Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jesus Is My Morning Sun!

"On the first day of the week 
Mary came the grave to seek (in sorrow)
Jesus met her by the way
on that first Resurrection Day!"

James Ward's celebratory song Morning Sun expresses so well the relief, exuberance and sheer joy that the friends and followers of Jesus must have felt that first Easter. It is my prayer that all of you feel that same sense of the presence of the living Christ today!  HE IS RISEN!!!  HE IS RISEN INDEED!!!  Happy Easter, dear friends!

Morning Sun  - James Ward

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Day of Waiting

His friends took the crucified Jesus and laid him in a borrowed tomb.  Well, some of his friends.  Others were in hiding.  Some of them clung to the hope that Jesus was not really dead, while others suddenly doubted every thing he had ever told them.  The disciples gathered to figure out what to do next. I would imagine that they sat around and told stories of Jesus.  They wondered what it had all been for.  It was clear there would be no political revolution.  It must have seemed obvious to them that they would soon return to the same powerless lives they had been living before they heard the words, "Follow me."  There was no doubt much discussion about what Jesus really meant when he said he was come back in three days.  They didn't realize that when he said, "It is finished" from the cross he didn't mean his life, he meant his mission.  There would be no more gap between God and man.  His work was done.  As usual, they were slow to get what Jesus meant, and certainly Thomas was not the only one who doubted.  But mostly, on that second day so many years ago, they waited. To be arrested, to discover truth, to learn what was next.  But they waited.

And today we wait- but it's totally different.  We wait with the full knowledge that tomorrow we will celebrate the single greatest event in the history of our world.  We wait knowing that Jesus is alive, that he took our sins, conquered death and rose to walk among the living once again.  So while the disciples waited in a room filled with despair and doubt, we wait with party hats on.  We already know what tomorrow holds.  So don't hold back.  In fact, don't even feel like you have to wait.  Go ahead and jump the gun and start celebrating right now.  The game has already been played, and ladies and gentlemen we have a winner.  "Death is ended; it's swallowed up in victory!"  God wins!  Jesus lives!  Let the celebration begin!!!

He Is Risen!!!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Peter's Denial

Mark 14:66-72 (The Message)

While all this was going on, Peter was down in the courtyard. One of the Chief Priest's servant girls came in and, seeing Peter warming himself there, looked hard at him and said, "You were with the Nazarene, Jesus."
He denied it: "I don't know what you're talking about." He went out on the porch. A rooster crowed.
The girl spotted him and began telling the people standing around, "He's one of them." He denied it again.
After a little while, the bystanders brought it up again. "You've got to be one of them. You've got 'Galilean' written all over you."  Now Peter got really nervous and swore, "I never laid eyes on this man you're talking about." Just then the rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered how Jesus had said, "Before a rooster crows twice, you'll deny me three times." He collapsed in tears. 

Today's message is simple.  As we approach Good Friday, we all have to deal with the ways we have denied Jesus.  We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, often turn away when things get tough.  Yet Peter's confession that Jesus was the Messiah is the rock upon which our faith is built.  No matter our denials or lack of faith at points in our life, Jesus can and will use us to do amazing things if we will simply open our hearts to Him.   The question is not whether or not Jesus can take the mess of our lives and turn it into something glorious; the question is will we be WIDE OPEN to the grace and love of Jesus and what He wants to do with our lives.  It's a query I plan to answer before the rooster crows...

Because of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

7 Tips For Student Ministry Trips

Me napping in Nashville- 1999 Mission Trip
Trips were always among my favorite things about being in student ministry, and I led a bunch of them over my 28 years of service- by my best estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 100!  There were more than a dozen trips to NYC; nearly 20 trips to Myrtle Beach; 10 or so ski trips; international trips to Mexico and the Bahamas; and various trips to DC, Nashville, Chicago, Spartanburg, Walt Disney World and Dungannon, VA.  There were also retreats, concerts and Night of Joy/Rock the Universe, as well as various day trips.  We traveled a lot, and my former students tell me those trips were among the best things they have ever experienced.  Over those years I compiled a lot of miles in vans and learned a lot of tips to help keep me sane!  Today I share 7 of my worst kept secrets with you.  Not included is the important but obvious tip, "Never pass up an opportunity to take a nap!"  I hope you enjoy this list...

