Monday, December 31, 2012

2012- A Kidney Stone of a Year

It is New Year's Eve, and time to take a look back at the year that was.  As I take a glance back at 2012, I am left with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  This was not a good year.  First of all, it was an election year, which brings out the worst in people and commercials.  It was a year that brought us terrible tragedies in places like Newtown and Aurora- and reminded me again of our desperate need for the Prince of the Peace. Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast and left thousands seeking ways and means to recover.  Closer to home, my best friend's parents both passed away.  Another dear friend lost her husband far too young in a tragic way.  Dear friends lost jobs, homes and even unborn children.  To wrap up the year, I spent 2 weeks in a hospital, was diagnosed with diabetes and had my left big toe amputated.  And to top it all off the world didn't even have the decency to end on December 21st!  It was a real kidney stone of a year.  Very painful...

But you know they great thing about kidney stones?  No matter how excruciatingly painful they may be, they do pass.  And 2012 has now passed as well.  And despite all of the trials and tribulations of the year, I look back and also remember how incredibly blessed I am.  I have a family and friends who love me.  I have a house to live in and food to eat.  And most importantly, God is still in control, and I have a Savior who loves me in spite of my failures.  It has been a year full of disappointments and challenges.  But it is time to move on and see what God has in store for us in 2013.  My prayer is that 2013 will be year of peace, a year of blessings, and a year of hope for this hurting world.  May God bless each of you!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Most Popular Posts of 2012

I am always amazed which of my blog post generate the most traffic.  Some of my favorite posts receive few visitors and no comments; others that I think are fairly humdrum may get hundreds of readers.  As we reach the end of 2012, I have gone back through this year's blog entries and found the 10 most visited posts.  If you missed any of these, here is your chance to catch up! Just click and go.  Enjoy!

Bloggers You Should Know
My North Carolina Bucket List
It's Time To Bother Jesus
The Funniest Movies Ever
Have You Seen Jesus My LORD?
7 Warning Signs for Youth Ministries
The RNC Comes to Tampa
The Truth About Barbecue
Youth Ministry Smackdown
Hey- I Know Her!

Not included on the list are any of my Saturday Shout Outs, many of which were among my most popular posts.  I want to take this opportunity to say "Thank you" to those of you who have helped make my blogging experience such a great one, and I look forward to sharing more in 2013.  

Because of Jesus,

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Real Life School of Student Ministry

Professor Jones
Many years ago, when fire was first a flicker in the eye of the Geico caveman and Duffy Robbins still had hair, I began a career in student ministry that would last nearly 30 years.  In those days no one "chose" youth ministry as a lifelong vocation.  It was something you did for a variety of reasons, almost none of which were good.  Like these:
  1. You hoped to be a "real" pastor someday, but youth pastor was the only job available at the time.
  2. You had enjoyed your own days in a youth group so much that you wanted to stay connected to the ministry in any way possible.  When they asked for volunteers at a meeting, you were dumb enough to raise your hand...
  3. You couldn't live without the $50 a month paycheck it provided.
  4. You knew that if you didn't help get the student ministry up and running, Sally and Johnny's parents were going to do it.  And NO ONE wanted that!
  5. A pastor came to you while you were 18 and working at a summer camp and told you he thought you would be good at it- mostly because you could play the guitar.  Being a sucker for encouragement, you bought it. That is my story.
Fast forward 35 years.  Now there are degrees in student ministry, both under-graduate and post-graduate.  There are dozens of conferences every year designed to train those who seek to serve God through serving teenagers.  There is a level of professionalism in youth ministry unlike anything we have ever seen before.  And these things are all great advances.  But all of that education, training and professionalism cannot, in the mind of this old dinosaur, turn someone into a youth pastor. In fact, the very worst youth pastor I ever knew had 3 doctorates.  None of his titles and degrees helped The Reverend Dr. Dr. Dr. Steve actually LOVE teenagers!   None of that stuff really prepares you for what it is like to live life, day out and day in, with a family of students & their families.  Education and training can prepare you for how to do student ministry, but not how to be a youth pastor.  That has to come from the heart.  I said for many years that here is no greater calling than student ministry, but it does have to be a calling.  There are few "jobs" that would be worse.  You have to feel the desire to fully, totally and completely share the love of God whose name is Jesus with teenagers by loving them no matter what.  And in youth ministry, there are a lot of "whats!"  Anyone can be taught to plan events, teach bible studies and drive the church van.  It takes a calling to actually love those messy, irrational, irritating and complicated creatures we call "youth."

