Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Church Music Conundrum

Prepare for some rambling with no definite conclusions- unless you can provide them!  I have been thinking a lot lately about the songs I have sung in worship over the years.  I am old enough to have been through several generations of church music, and I have loved them all.  I grew up singing from hymnals, and those hymns still have a profound influence on me today.  I was exposed to the early years of praise & worship music which we called "camp songs," and I find myself singing those great old songs on a daily basis.  In the 1990s we began incorporating praise choruses and more modern music into traditional worship settings. Then came the advent of praise bands and contemporary worship music.  I have been in churches that sang each and every style of church music, and before we go any further you need to understand this- I love them all!

I also love the church my family currently attends, and the very contemporary music is a crucial part of worship- and it is awesome!  The quality of the musicians is at a professional level, and the vocalists who lead worship are gifted in so many ways.  But there is one thing that has been gnawing at me lately, and today I wanted to see if any of you might share my concern.  I am bothered by the way we have segregated the music in our churches, because I have come to believe that in doing so we are damaging the foundations of our faith. Let me explain.

The hymns that I grew up singing were already very old when I learned them, but they were the songs that everyone sang at church- and had for a couple of centuries.  Great hymns like It Is Well With My Soul, Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee, In the Garden, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Amazing Grace were songs that pretty much every Christian knew. It was part of a bond that united us.  Those lyrics still resonate with me today.  Growing up in  North Carolina I also learned to love the old country/bluegrass style hymns like When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I Saw the Light and I'll Fly Away.  I just purchased the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken? for my I-pod.  None of these songs are contemporary, yet they still stir my soul in so many ways. As I was exposed to newer music in the late 70s through Young Life, youth group and Quaker Lake Camp- songs like Pass It On, In His Name, The All Day Song, Seek Ye First and Sing Alleluia- I loved the more modern feel, but I never forgot the music of my childhood.  It was never either/or, it was always both.  In the 90s, as more and more contemporary praise music was introduced into traditional worship, I learned to love songs like Majesty, Lord I Lift Your Name On High, Awesome God and Shout To the Lord.  But they didn't replace the old stand-bys, they were simply added to the playlist.  When Third Day released their Offerings album in 2000, followed my Michael W. Smith's Worship in 2001, everything changed.  Worship music went mainstream.  I wore those CDs out, along with everything from Chris Tomlin, DeliriousStarfield and David Crowder. Rock and roll worship was the new thing, and I was into it big time.  But again, in my mind, this was all an addition to the great hymns of the church and all the music that had come before- not a replacement for it.  I led worship at youth group nearly every week, and always included songs from nearly every generation of church music- because they were all important to me.

And therein lies my concern.  In many of our houses of worship, including the one I attend, the old songs have been replaced and often forgotten.  So many of the old hymns and songs of praise are etched upon my heart and offer me comfort and hope when I need inspiration.  I wonder if my son will have that.  He loves the style of the music we sing, but has little attachment to the actual songs.  We seem so intent on singing the "flavor of the month" that we seldom really commit songs to memory anymore.  It seems every time I fall in love with a song we quit singing it. A few of the true classic hymns, like Amazing Grace, receive new arrangements and new life.  But most have been shelved. Those early praise & worship songs have suffered a worse fate- they have been completely abandoned. I remember with great affection the zeal of our congregation in Kissimmee singing Lord I Lift Your Name On High, the young and the old doing the hand motions and singing praise to God.  I cannot remember the last time I heard that song in a church.  We have segregated the music.  If your church sings traditional hymns, then you ONLY sing traditional hymns. If you sing contemporary music, anything written before 2000 is very suspect. In doing this we are cheating ourselves and our churches of one of the great bonds of the faith- shared music.  And we may be cheating our children as well.  My life would be much different if I did not know the words to It Is Well With My Soul AND Rich Mullin's Bound To Come Some Trouble. What great songs of faith will our children have to lean on? Classics only become classic when given time to age and grow.  Are we allowing that in the modern church?

Let me close with a story from my friend Michael Bridges of the band Lost And Found.  He was asked one time if he and George knew any praise and worship songs.  Micheal's response was that yes, they did. In fact, they were part of a church that knew over 500 worship songs, so many that they had put them all in a book. His tongue-in-cheek dig at musical segregation often rings true to me.  Songs that praise God and fill our souls should not have expiration dates or be confined to any one generation. They need to be sung and to be recorded in our hearts and minds as "A very present help in times of trouble."  It's all God's music.  And it is time to start singing...

And BTW- I have no idea how Pharoah Pharoah fits into this discussion! :)

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Some Nights

The group FUN. (yes, the period is part of the name!) exploded onto the pop/rock music scene in 2012 with their huge hit We Are Young and the even bigger follow-up, Some Nights.  My son turned me on to their music and I love it.  A portion of the lyrics to Some Nights keeps resounding in my brain. making me ponder some of life's deepest questions.  The band sings:
"Oh Lord I'm still not sure what I stand for, oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don't know...anymore."

It is a question I struggle with often.  What do I stand for?  I know I want to stand for Jesus, but is that really the part of my life that speaks to the people I encounter everyday?  Do they feel his love and grace flow through me, or am I just another "Christian," wearing the name but not the bearing the cross.  And the truth is most days, I don't know. I am so weak, so often tempted and so often selfish. I should be amazed that anyone can ever see Jesus in me.  But that is the miracle of faith. We don't have to be perfect, because Jesus is.  He uses us and shines through us even when we falter and fail. If we stand for him, he will stand with us through the hard times and the dark nights.  I may doubt myself, but he never doubts me. He loves me, cares for me and lifts me up when everything else may be putting me down.  

So what do I stand for?  I stand for a Savior who loves me even when I don't know exactly what I stand for, because it's not about me. It's all about Jesus.  How cool is that?

