am I?  Your move, Teresa~!  Have a great weekend, my friends!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 20, 2012

Summer 101: Digital Scavenger Hunt

Summer is coming fast!  I continue my Summer 101 series today in the hopes of inspiring youth pastors everywhere to make the most of the very best ministry season of the year- SUMMER!

The Scavenger Hunt has been a part of youth group activities since Grog the Caveman first had the group from T-Rex Baptist Church go out to look for fire and wheels- but it is still a winner.  It has taken many forms over the years, but my favorite has always involved some sort of pictures.  In my earliest years we did Polaroid Scavenger Hunts; we then moved on to Video Hunts and finally to the more modern Digital age.  These are not only a riot for youth and adults to be a part of, they also provide you with great promo pics for the present and excellent blackmail pics to use years later!  There are 1000 ways to do this event, but here's what worked for me.. 

*  You'll need to make an educated guess at how many students will show up, and have more than enough vehicles with adult drivers to safely transport them all.  The more teams the merrier!  You can either let students divide themselves up and pick a driver, or (and I love this one) let the drivers "draft" their teams.  That adds a "mixer" element to the event.  Students can make great connections that will last while riding around in a car working as a team.  And, needless to say (and yet I am saying it!) every car needs a camera that will allow you to download the photos easily at the completion of the event.

*  Make a list of pictures they need to take in the allotted time (usually 2 hours).  Make sure you have more things on the list than they can possibly do in the time period.  Some items should require specific locations; others should ask for pictures of specific actions.

*  Give each picture opportunity a point value.  The more "unusual" the photo, the higher the point value.  For instance, a picture of the group in front of another church's sign might be worth 50 points.  A picture of the group carrying a total stranger across a street might be worth 500. This system helps insure you will get more of the best pictures, and also reminds the teams that this is NOT a race.  It's about points.  

*  To provide a little intrigue I always made one of the highest value items getting a pic of ANOTHER one of the groups taking one of their pictures.  This provides some of the most dramatic moments of the event!

*  Involve the community.  Send teams to church member's homes, local restaurants and anyplace else where the activity will generate some buzz for your youth ministry. 

*  To keep things lively, offer real prizes to each member of the winning team.  This is NOT the time to give away your cans of SPAM or last year's leftover t-shirts.  And to keep things on schedule, give serious point penalties for every minute after the event's end time that a team returns to the church. 

*  Have an adult on stand by with a vehicle at the church in case anyone has car trouble or an emergency.  Make sure their cell number is printed on the official event list.

That should be enough to get you started on one of the most fun events you will ever do!  Just remember that the key to the entire thing is being wildly creative with your list of photo opps.  Do this once and do it right, and I give you my personal guarantee that the 2nd time you do it you'll need twice as many cars and drivers.  "If you take pictures of them, they will come..."  Now get crackin' on that Summer calendar!  Blessings to you all.

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Last weekend my wife Marilyn and I went to see the movie American Reunion, the 4th installment of the American Pie series.  I wanted to see the movie for two reason.  I had heard it was very funny, the best of the series since the original.  And I had great memories of the original!  Despite its raunchiness (or maybe because of) I found it to be very funny.  I also found the characters to be quite believable, and the friendships they shared as they finished high school to be quite real.  I remember hearing about the original and the infamous pie scene and wondering if I should see it.  I was talked into going by one of my former students, who was in college at the time.  Lisa Kraus, Amber Herrick and I saw it together (in one of those "What was I thinking?" moments from days gone by!) and laughed hysterically.  I also saw the sequel and found it to be be pretty funny.  I never saw American Wedding, because I heard it was awful.  But the reunion installment intrigued me.  What would things be like when the whole gang got back together 13 years after graduation?  Who had changed?  Who hadn't grown up yet?  I wanted to know, and I very much enjoyed getting the answers.  And yes- it still had it moments of total raunchiness too!

Kathryn, Beth & Terri, 1981
As I thought about this a few days later, I realized something about myself.  I love reunions.  Even when fictional, I love stories of old friends reuniting and discovering that who they were in the past played such a huge role in who they are in the present.  One of my all-time favorite movies is The Big Chill, about college friends coming together for a weekend for the funeral of one of their own.  A couple of years ago I fell in love with the Adam Sandler flick, Grown Ups, about childhood buddies who come back together for the funeral of their former coach.  I can watch (and have) those movies over and over again.  And a great deal of my affection for them has to do with the stories of change, accomplishment, failure and redemption that the characters share with each other.  It just seems to me that reunions offer opportunities for great perspective and growth, as well as a chance to relive some amazing old stories.