So today I am going to give anyone who is interested the chance to discover if God is calling them to student ministry.  This test will work if you've never really considered the option.  It will work even better if you are already involved in ministry.  Just answer these 4 questions. I will even tell you in advance that the correct answer is always "C."  If you feel any inclination to argue with me about the correct answers based on what they taught you in a youth ministry class, then you have already failed my course.  Ready for your final exam?
1)  You go with a group of students to get ice cream after youth group.  Some of the newer kids don't have any cash because they were unaware of this tradition.  Do you...
  A) Tell them better luck next time and taunt them with your cone of mint chocolate chip.
  B)  Offer to loan them money if they will wash the church van.
  C)  Offer to buy them ice cream because they are part of your youth group family now. They matter.
2)  David calls from a party around midnight and says he has been drinking and needs a ride.  Do you...
   A) Tell him he has the wrong number. Give him the number of your senior pastor.  (I will accept this answer as well!)
   B)  Give him a stern lecture on the evils of alcohol, reminding him that Jesus never went near the stuff.  Well...except when he turned water into wine. But nobody ever saw him drink it!  Now call a cab and stop bothering me.
   C)  Go get him and take him home.  Along with any of his friends that have no business on the road and no one to call.  You can talk about this later.
3)  16 year old Beth strolls into your office and tells you she is pregnant.  Do you...
   A)  Offer to hunt down and destroy the father, Predator style!
   B)  Explain to her how embarrassing this will be for you and the church. How could she do this to you?
   C)  Offer to sit with her and pray for her while she tells her parents and they face a new future together.
4)  Keri (an actual name of an actual caller!) calls you in the middle of the night because she heard an old song on the radio and knew you would know who sang it and what it was called.  Do you...
   A)  Scream and yell at her demanding that she seek psychiatric help.
   B)  Hand the phone to your spouse and say, "It's for you, dear."
   C)  Ask her what the lyrics were and then answer her question, thrilled that she knew that she could count on you. THEN ask, "Couldn't this have waited 'til morning?"  :)

So there it is.  You have now completed The CJ School of Youth Ministry.  I'm sure that some of you cheated, but hey- it's youth ministry! :)  My point today is simply this- student ministry is not about "fixing" teenagers. That is a task best left to God.  It's about loving them in a way that shows them who Jesus is and how much he loves them.  It doesn't take advanced degrees to to do that.  It takes a heart full of the love of God, and a willingness to share it.  And a ton... TON...of prayer.  Do you have what it takes?

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thank You, David Letterman

Marilyn and Will left early yesterday morning and drove to NC to spend a week with her family. I will miss them, of course, but I am so glad they got to take the trip this year after having missed last Christmas.  Despite the separation of many miles, we were actually able to share in a great family moment last night.  Here is that story.

The presentation of the Kennedy Center Honors was broadcast on CBS last night.  I watched with my Mom here in Tampa while the rest of my family watched in Elkin, NC.  I always enjoy this particular show, which each year honors those who have made lifelong and remarkable contributions to the arts.  In the United Kingdom, artists like Elton John and Paul McCartney are knighted.  In the United States, we award the Kennedy Center Honors medal.  It is a big deal.  And last night one of the recipients was David Letterman.  David had always had a special place in our family.  I first became a fan when watching his hilarious but ill-fated morning show back in the early 1980s.  I loved his late night show and his quirky, often weird humor.  I was totally offended when NBC passed him by when Johnny Carson retired, and thrilled when CBS gave him his own 11:30 pm time slot.  His first show aired on August 30, 1993, which also happened to be our 7th wedding anniversary.  His guests were Bill Murray and Billy Joel, and Marilyn and I watched every minute of it.  We have been watching ever since.

David has always been unique.  You never quite know where he might go next. His interviews are never boring, and as Tina Fey said last night Dave is often at his best when you get the feeling he really doesn't like the person he is talking to. He made the Top 10 list into an art form, and introduced us to countless unknown bands and comics who went on to greatness.  He has hosted world leaders, and skewered pundits and the self-important of Hollywood.  The city of New York has often been a character on the show, introducing us to his neighbors (like Rupert Gee) and to the quirks of the city.  There has never been a talk show host quite like David Letterman.  Dave always wanted to be like Johnny.  As Jimmy Kimmel said last night, this generation all wants to be like Dave.  He truly has been often imitated but never duplicated.

We felt pain and grief when Dave had his heart attack.  We were with him after 9-11, when he was such a huge part of keeping the spirits of New Yorkers afloat.  We have seen him struggle with personal failure and we have seen him in trouble with the press.  I have had the privilege of being part of the studio audience at The Ed Sullivan Theater on 3 different occasions, and I loved every minute of it.  As the years have passed, our son Will has become a huge fan as well.  Our DVR is set to record 4 shows whenever they air in their regular time slot.  We record Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother each week.  We record The Late Show every night.  And more often than not we watch it together.  Dave is a part of our family.