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Ash Tray Kid

The city of New Orleans is getting lots of attention this week as they prepare to host the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXXVII.  I have been to New Orleans once, in 1979, and found it to be a very interesting city.  It was the first major stop on the cross-country road trip I took with my old friends Carl Semmler and Alan Brown, and like pretty much everything about that trip my memories of the Big Easy are, to say the least, unusual.  Today I'd like to share a few of those magical moments with you...

We took a tour of the Superdome, home to many great sporting events before and since, and were impressed by the enormous size of the place. They were cleaning up from a home improvement show of some sort, and as we walked to the top of the building the tractor-trailers on the floor looked liked ants.  We tried to imagine what it would be like to watch a football game from that height, and decided that TV was a MUCH better option. Walking to the top row was scary. The stairs were so steep, and we were out of breath by the time we got there. Years later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and building, I could not get that image out of my mind.

We also decided that we wanted to pay a visit to the New Orleans Jazz Museum.  Being 19-21 year olds, we were ill-prepared to do sight-seeing, but we found a map at the motel we stayed at and set out on an adventure. The museum was on Rampart Street. I have forgotten many details of that trip, but I will never forget that street name.  We found Rampart Street and began searching for the address listed for the museum. We drove the full length of the street, and then back again.  We searched every street number and turned around and searched again.  This went on for a very long time- and we NEVER found that stinking jazz museum.  This would be the first of many tourist misadventures during May, 1979.  Remind me to tell you the story of the Grand Canyon, malted milk balls and warm root beer someday...

But my favorite story from New Orleans has always been the tale of The Ash Tray Kid.  We were there in early May, but the weather was very summer-like.  The temps were in the high 80s during the day, and the humidity was just awful.  On our last night we were turning in early, preparing for the long drive to San Antonio the following day.  As part of a rotating system, Alan and I were sharing a bed and Carl had one to himself.  The air conditioning was set on cool as we tried to fight the smothering humidity and heat. Carl's bed was closest to the AC unit, which was a bad mistake.  At some point during the night, he got cold and tried to turn off the AC.  It was dark, and so (as he would confess to us the next morning) he just started pushing buttons until he felt warm air.  Alan and I awoke in pools of our own sweat trying to discern what had happened to us.  It seems that Carl had turned on the low heat and opened up the event to let in the 1000% humidity!  As we sorted out the disaster, Carl refused to wake, comfy as he was wrapped in his blanket.  So after a few attempts using conventional methods, Alan grabbed the glass ash tray on the table between the beds- and threw it at him!  This woke him up and made him mad- but not nearly as mad as we were for him trying to kill us with heat! We eventually laughed about it all, and we tried to saddle Carl with the nickname The Ash Tray Kid. Sadly, it never caught on...

We did other things while in New Orleans, including a strange and embarrassing night spent wandering the French Quarter.  It was the start to a very memorable trip. I would have loved to have stayed and found that jazz museum, but we were on a schedule. We needed to get to Texas so we could set up out tent in some poison ivy. But that's a story for another day...  

Happy Super Bowl Week!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Forgiveness & Grace

I used to tell students that I only needed forgiveness for two things in my life- the things I do and the things I don't do!  With that in mind...

In case you missed this while reading your Bible, Jesus was big into forgiveness.  His mission statement- "I came to save the world, not to condemn it"- is all about offering us grace and forgiveness, because God knows we deserve to be condemned.  Jesus came and died on the cross so we wouldn't get what we deserve.  He told the following parable in Matthew 18:21-35 (The Message).

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, "Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?"   Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.
"The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.   "The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.'  Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

"The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!'   "The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

"The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy."

Over the past few years I have encountered both the king and the servant from this story.  The kings- of which there are many- have seen the sin and failure (the debt) in my life, and have forgiven me anyway.  Paul writes that sin will always be with us on this side of heaven.  My past sins serve as a reminder of how much I need Jesus, but the debt has been erased by the sacrifice of Jesus and these "kings" I have encountered along the road.  The servants- of which, thankfully, I have encountered but a few- have seen the sin and failure in my life, and they seem determined to make sure those things are never forgotten.  They feel hurt and betrayed by my actions (and I don't blame them) but they just can't let it go.  My sin seems to effect them more than their own.  And if I am not careful, their actions and attitudes can cause me to sin again- because they make me want to not forgive them.  But I must.  I cannot experience the abundant life that Jesus came to bring unless I can forgive myself and others.  People who are otherwise faithful Christians seem to carry around an unhealthy bitterness and resentment that one would think should be absent from the body of Christ.  And that is their prerogative- as long as they never need forgiveness themselves.  This parable is not the only scripture that makes this point very clear.  In the LORD's Prayer, we are told to pray for God to "forgive our trespasses (debts)  as we forgive those who trespass against us."  Jesus said "Judge not at all, or you will be judged."  He said "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."  In other words, Jesus makes it clear that we will all be held to the same standard that we hold others to.  If we forgive and offer grace and mercy to the people who wrong us, then that is what we shall receive from God.  If we don't- well, I'd prefer not to find out what refusing God's grace feels like. 

We all seek forgiveness in our lives, and those of us who call ourselves Christ-followers know that we can repent and ask for grace, and that it is a gift given freely by our God.  Far too many people, however, struggle when it comes to personal grace; we want forgiveness from God but are not willing to offer it to those around us.  I hope that this parable will inspire us all to be like the King- both the one in parable and the One we worship.  He understood the debt, he hated the debt- but he erased the debt.  Many of you have been "human erasers" in my life, and I thank God everyday for your mercy- and His.  Have a blessed Sabbath, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, January 25, 2013

Flashback Friday: Youth Sunday 1999

This vintage post first appeared on this blog in 2010.

I am sure that many of you are aware of "live blogging," the act of attending an event and blogging while you watch.  Such blogs usually contain reports of the actual event as well as opinionated comments from the blogger.  Today I introduce you to "retro-blogging."  This is the act of watching a VHS tape from over a decade ago and creating a blog post from the event.  As with live blogs, this post will contain actual information about the event as well as lame comments from the writer.  I hope you enjoy!