Lauren, Chrissy and Amber, 1998
Some of you already know that if I had had a Genie and 3 wishes to work with, one of them would be to have a reunion of all of the students and adults I worked with in all of the youth ministries I served over the years.  It would be so amazing to see everyone again, to meet all the families and to catch up on life.  It would be great to share stories and see how similar the experience of youth group was for such a diverse population.  But there are more selfish reasons as well.  I want all of the Youth Counselors who gave of themselves in service to youth over the years to get a chance to share in the sense of pride and accomplishment I get from knowing these former students as adults.  I want my first "girl group" from New Garden Friends- Terri Johnson Harris, Beth Edgerton Bell and Kathryn Burris- to get to hang out with my "angels" from FUMC-K- Lauren Carr Cacciatore, Amber Herrick and Chrissy Weaver. I want Todd Willis, one of my favorite guys from Kissimmee, to get to hang out with Todd Farlow, one of my all-time favorites from High Point.  I want to hear people like Justin Overstreet, Keri Vinson Johnston, Nina Mock and Jocelyn Sessions Ward to sit around telling New York trip stories.  I want the wacky Charles Freedle and the wacky Ben Thompson to meet- and let the insanity begin!  I want to hear Jill Gilbreth Bryant  tell Jennifer Johns about the time we left her behind at a motel in Orlando, and Jennifer tell Jill about the time we lost her in New York.  I want all of the teachers (people like Lisa Kraus Spires, Jennifer Gastler, Beth Brown, Josh Fry and more) to hold court and solve all of the education issues in our nation.  :)  I want to hear a roundtable discussion of the wonders of the Betsy B featuring people like Adam Hill, Shelley Godwin Kirby and Laurie Rees.  I want everyone to hear the stories of Ken Hill, who just finished his second Boston Marathon; of Heather Beggs Varner who continues to do amazing work as the Quaker Lake Camp director; of Ashley Goad Broadhurst, who is changing the world through her work in Haiti; and of Kelly Jeck Trace who is making her hometown of Kissimmee a better place. I want everyone from my Hall of Fame to be in the same room at the same time.  I want everyone who doesn't know them to meet people like Teresa Reep Tysinger, Jerry Hanbery and Lisa Jewett who are still such a big part of my life today. I just cannot imagine how amazing it would be for all of us to share some time together in one glorious reunion.  I have confidence we will all be together again someday, for I believe Heaven will be a great community of friends and believers.  But forgive me for wanting it all now...

"The Gang" back in May, 2006.
That is not the only reunion I crave.  Many such gatherings have actually taken place; I just couldn't be there. I have missed being able to get together with my old friends (like my best friend Steve Semmler) from high school and college since I have been in Florida.  Sharing text conversations and emails lately with people like Denise May Langley, Carl Semmler and Beth Vestal McGalliard makes me miss them even more.  I miss getting to see Neal & Susie Thomas, Susan McBane Tuggle and the rest of my old friends from Quaker Lake, as well as my old North Carolina Yearly Meeting buddies like Tim Vestal, Jeff Byrd and Terry Venable.  I miss so many people. I even want a "union" of so many people I know through Twitter.  I haven't met them the first time yet...

So does all of this rambling have a point beyond my wishful thinking?  Probably not.  I guess I will wrap it up by saying that if you are reading this, and you know me at all, then I am probably wishing right now that we could get together and share life together again. I have always felt that life lived to the fullest is life lived in community- and community never ends.  Somebody famous once said it like this- "Friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them..."  Thanks for so many memories and so much joy.  And if someone wants to start planning the reunion of everyone I have ever known, go for it! I'll get you a list of names.  :)

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"I Lost My Face!"

My 49 Days of Grace series continues with a look at a few of the humorous moments of my 7 weeks of unfortunate incarceration in the Spring of 2007.  For more background on how I wound up in the mess I was in be sure to visit the My Journey tab located in the upper right of this blog.

"Hello, Mrs. Wiggins!"
It may be difficult to believe that in the midst of my 49 days in jail there were actually some pretty light-hearted moments- but there were! To help you understand a little more about the circumstances, I need to tell a few things about the hall I was held on. I have mentioned before I was on a high security wing for my own protection. Most of the folks I shared the hall with were there because they had serious mental issues. I fully understand that these are nothing to make fun of. However...  For the most part I could not see the other people on the wing- only when we were herded to the showers. But I could hear them. And that made for some very interesting moments. Here are a few of the characters I encountered.