So congratulations, Dave.  and thank you.  You have brought a lot of laughter to this household over the years, and laughter can never be over-rated.  And last night, even though my family was apart, we were able to celebrate with you.  As Ray Romano shouted from the stage as they honored you last night, "I love you David Letterman!" My whole family does.  We look forward to much more from you, Paul, Biff, Tony and the rest of The Late Show crew.  And as for the guy who did get Carson's job?  Well...I wouldn't give his troubles to a MONKEY ON A ROCK!!!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Do You Hear the People Sing?

My family has, over the past few years, developed some traditions for Christmas Day. We arise around 8 am, and I make homemade sausage balls for breakfast.  We then open gifts.  And around noon we head out to see a movie, usually one that is just opening in theaters on Christmas Day.  Yesterday the movie of choice was Les Miserables.

If you know me at all then you know that I am a total Les Miz geek.  Over the many years that I took youth groups to New York I was fortunate enough to see the stage show on Broadway 12 times.  I own the original Broadway cast CD set.  I own the complete symphonic recording (3 CDs) with every second of music from the show.  I own a VHS of the 10th anniversary "Dream Cast" concert.  I even own the hat you see pictured above, purchased at the Imperial Theater at the 15th anniversary performance.  Over the years I preached a number of sermons focusing on the story of grace and redemption that is the heart of Victor Hugo's amazing literary work- which I have read a number of times.  I tell these things simply so you will understand this- I know my Les Miz!

Despite having seen many clips and positive reviews about this new new movie version of my favorite musical, I went yesterday with a little fear and trepidation about what they might have changed.  I was a little nervous about Russell Crowe as Javert.  I was anxious about what might have been cut to keep the movie shorter than the play.  And I have to admit, I was worried for nothing!  It was amazing.  If Anne Hathaway does not win an Oscar for her portrayal of Fantine then they should just quit giving the awards.  Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean was also truly magnificent.  They had indeed made a number of changes from the stage version, moving around the order of songs, changing lyrics, shortening songs and even altering some of the plot- and trust me, I noticed them all.  But it all worked.  The cast brilliantly captured the spirit and passion of the story in a new, exciting way.  My family loved it, and I feel certain will see it again soon.

There was one special part of the show for me, and I am sure for many other Les Miserables geeks.  The role of the Bishop - the man who changes the life of the convict 24601 by offering him grace and forgiveness at a moment when punishment and condemnation would have been justified- was played by Colm Wilkerson.  Colm was the original Jean Valjean in both London and New York. He is the gold standard for the role, and to have him show up in the movie was a wonderful surprise.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Les Miz, I should warn you it is deep and complex.  It is about love, revolution, poverty, sacrifice and death.  But first and foremost, it is about grace. It is about Old Testament law and vengeance verses New Testament grace and redemption.  IT will make you question who is right and who is wrong. It will make you laugh, but more often make you weep. The finale of both musical and movie is Do You Hear the People Sing?  The song speaks of a lost people climbing to the light, and how hope never dies, and how darkness will end (John 1:5).  The story of Les Miz is in many ways the story of what of vibrant, living Christian faith should be.  There is more real life theology in this story that in any seminary class you could ever take.  Go see the film. Listen to the people sing.  And be moved.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"In the First Light"

"In the first light of a new day 
no one knew he had arrived,
Things continued as they had been
while a newborn softly cried..."

Merry Christmas! Today I want to remind us all once again that Christmas is all about Jesus. Today we celebrate the beginning of the greatest love story ever told, of how God sent His only Son to save us from ourselves. But the story does not end there.  The life of the man we call Jesus should change the way we live.  His death should teach us much about sacrifice.  But first and foremost, we are a Resurrection People.  The Christmas story and the Easter story cannot and must not be separated.  Over the years, the song In the First Light (quoted above and below) by the group GLAD has become one of the most meaningful songs in my life. My prayer is that this video will stir your heart this last week of the holiday season to worship not only the babe in the straw, but the risen savior of the universe.  As Christ-followers, we much never forget this truth:

"Hear the angels as they're singing 
On the morning of His birth,
But how much greater will their song be
When He come again to Earth...
When He comes to rule the Earth!"

Merry Christmas, one and all!!!

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Jones Family Christmas Eve

"It's Christmas Eve! It's... it's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we... we... we smile a little easier, we... w-w-we... we... we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be! "  
~From the movie Scrooged

