Thursday, October 31, 2013

Magic Moments: Warm Fuzzies

Have a blessed wedding day, Marie Allen!!! And Happy Halloween to one and all! To celebrate, this post features an evil witch! Enjoy!

Today's Throwback Thursday post puts us in the wayback machine and takes me back to one of my oldest memories- and then skips ahead to one of my favorite Magic Moments! Come along for the ride!

One of my earliest recollections of a vespers service at Quaker Lake Camp in the early 1970's is of someone reading Richard Lester's amazing little book, Fuzzies: A Folk Fable. It was first published in 1971. The picture to your left is a scan of the cover of my copy, which is well-used and no longer in one piece. That book has quite a history. We used it over and over at QLC during my years as a camper and a staff member, and even later when I was volunteering as Camp Pastor. I continued to use it during my years as a Youth Pastor in a variety of settings.  The story is timeless, and absolutely perfect for a discussion about what it takes to build and maintain a community of faith and trust. For those of you who may not know the tale, here's a synopsis:

Sad Fuzzies
Once upon a time there was a beautiful valley, unsoiled by the things of this world.  All the people had were each other. They didn't know enough to be fearful or suspicious, and they loved the opportunities to meet and greet one another each day. This was because of the Warm Fuzzies. These were happy little soft round furry creatures that loved to be picked up and held. Just holding one made you feel better. People would collect them, and then carry them around and exchange them with people as they would greet them each day. You never knew who might give you a Fuzzy. And the simple joys of  greeting, sharing and smiling wer so wonderful that the people of the valley never missed movie theaters, bowling alleys and fast food. Life was very good.
Unfortunately, Jaunita, the Head With in Charge of the Blahs, discovered the valley and set out to put a stop to all this happiness. She spread a rumor that there was terrible shortage of fuzzies. People began to hoard them, to lock them up and save them for themselves. Soon people stopped greeting each other with fuzzies, and then they stopped greeting each other altogether. At first the fuzzies were sad that they were no long being shared with the people of the valley. Then the locked up fuzzies began to wither and die. And soon, the fuzzies were just a memory and people began to look elsewhere for happiness.  The story ends with a grandmother recounting the good old days and telling her grandkids about the fuzzies and what life was like before the valley became a big city.  It ends with her saying, "I wonder what life would have been like if there hadn't been a shortage of fuzzies?"

I read this story dozens of times over the years, but no reading stands out quite like a night at Melbourne Beach, FL in 1995. It was my 2nd summer at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee, and we were holding our famous Last Gasp Summer Blowout. As we met in our meeting room for the final night's worship I was planning to use the story to talk about community and friendship. I read the book, shared a message, and passed out little colored fuzzy balls to the students. We then had a time of prayer and sharing, and a number of the youth began to talk about how important this community of faith was to them.  One of our school guys began to share about how youth group was the ONE place he always felt loved, no matter what- and tears began to flow. It became very emotional. At the conclusion of the time I encouraged them to share hugs and to also share the fuzzies they had been given.  The next 15 minutes were a total outpouring of love. You could literally SEE this "group" become a family right in front of your eyes.  The fuzzies became very real symbols of all the family of God could and should be, and many of them went home with youth as treasured keepsakes of that night.  I remember hugging everyone in the room, some of them more than once, and telling them how much I loved them. And unlike many emotional "mountintop" moments in ministry, this one never went away. We talked about it for years because we still felt that connection. In fact, years later when I was leaving that church, several of the young ladies who were there that night gave me a collage of adventures we had shared together- and as you can see. the frame is decorated with fuzzies.  That night at the Quality Suites was not just a Magic Moment. It was even better- it was a GOD MOMENT! And none of us who were there were ever quite the same...

So don't miss the chance to share a warm fuzzy- a smile, a hug, a handshake or a laugh- with the people you encounter today.  Let there be no shortage of fuzzies!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

No More Grace-Free Zones

A couple of years back I had this friend named Jose. I have been thinking about him a lot lately. We met is some classes we were both required to take and over the course of almost 4 years we became pretty close.  Part of his life would have seemed fairly normal to you.  He lived with his 5 dogs. He loved to garden and grew most of his own vegetables, which was nice since he was a vegetarian.  He loved his mother and sisters, and spoke with them often even though they were far away.  And he was a good friend, often offering me rides after class so I didn't have to ride the bus home.