1)  Know Your Purpose - Every trip should have a main purpose; if not, I'm not sure why you would be taking it.  And whatever that main purpose is, build the trip around it.  Mission trips are obvious, but most every other trip you need to advertise and schedule to fit your purpose.  When we went to Myrtle Beach, our purpose was fellowship, and we said so.  It would have been unfair and purpose-defeating to schedule 6 hours of study or service each day.  But there was nothing wrong with a house meeting, devo and worship at the end of each day to remind them why our group exists in the first place- that was a part of the fellowship.  Don't try to pull a bait & switch on your students.  Know your purpose.
Me expressing my expectations at
Myrtle Beach, 2004
2)  Express Expectations - I have known some excellent, effective youth pastors who never took a trip without passing out a 3 page list of rules for the event.  That was never my style.  Instead, I was a big believer in shared expectations.  I would always sit my groups down on the first night and tell them what a privilege it was to be on that particular trip.  I would remind them that they were representing their church, and that the name was on the side of the van.  I would encourage them to remember that they were representing Jesus, and that their actions reflected on our Savior.  And finally, I would share with them the knowledge that their behavior would determine whether future groups would ever get to enjoy the hotel, campground, restaurant or conference center that they were currently enjoying.  I am a firm believer that expecting teenagers to do the right thing is a far better deterrent than giving them a list of things you think they will do wrong.
3)  Music - If you are taking a van, make sure you have a system in place for controlling the music the driver has to listen to.  In the old days, the co-pilot (usually another adult) controlled the radio.  Once cassette players and then CD players became a factor, I always had a rule that anyone could pass up music to be played, but they were limited to 3 songs.  This meant if they passed up something awful (like, for instance, rap!) we knew it would be over fairly quickly.  Now, with I-pods, I think it is important to schedule some "group music" time, letting kids pass up their MP3 players and using the 3 song rule.  Every trip needs a soundtrack.  In any case, make sure you bring plenty of music you like so you can educate them in the good stuff.  And always- ALWAYS! - begin a trip with Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.  Don't ask why.  Just do it!
Sometimes culture is overrated...
4)  Cultural Experiences - In my experience, many of the students I worked with over the years were traveling with me to places they would have never gotten to visit without our ministry.  It is important to remember that fact, and to make sure the kids get a cultural education while there.  Eat at local restaurants, not fast food chains.  Visit parts of the city where they will encounter the poor and homeless and feel a little threatened.  Take time to see the sights they have read about and studied but never been to.  Minister to the whole person, and the things you teach them about faith will seem much more relevant and real.
5)  Outside the Lines - This is a bit controversial, and is one you can only do if you have already built great relationships with the students you serve- but it is soooo worth it!  Take your group and intentionally do something you previously told them not to do.  Break a rule!  For instance, at the beach we always said don't go in the ocean after dark.  Take them all swimming at midnight.  In New York we would sometimes hike to Times Square at 2 AM, or turn left coming out of the Milford Plaza (a real no-no!) just so they could see some real NYC night life.  Extend curfew on the last night of a retreat and order pizza.  Don't be reckless, but show them you know how to get a little crazy.  And make sure everyone is invited to join in.  These types of things will change the way they see you and provide your group with stories they will never forget.
They don't seem to be suffering too much at
the seafood buffet!
6)  Do Something Just For You  - Not a big deal on a weekend trip, but if you're going to be gone for a while you need to schedule something just for you.  When we would go to Myrtle Beach, for example, I would always plan a group meal at one of the all-you-can-eat Calabash style seafood buffets.  I didn't care if the youth liked seafood or not.  That was my reward for sleeping in a house with 45 teenagers for a week.  If your spouse travels with you, plan a time for just the two of you to get away, and maybe take a carriage ride through Central Park.  Youth trips should be all about the students for the most part, but doing something for yourself helps preserve your sanity- and that's good for your youth too!
7)  Be Relentless/The Trust Factor  - A mom from one of my groups, who took several trips with us a chaperon, once wrote that she was amazed at the trust I gave my students.  She was also amazed at the way they responded to being trusted and loved.  That was very cool to hear.  She then went on to write about the other part of the story, which is that "with Carl, there is no unplanned moment.  The opportunities for mischief are few and far between."  Both of these things are true.  I trusted them unless one of them they showed me they didn't deserve it, and I always kept them busy.  Even during free times I kept them focused on The Next Big Thing.  The one catch to this theory is that you have to match their energy and enthusiasm, because you have to model what you want them to do.  

Melbourne Beach, 1996.  Every group photo
captures a unique moment in our lives.  
So why do I think these suggestions are worth sharing?  Because in 28 years of youth ministry, I cannot think of a single trip I look back on and wish we had not taken. I never sent a student home from a trip- and only 1 time did I even think about it.  We never went anyplace that didn't invite us to return.  In fact, my groups were allowed to rent the fabulous Betsy B for years after the realty company quit renting it to youth groups.  The Milford Plaza Hotel in NYC once went 10 years without ever raising our room rates.  We were loved everywhere we went.  And perhaps most importantly, we always found a way to get done whatever it was we went to do, and to do it in the name of Jesus.  Did we have issues and misadventures?  Absolutely!  But so does life.  Trips can be the lifeblood of the youth group experience.  I hope these tips will help your next trip be as sensational as the hundreds I was blessed to enjoy.

Because of Jesus,

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Feels Good To Be Forgiven"

"Jesus proved it and I have found,
you can't keep a good man down!
Oh, Oh...feels good to be forgiven!"

Welcome to Obscure Music Monday #3!  This ongoing series seeks to expose my readers to classic Christian music that you may have forgotten, or (more likely) never knew about in the first place!  Today I am happy to feature Eddie Degarmo and his classic solo hit, Feels Good To Be Forgiven.

Dana Key and Eddie Degarmo were pioneers of Christian rock music.  They began recording in 1978 and for over two decades recorded and toured together.  I have to admit to not being much of a D & K fan; their lyrics were often a bit heavy handed for my taste.  But they were quite popular in the early to mid 80's, with songs like Destined To Win, Six, Six, Six and Boycott Hell.  In fact, Six, Six, Six was the first Christian music video I ever remember seeing on MTV.  The video was considered tooo graphic and violent and was actually banned for a period of time.  Imagine that...  Eddie and Dana (who passed away in 2010) would go on to make an enormous contribution to Christian music in the 90's with the founding of Forefront Records- the company that gave us (among others) dc Talk and Audio Adrenaline. In the late 80's they each recorded their own solo projects, and I fell in love with Eddie's 1988 song Feels Good To Be Forgiven. It was bluesy, soulful, and had a message we can all relate to.  Who among us doesn't need forgiveness- from our families, our friends and our God?  And oh by the way- it does feel good to be forgiven, doesn't it?

As we count down the days to Good Friday, it is important to remember that Jesus' trip to Golgotha was not about betrayal or governments or faulty Jewish leadership.  It was about mission.  Jesus came to earth to die...for US.  Even thought we didn't deserve it and we don't deserve and we never will earn it, Jesus gave us grace, taking the sins of the world upon his back on the cross. He conquered our sin, and three days later he would conquer death as well.  Remember that this week.  And remember that Jesus died for YOU, too.  Forgiveness is yours. And it feels good to be forgiven!  "And if you're not sure you can sing along, look down deep 'cause something's very wrong..."  Christ is risen- He is risen indeed!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Happy Palm Sunday everyone!  Holy Week is a week full of highs and lows, a week that helps us to remember events that changed the world and changed our lives.  Palm Sunday is a day that, to me, contains the full range of emotions.  We read the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem, of the multitudes waving the palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!" and "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!"  The Pharisees tell Jesus to quiet the crowd, and He rebukes them by saying that if His followers keep quiet, "even the stones will cry out."  This is the Christ at His most popular.  This is Jesus Christ, Superstar.  And we celebrate in many of our churches by having the children wave palm branches as we sing songs of celebration.  We, like the original Christ-followers, believe!  And we shout out His name and would follow Him anywhere.