My son Will (after listening to me make up a song during a commercial on TV) remarked the once that "no one in our family is normal- and that's a good thing."  Nowhere is the unusual nature of our family more clear than on Christmas Eve.  Here's a quick look at Christmas Eve with the Jones family...
  • I have to go shopping.  For as long as I can remember it has been a personal tradition for me to go out and purchase at least one present on Christmas Eve.  It used to be I had to go to the mall; now I buy very little at the mall, so I just go to Walgreen's or Big Lots or whatever- but I have to get something for Christmas on Christmas Eve.  It's a moral imperative...
  • The family (including my Mom, and this year our dear friend Lisa Jewett!) heads out to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at Van Dyke Church.  It has been many different churches over the years (and I was usually working at those churches), and each church has given us special memories.  Whether it was Marilyn Burris singing O Holy Night at New Garden Friends, the candlelight circle at Springfield Friends, the marathon of 4 (and occasionally 5) services at FUMC-Kissimmee or any of the other special places we have called home, a Christmas Eve worship service has long been a part of our family tradition.  It's just not Christmas without proclaiming Jesus is LORD!
  • Then we head home for a traditional Christmas Eve meal- Hot Dogs!  Yes, hot dogs!  Since we began doing it at my Grandmother Dot's house when I was a little boy for the purpose of ease of preparation, hot dogs have become our meal of choice on Christmas Eve.  But we are natives of North Carolina, and so we are not talking about a wiener and a bun here.  A REAL hot dog has chili, slaw, onions, mustard and ketchup.  This is a Carolina Dog, and there is nothing that compares- and I've tried Chicago Dogs and everything else!  My mouth is already watering...
  • Will gets to open one present (of her choosing) from his Gigi (grandmother).  She has tried to kill this tradition as he got older and has fewer (but more expensive) gifts to open.  He has kept it very much alive!
  • The family part of our evening wraps up with a viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol.  It is our absolute favorite, and always our last activity before bedtime on Christmas Eve.  What better way to remember "there's only one more sleep 'til Christmas..."
  • And finally, after Will and his grandmother are off to bed, Marilyn will wrap presents.  Somehow, even though we only bought Will a few things this year, my lovely wife will manage to stay up until 1 AM wrapping.  It's tradition!
So there you have it- a Jones family Christmas Eve.  Try these traditions at your own risk.  Better yet, create your own.  It's one of the way we keep Christmas in our hearts all year.  But no matter what you do, remember the reason we celebrate.  Thank you , God, for the gift of your Son and all that means to each of us.  And to all of you who are reading this simple blog, I wish you a blessed and merry Christmas.  Joy to the world, the LORD is come!!!

My Deliverer is Coming...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

One Solitary Life

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

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

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

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

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

My Deliverer is Coming...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Never Far From Home

Today I wanted to share a different kind of Saturday Shout Out and a little bit of a Christmas card to all my readers.  Jimmy Buffett has a song on his Christmas album called Merry Christmas, Alabama. I have rewritten it a bit to shout out to some of the people and places I have loved over the years. It is simply a reminder to myself- and to you- of how blessed I am to have served all of the churches and to have all of the friends that I have.  Christmas is a time of joy and of celebration.  It is a time of faith.  And it is a time of family.  I am blessed with a wonderful family that stretches far outside the walls of my home.  Thanks to all of you for the great memories, and for the knowledge that no matter where I am- in Tampa, in a hospital bed or somewhere along the road- I am never far from home.

Merry Christmas, Quaker Lake
Merry Christmas, Kissimmee
Merry Christmas, up at Springfield
To our friends wherever you may be

Merry Christmas back at New Garden
Where I started this wild and crazy run
I'm such a long way from my first birthday
Merry Christmas, everyone

And Merry Christmas, Waycross & Hinsdale
Though far from you all I have roamed
'tis the season to remember
All the faces,
And the places that were home

'tis the season to remember
And to count up all the ports of call I've known
And to thank His mercies tender
For I'm never far from home

Merry Christmas to all my friends on Twitter
Who support me as I roam
'tis the season to remember
All the faces
And the places that feel like home

Guess my life's moved at near light speed
Since I started this wild and crazy run
Such a long way from that first birthday
Merry Christmas, everyone

'tis the season to remember
No we're never far from home
Merry Christmas, everyone.

I love you guys.  Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Ornament Story: Trailer Trash

Today is the final day of Ornament Stories.  I hope you have enjoyed these glimpses inside the Jones family Christmas tree!

I am not sure when or how it began, but sometime in the 1980s my good friend Alan (The Asheboro Flash) Brown began giving my parents a Christmas ornament each year.  These were not you average ornaments.  They were meant to be a tacky, a kind of "trailer trash" for the tree.  Above you can see "Hitchhiking Santa" and his trailer.  Other great gifts included a Christmas pelican and a strange little fuzzy man known as Illmar Dammit.  My parents looked forward each year to seeing what AB would come up with, and he never disappointed. This year, for the very first time, the remaining trailer trash ornaments are hanging on our tree for the world to see.  Some are gone now; Illmar was eaten by a critter in my parent's garage.  But the spirit of these ornaments lives on!