Relating to other parts of his life may be more difficult for you.  Jose had cancer of the liver.  He passed away about a year ago.  Before his death, Jose suffered greatly. He had no appetite, lost far too much weight, and lost part of his cognitive abilities.  He struggled to keep from giving up on life.  You see, the cancer was not the only challenge Jose faced daily.  Jose was a registered sex offender.  He was one year away from finishing his 7 years of probation when he died.  He and I chatted often during his last year about life and its tribulations, as well as about faith and hope. Jose had very little of either. I remember so well that one of the last times we talked the conversation turned to the subject of GRACE.

As Jose lived out his last days, what he wanted more than anything was to see his family one last time.  They live in New York and Puerto Rico, and his probation prohibited him from travel.  I shared Jesus with him on a number of occasions, paying particular emphasis to what GRACE really means.  He heard me, and he understood.  What he found difficult was believing in a God who offers unconditional love and second chances when he was surrounded by a society that offers only condemnation. Even after 7 years of earning a second chance, Jose felt there was no hope for redemption.  The label "sex offender" is to this society what "leper" was to Jesus' day.  Untouchable.  Unforgivable.  And as I told this broken man that God had already forgiven him, and that Jesus came to save the untouchable and the unforgivable with GRACE, he just couldn't believe it- because he hadn't experienced it.  He was not a particularly spiritual man, with no family of faith to offer him hope, and the concept of GRACE does not exist in the criminal justice system. Even though some of his family and friends forgave him, he was reminded on a regular basis that he was not worthy of being loved.  Jose lived in a GRACE-FREE ZONE. And he died not really knowing what it feels like to rest in the arms of a loving God, the God who shines light in the darkness and has overcome this world. He knew only the pain of condemnation from the world he lived in.

Remembering Jose this morning makes me wonder how many others there are in my life who can't understand God's GRACE because it has never been demonstrated by the people around them- including me.  We live in a society that is quick to accuse and quick to condemn, but exceedingly slow to forgive (unless you happen to be an athlete, politician or a celebrity) and even slower to forget. Jose has turned from the lifestyle of sin that ruined his life, but no one was there to offer him the radical GRACE that only comes from a relationship with Jesus. I have also been among the least and the lost, and I praise God that I had family and friends who showed me GRACE. I understand that I am not defined by any label; I am defined by the love of God whose name is Jesus. But there are so many, with so many different labels- homeless, broken, mentally ill- who do not know about that love and do not have that hope. What am I doing to pass God's love along to others who desperately need it? 

I miss my friend Jose.  I wish I could have done more to help him through the walls of rejection and misery that society built around him, making it so hard for him to understand and accept the love of God. I wish I could have done more to ease his pain and suffering, both emotionally and physically. I do not know if he cried out to Jesus before he died, but I hope my words and made prayers made a difference. I hope his story will raise this question is all of our minds:  Who do we know who lives in a GRACE-FREE ZONE?  Join with me in tearing down those walls and sharing the radical, life-changing love of Jesus with the hurt and the hopeless. GRACE is for everyone. That's what makes it so amazing...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

This Morning's Playlist

I was up early this morning. and as usual I was listening to my I-pod while hanging out with the dog and fixing breakfast. If you are not familiar with my particular I-pod, it is a very old, very low memory hand-me-down from my son Will (like the one pictured).  It only holds about 230 songs.  I have a lot more music than that in my library, so on occasion I rotate songs, moving out tunes I grow weary of and bringing in songs I have not heard in a while. My tastes lean toward classic rock and great singer-songwriters, both of the "regular" and "Christian" variety. Music moves me.  It can change my mood, lift my spirits, make me sentimental and take me to places I have not visited in a while. It can also make me aware of the presence of God.  This morning was no exception.   Here are the first 10 songs that popped up on shuffle today: 

1)  Whatsername-  Green Day
2)  You Don't Mess Around With Jim- Jim Croce
3)  Forever- The Explorer's Club
4)  Shine A Little Love- ELO
5)  I Want To Know You (In the Secret) - Sonicflood
6)  ThankfulCaedmon's Call
7)  Smell the Color 9- Chris Rice
8)  If You Could Read My Mind- Gordon Lightfoot
9)  Surely God Is With Us- Rich Mullins
10) Don't Look Back in Anger- Oasis

That's what I was listening to this morning. What's on your playlist today?