Yet we know what is coming.  No matter how great our celebration is today, we know that this week holds stories of betrayal, denial and death.  We know that these same people who shouted "Hosanna!" will in a few short days be screaming "Crucify Him!"   We know that on Good Friday the world will turn very black, and all the hope of Palm Sunday will seem to be lost.  And just when things seem to be darkest, we know there is the great light of the resurrection still to come.  This is the advantage we have over those early disciples.  We KNOW how it ends.  We are a Resurrection People!

So today, the question is this:  Will we live our lives like the early believers, shouting "Hosanna!" one day and denying Jesus the next?  It is one thing to sin; we all sin.  It is another thing to live our lives ashamed of the One who saves us from that sin.  This week I encourage you to re-write the story of Holy Week in your lives.  Let there be no denial or betrayal.  Show the world that Jesus is alive, and that He is now and forever your LORD and Savior.  Living for Jesus in the here and now is certainly something to scream "Hosanna!" about!  I hope you all have a blessed day!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Remembering Black Thursday

I have mentioned several times on this blog that taking week long trips with youth is in many ways like a miniature version of MTV's The Real World.  Living together for a week or so presents many challenges.  If you ever watched the show, you know that at some point many of the relationships start to unravel and fall apart.  Youth trips are no different.

You see, it doesn't matter how much you love each other or love Jesus, a week of someone never picking up their dirty underwear, leaving wet swim suits on your bed or not flushing the toilet can start to wear on you.  The anger inside you starts to build, but you hold it in.  Then, suddenly (and usually completely unexpected by the person in question) you lose it.  You throw the wet suit at them; their dirty underwear ends up in the ocean; or you just start screaming.  On our trips, we could usually predict about when these things would happen.  We called it Black Thursday.

As a youth pastor I could always see the storm clouds gathering, I just didn't know where the lightning would strike!  I learned, however, that there was always one place to look first- middle school girls.  Many a Black Thursday (and to be honest, pretty much every youth group trip trauma!) began because a room full of 12-14 year old girls just couldn't take each other anymore.  It might be one of the things I listed above; more often, it was all about one of two issues.  Either one girl was jealous that two of the girls were spending more time with each other than with her, or it was about a boy.  Someone had a crush on a boy, but the boy liked someone else in the room, or another of the girls had been flirting with him- it could be any number of things.  But it usually led to screaming, yelling, name calling and the occasional punch.  It was never pretty.

As the years went by, I began to plan for Black Thursday.  We would talk about it all week.  Our Wednesday devotions would be about avoiding it.  One year I even staged a fight between two high school guys  to help relieve the tension.  But still-  Black Thursday almost always came. In fact, my son Will told me last week that on his recent band trip to DC they had their own Black Thursday - even though they didn't leave Tampa until Thursday afternoon!  

The point today is this; youth groups are full of humans.  No one on those trips was perfect, and our flaws often stood out for all to see when placed in a situation where we were living together.  A great life lesson was learned on those trips if any of our students began to understand what it means to offer grace and forgiveness to someone who, quite frankly, you just can't stand at the moment.  Remember, Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for those who wish evil on you.  My guess is He said that on a Thursday...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Survive & Advance

Coach V.
On Monday I sat down to eat lunch and watch the new ESPN 30 for 30 film that I had recorded Sunday night- Survive and Advance! This was a TV event that I had been looking forward to for some time, and I only recorded it because it was on at the same time as The Good Wife - and I value my life so I didn't dare interrupt the one show a week my wife absolutely MUST see!  The film was the story of the the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack men's basketball team and their improbable, miraculous run to the national championship.  The film also told the story of the relationships between the players and the late, great Jim Valvano, who was their coach.  As mentioned, I had been looking forward to this 30th anniversary celebration of this accomplishment for quite a while, and my expectations were high.  It did not disappoint.  On a scale of 1-5 stars. I give it 6...

The movie was like a giant flashback for me in so many ways.  Many of you know that I am and always have been a fan of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.  UNC had played for the national championship in 1981 and won it in 1982 on a shot by a somewhat unknown freshman named Michael Jordan. Duke was just starting to rebuild its program under some guy (Coach K) whose name no one could pronounce, so State was our number one in-state rival.  This was an amazing era for ACC basketball.  Even the best players stayed in college for 3 or 4 years. There was no shot clock or 3 point basket (except in the ACC where it was an experiment) and strategy was every bit as important as talent- and the ACC had the best coaches anywhere. In the film, Coach K  says that ACC basketball in the 1980's is the best college basketball has ever been- anytime or any place. Maryland was always loaded. Clemson was coming on strong, and Wake Forest had a very good team most years.  And Virginia- well Virginia had Ralph Sampson, who was simply the most dominant player in the country.  NC State was, for most of 1983, the fourth or fifth best team in the ACC.