  • Tim Conway - There was a little old man who kept moving in and out of the jail during my stay there. I have no idea what he was alleged to have done, and he never stayed very long. We began calling him "Tim Conway" because when he spoke he sounded like the old man character Tim used to play on The Carol Burnett Show- sort of a funny mumble. But the mumble was only part of what made him memorable. One of the first nights he was with us on the hall, we heard screaming around 3 AM. Tim was trying to get the guards attention, because he wanted to go home. They were ignoring him. So Tim raised the stakes. He began yelling at the top of his lungs, "I lost my face!!! I cannot find my face!!!" At first we were irritated at the early hour, but then it just got funny. There were lots of things that would have gotten a response from the guards, but yelling I lost my face was not one of them.. But Tim would be released, arrested again, and keep trying. A couple of weeks later we were awakened to the sound of Tim yelling, "My spleen exploded!" Another time it was "Who stole my  _ _ _ _?"  He did have a body parts theme! Under the circumstances it was pretty funny stuff.  
  • Big John - A man named John was a couple of cells down the entire time I was there.  John would go through long periods of silence. I discovered one day that Big John had been in the Ware County Jail a very long time- for psychiatric evaluation. He had threatened to blow up the county courthouse while standing in the restroom of that very building. This was not his first threat, and so John was kept heavily medicated and under constant observation. He would sleep for days at a time. And then....BLAM!  John would sing. He would sing church hymns.He would sing classic rock. He would make up his own songs, which always made him laugh hysterically. And the sound of his songs and his laughter would shake the walls. I loved those days, because they made me laugh so hard. And laughter was hard to come by. Big John was also the one who started what became a tradition one day while we were waiting for our shower time. He asked me what I was "in for" and when I told him he seemed to think I was lying to him. Our merry little band had some pretty serious felons in it, and next to their crimes my illegal computer conversation (while very bad) seemed pretty tame. After we entered the shower area John announced in a loud voice, "Stay away from Jones. He is dangerous. If you're not careful, he'll talk to you on a computer!" From that day on, someone would say it every single time we headed to the showers. In no way is that meant to downplay my very serious offense. But again, under the circumstances, we found it to be quite funny.
  • Ryan - For several weeks I shared a cell with a young man named Ryan. Ryan had many problems, including having attempted suicide on a couple of occasions and having committed multiple violent offenses. As we got to know each other, he learned of my past as a youth pastor. Up until that point, Ryan's language (like almost all of my fellow prisoners) was quite colorful. In a very foul sort of way. To his everlasting credit, after he found out I was a pastor he tried desperately not to curse when talking to me. He most often failed miserably. But it was so funny watching him try. He would curse, stumble over apologizing while cursing at himself for cursing, and then try again. In the end I got to pray with Ryan a few times, and we read the bible together every morning. By the time I got out Ryan believed Jesus was a "damn good guy..."  Baby steps...
I spent most of my 49 days and nights sad, lonely and fighting depression. I was there because I had broken the law. There shouldn't have been anything funny about jail. But God brings light into darkness in a variety of ways. And slowly but surely I was beginning to realize that it was going to be the love of God whose name is Jesus that still defined me, not my crime and my sin. Grace was real. And I needed to share it. More on that next week.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

God Knew It All Along

Isaiah 53:1-6  (The Message)
Who believes what we've heard and seen? Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this? The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.  He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.  One look at him and people turned away. 
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.  But the fact is, it was our pains he carried-  our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.  But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost. 
We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,  
on him, on him.

Some 700 years before the birth of Christ, the mighty prophet Isaiah wrote these words describing what the Messiah would be like and how he would be treated.  God knew all along that a sacrifice would have to be made.  God knew that we could never be reconciled to Him through the law- that our efforts to "be good" would never be good enough.  A blood sacrifice would be required to save us.  And yet, when the Messiah arrived, the very people He came to save did not know Him.  The NIV verse 3 says, "Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not."  Little has changed, has it?  We still hide from Jesus.  We still do not "esteem" His name in our world. In so many ways, He is still the rose we trample under foot. In order to live the WIDE OPEN life God wants for us, Jesus must be lifted up in our lives. Scripture tells us that "the stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone."  Which will it be for us?  Will Jesus be the one around whom we build our lives, or we will too "esteem him not?"  It is time to choose...

Because of Jesus,