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Can Anybody Show Me the Real Jesus?"

A while back I was involved in a discussion with a couple of guys who are having a hard time these days. Work is scarce, and they are in situations that make life very complicated. We talked about all kinds of things covering many areas of interest, but eventually the talk turned to church. Neither of these guys are big church-goers, but they know my background and they had some issues they wanted to raise with me. It seems in their experiences, church has not been a place of healing, hope or comfort. It has not been a center of love and forgiveness. It has been a place where they were made to feel like second class citizens because they had no money to give. It has been a place where they were told that if they really were Christians, God would bless them- implying they couldn't be followers of Jesus and still be having problems in their lives. In short, the church has failed them. And they asked a very insightful question: Why does the church sometimes seem to be more about traditions, politics and money than it is about Jesus?

We often refer to the church as an institution, and unfortunately, I believe we are too often correct. It is bound by policy and leadership and tradition, and it has become a very sanitized place. For those of us who are USAmericans (everyone who lives in North or South America is an American; why do we claim that title for ourselves?) it seems we have turned Jesus into a wimp; a toothless, politically motivated white guy who is against all kinds of things, and for almost nothing. This is not the Jesus of the scriptures. This is not the the Jesus who hung out with sinners and the people society scorned; this is not the Jesus who shouted down church leaders (My pastorMatthew Hartsfield said in his sermon yesterday that when you preach the radical love and grace of the authentic Jesus, the people who get most upset are religious people. So true!); and this is not the Jesus who gave up His seat next to God to come to earth and die for us, that we might be reconnected with the Father. We may not want to hear it, but if the church is misrepresenting Jesus, then we are failing at the only mission we have. We need to show the people around us "the real Jesus" if we want them to understand and follow the Christ. As Matthew is fond of saying "we are God's Plan A for taking Jesus to the world- and there is no Plan B."

So who is "the real Jesus?" The band Downhere wrote a song in 2006 that attempts to answer the question, and I believe they were painfully honest and very close to the truth. Maybe it's because they are Canadian, but they have attacked the myths and want us to see who we really follow. The lyrics are below. The song is called The Real Jesus.

Jesus on the radio, Jesus on a late night show, Jesus in a dream, looking all serene
Jesus on a steeple, Jesus in the Gallup poll, Jesus has His very own brand of rock and roll
Watched Him on the silver screen, Bought the action figurine
But Jesus is the only name that makes you flinch

Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus?
Oh, let Your love unveil the mystery of the real Jesus

Jesus started something new, Jesus coined a phrase or two
Jesus split the line at the turning point of time
Jesus sparked a controversy, Jesus, known for His mercy, gave a man his sight
Oh Jesus isn't white!
Jesus loves the children, holds the lambs, Jesus prays a lot
Jesus has distinguishing marks on His hands

If anybody walks behind the Good Shepherd, If anybody holds the hands that heal lepers
And if you recognize the eyes that see forever, me 
Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus? Oh, let Your love unveil the glory, the real Jesus
Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus? Oh, let Your love unveil the glory of the real Jesus, the real Jesus

The modern church gets so wrapped up in numbers, in politics, in denominations and in theology. God loves the church, and wants it to be His voice and His hands in this flawed world we live in. But the church is NOT a building, a denomination or a political body. The CHURCH is the people of God sharing the love of God whose name is Jesus. Too often the church forgets the main thing- It's All About Jesus!  And as the song so clearly points out, the Christ was not a "talking head," but a radical lover of all souls. The guys I was speaking with have just about given up on the church. I pray they don't do the same with Jesus, because in the world we live in, the two are not always related...may God have mercy on us.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's Personal

I don't remember how young I was the first time someone in a Christian setting asked me if I had a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." I do still remember how odd that sounded to my ears. A personal relationship with a "spirit" just seems like something not worth pursuing. Church was all about praising God, reading the Bible and talking with other believers about your faith. Christianity was a corporate exercise, designed to help Christ-followers see Jesus the same way and believe the same things.  "Personal" seemed both unrealistic and a bit dangerous.