The film reminded me of what a lost cause the Wolfpack season seemed to be as the ACC Tournament began in Atlanta. They had to win the whole thing to make the NCAA tourney, and they beat Wake Forest, Carolina and Virginia to do just that. Then they moved on through the early rounds of the NCAA. Pepperdine had them beat- to the point that the TV announcers lamented Sidney Lowe's "final game in a Wolfpack uniform" when he fouled out -, but the "Cardiac Pack" won in overtime.  UNLV was a huge favorite, but they blew a big lead and lost when Thurl Bailey tipped in a last second shot. The Pack was a team of destiny.  They seemed to win every game with some sort of miraculous finish or unorthodox method, and Jimmy V. was always right in the middle of it.  They sent people to the free throw line- on purpose- in tie games to insure they got the last shot at winning (There was no double bonus in 1983; all non-shooting fouls were 1 and 1).  They beat Virginia twice by playing a triangle and two defense and guarding Sampson with BOTH of the two guys playing man to man.  And everything they tried worked. By the time they played Houston for the championship, they were national darlings. But no one gave them a chance against Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and the dunking machine that was mighty Phi Slamma Jamma.  Jim teased the media that State had no chance; that they would hold the ball.  His famous quote was that "if we win the opening tip, we may not shoot until Tuesday morning" - and it was a Monday night game. Instead, they took it right to the Cougars.  When they won on the Lorenzo Charles miracle dunk, it only seemed fitting.  I watched the game in the home of my dear friend Beth McGalliard, whose husband Bob (and his father) were in Albuquerque that night. It was just amazing. The image of Coach V. running around the court looking for someone to hug is one that has been with me for 30 years now.  It was one of the transcendent moments in sports history.

I had read Jim Valvano's brilliant book They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract...and Then They Declared Me Dead! I had read so many stories and seen so many specials on that team.  There was very little in the film that was new to me.  But there was one thing that really stuck out.  Dereck Whittenburg told a story of how early on in Jimmy V's tenure at State he held a practice in which all the team did was practice cutting down the nets like they had won a championship.  Coach V. had a dream. A big dream. And he believed that if his players learned to dream along with him - and to love each other- that someday that dream would come true.  In his third year in Raleigh, the impossible dream came true. And when it came down to cut down the nets, his players knew the drill.  They understood the dream.

The movie also shared the story of Jim Valvano's fight with cancer and his seminal speech at the ESPY Awards just prior to his passing. His words - "Never give up. Don't ever give up..." - had as much to say about his 1983 team as they did about his fight with a killer disease.  Survive and Advance refers to the motto Jim used during that incredible tournament run, but it is a slogan that could apply to every part of each of our lives.  If we hold tight to our dreams, if we love the people God places in our lives with a great passion, and if we face each day with that survive & advance attitude, then there is no limit on what we can achieve.  It is a reminder to dream big dreams and pray big prayers.  I finished the film with some very wet eyes and a very inspired heart.  I recommend it highly.  

Because of Jesus,

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Bible...and Vegetables!

I have watched parts of the History Channel series The Bible, and have been both impressed and unimpressed by what I have seen. I am impressed that such effort has gone into producing a series of shows that tell the basic stories of the Bible.  I am unimpressed at Hebrews with British accents and a musical score that sounds like it was stolen directly from a soap opera.  But mostly I am reminded that so many of the great stories of scripture have already been told in a far superior way- by animated vegetables!

The earliest episodes of the Veggietales were almost all a re-imagining of classic Bible stories.  I used their unique combination of humor and music to teach stories both common and little-known to my youth groups back in the day.  Stories about David & Goliath (Dave and the Giant Pickle), Joshua and the battle of Jericho (Josh & the Big Wall), they 3 guys in the fiery furnace (Rack, Shack and Benny), Queen Esther (Esther...the Girl Who Became Queen), Joseph and his dreamcoat (The Ballad of Little Joe) and so many others were told with great creativity and insight by the folks from Big Ideas.  There was even a feature film about Jonah. It may not makes sense to you that a youth pastor learned more about great biblical tales from Monty Python loving French Peas dumping slurpees on Joshua from the top of the wall of Jericho, or from Ninevites slapping each other with fish- but I did. And so did the students I worked with.  Veggietales were like classic Bugs Bunny or Animaniacs- they worked on different levels for different age groups.  And they still do today.

So while I am thrilled that millions of people are watching The Bible this month as Easter approaches, you will forgive me if I break out my old VHS copies of the Veggies and relive the great stories of scripture in a more unique- and distinctly more "Carl"- fashion.  But here is the key to this entire conversation. If you want to know the Bible, read the BOOK- don't wait for the movie!  Have a blessed week, my friends!  And to start you off right, here's little taste of Jonah...

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Shout Outs!

Greetings friends and neighbors, and welcome to the latest edition of my Saturday Shout Outs!  2013 seems to be flying by- perhaps because I am so excited about upcoming reunion of the Kissimmee Krew on April 20th!  But whatever the reason, it's hard to believe already mid-March.  So let me wish you a happy St. Patrick's Day (a day early!) and get on with the shouting!  Here we go...

