Friday, August 31, 2012

The Betsy B Revisited

Labor Day weekend is upon us, and with its arrival my thoughts always turn to the beach.  Even though I live in Florida, in my mind there is only one beach that matters- Myrtle Beach. And since my travel is extremely limited these days, my beach trips are confined to my mind to the many great memories from over the years. I have shared these thoughts with you before, but they seem very appropriate again today.  It's time for another trip to the Betsy B.

The Betsy B is just a building.  I know this is a true statement, but it somehow does not do the "old girl" justice.  For too many years- from 1981 until 2000- she was a huge part of my life and ministry.  Today I want to tell you our story.

In 1980, Martha Ratledge Farlow and I were working as youth leaders at New Garden Friends Meeting, and we decided to put together a reunion for the folks we had been in youth group with during our high school days.  We researched and found a house at North Myrtle Beach, and we rented it.  The following year we did it again, but decided on a different house, oceanfront in the Ocean Drive section of NMB.  This house was The Betsy B.  The "B" (pictured above) is a three story house, and each level is rented separately.  Each level sleeps 14, as long as you really like each other! In those days we never needed the whole thing, so we often had neighbors.  There is nothing fancy about the "B."  In fact, after doing the reunion there a couple of years, some of our group wanted to stay at a nicer place, so we quit using it.  

In 1988, the summer after our first Walt Disney World trip from Springfield Friends Meeting, we decided to take the group to NMB.  I called about the "B" only to discover that the realty company no longer rented to groups or house parties.  After some negotiating, they agreed to "grandfather" me in.  We could rent the house; but if we ever messed anything up it would be the last time we would stay there.  We stayed at the "B" in '88 and '89 with Springfield, and returned in 1995, 1997, and 1999 with First UMC-Kissimmee. The highlight of The Betsy B for me was the same no matter which group I was with-  I loved that you could sit on the big wrap-around oceanfront porches any time of day and see amazing things.  During the day I could see the crowded beach, the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and the bright sunshine while the kids' boom boxes blasted out great music (except for the year the guys were obsessed with Guns'n'Roses).  At night I could sit out on the porch and see the moon reflect off the ocean, or watch amazing thunderstorms out at sea.  I could sit quietly and wait in the cool ocean breeze and eventually youth would come out to sit and talk about life, faith, relationships and heartache.  I could take my guitar out and began to play and write songs, and eventually a crowd would come out for some spontaneous singing and worship.  Students tell me quite often that their favorite memory of our youth ministry was singing with me on the porch of The Betsy B.  Those times are near the top of my list as well.

The Betsy B was so important to so many of us that Jim & Karen Fry, who chaperoned several of the Kissimmee groups, started taking their own kids and their friends after I left for Chicago.  They were still able to use my "grandfather" status- a real testament to all the kids who kept our reputation in place over the years.  MarilynWill and I came down from Illinois and joined them in 2000- my last trip to the "B."  I miss the place, but the memories are rich and plentiful.  And I haven't given up hope that one of you will decide to buy it for us so I can put my Hall of Fame there someday...

I have written here many times over the past 3 years how important trips were to my youth ministries.  Just the mention of the Betsy B brings a smile to the face of anyone who ever went.  The memories are priceless.  I'd love to hear some of yours.  In the meantime, have a safe and blessed Labor Day weekend. 

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, August 30, 2012

It Was 26 Years Ago Today...

Time flies.  It is hard to believe that 26 years ago today our family and friends gathered at Poplar Springs Baptist Church in the thriving metropolis of State Road, NC to participate in our wedding. The day began for myself and my groomsmen with a touch football game and some wiffle ball in the motel parking lot.  My tux pants were too short, and my hair was black (it has not ALWAYS been gray!).  My bride was stunning and completely out of my league. We had one Baptist minister and one Quaker minister. Alan Brown wanted to sing with his feet dangling in the church baptismal pool.  When Hank Semmler read our Quaker Wedding Certificate he kept starting to say Marilyn Monroe Steele instead of Marilyn Marie Steele. And yet, we were wed.  Marilyn and I promised on that day to love each other for better and for worse.  There has been so much "better."  And there has been a fair share of "worse."  Through it all, love - the kind of love only God can inspire- has persevered.  I invite friends both old and new to rewind with me today, and remember August 30, 1986 with pictures from that day.  It was a great day that led to so many more great days- and many more to come.  I love you, Marilyn.

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

History Maker

At some point in the 1990s I was at a National Youth Workers Convention (in Anaheim, I believe) when I and the rest of the Banana Splits and I climbed into an elevator with a group of very odd British men.  We would later discover that we had just met the band Delirious.  Their music revolutionized worship in those days, bringiing us such amazing songs as The Happy Song, LORD You Have My Heart,  My GloriousI Could Sing of Your Love Forever and Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?  When they led worship in the General Session (Big Room) later that day, I was blown away by both the music and the power in their personal worship on stage.  It was a most memorable day.  And the song that really rocked my world was this one..

I love the message.  I love the music.  And I love the prayer.  "I want to be a history maker in this land."  Use me LORD that together we can share your unfailing love and amazing grace with the world.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Youth Ministry Made

I was a youth pastor for about 28 years, and have been out of the ministry for about 6 years now.  And today I am going to share the most important thing I know about ministry to students, something that has become more clear to me the longer I have been away from serving churches.  You want to know the key to simplifying student ministry?  Want to know the one thing you can do (because Jesus does the rest!) that makes youth ministry have a lasting impact in the lives of teenagers?  Well listen up, because here it is.  Go where the youth are. That's it. And here's why....