The tape I am watching is from a Youth Sunday at FUMC-K in the Spring of 1999.  We did at least one of these youth-led Sundays each year while I was serving the church in Kissimmee;  they were always well received and the students loved doing them.  This tape was made for me by the great Pat Pribyl during the 8:30 AM service;  we actually did all three services that day.  So let's get started!

Cathy Thacker (former Youth Counselor who was by then on the church staff and is now a UMC pastor) did the announcements (John and Pat Willis were away) and had the honor of breaking the news to many unsuspecting elderly attenders that the youth were in charge of the service.  She also mentioned that the United Methodist Committee on Relief was seeking money to help with the influx of refugees from Kosovo.  Seems like a lifetime ago.  I am sure there was still some confusion in the congregation at this point, for after Cathy sat down...nothing happened!  There were no youth sitting in the choir area, which is where the youth always were on such Sundays.  The only people upfront were Andrew Lewis and the Youth Praise Band, and they were not playing.  Eventually, Kristen Landry and Lindsey Lupfer came down the aisles, serving as acolytes, and brought in the "Light of Christ."  Then they left as well.  It seemed as if we had forgotten what came next...

Suddenly the silence was pierced by the sound of a lone flautist (I believe it was Sara Kohl?)  playing Prepare Ye from Godspell.  The flute was then joined by a lone voice (the camera is not showing the congregation, it is showing the platform, so I don't know who sang first) from the crowd, and after one time through the chorus another voice joined in.  And then another.  My memory tells me it was the Reep twins and Jill Souther who were the first three voices, but I am not certain.  After the three voices had joined as one, the Praise Band kicked in and all of the youth and Youth Counselors- about 60 people total- who were hiding in the congregation begin to stand, sing and make their way to the choir loft.  There is clapping, shouting, smiling- mostly from the participants.  The congregations still looks a bit confused.  Finally the whole group is in place.  It was a great (if I may say so myself), albeit under-appreciated, opening to worship.  (Full disclosure:  I just had to pause the tape so I could move clothes from the washer to the dryer.  This retro blogging thing is hard work!)

We opened the next part of worship with what was referred to in those days as a Praise Block.  For us it was a chance to sing some of our favorite music in worship with our church family.  For many others, it meant standing for a long period of time singing songs they didn't know and/or didn't much care for!  I introduced the first song, I Found Jesus, by acknowledging this fact; I said "You may not know this song, but sing it anyway!"  There was loud laughter.  The Praise Band cranked it up. The band featured Jacob Lupfer on keyboards, Jay Lynes on bass, Tommy Weaver and Jason Fry on guitars, and Josh Fry on drums.  After the first song, Colleen Martin gave the congregation an official youth welcome, telling them that "this might get a little weird, and it's not going to be what you are used to."  A wonderful understatement.  The band and Andrew then led us through great versions of Lord I Lift Your Name On High and Lord You Have My Heart.  The band sat down and Andrew led us in a rousing chorus of Step By Step ("Oh God, You are my God..."), and then I took over and led our favorite youth group worship tune, Sing Alleluia to the Lord.  I've said it here before and will do so again at some point, but when that group sang that song it was like the angels were joining in- and this time was no exception.

The old folks finally got to sit down so that Sara Autrey and Jay Lynes could do the Children's Moment.  They used an apple to talk about the Fruits of the Spirit, and how having God in our lives makes us do good things.  The fruits theme continued with a skit featuring Adam Hill as a thorn bush who thinks he is a fig tree, and Nate Kern as a passer-by.  Adam tries to convince Nate to try a fig; all Nate could see were thorns.  Adam tries a dozen different arguments, including seeking to convince Nate that his thorns are in fact spiked figs.  It was a very well done, hilarious skit that hopefully illustrates that you aren't truly a Christian if there is no fruit in your life.  To make certain everyone "got it," this is followed by Teresa Reep (one of our seniors) reading the scripture about fruits from Galatians 5:16-26.  At one point while reading, she stumbles on the phrase "sexual immorality."  I cannot prove it, but it sounds as if she was about to say "sexual immortality" and caught herself.   A shame, really...THAT would have stirred some discussion on scripture!

Next up were three more seniors who were delivering the Message for the day.  Jill Souther was first, talking about  how she only had 30 days of high school left, and about overcoming doubt and obstacles in her own life with faith.  She told several good stories to illustrate her point.  (I went to get a bottle of water and left the tape running; you know, that Jill could really talk!!!)  Once Jill was done, Cyndi Reep (only 25 days left) took the pulpit and talked openly about feeling as if she had slipped away from God in her senior year.  She then pointed out, quite brilliantly, that our spiritual journey contains both mountains and valleys, and that we tend to grow in our faith more in the valleys.  Jacob Lupfer went last, and spoke from the heart to his church family.  He estimated that he had "met God in this place" over 900 times in his life, which he deduced made him an elder at age 18.  Jacob, who had bright red hair, also questioned if as he got older and his hair started turning gray would it, at some point, be pink?    He encouraged people to reach out and share their faith with the community, chiding himself for not having done a better job, and exulting some of his peers for being master evangelists.  All three speakers were excellent that day; I am still proud of them as I write this today.  They were not just "cute youth;"  they said important things!

We were now headed down the home stretch of this service.  Melissa Lynes took Joys and Concerns from the congregation and led us all in prayer.  Celia Thacker and myself presented information about Compassion International to the crowd, explaining that we as a youth group were now sponsoring two children, and that we had 19 others we hoped that different families, Sunday School classes and small groups in the church would sponsor.  Erica Souther then called our Youth Ushers forward and prayed over the offering.  As the special music while the plates were passed the entire youth choir sang dc Talk's Into Jesus.  I loved that song then, but looking back, it needs to placed in the Youth Group Jukebox of Cheese.  It was not much of a group singing song...   The service closed with the entire congregation singing Pass It On (I managed to play it without laughing), which featured rousing shouts of PRAISE GOD from the youth at the appropriate times.  And looking back this morning, I do indeed praise God for days like that one.