  • Congratulations to Matt Lupfer and Kristin Landry Lupfer (both FUMC-K alumni) who announced recently that they are expecting their first child! I am certain that Uncle Jacob, Aunt Lindsey and the rest of the extended family are excited beyond words.  Our prayers are with Matt & Kristen as they take on this new adventure.
  • My dear friend and champion email writer Susan McBane Tuggle (Quaker Lake) is at the beach this weekend, and I am not.  So this is a shout AT, not a shout OUT...  Love you, Boom Boom, and I hope it is a great weekend!
  • The ACC men's basketball tournament is going on in Greensboro this week- or as it is known to many North Carolinians, HOLY WEEK!  I was telling my friend Denise May Langley the other night that while I miss the excitement of being in Greensboro for the tourney, I don't miss 4 days of not being able to get a table in a restaurant!  Most of you know I am a huge UNC Tar Heel fan, and I am glad they destroyed Florida State last night.  But I have to be honest- before the tournament began I picked NC State to win the whole thing.  I think it is because it's the 20th anniversary of the 1983 national championship and I am getting old and sentimental.  So to my many friends who are big Wolfpack supporters - people like Jamie Robinson (Springfield), Todd Farlow (Springfield), Beth McGalliard (New Garden), Jeff Byrd (NCYM), Tammy Foster (New Garden) and many more - I apologize.  My picking them is a certain kiss of death!
  • Meanwhile, another glorious event was taking place in Greensboro last night.  The mighty Dook Blue Devils were upset by the Maryland Turtles.  How embarrassing!  While I know this was very painful for good friends like Jeremy & Laura Godwin (Springfield), Butch Moran (Springfield), Karen Chester (Springfield), Robert Damron (Twitter) and Jennifer Wood Jones (Springfield), it also was a bit painful for me.  You see I twisted my ankle while doing my CELEBRATION DANCE after the game...  I must also give props to Eric Tysinger, husband of Teresa Reep Tysinger (FUMC-K) and a huge UNC fan, who is working the scoreboard in Greensboro this week.  Despite his distinguished work in theater stage management, I feel certain posting the final score of that Dook loss was a career highlight!  
  • If you were part of the student ministry at FUMC-Kissimmee while I was there, then the time to be making your reservation for the April 20th reunion is NOW!  Visit the Reunion Facebook Page, click events, and RSVP now!
  • My old friend Steve Semmler texted me the other day to ask me who the lead singer was for The Hollies on their big hit, The Air That I Breathe.  I did not know, and Steve mocked me for this.  Sometimes having a reputation as a music trivia expert can bite you in the butt!  By the way definitely was NOT Eric Carmen.  Turns out he was a Raspberry, not a Hollie.  Oops. My bad. :)
  • And finally...tomorrow is Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament, which means it is time to make your picks and fill out those brackets!  Carl Semmler, will we be making our traditional bet?  If you win, Alan Brown pays for dinner, and if I win...he still pays?  Let me know!
That's it for today!  I have a couple of cool shout outs that are not quite ready to be shouted about just yet, so check back later this week. There may be updates!  Have a blessed weekend and remember that Easter is just around the corner.  Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, Conner Dog!

Our beloved Cocker Spaniel, Conner, turns 10 years old today.  That's 70 to you and me- but you would never know it!  He still acts like a pup; he just takes more naps now.  To be honest that is not that different from me! Still, 10 years is a long time to be part of a family.  It's a lot of Beggin' Strips; a lot of walks; a lot of 4 am wake ups howls; a lot of time begging for food; a lot of time growling at Will; and a lot of time just wanting our love and attention.  It's one Christmas tree tackled and a lot of wrapping paper ripped from gifts.  And it is HUNDREDS of squirrels chased!  Will likes to say that Conner is spoiled, because he has his own recliner and occasionally gets his own steak and cheese sub from Subway and his own sausage biscuit from McDonald's.  Will is not wrong.  Conner is family.  And today we will celebrate with him!  Marilyn thinks he may deserve his own Dairy Queen Blizzard to mark the big day.  Conner would never argue with that!

So Happy Birthday, Conner Dog! Thank you for all of the joy and laughter you have brought to our little family.  But was it really necessary to get me up at 4:19 this morning to start the party?  Have a great day and a blessed weekend, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Prayer of Saint Francis

A Lenten devotional in honor of the new Pope, Francis I.

Pray this incredible prayer penned by Saint Francis of Asissi.  Don't just read it; PRAit!  What would it mean for your life to become "an instrument" of God's peace?  What does it mean to know that "in giving we receive?"  Pray for Jesus to enter your life in new and exciting ways.  Pray that you would be WIDE OPEN to being so full of Jesus that this world seems like a foreign place to you. Who can you bring light, peace and joy to today?

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life Together

"When you are weak I will be strong,
 when I fall back won't you pull me along-
For six years (from 1994-2000) the student ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee was my family.  We laughed together, played together, prayed together and cried together. We took amazing trips, had incredible adventures, learned great lessons and survived some huge failures. We lived life together in the name of Jesus, and, in the process, became a community that loved and counted on one another. The years and the miles may have separated us, but that has not made our youth family any less important in our hearts and in our memories.  The fact that 80 or so different folks have been visiting the Reunion Facebook Page on a regular basis since Teresa Reep Tysinger put it up over a month ago is proof of that.

On April 20, 2013 there will be a reunion of that family.  Almost 19 years to the day after Marilyn and I arrived in Kissimmee, we will gather to greet old friends, tell old stories and share our new families with one another.  While there will certainly be important members of our group missing that day, we are anticipating a good crowd and great times.  Old friends like Lisa Kraus Spires, Courtney Moon, Connor Lewis, Carol Kraus, Lauren Carr Cacciatore, Cindy Martin, Angie Whalin Klein, Jerry Hanbery, Stephanie Potter and Kelly Jeck Trace are already officially signed up, and we trust many more will join them! We will once again be sharing life together.

The slideshow below is my love letter to the hundreds of students and adults who made the Kissimmee years such an amazing part of my own journey.  It features over 90 pictures from those years- some of which have not been since since they were on the bulletin board in The Attic.  It also features the great Geoff Moore & the Distance song Life Together- a song we used as our Youth Week theme in 1997 when Geoff and the boys came to play a concert for us. You may remember that we lost a lot of money on that concert.  You may also remember that in our failure we grew.  Life together does that to you. When you share life the way we did, it is not all rainbows and unicorns. Neither is a life spent following Jesus.  When I decided to put this together to help us get excited for the reunion, it seemed to me that this was THE song to tell our story.  As you watch this video, listen to the words.  I can promise you that the pictures on your screen and the lyrics of the song are together for a reason.  They tell the tale of a youth ministry that changed lives.  I have tried to include pictures featuring as many old friends as possible, including a few who are no longer with us.  And one particular 3 picture section is a thank you from me to all of you who have loved me through my own trials and tribulations over the years.  