A couple of final thoughts about our tree. I have given you 5 stories this week, but the fact is nearly every ornament has story and a history.  That is part of what makes our tree (and yours) so special each year.  And there is one final Jones family tradition that dates back to my childhood.  Each and every year after the last ornament is hung and the lights are on, we stand back and admire the tree as a family, and someone will say, "This is the prettiest tree ever!"  And you know is. Every single time. Thanks for sharing in our holiday traditions.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An Ornament Story: The Big Balls

When I was growing up in Greensboro, NC as an only child our family Christmas tree was decorated primarily with garland, lights and round glass ornaments.  At some point my Dad purchased a new set of ornaments that were larger than the balls we usually had on the tree.  They quickly became known as the Big Balls (and this was years before the TV show Wipeout). I loved them. Dad loved them.  Mom was never a fan.  As the years passed, new ornaments were added. Glass balls were broken and replaced.  But the Big Balls lived on.  And every year the argument continued- were the Big Balls too tacky for our tree?

After moving to Florida in 1995 my folks downsized their tree and a number of the ornaments they had traditionally used were left in the box each Christmas.  Marilyn, Will and I would always spend Thanksgiving at their home and help them decorate the tree, and then guys made sure that the Big Balls tradition continued- now with Marilyn also fighting them tooth and nail.  

In 2006 my Dad passed away, and for the next several years Mom didn't put up a tree because she was spending Christmas at our house.  All of her ornaments sat unused.  Then last year she brought a box of classic ornaments (more on that tomorrow) to us, and much to my surprise a few of the Big Balls had survived.  She and Marilyn refused to allow them on our tree, which is dominated by Hallmark ornaments and Disney collectibles. Will and I complained, but to no avail.  And so the Big Balls waited.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving weekend, 2012.  I am fresh off of surgery, sitting in my recliner and removing ornaments from boxes as Mom put hooks in them and Marilyn and Will place them on our tree.  I come across the box containing the Big Balls, and Will decides to take charge.  Before anyone can react, Will has placed them on the tree.  It is a major victory for us...and for my Dad, who was no doubt smiling down on us. And after a bit of battling, they have remained on the tree the entire season.  They are another great reminder that Christmas is full family traditions- and not all of them make sense to anyone else.  

I hope that all of you remember your traditions and celebrate the birth of the Christ-child with warm memories and loving family.  From the Jones family, we wish you a Merry Christmas!  And Big Balls...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An Ornament Story: Baby Will

Today's featured ornament really requires no story. So I suppose this is a true Wordless Wednesday.  This ornament has been on our tree for 17 years, and it is still a favorite.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Ornament Story: The Pickle

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite people in this world, my dear friend Lisa Jewett.  In honor of her special day, today's ornament story concerns a special (although a little strange!) gift she gave us back in 2005.  Here is the legend of The Christmas Pickle!

According to Lisa, the idea of putting pickles on Christmas trees goes back to Germany during one of the World Wars.  Soldiers marching through the German countryside would often enter house looking for food and take all that a family might have. One Christmas Eve a family, trying to save some food for themselves, hid some pickles in their tree, where they went unnoticed by the scavengers.  As a side note, we do not know if these were individual pickles or the entire jar.  In any case, the family had a pickle feast!  Over the years that followed it became tradition to hide one pickle in the tree on Christmas Eve as a reminder of that night. The child who could find the pickle on Christmas morning would receive an extra gift and much good luck for the coming year.  The Christmas Pickle became a symbol of blessing and prosperity.  So when Lisa presented us with our very own pickle ornament, we hung it on our tree.  Even though it seemed quite odd...

We lost touch with Lisa for a while after we left Tampa, but today she is a part of our family. She rides to church with us, eats Sunday dinner with us, and is the reason we love Taco Tuesdaze so much. Marilyn and I had dinner with her just last night.  That odd pickle hanging on our tree is a reminder that we have indeed been blessed by her friendship and her love.  Happy Birthday, Lisa!  And may Santa bring you a case of pickles this year!

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Ornament Story: Gaston

For the next 5 days I will be sharing stories about some of the ornaments on our family Christmas tree. Like many of you, we have carefully chosen the ornaments over many years, and so many of them have special meaning to us.  I am going to tell you some of the memorable stories that go along with these classic Christmas ornaments.

In 2003 we were living in Tampa and had celebrated a wonderful Christmas.  The day after Christmas the youth of Wesley Memorial UMC left early in the morning to begin the drive to West Virginia for our ski retreat.  Marilyn, Will and Conner were left behind.  It was our first Christmas with the dog.  I was driving along (somewhere in Georgia, I believe) when my cell phone rang. Marilyn was hysterical- and angry.  It seems that the dog had tackled the tree, knocking it to the hard tile floor and leaving smashed ornaments everywhere.  Some of our collectible Disney ornaments were broken beyond repair.  I was "dead meat" for not being there.  She couldn't pick up the tree to set it upright, and she was frustrated beyond words. But from the rubble, a tradition was born.

We had a set of Beauty and the Beast ornaments that we dearly loved, and many of them suffered damage.  We were able to glue the Beast back together, but others were lost.  And then there was Gaston.  Gaston lost a leg in the calamity.  But we kept him.  And the following year when it came time to decorate the tree, we decided to hand one-legged Gaston on our tree. And he has been there every year since!