I didn't know it at the time (I certainly do now), but in many ways that day marked the end of an era at FUMC-K.  In a few weeks John Willis would be moved (A bad memory-I just shivered and broke out in a cold sweat!) to another church; this important group of seniors would graduate; and I would enter a summer with an intern not named Jerry Hanbery.  A cold wind was about to blow through the church.  But on that day, God was smiling on us and the Holy Spirit was moving among us.  This retro blogging is pretty cool-  but in all honesty, you had to be there!  Have a blessed weekend!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Sermon On the Hill

I have been working my way through the wonders of Matthew 5-6 the past few days, once again exploring the wondrous words of the Sermon on the Mount.  For far too many Christians, these familiar passages are undervalued.  This is Jesus at his most radical, turning the world upside down with his words.  Just think of all the teachings included in this magnificent message.  The Beatitudes, which the late, great Rich Mullins referred to as "the condensed version of everything Jesus wanted us to know."  His teachings on salt & light.  His constant reminders that "you have heard it said, but I say" as he explained that he had come to fulfill the law and the prophecies.  His admonitions to let our word be our bond, to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Teaching us to pray with the model we call The LORD'S Prayer.  Reminding us not to be hypocritical or flashy as we serve others, give to the needy and fast.  His much ignored teaching that earthly treasure is worthless in heaven.  And finally, his reminder that we need not worry, because his Father - our God - will take care of our needs. This amazing set of teachings must have had the Pharisees pulling their beards out, because it was such a departure from the legalism of the day.  And to be honest, it is a departure from the legalism often preached in the 21st century church as well.  Jesus calls us to radical action and love.  We prefer the words of Paul, which give us guidelines and rules we can argue about.  Jesus is blunt, to the point, and preaching a lifestyle change that most of us try to avoid.  The Sermon on the Hill is a blueprint for how to be a Jesus Freak.  And that scares us.

But it should also give us hope.  The sermon is a reminder that God's love is available to one and all, no matter our situation and no matter our sins.  Check out these words from Philip Yancey:

“Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.”   ― The Jesus I Never Knew

Philip wrote another great book called What's So Amazing About Grace?, and his words above answer that question.  Grace, given to us in the form of the love of God whose name is Jesus, is always there.  We cannot earn it. We will never deserve it.  And yet it is always there to catch us when we fall. The Sermon on the Mount teaches us how to live in grace and share it with the rest of the world.

So here is my challenge to you today.  Read Matthew 5-6, and read it slowly. Soak in it. Think about how world changing it must have been to stand on that hillside and hear those words. Think about what they mean to us as Christ-followers.  And then get serious.  Memorize The Beatitudes.  They should be written on your heart.  Let's put the power back in the words of Jesus, and to the call he puts on our lives.  It's time to get radical...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Team of Outcasts

My Dad began coaching little league football in the early 1970's with the Guilford College Steelers in Greensboro, NC.  The Steelers were a "county" team who played in the powerful Greensboro city league, and in the early years they were doormats.  Dad transformed them into consistent winners at the 8-10 year old level, and I always enjoyed helping him.  As their success increased so did the number of kids coming out to play.  There was a limit (35, I think) of how many players a team could carry.  And to make sure all of those players got to play the city instituted a great program.  Regular games were on weeknights, and all of your players were eligible for those.  Then on Saturday mornings there was another game- but your top 15 players could not participate!  So Saturday morning was the game for the back-ups.  On a powerhouse team like the Steelers, that Saturday morning team was very good.

One particular season (the year escapes me) we had over 50 kids come out to play for the Steelers.  Dad would not cut anyone, and he wanted everyone to play, so he came to me with an idea.  Would I be willing to coach a third team- one that didn't even dress on weeknights, but that played as a second Steeler team on Saturday mornings?  This would be a team full of kids who had not played organized football before; full of the smallest kids and the slowest kids and even some who didn't know their left from their right.  In short, it was going to be a bad team- a team of outcasts.  But it seemed like a challenge to me (not being a very bright young man!) so I said yes.  Not wanting to call it the "C Team" or the third string, we settled on The White Team, because they would wear the white jerseys abandoned by the "real" Steelers a few years earlier. They are pictured at the top, and yes- that is a very young me standing with them!

The White Team practiced separately from the other players, and slowly a team began to come together.  Our guys practiced very hard each and every day- but we also had lots of fun.  We would run trick plays every day just to break things up.  When the starting defense needed to hit some people, I would play quarterback for a make-shift offense, and they could hit me all they wanted to.  It was all about helping them believe in each other. No one had to tell them they were outcasts. The hand-me-down jerseys said it all too well.  The team progressed, and played well in our first game- but lost 7-6.  No could believe we had been that close, but still, everyone feared for us- game two would be against Lewis Center.

Lewis Center was the power program in Greensboro city football.  They annually played for the city championship at a least one age level, and they had been doing this for years.  The general assumption was that their Saturday morning team could make the playoffs in the regular league!  And The White Team was about to take them on.  My Dad was worried that we would be beaten so badly that it would humiliate the kids.  I secretly worried the same thing.  But we showed up anyway- and the game was amazing.  They drove the ball down the field, and we stopped them inside the 10.  This pattern repeated itself all game long.  We never came close to scoring, but we kept fighting.  The game ended in a scoreless tie, which, of course, was a major victory for us.  My Dad often said over the years, as he was winning city championships with the Steelers, that The White Team performance that Saturday morning was the greatest game he ever saw a Steeler team play.  And I wouldn't argue...