You will want to pause the show at various points so you can spend more time viewing certain pictures.  That is great- but let me ask a favor of you.  The first time through, just let it play.  Take in the whole story.  Then go back and explore.  It is my hope that this will serve as one more reminder of why we will gather April 20th.  Enjoy this gift, and please let your old friends know it is here.  I love you guys.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thinking About Prayer

Today I offer a reminder in this season of Lent that prayer was important to Jesus, and therefore should be important to us.  Easter is coming. Prepare your heart.

Matthew 6:9-13
And Jesus said "This, then, is how you should pray:"

Jesus gives the disciples this prayer so that there will be no doubt about what prayer is to be and not be.  It is not to call attention to yourself, by praying on street corners or using lots of pious words.  You should pray "like this" (not necessarily this prayer, but like this!) because God already knows what you need before you ask Him. Give praise to God.  Pray that His will be done.  Pray for your needs and the needs of others. There is nothing too large or too small to pray about.  Take everything before the throne of God.

1)  What does "hallowed" mean?  Do you keep the name of God and the name of Jesus full of meaning, or do you use it too casually?
2)  We know we need daily bread.  What else do we really need?  Do you pray for need, or for want?
3)  When we pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, what are we really asking for?  Are we willing to do our part?  It has been said we are God's Plan A for taking Jesus to the people, and there is no Plan B.  Are you praying to be a part of that plan?

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Live To Tell 1996

These survivors LIVED TO TELL!

Creativity is such an important part of student ministry.  As a youth worker you are constantly striving to come up with ideas that have a WOW factor.  You want to keep students a bit off-guard, wondering what you might come up with next.  You are always seeking new ideas, or at least ideas that are new to your group.  Not to sound too much like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but tameness, sameness and lameness are enemies of a successful youth program.  Finding ways to keep students engaged is an ongoing struggle.  You find yourself always pushing the limits of what is acceptable and what is possible, all because they have to show up before you can share Jesus with them.  And every now and then, you cross the line between the creative and the insane!

On August 2nd, 1996, the student ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee went flying over that line.  As part of our summer ministries, we decided to do a Mystery Trip.  Students could sign-up, pay their $35 and have absolutely no idea where they were going.  We would only give parents the information when they arrived at the church on the day of the adventure.  There was a tremendous amount of excitement generated by this new event, and about 25 of us (see group photo at top) prepared to share in the mystery.  The only people who knew where we were going were Jerry Hanbery (my intern) and myself.  We had decided to take the group to Myrtle Beach, SC.  Many of the students had never been, and we were planning a major trip there in the summer of 1997.  A weekend in MB seemed like a wonderful idea for an adventure.  And it was- eventually.

We were planning to leave the church at 7 PM on Friday, August 2nd, but there was an immediate snag in our plans.  We had to wait for someone to finish their participation in a fashion show at the local mall, so we wound up sitting in the mall parking lot until around 8 PM.  During this wait, Kendall Crotty began to pass the word around that we were going to Myrtle Beach.  His mom had ratted us out!  Before we ever began our Mystery Trip, the mystery was solved.  That was the first bummer.  The second bummer was that I had been to MB a hundred times in my life, but never from Kissimmee, FL.  It's a long way.  A very long way.  About 9 hours.  I'll let you do the math, but suffice it to say that we arrived at the Days Inn in MB in the very early hours of Saturday morning.  The last few hours of the van ride were brutal;  I later heard rumors of people (Connor Lewis?) just laying down on the seats, regardless of the fact the seats already had people sitting in them.  I was just trying to stay awake so I could drive.  We arrived, checked in, and went to bed.  It was noon before we were up and about and enjoying the sun and surf.

We had a great weekend.  We played together, ate together, visited the Myrtle Beach Pavilion together and worshiped together.  We spent 18 hours in vans to spend 30 hours at the beach when we lived in Florida; that was the insane part.  But we had wanted a memorable event, one that the kids would talk about for years to come- and we got one!  We had titled the weekend Live To Tell after the Geoff Moore and the Distance song for two reasons.  One, our theme for worship was that our lives should tell the people we meet that we were followers of Jesus.  Secondly, we wanted them to know that this weekend was about survival; that they had lived, and should spread the word that strange and wonderful things were happening in the youth ministry of FUMC-K.  On both counts the weekend was an amazing success.  It is safe to say that in those years Jerry and I were often wrong, but we were seldom boring...

We did another Mystery Trip a couple of years later that was not as insane and was much more dramatic- but that's a story for another day.  Have a blessed weekend, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 7, 2013

You Have To Be There!

Will and his Mom!
My son Will leaves after school this afternoon (but not until after 3 PM; spies will be watching to make sure they don't leave a minute too early!) for a band trip to our nation's capital with about 90 other students and their adult leaders, and he is very excited about the all night bus ride (just kidding) and the great itinerary planned for them while in DC.  But the trip was almost sabotaged by some Hillsborough County School Board member.  In their infinite wisdom, someone denied the request to miss two days of school for the trip, saying they were only allowed one approved day.  So everything had to be re-arranged, almost derailing the trip.  The thought process of some educational administrators never ceases to amaze me.  Someone actually thought- worse yet, actually believed- that being in classrooms 2 days before the start of Spring Break would be more important to the learning process of high school students than time spent in Washington, DC.  Some extra-intelligent administrator with a master's degree in education felt that hours spent in class daydreaming about spending next week at the beach would be more useful to the student's education than being on a tour of the White House (which they will be one of the last groups to do tomorrow thanks to the current "sequestration") or the Capitol building.  Missing a day of Spanish 2 could never be replaced by time spent at the Smithsonian Museums.  One more history lecture could make a bigger difference than participating in the ceremonial "Laying of the Wreath" at Arlington National Cemetery (which they are doing) or visiting the Holocaust Museum, the Vietnam Memorial or Mount Vernon. Since NONE of that makes any sense, I am left to assume that it was calculated that missing one extra day of school would somehow negatively impact the be-all, end-all of education in USAmerica today- the almighty test scores. Thanks to hard work and good leadership, they are still getting to do all of those things, giving up an extra day of their Spring Break so that they can experience the REAL education of seeing DC. But that ridiculous decision could have ruined it all.  You can talk about history, civics and national pride all you want, but nothing educates like actually being part of it all.  We learn so much more through experience than any other teaching method.  I am so glad Will gets to go, because just hearing about life doesn't work. You have to be there!