We love our special ornament, and we still love the dog too.  While I was a bit surprised to discover he was still alive when I got home, that was the last time he ever messed with our tree.  Now he just sleeps under it like he is a present.  And the smashed tree is just a part of our Christmas narrative.

Join me tomorrow to learn about another ornament- The Christmas Pickle. :)

Merry Christmas to All!!!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Peace on Earth: An Advent Prayer

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, and I can think of no words to share today that are more appropriate than the words of the great Christmas hymn I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The past few days have found many of us praying and hoping for peace on this planet. Mr. Longfellow captures our feelings:

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

So as we prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace, let us be steadfast in our commitment to love one another and to be bringers of peace in this often dark and violent word.  I remind you again that the only hope for us is Jesus.  I hope you have a blessed day.

Because of Jesus

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Youth Ministry & the Church: Who Is Failing Whom?

Sometime this past week I read yet another blog post from yet another "expert" about how modern (1970 - 2005 or so) failed the church.  I have read a number of these articles and posts that indicated that the concept of reaching teenagers for Jesus through youth groups, special events, mission trips and relationship building has failed to keep the students who passed through our youth ministries in the church as adults. Students do leave the church in large numbers after their very active high school years; there is plenty of statistical evidence to back this up. The implication from these critics of youth ministry is that youth workers failed to give students what they needed to grow into mature Christ-followers, and therefore they left the church when it quit being "fun." Over the past few years, mega-churches, powerful authors and national conferences have grown fond of telling us that traditional youth ministry had been a failure. As a result of this thinking, some youth ministries have been going through some pretty radical and often random transformations for the past few years. And it has left many veteran youth pastors feeling like they failed in their ministries.

All student ministries are different, and over the years the experiment that changed Sunday evening baby-sitting for teenagers into a ministry certainly has had more that its share of failures and mistakes.  But I also firmly believe that many of us got a lot more right than we did wrong. Today I hope to bring a bit of balance to this debate. I could try and rebuke the articles and the arguments, but instead I would like to share a story from my own life and leave you to ponder the question- When it comes to student ministry and the church, who is failing whom?  I admit this is an extreme example, but it still captures the kind of stinkin' thinkin' that has, in some circles of the church, turned student ministry into an ugly step-child.  We love to place blame.

In 1999 I had lunch and a conversation with a new senior pastor who had arrived at the church I was serving as Director of Student Ministries. He had known me and my ministry for less than 2 months at the time of this meeting. I have written of this pastor here before, and he is known only as The Pastor Who Shall Not Be Named.  While I do not claim that this is verbatim what was said, I can guarantee that it captures the spirit of the discussion.  I know this because it led to me leaving a ministry I loved. Here is how the conversation went...

TPWSNBN:  I have some concerns about how we do youth ministry. More specifically, about how YOU do youth ministry.
ME:  OK, shoot. What are your issues?
TPWSNBN:  First of all, I think you may have lost sight of our mission.  We are are a church.  From what I can see, you place far too much emphasis on having fun.
ME:  Can you give me some examples?
TPWSNBN:  You plan so many events that revolve around taking trips together, or eating out, and just gathering for times of fellowship. Some of that is fine but I am seeing way too much of that.
ME:  What you are defining as fun are events that we plan to intentionally build community and relationships.  We are trying to be an Acts 2:42 ministry.  Eating together, playing together and praying together are all important parts of that. We are also purpose driven. Every thing we do we do for a reason, based around our mission statement. Including the fun stuff.  It helps keep students involved.
TPWSNBN:  But even your lessons seem more fun than meaty.  With all of the skits, video and group participation it seems like you are looking to entertain more than educate. Where is the preaching and teaching?
ME:  Again, every thing we do has a purpose.  We want them to grasp the concepts of Christianity.  We want them to learn Biblical truths.  But mostly, we want make sure they know Jesus.  So we try to speak their language and teach in ways that will stick with them.  And by the way, entertainment is not always a bad thing.  Do you know the definition of entertain?  It means "to hold the attention of."  Seems like like something every teacher should strive to do...
TPWSNBN:  But because of that, and all of the wild ways your team does worship and music at youth group, teenagers seem to find my sermons and our church services boring. When they graduate, how can we hope to keep them involved?  (Please read that question again, folks. It is crucial.)
ME:  I suppose by continuing to speak to them- no matter their age- in a language they understand, not the one we would prefer.
TPWSNBN:  Be that as it may, it also bothers me that you have so little emphasis on evangelism and mission work.  These are important to the church, and teenagers need to learn about them now so they can be the future of the church.
ME:  I don't mean to sound snotty, but you haven't really looked at what we do, have you?  We just returned from a week in Nashville working with the Center for Student Missions in inner  city ministries. We do a monthly local mission project.  Once school starts back we have a weekly mission right here in the church, providing staff and teaching at the nursery during the 8:30 service.  We serve at the local soup kitchen and have worked at the local food bank. We do the 30 Hour Famine and other special events. And as far as evangelism goes, nearly half of the students in our ministry come from families outside the church.  We do evangelism.  And by the way...these kids are NOT the church of the future. They are the church right now. 
TPWSNBN:  I worry about the influence of all of those unchurched kids on our youth. Where are they getting their training and biblical education if they don't come to church?
ME:  They DO come to church- many of them every Sunday and Wednesday night. Many are in Bible studies and small groups. They are being taught about Jesus. They are learning what it means to worship and be part of a fellowship of believers.  I guarantee I see my "church members" more often than you see most of yours!
TPWSNBN:  But can't you see how all of this activity, fellowship and opportunity to minister sets them up to be disappointed in the church they encounter as adults? (Again...reread that question). This is why they quit being involved. 
ME:  I would suggest that the very definition of involvement changes.  As students, involvement means building relationships, experiencing new things and participating in ministry.  As adults, it too often means filling a pew, dealing with politics and serving on a committee. That is why I have no problem finding such wonderful adult volunteers. They all want to be part of something special. Young adults find it frustrating to encounter that change.
TPWSNBN:  So you would agree that we often lose young adults because the church they attend as adults cannot meet their expectations from their youth group years?
ME (completely exasperated and more than a little snarky):  Yes. And are you are telling me the big problem you have with our youth ministry is that we are setting the bar too high?