My experiences with that team were full of great lessons that I carried with me into my years in student ministry.  I learned the value of mixing working hard with playing hard.  I learned that building bonds between myself and the students I worked with could lead to results that seemed miraculous.  But the big lesson was this- a team (or a group) can be so much greater than the sum of its' parts if you simply believe in each other.  Over the years my groups didn't always have the most "popular" students, or the most jocks, or the most "beautiful" people. We had out share of outcasts.  But we usually had amazing youth groups full of people who loved each other and who were seeking Jesus.  We understood that Jesus has a thing for outcasts, and that gave us power greater than any popularity or skill set.  And just like with The White Team, some of the individuals drew on their experiences to become stars later on.  Many of those students are still out there playing, raising families, seeking God and "shining their lights" for others.  I thank God for them everyday.

I am  seriously considering trying to get the team back together and challenge my Tampa Bay Bucs...I think we could take 'em!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Today's Play List

I was listening to my I-pod earlier this morning, and these were the first 10 songs that came up in shuffle mode.  I am not sure why I thought this might be interesting to anyone, except just to say I do love a wide variety of music. So here you go!

  1. Overjoyed-  Matchbox 20
  2. Faith of a Little Seed- Big Tent Revival
  3. Don't Look Back in Anger-  Oasis
  4. Elma Turl- Mike Cross
  5. I Will Wait- Mumford & Sons
  6. Winds of Change- The Beach Boys
  7. Love Song for a Savior- Jars of Clay
  8. Super Skier- The Chad Mitchell Trio
  9. Boat Drinks- Jimmy Buffett 
  10. Kicks- Paul Revere & the Raiders
That's what I'm listening to.  What's on your play list?  Have a blessed day!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Gift For Youth Workers

This post first appeared October 23, 2010.

In the early 1980's David Bills introduced me to a magazine called The Wittenburg Door.  The name was a parody of the famous door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that the great theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to in 1517.  I immediately fell in love with the magazine, which was edited in those early days by Mike Yaconelli.  The publication was billed as "Christian satire," which made it a kind of MAD Magazine for the church.  It poked fun at the church and many of the people in it, pointing out our tendency to take ourselves far too seriously.  Each month they gave out the Green Weenie Award to the person who was found to be most embarrassing to the church.  The issue pictured here (from 1985) was one of my favorites.  In it they defended Tony Campolo from charges of heresy coming from church leaders- primarily because Tony chose to take literally the words of Jesus instead of their words.  It was a great read- if you could find it.

You see, The Wittenburg Door was not only published by youth workers in those early years, it also functioned just like us.  It was printed on plain paper- nothing glossy about it.  And you never knew when it was coming.  I subscribed for a number of years, and you could expect the January/February issue around June.  Later on it was sold and became a real magazine known only as The Door.  The "Wittenburg" has now been returned to the title, although I confess I haven't read an issue in many years now. 

The Wittenburg Door was considered a subversive rag by many church leaders back in the day- which was one of the reasons I loved it so much.  You almost felt like it should be mailed in a plain brown wrapper so no one would know you received it.  But it was treasured by many youth pastors- especially the ones who were a part of the Youth Specialties family.  The National Youth Workers Convention used to include a Wittenburg Door Banquet each year, with speakers and a talent show.  In 1987 (click here for details) I performed and had a a blast.  Upon returning home, I wrote a song parody of the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show classic The Cover of the Rolling Stone, written by Shel Silverstein.  I intended to sing it at the next banquet- but never had a chance.  The banquets were dropped from the NYWC schedule. 

So today I reveal to you the words of this never before sung or seen tale of youth ministry.  Aside from changing one outdated reference, it's the same song I wrote in 1987.  It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek; being on the cover would more likely have gotten you fired than made you rich.  For everyone who has ever given of themselves in ministry with students, this song is for you!  Sing along!

Well we're big-time youth workers, tryin' to serve our LORD
And we're oh so very sincere
We sing about Jesus and we teach about truth
For three thousand dollars a year
We work with Bobbys and Jills who give us all kinds of thrills
But we're not sure what it's all for...
'Cause we won't get no richer 'til we see our picture
On the cover of The Wittenburg Door

Wittenburg Door
Wanna see my picture on the cover
Have to hide the copies from my mother
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of The Wittenburg Door

I've got some great volunteers who are up in their years
But they do everything they can
I've got a poor old gray-haired lady
Drivin' our worn-out van
Now it's all designed so God can blow kid's minds
And to strengthen their spiritual core
And they'll know who to go to when they see my photo
On the cover of The Wittenburg Door


We got a lot of little teenage blue-eyed groupies
Who don't do a thing we say
We got a Purpose Driven guru
He's teachin' us a better way
We got hundreds of youth who come to us for the truth
Yeah they're breakin' down our doors
But I'll go out of style if they don't see my smile
On the cover of The Wittenburg Door


Because of Jesus,

Friday, January 18, 2013

I Am a Pacifist

"While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart."  - St. Francis of Assisi

"I never want America to forget that Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary..."  - Stephen Stills

In the hours, days and weeks following the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut my Twitter feed has erupted with both pro and con arguments on the subject of gun control.  I do not claim to have any true insight into the politics of this issue, and I do not intend to make this post about the 2nd amendment, the NRA, or the statistics that establish USAmerica as the world leader in gun violence.  But I do have something to say.  I am a pacifist (a believer in non-violence and peacemaking) because I believe that is what Jesus calls me to be.  For me, it is a matter of faith, not politics. Today I would like to tell why I believe pacifism to be the way of the Prince of Peace.  (The sound you hear may be my 2300 Twitter followers clicking "unfollow" all at once...)