All of pictures on this post have one thing in common- not a one of them was taken at a church!  One of the first things I ever learned as a youth pastor was that waiting for students to show up at church was not an effective way to build relationships with them or to help them grow in their relationships with Jesus.  Unless they grow up in the church, lots of students are a little scared of the place.  I was taught early on that in order to really let kids know that you care, you had to meet them on"their turf."  That meant seeing them at their homes, their schools and their extra-curricular activities.  So I did.  Like most professional (and many volunteer) youth workers I ate many school lunches, was attacked by numerous household pets (and a couple of parents) and spent many a happy moment with students in restaurants and arcades.  And I spent hours- more hours than you could count or would believe- at sporting events, band concerts, dance recitals, school fund-raisers, cheer-leading competitions, school plays, piano recitals and much more.  There was nothing quite as good for the ministry's PR as being at football games in Trinity, NC or Waycross, GA on a Friday night and being seen by the entire community.  There was nothing quite as odd as going to swimming, gymnastics or badminton competitions when I was in Hinsdale, IL  (It is hard to cheer for a badminton match and look enthusiastic.  "Kill that birdie, kill that birdie, GO GO!") and seeing the stunned looks on the faces on the students who could not believe I actually showed up.  No matter the event, I made an effort to see each student in action at least once a "season."  It was important ministry- even though I did have one church tell me that the hours spent at such events did not count as work (that same church at one point actually had me punching a time clock).  I would submit to you now that not only did those hours count, but in many ways they were Job #1.

Sometimes the events themselves were quite tedious.  I remember going to a three hour piano recital to see two students perform- and both of them played in the last 15 minutes!  I remember going to soccer match after soccer match, trying desperately to pretend I enjoyed the sport.  I pulled for incredibly bad football teams, watched horrific marching bands and clapped loudly for off-key violin players.  I also saw some amazing things over the years.  But in reality, the results didn't matter.  What mattered was being there.  I loved seeing students after the event, in the lunch room or at their home and hearing the question:  "Why are you here?"  When I gave them the simple answer- "To see you"- their smiles told me I had just taken a step towards a real relationship with a teenager.  And real relationships open doors for sharing Jesus.

Another great thing that happens when you are "there" is that you impact more than just the students you already know.  Their friends begin to ask who you are.  You meet new kids and start new relationships.  Or you visit their homes and connect in new ways with parents. It is an amazing thing.  Many of my best memories and answered prayers involve youth whose parents did not attend the churches I worked at, but came to us through relationships built away from the church buildings.  It is important for people in any kind of ministry to remember that Jesus had no "church home."  He was always out among the people.  And that is where we need to be as well.

The movie Field of Dreams taught us that "if you build it, they will come."  While it is one of my favorite movies, when it comes to youth ministry (and ministry in general) that particular statement is a lie.  The truth is much closer to this- If you show them you care, they will come.  So as my old buddy Geoff Moore would say, "It's time to get out there- and play ball!"  It's time to cut back on office work, skip a few staff meetings and get out there and love on students- on their turf!  Youth work is hard.  But it can be a little bit simpler if we remember that relationships are Job #1.  They don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.  It's a truth that will never change.

Because of Jesus,

Monday, August 27, 2012

Psalm 40

Year 4, day 1.  I woke up to a steady rain and cool breeze as the big storm skirts by Tampa.  Schools are closed here, so I will enjoy a day home with Will.  My prayers are with all of those who are in the path of Issac.  As I listen to the rain hitting the skylights over my head, I cannot help but reflect on the wondrous truth that God is so good.  He has rescued me.  He does hear my cries.  He does love me.  And I need Him so much.  With that in mind, I could think of no better way to begin a new year of blogging than to share these words of scripture.  Have a blessed day, my friends!

PSALM 40 (The Message)
I waited and waited and waited for God
At last he looked; finally he listened. 
He lifted me out of the ditch, 
      pulled me from deep mud. 
   He stood me up on a solid rock 
      to make sure I wouldn't slip. 
   He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, 
      a praise-song to our God. 
   More and more people are seeing this: 
      they enter the mystery, 
      abandoning themselves to God
  Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God
      turn your backs on the world's "sure thing," 
      ignore what the world worships; 
   The world's a huge stockpile 
      of God-wonders and God-thoughts. 
   Nothing and no one 
      comes close to you! 
   I start talking about you, telling what I know, 
      and quickly run out of words. 
   Neither numbers nor words 
      account for you. 
  Doing something for you, bringing something to you— 
      that's not what you're after. 
   Being religious, acting pious— 
      that's not what you're asking for. 
   You've opened my ears 
      so I can listen. 
  So I answered, "I'm coming. 
      I read in your letter what you wrote about me, 
   And I'm coming to the party 
      you're throwing for me." 
   That's when God's Word entered my life, 
      became part of my very being. 
 I've preached you to the whole congregation, 
      I've kept back nothing, God—you know that. 
   I didn't keep the news of your ways 
      a secret, didn't keep it to myself. 
   I told it all, how dependable you are, how thorough. 
      I didn't hold back pieces of love and truth 
   For myself alone. I told it all, 
      let the congregation know the whole story. 
  Now God, don't hold out on me, 
      don't hold back your passion. 
   Your love and truth 
      are all that keeps me together. 
   When troubles ganged up on me, 
      a mob of sins past counting, 
   I was so swamped by guilt 
      I couldn't see my way clear. 
   More guilt in my heart than hair on my head, 
      so heavy the guilt that my heart gave out. 
  Soften up, God, and intervene; 
      hurry and get me some help, 
   So those who are trying to kidnap my soul 
      will be embarrassed and lose face, 
   So anyone who gets a kick out of making me miserable 
      will be heckled and disgraced, 
   So those who pray for my ruin 
      will be booed and jeered without mercy. 
  But all who are hunting for you— 
      oh, let them sing and be happy. 
   Let those who know what you're all about 
      tell the world you're great and not quitting. 
   And me? I'm a mess. I'm nothing and have nothing: 
      make something of me. 
   You can do it; you've got what it takes— 
      but God, don't put it off.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Happy Blogiversary!!!