And that was pretty much the end of the discussion. And of my interest in working with him. But here is my message to all of the youth pastors, volunteer youth workers and others who are still out there, still loving on teenagers and seeking to help them discover what it means to be in relationship with Jesus and to love one another- You are not failures.  You are serving God in one of the world's great mission fields, and you are changing the lives of students. Keep setting the bar too high. And pray that the church that we love will continue to seek new and better ways to make disciples and to make the adult church experience as meaningful to participants as your student ministries are to those you serve.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Youth Ministry Oops

My Twitter buddy and veteran youth worker Paul Turner tweeted yesterday that youth pastors should remember to be in touch with students who may have missed their weekend youth events to let them know they were missed.  It was a great reminder to stay focused on the students and continuing to build relationships and community in youth ministry.  It also reminded me of 3 epic Oops committed by a large, very successful youth ministry in the life of my own son a few years back that left him with a bad taste in his mouth for youth group.  I hope this story will serve as a warning to all of you who love students.

When we first moved back to Tampa in the summer of 2007, Will became a regular and very active participant in a local student ministry. He attended their primary youth meeting event Sunday evenings.  He went on retreats and attended special events.  Very few of the students attended his school, and he did not have many close friends in the group, but for the most part he enjoyed going. In the summer of 2008 he was part of week long local missions camp where they stayed on campus at the church for the entire week. We did not learn this until much later, but during one of the nightly worship times that week he went forward for prayer.  The youth pastor, who by then had known him for over a year, prayed for him by the wrong name.  It wasn't just an error. She did not know his name.  And that really hurt Will- as it would any of us.  Oops #1.

Will continued to attend as the school year began, albeit with less enthusiasm.  We sometimes had to make him go.  Then one week, after he had been a youth on the previous 3 Sundays in a row, he received a "missing you" card from the youth staff.  We assumed it was just a simple mistake, but a few weeks later it happened again.  Will was no doubt feeling invisible, and as a long time youth pastor I understood why.  He did not feel part of the community, and the leaders seemed not to know who he was.  And being part of that ministry became less and less important to him.  Oops #2.

After 2 years of pretty regular participation, Will began to drop out. He no longer wanted to go to special events on on retreats. We had to fight him to get him to attend at all.  And as he pulled away from that ministry, not once did anyone from the youth staff call him or visit him.  Not once did anyone stop by his school for lunch or offer to buy him a milk shake. He had no relationships, and he felt no community. I had always said I would not be one of those parents who forced his kid to go to youth group- I had seen first hand for years what a disaster that can be.  Will wanted out, and with no sign of anyone in the ministry really caring, we let him drop out.  If they had only reached out to him...  Oops #3.

Now the story has a happy ending, although not one I would have ever scripted. We explored the high school ministry as he began 9th grade, and I even took the new high school pastor to lunch and explained my frustrations.  To his credit, he did make an effort to involve Will.  But it was too late.  Will had found community and relationships with a different group- the drumline of his school marching band. The church changed their youth group to Wednesday evenings, a time when Will could not attend (Oops #4?). His life began to revolve around the people and activities of the band, just as mine and so many students who passed through my groups had revolved around a youth ministry.  And now, as a senior, those drummers are the most important people in his life.  He still loves church, and we attend worship (at that same church) on a regular basis.  He still loves Jesus.  We are blessed by those things.  But the bottom line, youth ministry failed my son.