I believe that if we call ourselves followers of Jesus then we must be willing to heed all of his teachings, not just the ones that are convenient in this day and age. He even goes so far as to warn us that when we follow him, we may lose lose everything- because "to find your life you must lose it." It is difficult to love our enemies, yet we are called to do just that. It is hard to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile instead of seeking revenge or "justice," yet that is the path we are called to follow.  In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus gives us a quick list of life-attitudes that will make us blessed.  Included are things like mercy, meekness and peace making- all of which seem so out-of-step with our society.  When Jesus was attacked at the time of his arrest and Peter came to his defense, Jesus rebuked him and told Peter to put away the sword- to my mind disarming me as well.  Everything Jesus taught us encourages us to respond to others with God's love, no matter the situation.  I believe that scripture declares human life to be sacred, and that there should not be exceptions to that- that pro-life should REALLY mean that God values every life, both the sinner and saint.  I believe that the ways of  Jesus are the ways of non-violence.  You may not, and I do not claim to have cornered the market on knowledge of what Jesus thought.  But as I said before, I find pacifism to be a matter of faith.  Psalm 23 reminds us to "fear no evil for God is with us."  Yet we insist on fearing and trying to protect ourselves rather than trusting in God.  To paraphrase the great Tom Lehrer, "the LORD's our shepherd says the Psalm, but just in case...I better buy a gun!"  I know that without grace and the love of God whose name is Jesus that I am condemned to death by my own sin.  I owe him my life and my salvation. How can I not trust Him to protect me when I need protecting, even as He did Daniel, Rack, Shack and Benny?  It is a matter of faith.

Over the years this stance has often made others question how I would actually respond when faced with violence against myself or my family. I have good friends, people I love and respect, who cannot imagine not fighting tooth and nail to protect their families if the need arose. They find my beliefs to be hard to understand...or downright ludicrous.  Surely if I had a way to defend my family, I would.  How could I say that I would respond to such a situation with non-violence?

The scenario that is often presented is this-  intruders invade my home and threaten my family. They have a gun, and I have mine.  How could I know I would not kill them to save myself and my family?   And the fact is that situation requires me to answer I don't know. How could I?  Under those circumstances, under all of that tension, it is possible I might just shoot first. I hate to admit it, but it is the truth.

But such scenarios are missing the point for a true pacifist.  There is only one way I can stick to my beliefs and practice non-violence in such situations.  I must simply never have a weapon.  And so I don't.  You may think this makes me weak.  And you know what? You are right.  I am weak, in so many ways.  That is why I must lean on the strength of the One who has already saved me from this world.  If someone wants to do harm to me or my family, they will have to deal with Jesus, and we will be with Jesus- no matter the outcome.  What more protection do I need? 

Let me finish by making one thing clear- I am NOT anti-gun.  I have many friends who are responsible gun owners, hunters and target shooters.  But I am anti-violence, and there are far too many gun deaths in our country. Something needs to change. I do not have the answer for our nation.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.  And for us, that means no guns. It means trusting God as we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death."  It means having faith.  I welcome your feedback and your questions.

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Won't Back Down

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I did a series of sermons based around some the great rock songs of the era.  I used Billy Joel's I Go To Extremes and We Didn't Start the Fire, as well as Don Henley's The Heart of the Matter- among others. But my favorite "sermon song" of the period was Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down.  

While I don't claim to know how TP feels about Jesus, or about faith in general, I do know that this is an incredibly spiritual song.  Or at least it is to me.  Check out the opening lyrics:

Well I won't back down, no I won't back down

You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won't back down

That is the kind of faith I have always prayed for- the kind that stands firm in the face of adversity. The chorus reminds us that while it is possible to stand our ground, "there ain't no easy way out."  And if you listen closely the second verse speaks even more clearly as to how we have such faith.  Again, read carefully...

Well I know what's right, I got just one light
In a world that keeps on pushing me around
But I'll stand my ground, and I won't back down

In a world that asks us to deny Jesus every day, do we realize that we too have just ONE LIGHT?  We may get shoved.  We may be persecuted.  We may feel totally out of step with society.  Our friends may find us to be a little strange.  No one ever said following Jesus was easy.  But it can be done.  We must look the world straight in the eye and repeat after TP- I won't back down.  

Just a word about he video.  Not only does it feature TP, but also Ringo Starr and the late George Harrison of The Beatles, as well as Jeff Lynne, the former lead singer of ELO.  Enjoy. 

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Grace Spot

In my 28 years as a youth pastor I remember countless times when I wished I knew someone who was totally disconnected from my church whom I could talk to about the issues and challenges of ministry.  Someone who could listen without prejudice.  Someone whom I could really vent to- maybe even yell at a bit.  Someone who would pray for me, my ministry, my family, my programs and my events on a daily basis.  Someone who could offer me encouragement when I was faced with tough times and difficult decisions.  I far too often didn't have that person in my life.  And that's not a good thing...

God has laid it on my heart to remain in ministry with the students and adults who have been such a huge part of my life for so long.  He is calling me to make myself available to be that person in the lives of the "friends in faith" I have been making on Twitter over the past few years.  If my experience and encouragement can be of a support to you, then please feel free to call on me.  If there are things that I can pray about on your behalf, just let me know. I want to be here to serve you in the name of Jesus.  There will be no condemnation or judgement.  This is The Grace Spot- a place where all are welcome to come for mercy, love and forgiveness.  Feel free to e-mail me at or to contact me through Twitter.  In the past 6 years I have been shown grace and forgiveness is more ways than it is possible to count.  It's time to pay God's love forward in anyway possible.  God bless!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Creeping Evil of Starbucks

Yesterday was a tragic day for those who treasure the wonder of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  The Main Street Bakery, long a fixture on Main Street USA, closed it's doors for the final time.  This thriving business which produced so many of the wonderful smells associated with that great walk down Main Street is a victim of corporate synergy and greed.  The Main Street Bakery is being replaced with a Starbucks.  It's the end of Walt Disney World as we know it...