The same is true when it comes to our faith.  The church often acts like we believe that people can be educated into the presence of God.  We offer so many classes and spend hours debating theology and biblical interpretation. But if we really read those bibles we take classes to be told about, we will notice a trend.  No one is educated into God's presence.  It must be experienced!  Great church leaders like Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley and George Fox were all changed by encountering Jesus, not by reading about him.  Certainly learning helps us to experience the wonders of the almighty, and often prepares us to see God in new ways. But if we "stay in the classroom" of faith, we are missing the point.  Jesus says to "follow me."  To "love one another."  To "feed his sheep."  These are all actions.  The heavily educated church leaders of biblical times were called Pharisees- or the "brood of vipers" as Jesus referred to them. Is that how we want to end up- with lots of knowledge of the law but with no concept of grace in action?  There is an old Quaker saying about going to church.  When someone asks, "When does the service start?" the correct answer is, "When we walk out the front door!"  To discover the Holy Spirit at work in the world you can't just talk about it.  You have to be there!

So by all means, today you should do your daily Bible reading and take time to pray.  You should contemplate the things of God and what He requires of you and your life.  But don't miss an opportunity to get out there and DO in the name of Jesus!  You can encounter God in random acts of kindness and love in whole new ways.  Don't miss out.

Because of Jesus,

Monday, March 4, 2013

Obscure Music Monday

"Death has been swallowed up in victory;
Death, where is your victory?
Where is your sting?" ~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

You all know how much I love music. Some of you know that I am a big fan of a lot of music that much of the world seems to be unaware of- much of which is Christian.  Over the next few Mondays I am going to be sharing some songs with you that are very meaningful to me, even if only to me.  I hope you will enjoy.

You may or may not not know James Ward, a talented musician, singer and songwriter.  But I do.  I can tell you a lot about James. In 1982 at the Youth Specialties convention in Dallas he was one of the featured performers, and he blew me away.  He was a skinny, James Taylor-looking white guy who could sing like Stevie Wonder.  A few years later he became the regular music leader at the YS conventions, and I always loved seeing James on the piano at those events.  He came to Greensboro, NC at my invitation sometime in the late 1980s and did a concert for the NC Yearly Meeting of Friends youth, knocking their socks off.  From that event I can tell you that James loves spiced, steamed shrimp, but gets nervous if you try to buy him ice cream too close to concert time.  In 1991 he did a New Year's Eve concert at Youthquake in Burlington, Vermont, and rang in 1992 with a bang.  His album Good Advice is #15 on my Top 50 CCM Countdown.  His Ain't No Rock was a standard youth group song at several of my stops, and I have performed his classic song Morning Sun at a couple of sunrise services.  In short, I am a fan.

One of the songs on the classic 1985 Good Advice was Death Has Ended.  Last week was a week filled with tragedy and questions for myself and many old friends.  I once said in a sermon that I wonder if God ever tires of hearing the questions "Why me?" or "Why not me?"  Death and illness seem so random, and we all struggle when loved ones meet their earthly demise- especially under tragic circumstances.  But the bottom line from scripture is this- Jesus has already beaten death for us.  Other religions are based on what you DO to make god love you.  Christianity is all about what has been DONE- by Jesus.  This song says that in an amazing way.  Close your eyes (there is no video, the picture never changes), crank up the volume, give it a listen, and don't quit on it halfway through.  It's like an 80s pop song and a rousing church choir anthem had a baby.  I promise you, we are about to have some CHURCH up in here...

"Thanks be unto Jesus, thanks be unto God! He has won the battle through the power of the cross!"  Death will lose.  Satan will lose. Easter is on the way.  AMEN & AMEN!!!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Who's That Man?

Ever wonder what it was like to be with Jesus that last week in Jerusalem?  Before the dinner in Bethany, before the foot-washing, before the Last Supper and before the arrest?  Read the words below. They are lyrics from a song on Rich Mullin's incredible project, The Jesus Record.  They capture many of the emotions that must have been present that week with both the followers and the enemies of Jesus.  At what moment would we have realized that God had come to earth to dwell among us? Or would we, like so many others, have missed the message and turned against him?

Surely God Is With Us   by Beaker and Mark Robertson

Well, who's that man who thinks He's a prophet? 
Well, I wonder if He's got something up His sleeve 
Where's He from? Who is His daddy? 
There's rumors He even thinks Himself a king 
Of a kingdom of paupers 
Simpletons and rogues 
The whores all seem to love Him 
And the drunks propose a toast 

And they say, "Surely God is with us. 
Well, surely God is with us." 
They say, "Surely God is with us today!" 

Who's that man who says He's a preacher? 
Well, He must be, He's disturbing all our peace 
Where's He get off, and what is He hiding 
And every word He says those fools believe 
Who could move a mountain? 
Who would love their enemy? 
Who could rejoice in pain? 
And turn the other cheek? 
And still say, "Surely God is with us, 
Well, surely God is with us," 
Who'll say, "Surely God is with us today, today!" 

They say, "Surely God is with us 
Well, surely God is with us" 
They say, "Surely God is with us" 

Blessed are the poor in spirit 
Heaven belongs to them 
Blessed are those who make peace 
They are God's children 
I Am the Bread of Life, and the Way" 
You hear that Man, believe what He says! 