Three years ago today I decided to start writing a blog. I did it for a variety of reasons, almost all of which were selfish.  After two years of wandering in the wilderness following losing my ministry in 2007 I wanted to put some discipline and commitment back in my life, so I began with the idea that I would post everyday for one year. Today is my 1097th consecutive day of posting.  I wanted to tell the stories of my many adventures in youth ministry, so I named the blog I'd Laugh...But All This Happened To Me!  And for 3 years I have been telling those stories and we have laughed, cried and remembered together.  I wanted to share with my readers the many people and places who made my life so blessed, and I have done that.  I knew at some point I would tell the story of my "notorious sin" and how I was saved by the amazing grace of God and my family, and this past year I told those stories- and experienced grace in new ways from so many readers.  And somewhere in the back of my mind I prayed that maybe...just maybe...this blog would help me reconnect with a few of the people I loved so much and had lost touch with during my time "off the grid."  That prayer has been answered in ways I could have never imagined.  When I started, I dreamed that a few of my old friends might read it.  Now I know that friends old and new read it every day (Although I confess it would be nice to know exactly who reads- comments are always welcomed! HA!).  This blog has been more that I ever hoped it could be. I am so blessed.

Through these daily posts, old friends have become some of my best friends.  I have reconnected with important people from my own teenage years who I thought might be lost to me forever, only to discover that what we shared can never be lost.  I have found a new ministry with young adults who grew up in the youth groups I served, discovering that there are times when they still need prayer and spiritual guidance from their old youth pastor.  So many have shown me grace when it would have been so easy to reject me as a failure and disappointment.  Perhaps they were actually listening when we talked about God's love and grace all those years ago. :)  As a youth pastor you are never quite sure.  Now some of those very students and adult volunteers have become the people who constantly teach me about grace.  What a blessing!

The addition of Twitter to my life in the months following the birth of this blog brought me a new group of friends who have been amazingly supportive and encouraging.  They are a wide variety of folks- some of them youth pastors, some of them Disney freaks, and some of them just really good people- who have learned my story and embraced me.  I wrote yesterday that without them I am not sure I would still be blogging.  I mean that.  And the best part is there are more new connections to be made nearly everyday.  I never know where my next new reader will come from!

But having said all of that, I realized early on that what I really wanted people to understand through my writing is that my life has been and still is "all about Jesus!"  His love in my life changes everything, from the way I approach life to the way I treat people. I have written often about how the church needs a Jesus Revolution; how we need to be less wrapped in the institution and more involved in our relationship with our Savior.  As I have begun to run out of the old stories (although there are still stories left to tell), I have turned more and more to being a crusader for the revolution.  And the revolution is best summed up in the most famous words of Jesus himself:
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him."  ~John 3:16-17  (New Living Translation)

Today I celebrate 3 years of Jesus reminding me that he loves me (and you!) so much that he gave his life so that we might live. When you read those words "to save the world" remember what that really means is " to save YOU...and me!"  We have been rescued.   I also celebrate 3 years of having my life revitalized and changed through relationships with friends old and new.  But this journey is nowhere near complete.  I have much left to say, more stories to tell, and more friends to reunite with- or meet for the very first time.  Although this blog often looks back at my life, it is also the way I will go forward, thankful for my family, my many friends, and the radical, amazing and unconditional love of Jesus in my life.  Thank you all for being a part of this. You are loved.  My life has been quite the rollercoaster ride, and I am blessed to be able to share it with all of you.  Like the title says, I'd Laugh...But All This Happened To Me!  And it continues to happen...  

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday Shout Outs!

This blog turns 3 years old tomorrow, and so my final post of my third consecutive year of blogging is most fittingly a list of shout outs.  This is only fun because there are so many wonderful people in my life who read along. Today I thank all of you and share some news about some of you.  So hang on, it's time to get started!