I am not a Starbucks fan, but then again I am not much of a coffee drinker.  I am not opposed to progress, nor am I someone who always thinks the past was better than the future.  But I do have major problems with this particular change. They are putting Starbucks all over WDW, and to be honest putting them anywhere else in the parks doesn't bother me too much.  Main Street USA is one of the signature locations in all of WDW.  When you walk in through the tunnel and reach the MK, you are transported back to a much simpler era of American history.  The quaint barber shop, complete with barber shop quartet.  The old movie theater. The candy store.  And the incredible treats and aromas of the bakery.  Main Street sets the mood for the entire park with its theme and it ambiance. And now the bakery is gone, to be replaced by a Starbucks.  Starbucks may be a fixture in our modern world, but it is totally and completely out of place on Main Street. We are promised they will continue to serve some of he goodies from the bakery, but that is really beside the point.  I never ate there very often anyway.  The point is that there will be a Starbucks on Main Street USA, and that is just not right. It doesn't fit.  And I am very unhappy. Giant corporations are now doing to the wonderful make-believe world of Disney what they have already done to our real world- displacing small businesses and mom & pop shops with their one size fits all monopolies.  It just feels wrong.

As I lamented this occasion yesterday, I was reminded that this is not the first time Starbucks has done this to me.  In the 1990s I took youth groups to New York City nearly every year, and we stayed at the Milford Plaza Hotel on 45th and 8th.  Up half a block and across 45th was a little place called Oh-La-La (see picture). They had muffins, bagels and scones, as well as a variety of coffees.  But none of that really mattered, for Oh-La-La had the best hot chocolate in the history of the world!  Every morning I would arise before the group and go get a large hot chocolate. And every morning I would go back with the group and get another one!  It was simply amazing. So imagine my dismay in 2003 when I arrived in NYC only to discover that Oh-La-La has become a Starbucks.  I was devastated. I went in once- just to ask if perhaps Oh-La-La had moved, but it had simply been bought out.  The creeping evil of Starbucks had invaded the Broadway district. And now it has come to Walt Disney World...

My problem is not really with Starbucks.  It is that we are losing far too many people, places and things in our world that are unique. That have their own personalities and offer something different.  And in my humble opinion, we need to hold on to the uniqueness. A walk down Main Street USA is supposed to be a stroll through early 20th century America.  I am just not sure how I can maintain that illusion with a grande skinny mocha non-fat latte from 21st century Seattle.  I am sure I (and millions of others) will adjust. I am just not certain that I want to.  For today, just let me be a grumpy old man.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Shouts Outs: All Kissimmee Edition!

Welcome to the all Kissimmee edition of my Saturday Shout Outs!  I am sorry to leave out my many other friends this time around, but those of us who are alumni of FUMC-K 2994-2000 have a reunion to get busy with and some big news to announce. So let's get busy!!!

  • It is time to get SERIOUS about our upcoming reunion!  More planning still needs to be done, but here is the general outline of the big weekend coming April 20-21, 2013! If enough people are interested there were be a family picnic at noon somewhere on the Lake Toho lakefront- bring your own lunch.  There will definitely be an "adults only" dinner on Saturday night; the place and details are TBD, but it will be somewhere in Kissimmee.  Then Sunday morning anyone who can and wishes to will attend worship at FUMC-K together. Right now I need everyone to help get the word out and contact anyone who may be interested to let them know this is coming soon!  Teresa Reep Tysinger (who already has her plane ticket in from Dallas for the event!) will be getting out a Facebook invite soon that will let you make a "reservation" so we can get a head count.  Or you can all or text me at 813-919-3755 with questions or ideas or just to say "YES!" No matter who shows up it will be a great weekend. But it will much better if YOU are there... 
  • Lauren Carr Cacciatore and her hubby Brad welcomed Kaley Lauren to the world on January 3, 2013! She was a bit early, but mom and baby are doing well!  Kaley will be in the NICU a bit longer, but will be headed home to her family soon.  Congratulations, Lauren and Brad- and here's hoping Kaley LOVES Kraft mac and cheese just like her mommy!!!
  • Cyndi Reep Browning is moving to Alabama!  Her husband Josh has already transferred down for a new job, and Cyndi and Grayson will be joining them once their house sells in NC.  They will be living very close to Ben and Sharon Reep, her parents.  We are praying for them and wishing them all the best in this new adventure!
  • Got a comment on one of my older posts about one of our mission trips this week from our old friends in Spanish Wells, the Bahamas! If you were part of one of those mission teams then you will remember the Pinders!  Here's the comment: Hey my name is Lance Pinder from Spanish Wells and my wife is Opal Pinder. We hosted some of you guys in our home.We had a great home. We also bought a group to Kissimmee to visit with your group. Would love to reconnect. I am on Facebook Lance Pinder and my email address is It never ceases to amaze me the impact our little ministry had all over the world!  Give Lance a shout if you have as many fond memories of SW as I do!
  • A little poll for you- what was your favorite youth trip you ever participated in?
  • Also heard this past week from Jason Ashcraft.  Jason moved away from Kissimmee before I arrived in 1994, but came back that summer to join us on the exciting misadventure that was the Mountaintop Mission Trip. Jason had discovered this blog through Brook Teoli Phelps, and he has a blog himself.  Check out  and see what Jason is up to!  Any Mountaintop survivor deserves our support!
So that's it for today!  I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you a joyous and happy 2013. May it be full of God's richest blessings.  Take care- and spread the word!  The reunion is coming!
Because of Jesus,

Friday, January 11, 2013

SPAM Hunting

I grew up in North Carolina, but for the most part I was a city boy.  I never farmed tobacco or cotton, never raised chickens and almost never went hunting.  For a few Thanksgiving mornings my Dad and I would go squirrel hunting in the woods down around Coleridge in rural Randolph County- with a bow and arrow.  Since neither of us were very accomplished bowmen, those squirrels were the safest animals in the woods.  Neither of us never owned a gun in our lives, so that was the only hunting we ever did. Until...

Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s a group of my friends discovered SPAM hunting.  This was before junk email became spam, back when SPAM was SPAM-  processed meat in a can that could be fried, covered in barbecue sauce or eaten straight from the can.  We always wondered where you mild find the wild SPAM animals that made up this glorious food, so one weekend we decided to go SPAM hunting. Alan (The Flash) Brown had access to a large wooded area (again in Randolph County) and some guns, and a group of us decided to try our hand at hunting the wild beasts.  Seeing (of course) as there is no such thing as a SPAM animal, we decided to create our own.  We hung targets from trees and placed them in bushes.  But these were no ordinary targets. We used old 8-track tapes and albums that we truly hated, as well as old ceramics from our days at Quaker Lake Camp.  I specifically remember a LaBelle album and a Roberta Flack 8-track that were blown to pieces.  At one point we also hunted leftover Halloween jack-o-lanterns.  Whatever we shot at, when we managed to hit them with Alan's 22 rifle or his shotguns, we blew the things to bits.  SPAM was flying everywhere, and we loved it!  We did this on several occasions over the years, and never once was an actual SPAM (or anything else!) harmed as we hunted together.  Those were some great times.

Over the years SPAM continued to play an important role in my life.  One of the youth ministries I served had a food drive for the homeless in which we collected around 700 cans of SPAM to distribute.  I gave away SPAM as a door prize on occasion at youth group.  And in 2002 a mission team from our ministry at Wesley Memorial UMC worked in Washington, DC, as part of the Center for Student Missions. One of the summer inters that year was a young man named Justin Hormel. That's right- Hormel.  His forefathers were the inventors of SPAM. He even had a SPAM t-shirt.  Life has a way of coming full circle, huh?

So why am I sharing all of this today?  Am I the new spokesperson for SPAM, or am I just completely out of things to write about?  Or maybe it is just that guns have been on my mind lately, and I am putting off writing the serious post that needs to be written.  Whatever the case, I encourage you to pick up some SPAM.  Fry it up and slap it on a sandwich.  Only then can you you really appreciate why we wanted to shoot the little critters. And never another living thing...

Because of Jesus,

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Prayer for Spiritual Growth

Ephesians 3:14-20  (NLT)

14 When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, 15 the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. 16 I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.17 Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. 18 And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. 19 May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
20 Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.

Do you understand what this means?  It means that God can do anything.  It means that God uses us to accomplish His will.  And it means that he WILL use us to do far more than we can imagine- if we will just let Jesus take root in our hearts.  God wants us to pray big honkin' prayers and to dream big honkin' dreams.  Check out verse 20.  And get busy living the abundant life through Jesus Christ!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Magical Mystery Tour

Butch & Sundance

I have already told you the story of our first FUMC-K Mystery Weekend (see Live To Tell), a ridiculously crazy 1996 trip to Myrtle Beach, SC.  In 1998 Jerry Hanbery and I (see picture) decided to do it again.  This time we would replace the wackiness of 18 hours in a van with a more creative approach.   This time it would be a middle school only adventure, and our theme would be "Crazy Times."  And this time, Jerry and I had a serious plan...

We loaded up the vans at 7 PM on Friday, July 31st and hit the road.  This time there were no leaks;  no one on the two vans had any idea where we were going.  We headed north on the Florida Turnpike, and the kids were buzzing about where they thought we might be headed.  We then turned north on I-75, headed towards Ocala.  I was driving the always-iffy blue van, and I had the lead.  The blue van's issues played an important part in our plan.  About 4 miles south of Ocala, I "noticed" that the van seemed to be running hot.  I pulled off the side of the road and Jerry followed me, getting out of the white van to come assist me as I checked under the hood.  We had taped a baggie of water under the hood, and when I poured it on the engine (out of sight of the youth) steam went everywhere.  Jerry and I did some serious moaning and complaining about the "stupid blue van" and then returned to our vans, telling the students that the van was over-heating and that we were going to go ahead and stop for the night so we could try and get it fixed.  We stopped at several motels and I went in to see if they had any rooms (I had a great time telling the front desk clerks what we were doing so the youth could see me having conversations with them), only to return and tell the group there was no vacancy.  The youth were now getting a little nervous.  We finally found rooms at a Super 8 Motel (where, unknown to the youth, we had reservations!) and settled in for the night.  I held a meeting at which I informed the kids that I was going to try to get the van fixed, but that I did not know what the following day would hold.  We might just have to stay in Ocala. I drove off to get the "van fixed" while they enjoyed the pool.  I was not back when Jerry sent them to bed.  They went to bed grumpy.  It was perfect...

The following morning we woke everyone up early and told them to get ready, the van was fixed and we were leaving!  We hurried them, half-asleep, onto the vans and hit the road.  We were hoping that they would be too groggy to notice that we were now heading south on I-75.  And for a while, they were.  Slowly but surely, they begin to notice something had changed.  We stopped at a Burger King for breakfast, and the questions began in earnest.  We got back on the road, and finally some of the youth began to guess our final destination- Busch Gardens in Tampa.  And then- as if a fog was lifting- they began to realize that the entire "breakdown" the night before had all been planned.  We had fooled them completely, and they could not believe it- and a few were not real happy about it.  Jerry and I were giddy- we thought it was one of the best things we had ever done!  We went on to have a great day at the park, and a wonderful weekend, including a great time of worship on Sunday morning.  We wanted to make it memorable, and we had.  It was just one more time when a wild and crazy idea helped some students discover the presence of Jesus in their lives.

I found out a few years later that there were a couple of students on that trip who NEVER got the message that the entire first night had been staged.  I found out when one of them asked me, "Where were we going to go on that Mid-High Mystery Trip before the van broke down?"  And the Oscar goes to Jerry Hanbery and Carl Jones...  Have a blessed weekend everyone!

Because of Jesus,