Tell me, who's that Man, they made Him a prisoner 
They tortured Him and nailed Him to a tree 
Well if He's so bad, who did He threaten? 
Did He deserve to die between two thieves? 
See the scars and touch His wounds 
He's risen flesh and bone 
Now the sinners have become the saints 
And the lost have all come home 

And they say, "Surely God is with us (Surely God is with us) 
Well, surely God is with us," 
They say, "Surely God is with us today!" (Today!) 
They say, "Surely God is with us 
Well, surely God is with us" 
They say, "Surely God is with us today"

Sometimes we try so hard to make Jesus seem safe, normal and predictable that we lose the radical nature of the man and the prophet. When we do that, we cheat the world of the most amazing life ever lived- one that was fully human and fully divine. So many missed out on knowing Jesus all those years ago when he walked the Earth.  Let's not miss him again.  Surely God is with us...and his name shall be called Jesus.

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Praying for Terry

Marilyn, Doyle Craven & Teddy Venables
in NYC- sometime in the 80s
Some weeks I know what I intend to write about every day on this blog, and things go exactly as planned.  Other times, life intercedes.  In some cases, events take place that bring a particular part of my past to the forefront and bring back memories or people that demand to be written about- NOW! This week, with all of the excitement going on about the April reunion of my old youth group from FUMC-Kissimmee, I expected to focus my attention on that group.   The tragic death of Leah Way in North Carolina on Tuesday night changed all of that.  As regular readers know, my thoughts and prayers have been with the Thomas family and the Quaker Lake community.  My post on Thursday about Neal Thomas was widely read by old friends, and a number of them contacted me via email and social media.  It was again a reminder of how close knit that community is, and how deeply my roots are planted in those years. People like Susan McBane Tuggle, David Hobson, Edith Shepherd, Denise May Langley, Steve Semmler, Scott Smith and many others reminded me of what a special place QLC was and is.  I wish I could be with so many of them at the funeral today at Centre Friends Meeting (where my youth ministry career began), but my prayers will have to suffice.

I first heard the news on Wednesday morning from my old friend Leigh Anne Venable via my wife's Facebook.  I later called to thank her for letting us know and to get more information. I had not talked to her in a very long time, and I have been thinking a lot about the Venables since then.  I have written often here about old friends and great influences, but I have written very little about Leigh Anne and her husband Terry. Today seems like the right time to fix that.

I was prepared not to like Terry Venable.  When he was hired to work on the Quaker Lake Camp summer staff in the early 80s, I didn't know him. He had never been a camper.  He didn't run in the accepted QLC circles of that day. He wasn't one of US.  But despite the uncertainty, it didn't take long for Terry and I to become fast friends. And our lives would continue to intersect long after I left the staff following the summer 1983. In the summer of '84, Terry showed up at my house late one Saturday to tell me he had just been on a date with another counselor, Leigh Anne Everhart.  He was in shock. I was in disbelief.  I had known Leigh Ann since 1978 when she was a camper at a junior high camp- one of my favorite weeks of camp ever.  And she was THAT girl. The teenager who was so pretty that the guys and girls alike (not to mention the staff!) were totally intimidated by her.  She and I had become good friends as the years had passed (Fueled in part, ironically, by bonding over the untimely death of Robin Davis, one of her fellow campers, in a tragic car wreck in that summer of '78. Robin's funeral was also at Centre Friends.), and I knew her to be a sweetheart. And now she was dating my friend Terry.  I actually went to the beach later that summer with the two of them and a few other staff members.  As time went by their relationship became quite serious, and one day they showed up at my place again to visit.  They spent a lot of time trying to get me to notice the ring on Leigh Anne's finger- but if you know me at all you know what a lost cause that was!  Finally, she stuck the ring in my face and they announced their engagement to me.  I was a groomsman in the their wedding.  Terry returned the favor at mine. Around that same time we discovered that our lives together had only just begun.  Terry was going to start on October 1, 1986, as the new youth pastor at High Point Friends Meeting.  I was moving back from New England going to start the same day at Springfield Friends Meeting- separated by only a few miles. This was going to be great!

And it certainly was.  We planned lots of youth events together.  We took some epic 3 hour lunches, and occasionally skipped out to catch a movie as well.  We served together on the QLC Camp Planning Committee and the Young Friends Activities Committee. We had great times together at a couple of National Youth Workers Conventions (see The Country Quakers) and during The Great Hickey Search at the 1987 Friends United Meeting Triennial Sessions. When no one else stepped up to do it, we planned and ran the NC Yearly Meeting sessions for youth that same year, importing our buddy Brent Bill to help.  While thanking us for our work, some unsuspecting adult mispronounced Terry's name, referring to him as Teddy Venables.  A new nickname was born. Together (along with Doyle Craven, Jeff Byrd, Ray Luther and others) we led seminars, edited a youth ministry newsletter, and basically lived life together for several years.  When Terry left for Indiana to pursue his master's degree, it left a hole in my life. By the time he came back to NC, I was in Florida and he was coming back to be the senior pastor at Springfield. I was so excited for he and Leigh Anne- although we had to make a pact of secrecy-  if she wouldn't tell any "Carl" stories, I wouldn't tell any "Leigh Anne" stories.  The pact held up...  But as happens, distance and time have separated us.  I haven't talked to them or seen them in years.  And that was why it was so special to me to hear the horrible news of this past Tuesday night from a trusted old friend.

So why today to share all of this?  Because this afternoon around 3 pm, Terry will be one of the pastors presiding over the funeral of Leah Way. I cannot imagine anything much more difficult.  It is hard enough that she was 12.  That she was the granddaughter of dear old friends and the daughter of a young woman who we watched grow up at camp would just be gut-wrenching.  We all know to be praying for the Thomas and Way families today.  But I also want you to be praying for Terry.  Not everyone can appreciate how heroic he will have to be this afternoon- but I do.  Join me in lifting him in prayer RIGHT NOW, as you read this.  I have great confidence that God will see him through.  But a little prayerful support never hurts.  Terry and Leigh Anne, we love you guys.  I look forward to the day our paths will cross again.  

Because of Jesus,