  • Please keep Marilyn in your prayers this week as she seeks to survive her daily commute into the mess that is the RNC in Tampa.  Yuck!  And also prayers for those in the path of the tropical storms now in the Caribbean. 
  • Lisa Jewett (Wesley Memorial UMC) has more going on with her family these days (most of it very good!) than I have space to write about here, but please keep her and her family in your prayers this weekend. Love you. Lisa! OH...and welcome to Twitter!!!
  • Cyndi Reep Browning (FUMC-Kissimmee) and her family were flooded out of there house in NC all this week and had to stay at a motel.  Hopefully they are returning home today. Our thoughts are with Cyndi, Josh and Grayson!
  • Jeremy Godwin (Springfield Friends Meeting) and his wife Laura are at Disney this weekend, and then Jeremy has to stay in Florida a few days for a trade show.  If Tropical Storm Issac and the Republicans cooperate, we hope to get together on Tuesday.  Always so great to catch up with old friends!
  • One of my old Kissimmee angels, Lauren Carr Cacciatore, had a birthday this past week.  I know she is sorry we weren't around to put her through the "Cookie Machine!" But of even bigger news is that Lauren and hubby Brad are looking ahead to a "birth date" in about 9 months.  Congratulations, guys!!!
  • I cannot imagine that I would still be blogging without the constant support of my Twitter family.  Jenn Ganley, Robert Damron, Johnny Clay, Christy Weatherby, Jason Huffman, Amy Nabors, the Great Lizardella, Nomad Stacey and many others are regular readers and perpetual encouragers.  You guys truly are "Ohana."  I am so blessed.
  • We have been praying for months that Marie Allen (Springfield) would find a job in her field.  She has, and I thank God for her courage and persistence. And for her support of me.  You are the best, Marie!
  • Today is that most special of days on which we celebrate the birthdays of 2 Hall of Fame students from the my Springfield years- Heather Beggs Varner and Jill Gilbreth Bryant!  Of all the dates I have stored away in my mind, this one is the easiest to remember, because both of them would remind me every day for 6 months ahead of time.  And I loved it!  Happy Birthday,  Boogger and Jilly Bean!
  • And finally, to all of you out there who pray for me, who worry about me and who check on me from time to time, I say thanks.  You will never know who much it means to me to get texts and phone calls just because.  Special shout outs today to Dr. Jill, Denise May Langley, Jerry Hanbery, Ashley Goad Broadhurst, Lisa Kraus Spires, Jamie Robinson, Todd Willis, Teresa Reep Tysinger, Joanne Gastler, Millie Simmons, Susie Thomas and Jennifer Minnigan Kuramochi for sticking with me.  And again, thanks to all of you who read and support this blog.  It means a great deal to me.
Come back tomorrow and see what I have cooked up for the celebration for my 1097th consecutive day of blogging.  I will be here.  Love to you all in the name of Jesus!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, August 24, 2012

The RNC Comes to Tampa

I generally try to steer clear of political commentary on this blog, but today it just felt necessary- because I am feeling very snarky!  Next week much of the country will focus its attention on my hometown of Tampa, Florida, as the Republican Party gathers to nominate the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket.  You will see televised speeches, a giant pep rally and probably a few protests from the comfort of your living rooms. Faux Fox News will be cheering, MSNBC will be jeering, and the very best part of the week is that The Daily Show correspondents (at left) will be here in Tampa to point out how ridiculous the entire thing is!  But today I would like to share a little about what it will be like to live here next week.  Those of us living in Tampa are, to quote the band Starship, "knee deep in the hoopla!"  This is a behind-the-scenes look from the perspective of someone who has very little use for politicians in general and almost no use for this particular group.  Donald Trump is a speaker? Check please!  So here are 7 Things that make me chuckle as we prepare for next week.  Please reserve your hatred until the end of the post. :)

*  The billboard you see above is one that actually greets travelers as they arrive in downtown Tampa while driving north on I-275.  I see it when taking my wife to work.  Among the dozens of "Welcome to Tampa, RNC" signs you see everywhere, it truly stands out. Irony cracks me up...
*  Speaking of my wife and her work, she is employed by a law firm with an office in a downtown high-rise just blocks from the Convention Center.  The traffic is expected to be so horrendous and the security so tight that many downtown offices are forcing employees to take vacation next week.  Marilyn is fortunate; she gets to work, she will simply have to arrive at her office at 7 am each morning to avoid the crush.  To quote Dana Carvey's Church Lady, "How conveeenient!"  
*  The whole issue of the traffic raises another question for me. I love Tampa. It is a beautiful city with lots to do, including a great aquarium, Busch Gardens and some great professional sports teams. It is close to beaches and Walt Disney World. There are many fine restaurants and wonderful places to spend an evening.  But the RNC chose Tampa to host this event knowing full well that the Tampa Bay area has massive traffic problems and virtually no public transportation, and that bringing an extra 50,000 folks on 300 buses into downtown Tampa for a week would be at BEST a nightmare.  So my question is, do we really want whoever made this decision making more important decisions?  I am just asking.  :)  And speaking of decision making, Tampa in August offers one other challenge.  As Jimmy Buffet once wrote, "There's no tryin' to reason with Hurricane season..."
*  So it seems Tropical Storm/Hurricane Issac may make a visit to the convention as well.  This raises some philosophical questions for one (far right) wing of the party. It seems that in the past they have made statements that God has used natural disasters to demonstrate his disapproval with certain lifestyles and segments of society.  If Issac were to really mess up this RNC shindig, how would they explain that?  Some questions just beg to be asked!
Which one is Rick?
*  Governor Rick Scott of Florida has been asked to say a few words at the convention.  I really hope the national audience likes him, because here in Florida he has often maintained the lowest approval rating of any governor in history.  Not any Florida governor- ANY governor!  Governor Jeb Bush will also be speaking. Pay no attention to the Jeb 2016 signs waving in the background, Mitt...
*  A local radio station reported the other day that in addition to delegates and other convention personnel, there would be a large influx of strippers from out of town coming in for the RNC.  Local strip clubs (for those who don't know, Tampa features one of the highest strip club to population ratios in the US) are expecting to do record business next week- even better than when Tampa hosts the Super Bowl.  Plus I heard yesterday morning on TV that the Hooters closest to downtown has hired 20 new Hooters Girls and will be staying open until 3 am.  The Grand Old Party indeed!  It's all just part of the $150 million expected to be pumped in to the local economy, despite the fact that many small downtown businesses (that are not restaurants) will be closed all week because it is just too much trouble to say open.
*  And finally, on a somewhat serious note...  The political convention is a relic leftover from the days when a party would gather to decide who their candidate was going to be and to build a platform of ideas for them to stand on.  This is no longer true.  Both parties will gather this year to hold giant pep rallies (and spend millions of dollars) for candidates who were long since decided upon.  To make it even more useless, we live in a time when Republicans would vote for the candidate from their party even if it was Darth Vader- and Democrats would do the exact same thing.  The time (at both conventions) will be spent in much the same way- not telling us how they will set about fixing what is wrong in our nation, but telling us how the other side broke it. I am sick of it.  So you see,  I am not just cynical about the RNC. I am cynical about "politics as usual."  The RNC just happens to be invading my hometown.  How would I fix this mess?  I would begin by throwing out everyone from both houses of Congress and starting over again with brand new people. People who are teachers, factory workers and cab drivers. Real Americans with real problems and real concerns who want to make things happen.  And then I would elect Brain as President and Pinky as VP.  Because they are independent, committed and persistent.  "What are we going to do tonight, Brain?"  "Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to fix this stinking economy..."