To get back to Paul's tweet, I always felt like if a student missed a week, there was most likely a good reason.  If they missed 2 weeks, I needed to let them know they were missed. If they missed 3, then something was wrong. A pattern was forming, and I needed to talk to them and see what could be done.  Students want to be part of a community.  They want leaders to know their names. They don't want to feel invisible.  And they want to be missed when they are not around.  Students crave relationships. If the church does not provide them, they will seek it elsewhere. We got lucky, and Will found amazing friends in drumline who have been a huge positive in his life.  Others will find their community in far darker places.  Don't let your students become victims of the Oops.  Remember that relationships are job #1.

Because of Jesus,

Monday, December 10, 2012

What If?

According to the Mayan calendar and other ancient predictions, we only have 11 days left on planet Earth.  I do not believe this to be true, and as a result have not really given the whole idea much consideration. But as December 21 draws near, I have been pondering a few things.  If this is really the end, it changes things.  I don't need to worry abut the massive hospital bills I just racked up- or any other bills for that matter.  Christmas shopping becomes a moot point.  I no longer need to eat healthy and watch my blood sugar- it's party time!  Bring on the key lime pies!  Yard work and house cleaning would seem superfluous.  If the end is really coming, then we should just enjoy life, right?  No rules, no responsibilities.

I do not believe these predictions in part because I believe that we (as a human race) are here until Jesus comes back.  He said he will be returning, and I believe it.  Scripture also tells us that when Jesus returns, it will be "like a thief in the night" and that no one will know the day or the time of his return.  So given all the hoopla, it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that December 21 is the day.  

But what if?  What if we do only have 11 days until Jesus returns?  What should we really do with that time?  Obviously, we need to make sure our hearts are surrendered to our LORD.  We need to make sure the people we love know how we feel.  We need to forgive those who have wronged us and ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt.  We need to reach out to those around us who are hurting, and to those who do not yet have a relationship with the Savior.  In short, we need to be the people God calls us to be 24/7, 365. We need to live up to our calling.  If the end is coming, we have so much to do.

My youth group at Springfield Friends Meeting back in the early 1990's were given t-shirts by the late Rich Mullins that bore the following message: Live like you will die tomorrow. Die knowing you will live forever.  Jesus said as much when he was here.  Live life abundantly (John 10:10) and eternally (John 3:16).  What would my next 11 days look like if I believed Jesus was coming December 21?  I pray they would not that different from the way I will live them now.  So no excuses. And don't forget my Christmas present. I plan to still be here!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Love Has Come

"Love has come
For the world to know,
As the wisemen knew
Such a long time ago.
And I believe that angels sang
That hope had begun,
When the God of Glory,
Who is full of mercy,
Sent His Son."

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and if you attend a church that is using an Advent wreath then today they will light the candle of love.  (I love my church, but they don't do a Advent wreath.  In fact, they seldom mention Advent.  Uh-oh- I feel a rant coming on!  We attend a very "non-traditional church," and I love many of the things they do in worship. The music, the message, the dramas and the technology all help make it a large growing church that preaches the gospel and serves the community in the name of Jesus.  But in their attempts to be "non-traditional" they often eliminate tradition completely.  Not only just Advent, but this year I am still waiting to hear about Lent, and Pentecost as well.  It wouldn't hurt to say the Lord's Prayer or the Apostle's Creed on occasion.  Some old hymns were better in their original arrangements.  And Moses H. Cone, could we just sing a normal Christmas carol at least once this year?  Thus endeth the rant...and by the way I cannot WAIT to get back to church today!)  You have no doubt heard it said that love came down at Christmas time.  The lyrics from the song Love Has Come at the top of this page, written by Amy Grant, tell a similar story.  Scripture tells the story in a most familiar yet meaningful verse:  "For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son..."  Let there be no doubt- God's love has a name, and that name is Jesus.

So as you prepare your heart for the coming of the Christ-child this Christmas season, remember that love has come.  Show grace and forgiveness to those around you.  Find a way to show love to those who are hurting, under-resourced or different.  And take time each day to thank God for the love He has shown you in sending Jesus to bridge the gap between our sinful nature and his perfect peace.  Make this Christmas season one of true expectation, remembering that the coming of Christ changed the world.  We are called by the Babe of Bethlehem to do the same in our world...

Because of Jesus,

Friday, December 7, 2012

7 Things: Christmas Memories

Christ the Savior is Born!

I have so many great memories of the Christmas season from the churches I served over the years.  Here are 7 of my favorite moments!

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

I made it through 7 Things without mentioning the time at the youth group Christmas party in Kissimmee when I received a Brittney Spears doll and Amber Herrick got a leopard skin thong- well, I almost made it anyway!  I hope that your Christmas season is full of great memories and great stories- and that we never forget the story of the gift of Jesus!

Because of Jesus,