And that is all I have to say about that...   :)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Blog From the Dog

In honor of the third birthday of this blog coming up August 26, here's another vintage post from my first month of blogging in 2009. And it's a really good one...

Greetings! My name is Conner, the Jones' family dog, and I am your blogger for today. Daddy has the day off. I know he is not really my daddy, but he, Mommy and Will are my family and I think of them that way. You see, we dogs get it. I don't have many needs in life, but the ones I do have I know I can count on my family to provide for. I trust in them. I need food, they give me food. I need to sleep, they make a bed for me (actually I can sleep most anywhere, but you get the point!). I need my fuzzy ball, which is my security blanket, and they keep providing me with new ones. When I make a mess, they clean it up. They play ball with me and rub behind my ears and give me baths because they love me. Daddy and the family care for all my needs.

That doesn't mean I get everything I want. I want to catch a squirrel in my backyard, but that ain't happening! I want to eat their hamburgers and hot dogs and steaks, but I seldom get to. I want to go to school with Will, but he never takes me. I want them to have Dairy Queen Blizzards every night, because Daddy gets his without chocolate so I can have some- but that doesn't happen as often as I would like. But I can live without the things I want, because I know I will get everything I need.

I used to feel sorry for you humans because it always seemed you had to do everything for yourselves- because you didn't have a daddy like mine. You always seem to be running everywhere, trying to get power, fame and money and all kinds of stuff that you want. But then I found out that you humans have a Daddy who will look after your needs, but you choose not to trust Him. You have a Daddy (Abba- HA! Didn't know dogs could speak Aramaic, did ya?) who loves you more than my family could ever love me (I don't think my daddy would ever sacrifice Will to save me...) and yet you keep trying to do everything for yourselves. Your Daddy promises to take care of your needs just like He takes care of the flowers and the birds. Your Daddy says to trust in Him and He will act. But you guys are just too busy trying to prove you don't need anyone to take care of you. I know it is a cliche, but it's a good one- Let go and let God. My family used to be really bad about that too- but sometimes hard times teach difficult lessons. They are learning to count on God, the Abba Father, the same way I count on them.

So anyway, I am so glad I have a daddy and a family to count on, to play with and to love. I hope you understand that you have a Daddy who is much bigger and better than mine, and who loves you in ways you cannot imagine. I'm off to to catch my third nap of the day, and then maybe play some ball and have a Beggin' Strip, if Will doesn't try to steal it! Hey, that will be the topic of my next blog- the Beggin' Strip, God's gift to dogs!

Until next time,


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Church Math

I received an email the other day asking me what doctrine, dogma and theology I thought we should be teaching more of in our churches.  I realized I had already written my answer in April of 2011...

The great singer/songwriter/comedian/MIT Professor Tom Lehrer (Before my time, so WAAAAY before most of yours!) wrote a song around 1965 about a new method of teaching mathematics that was referred to as The New Math.  In his introduction to the song on the live album, That Was the Year That Was, he points out his frustration with this new method.  He says, "The purpose of the new math is to make sure you understand what you're doing- rather than to get the right answer!"   Sometimes I feel like the Church has adopted the same system.  Let's take a look at Church Math...

Many Christians are already familiar with how confusing Church Math can be simply because of the Trinity.  Clearly God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three different things. And yet they are one.  Today I would like to give you a new math problem, also involving the number 3. If you grew up in the mainline or evangelical protestant church in the in the 1970s, 80s or 90s then chances are that you were taught (although you were probably unaware of it) 3 essential truths about Christianity.  Here they are:

  1. Knowledge is the basis of faith, and the scriptures are the basis of that knowledge.
  2. The writings of the Apostle Paul explain what it means to live the Christian life.
  3. If you love the Church, and give your time, talents and money to your church, then you love God.
Over my 28 years of working for churches I came across person after person who had been indoctrinated with these teachings and were trying to live them out in their lives.  I hear them being promoted (though seldom spelled out) in blogs and on Twitter on a regular basis.  The problem is, there are not three essential truths about being a Christ-follower, there is one. Check my math...

1)  Knowledge is not the basis of our faith, a relationship with Jesus is!  The scriptures inform us, convict us and guide us as we seek to grow closer to the living Christ, but primarily they are a record of God's attempts at relationship with humans.  Jesus was the final attempt and the final answer.  Answer this: If all of the bibles and theology books in the world were to suddenly disappear, would the love and grace of God in our world be rendered moot?  Of course not, because Jesus would have still died for our sins and left us with the Holy Spirit.  Knowledge is a great, wonderful and powerful thing.  But when it comes to our faith, a relationship with Jesus is the true essential.
2)  The writings of Paul are extremely important to Christianity.  His letters to the churches found in the New Testament encourage us, warn us and give us hope in all things.  Paul was certainly one of the most important Christians who ever lived.  But we do not worship Paul.  He is not part of the Holy Trinity (last time I checked).  So why is he quoted more often than Jesus?  Why does seemingly every major argument about our faith begin with the words, "Paul wrote..."  People will tell you that Paul was simply trying to elaborate on the things Jesus taught.  If that's true, then where is his detailed explanation of the Sermon on the Mount- especially the Beatitudes?  Where do we read his deeper exegesis of the parables of Christ?  He would have been the first one to say, "It's not about me, it's all about Jesus"- and yet we so often make it all about him.  Paul was a great writer and committed follower of Christ whose writings have much to offer and much to teach us.  But he is not the essential example of how to live the Christian life- Jesus is.  
3)  The third teaching is very important as well.  We should love the Church, as it is"the bride of Christ."  When we give of ourselves to our churches we help to further the Kingdom.  But...when our giving becomes more about building new buildings and getting the pastor a book deal, then we may have lost sight of what's essential.  Jesus commanded us to love God and to love each other.  I think that sometimes loving our church gets pushed to the top of that list.  We think, "If I love my church, then my church will love the least of these."  The great commandment was not issued as corporate doctrine- it is up to each of us to love as Jesus taught.  We should be able to see this quite easily in our world in 2012, where so many are offended (and not in a good way) by the politics and in-fighting of the church, but still long to feel the love of Christ in their lives.  Church is a great thing, a fellowship of believers that can and should change the world.  But church does not work without Jesus.  He is essential.

So there you go.  It seems in the new math, 1+1+1 does not equal 3.  It equals 1.  And that one essential, the one thing that no Christian can be without, is Jesus.   It's simple, but it's not easy.  Head knowledge is always easier to acquire than real relationship.  It's much easier to argue about gay marriage than it is to "turn the other cheek" and"pray for those who persecute you."  And going to church is a breeze when compared to loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  But we must understand and we must articulate that there is only one essential of the Christian faith- and that essential is Jesus.  This is what the Jesus Revolution is all about.  Theology, dogma and doctrine are wonderful things to know about and seek to understand.  But they are not more important than getting the answer right!  My prayer today is that I will remember that Jesus is THE ONE THING, and everything else is secondary.  I hope you will join me in that prayer...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Beginning of the End

Will and one of his favorite foods- a Fazoli's breadstick!
Today my son Will goes back to school...for the last time.  He is a senior, a fact which is really just starting to sink in to my thick skull.  I know it is totally cliche, but it seems like just yesterday I was carrying a 2 month old to my office every day at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee while we were waiting for a spot to open in the church's child care center.  He would sleep, cry and eat in my office, or in the offices of other church employees who often kept him when I had meetings or events.  Right from the beginning, he was my boy.  But even in those days I was one of weird and rare parents who couldn't wait until the day he was a teenager.  I knew our connection would be unique at that point. And I was right.

So yesterday we shared lunch at the Hibachi Buffet.  We talked about our favorite topics, music and movies.  We cane home and watched Monty Python & the Holy Grail one more time.  I fixed Mexican Pile-Up for supper at his request.  It was a great day.

Today is a great day too.  Will begins his final year with much hope and anticipation.  He is excited for most of his classes and for his final year on the marching band drumline, where he is now a featured player as the center snare.  He has a great group of friends that will make the year something to remember.  Through all of the ups and downs of his young life, Will has always been loving to his mother and I and faithful to his God.  I am so proud of him, and excited to see what this year has to offer.  But still, when I drive him to school this morning there will be one thought in the back of my mind that I just cannot shake.  After 12 years of school, this is the beginning of the end.  I am just so thankful that I am part of a family that knows to enjoy the ride and remember that God holds the future.  Now let's get on with a wonderful year!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, August 20, 2012

Come Monday

The great Jimmy Buffett once wrote, "Come Monday, it will be alright..."  Today I am going to trust that Jimmy knows what he is talking about.  The weekend was full of personal frustrations, difficult prayer requests and situations that I could do nothing about.  So today I must believe that God is in control and that I just have to turn it all over to Him and deal with life one day at a time. Even if that day IS a Monday.  To paraphrase another part of the Come Monday lyric (and why not, because Jimmy always does!)- "I've spent 3 lonely days in a hot Tampa haze"- and I just want to feel normal again. I am in a funk.

I find in times like these that it is important to slow down, remember the people that I love and who love me, and hold on tight to my dreams.  I have to remember that life is a dance, full of tempo changes and awkward steps. Let me quote another Buffett lyric (one of my favorites) from the song Nautical Wheelers...
So won't you dream on compadres, seems nothing escapes you 
Nothin', no reason, no rhyme 
That's 'cause everyone here is just more than contented 
To be livin' and dyin' in three-quarter time 

I am usually happy, occasionally melancholy and seldom sad.  But I do struggle with being content- with accepting things as the way they are rather than always pushing to make things the way I want them to be.  It is so easy for me to get caught up in wishful thinking and the "what ifs?" of life. And when that happens, I try to take control instead of leaving it in the hands of the One who created me. So pray for me today. And I will pray for you.  Hope you all have a blessed week.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Remembering Live Aid

Another vintage post from 2009.  This blog turns 3 years old one week from today!!!

I woke up the morning of July 13, 1985 feeling awful, so I called in sick to my job at Color Tile.  It was the best sick day ever!  I sat and watched for hours as the greatest recording artists in the world came together in Philadelphia and London to raise money to fight world hunger at an event called Live Aid, organized by Bob Geldolf of the Boomtown Rats. During this day I saw The Who reunite; I discovered U2 for the first time; I saw Queen at the pinnacle of their performing power;  and I saw many of the greatest rock stars of the past and present join in the finale in London.  It was a great day.  I couldn't help but wonder as I watched why these stars could put aside their massive egos and do this to fight hunger, while we in the church cannot even get past our petty denominational differences to follow the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25.  They made an attempt to feed the world while we argued about which soup kitchens were theologically and politically correct.  They stirred people with their music to the point of fanaticism; why could we not do the same in the name of Jesus?  Many of the artists that day were not Christians- in fact many were far from it.  But the words of Do They Know It's Christmastime? are in some part the story of Jesus: "At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade... Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime!"  Many years have passed, but the passion and compassion exhibited that day have never left me, and the finale still brings the goose bumps and reminds me that "all good things work for the glory of God." I have posted the video below for you to enjoy.   Help feed the world by clicking here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Getting Fired For the Glory of God"

With the third birthday of this blog now only a week away, I continue to look back at some of my earliest posts.  This one originally appeared in December of 2009. It still rings very true.

I have received a few e-mails asking me about a phrase I have used a couple of times over my last few posts.  The phrase is "getting fired for the glory of God."  This is not original with me- I learned it from Mike Yaconelli (pictured at left). His article by that name first appeared in Youthworker Magazine (I believe) and was included in his posthumous book Collected Writings. I was never fired for the glory of God- I was fired for my own sins and stupidity. I was, however, persecuted by churches for the glory of God, so I do have some thoughts on the subject. Today's post will mix Yac's words with my own thoughts, so to keep it simple, his words are blue and mine are black.  Red is still reserved for Jesus!

Mike begins by saying "there is no question in my mind that our calling to youth ministry and the current condition of the institutional church are on a collision course.  I am beginning to believe that if those who are called into youth ministry follow the lead of the One who called them, getting fired is inevitable."  I think this is more true today than it was when Mike wrote it.  Youth ministry is becoming more and more about "fixing a hole" in the church and less and less about the needs of the students the ministries are supposed to reach.  It is more about "church" and less about Jesus.  The principles below actually apply to most positions in a church, volunteer or professional.  "You disagree?  Why don't you try these seven suggestions, and see how long you keep your job."

1)  Keep Jesus #1- Dare to make your relationship with Jesus the most important thing in your life and in the lives of those you serve.  More important than programs, or money, or numbers, or anything else.  When you gather to do church business, who takes center stage? Your church?  Or Jesus?  The Quakers have it right- you can't separate church business and worship. 
2)  Be Still- Learn to value silence, meditation, prayer and  time alone with God more than you value the "busyness" of your ministry.  Take time to "soak" in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
3)  Ignore Corporate Values-  Don't worry about size, efficiency, productivity or success.  Worry about worshipping the Good Shepherd and taking care of God's people.  David Stone taught me a long time ago that "we are called to faithful, not successful."
4)  Think Small-  Tell your church it's all about quality, not quantity, and see how long you last!
5)  Be Real-  Let the youth and the church see your struggles and realize that everyone you work with (and for!) has their own issues.  Everyone needs grace.
6)  Put Your Family First.
7)  Seek Kingdom Values-  What are kingdom values? 
* Time- Always make time for the people you are in ministry to and with.  Be available one on one even when it seems a program or meeting might be more important.  There is no substitute for this.
* Awareness- sensitivity, empathy, noticing
* Audacity- risk, courage, resistance
* Intimacy with God
* Humility
* Grace- We live in a world where people, even Christ-followers, look at their neighbor and ask "How can I forgive them?"  Be the person who looks at what Jesus has done for you, and so asks "How can I not?"

Notice from Yac:  You don't have to confront the system.  You can just get close to Jesus, seek intimacy with God, follow kingdom values...and it won't be long until you are out on the street.  And guess who will be there with you?  You got it...Jesus.

If your situation has you choosing between being a faithful worker bee for your church or being a radical follower of the Christ, is there really any choice?  Choose unemployment- choose Jesus!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Great Investment

Youth Counselor Mark taking time to invest
We have all heard the old cliche, "There is no I in the word TEAM."  And we get the point, that the team is more important that the individuals who make it up.  It is a valid statement.  There is, however, an "I" in the word ministry. Two actually.  And today's youth ministry lesson is brought to you by the letter "I."  Hit it, Elmo....

Over my many years a youth pastor there were a number of things I hoped would happen when I met new teenagers who seemed interested in our student ministries.  At some point this became a list I called The I's Have It, and it read something like this:

  • Invite- Sometimes those of us who work in churches have the attitude that if our programs, facilities, publicity and staffs are flashy enough then new people will discover us on their own because we are just that good.  WRONG! If you want new folks to show up, then you had better get serious about inviting them.
  • Include- Once new students come through the door, you have to give them a reason to stay.  Greet them and have students who greet them.  Have music playing and things happening BEFORE your scheduled start time.  Find ways in your setting to make it feel like that from the minute they enter your youth room they are a part of what is going on- and that what is going on is something very cool.
  • Identify-  I was never a big fan of singling out newcomers, but as a youth ministry staff you do want to quietly identify the guests.  Take note of who they hang out with and what seems to interest them.  Make sure you get their information (I was always a big fan of sign-in guessing games so you get everyone's info every single week. Makes everyone equal!).  And make absolutely certain that YOU speak to them and tell them how happy you are that they chose to spend their valuable time with you.
  • Inspire-  Once you have given them a reason to stay, you should give them a reason to come back.  You want to inspire them in as many ways as possible.  They should have fun. They should learn. They should make new friends. Every youth meeting should be a chance to build community and inspire young people to follow Jesus.
  • Illuminate- No student should ever leave a youth meeting without hearing the message that while the world may seem dark, Jesus is the Light that shines in that darkness- and the darkness cannot overcome it!  Never miss a chance to illuminate the life of a teenager with the love of Jesus!
Looking back, I can say that that was a pretty good list.  But it was missing one very large capital I-  INVEST.  We want teenagers and parents to invest their valuable time, talents and money in our ministries.  In order for youth ministry to truly work, youth pastors and volunteers have to be willing to invest time and energy in the lives of the students they serve.   We have to be at their ballgames, dance recitals and band concerts.  We must listen to their stories of broken romances and painful relationships.  We must be there for them with the love of Jesus when they fail and when they fall.  There are very few guarantees in ministry.  But here is one promise I can make you- if you focus on investing in relationships with the teens you serve, it will make a difference.  Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow.  But when they call for your advice 20 years after graduation, you will know that you made a sound investment.  It still amazes me most everyday.

So as school begins, crank up your fancy programs, break out out your best games, hire the best guest speakers and dazzle the students of your community.  Go  for it!  But when the dust settles, remember the bottom line. Build relationships- because nothing beats a great investment.

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Throwback Thursday: The Southern Cross

I spent 9 months in 1986 working and as the regional director of  youth ministry and religious education for the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, travelling a 6 state area training local church workers and planning events. Why only 9 months?  Read on in this vintage post from November of 2009.  

The Southern Cross (at right) is a constellation that has helped sailors navigate the seas for hundreds of years.  For me, the phrase conjures up two images- a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash, and my time in New England Yearly Meeting.  Today I will tell you some stories of mishaps and mayhem during 1986.  Some of these stories may lead you to believe that Quakerism in New England was in a bad state of affairs at the time.  I cannot argue against that point of view.  I did meet some wonderful, faithful people in the region,  But for are three stories that represent my experience.

In March I led a retreat for youth in western Mass.  We worshiped together, played together and learned together. It was a great weekend, and something very new for the youth involved.  I talked to many parents as they picked up their kids, and most seemed excited at the new direction I was taking the program.  One mom, from the Boston suburb of Peabody (pronounced Pee-bud-ee, NOT pea body!) had a concern.  She pulled me aside and said without a trace of a smile, "If my daughter comes home talking like you (with a southern accent) then she will not be allowed back at these events."  I laughed and responded "I don't think that is anything ya'll have to worry about."  She fired back "I'm not kidding.  Learn to speak real English."  And she walked away.  So much for the Quaker belief in the equality of all people, whether they be Yankee or not...

Sometime that same Spring I led a workshop on religious education at a Friends Meeting out near Cape Cod.  (By the way- is there any national historic monument more disappointing than Plymouth Rock?  I mean come's really just a rock?)  On Saturday I spoke to a crowd of about 30 on new methods of teaching the Bible to children.  I spoke of how Jesus called the children to him, and how he indicated that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Afterwards, while having refreshments, an older woman (I am guessing about 107!) came up to me and got right in my face- well, she would have been right in my face if she could have reached it!  Seriously, she had to reach up just to be able to poke me in the chest- which she did!  She spoke to me in one of those cackling, Wicked Witch of the Northeast type voices and said "Young man, we don't talk like that here!"  I searched my memory, trying to remember what I could have said that would have been offensive, but I had no idea- and I told her so.  She poked me once more and said in a low, condemning snarl, "you said JESUS CHRIST.  We don't say that here.  You can talk about Jesus or you can talk about Christ, but don't assume they are the same."  I was stunned.  How was I ever going to make a difference with theology like that floating around?  I had to just walk away.

As I have mentioned before, most of the meetings in New England featured traditional Quaker worship, with no pastor or planned music.  The format came from the concept that if you gather in expectant silence, God will speak through the worshippers.  In the earliest days of Quaker worship elders often gave hour long sermons from the silence.  I had experienced great moments of God's presence through this style of "open worship" at New Garden Friends Meeting and at Quaker Lake Camp, so I looked forward to worshipping with Friends all over New England.  One Sunday (or First Day, in the traditional Quaker language) I found myself settling into the silence with about a dozen others at a meetinghouse in Rhode Island.  Midway through the hour I felt God tugging at my heart with a message, and, as often happens in such situations, I suddenly found myself on my feet and speaking.  Worship concluded without anyone else speaking, and afterwards, I found myself being ignored.  I finally stopped an older man, introduced myself and asked if there was anything the Yearly Meeting office could do for their Meeting.  He very tersely told me no, and then proceeded to ask me why I had spoken like that.  I told him that I felt I had been led by God to speak.  He shook his head and informed me that this was a silent meeting, and that I was the first person to speak during worship in over 40 years.  A silent meeting- talk about adventures in missing the point!

I found Friends Meetings with only three or four members left, keeping the doors open to keep alive the memory of their ancestors who had founded them.  I found people who had no idea that George Fox, the original Quaker, had been a Christian and a biblical scholar.  And I found lots and lots of folks who worshipped Quakerism, pacifism and history- all things that I love, but in this sense, false idols all!  I became more and more convinced that I needed to bring a focus on Jesus to the youth I had come there to serve.  I needed them to know that we are a Resurrection People.  They needed to know about the cross and the empty tomb.  I had to tell them the Good News!  I just couldn't do it with a southern accent...

Because of Jesus,