Over the years I have heard that phrase used thousands of time and have come to realize that quite often all that is meant by those asking the question is this- "Do you believe in Jesus?" It's a legitimate and important question, and one that most people have to deal with at some point in their lives. But today, I want to share a few thoughts about the literal question- "Do you have a personal relationship with God?"

There's a difference between knowing the 23rd Psalm and knowing the shepherd; there's a difference between singing Jesus Loves Me and knowing that Jesus LOVES ME; and when Jesus said "for God so love the world" what he was really saying is that God so loves YOU & ME- individually- that he sent His only Son to save us.  The love of God is not some giant net that just happens to catch us, it is intentional. The scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, are about God wanting a relationship with each of us. Our worship was meant to be corporate. Our relationship with Jesus is meant to be personal. It is meant to be unique.

My relationship with my father was creative, deep and completely our own. My relationships with my best friends are most likely very different from your relationships with the closest people in your lives. That's how relationships are- they are unique.  So it stands to reason that if your relationship with the Savior is exactly like mine, something is wrong. The basics will be the same, but the nuances of how we spend time together and what that feels like may be very different. 

I have some friends who can only find God in a formal setting. They need the structure of church or Bible study, and God speaks to them through tradition, ritual and study.  I have another friend who gathers with God daily in a gentle, loving relationship. She is quiet in His presence, and they chat. They have nicknames for one another, and she hears God speak with a Scottish brogue. I have helped students find their personal space with Jesus by leading them on guided meditations where he joins them as they walk or sit in familiar places in their minds. I myself often sit with him in a quiet space and unburden my soul while listening to hear that "still small voice." The question is not HOW you connect with the Holy Spirit that indwells us all; the question is DO YOU?

I follow Christian singer and author Bryan Duncan on Twitter, and he will occasionally post thoughts that begin with "Spoke to God today..."  Bryan doesn't hear God speak in booming, powerful Monty Python-like voice- God speaks to him as a playful, caring friend who loves Bryan and wants the best for him. Examples? "Spoke to God today - He said, I sent you a friend request." Spoke to God today- He said for the love of ME, call your mother!" God does not speak to me that way; God does not have a nickname for me or speak with a Scottish accent when we talk.  But you see...we do talk. I believe that when God's people make time to spend alone with Him in whatever way that feels right to each of us, God honors that.  And God speaks to our hearts and our minds if we only take time to listen. There is no right or wrong way to approach time with Jesus. It's personal.

So today I'm the one asking the question. Do YOU have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you know that you know that you know that God calls you by name and loves YOU for who you are?  Make time to be with your Savior and speak plainly to him about your life, your dreams and your desires.  And then LISTEN. The old hymn is true- What A Friend We Have In Jesus! Believe it!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Philosophy 101

Many of my dearest friends love to run. They run for fitness and pleasure. They run to challenge themselves. They run so they can put those stickers on their cars that say 26.2 or 13.1 or 104,000.7.  They run because they love it.

Many of those same friends can tell you that when it comes to running, I have a philosophy that I adhere to no matter the situation, no matter the place, no matter the time. And that rule for living was recently summed up for me in a bumper sticker seen here in Tampa.  It simply said...

Even in my prime, I only ran on football fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds. Or maybe for a really good game of Ultimate Frisbee or a youth group water war. Now I have a legitimate excuse- but even if I wasn't 7 Toe Jones, I still wouldn't run- because I am lazy, and roads were meant for cars!  :)

I hope those who love running will have a nice 5K or a lovely jog today...or is it a soft "j" and pronounced "Yog?" I'll settle for walking the dog and watching college football players run all over the place. Have a blessed weekend, runners and couch potatoes alike!!!

Because of Jesus (who walked, even on water!),

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mythbusting: Outgrowing Disney

Marilyn and I were married in 1986, and our honeymoon cruise took us to the Bahamas and then included a stay at Walt Disney World. Were were quickly addicted. By 1992 we were annual passholders and so were my parents. We spent many a day there with my youth groups, and many special occasions there as a family.  It never occurred to us that we were supposed to have children to really enjoy the place.  It was simply our favorite place.

Our son Will was born in July of 1995 while we were living in Kissimmee, Florida. If you are not familiar with central Florida, Kissimmee is the town you enter when you head east from Walt Disney World. While it is actually in neither place, it is far more accurate to say that WDW is in Kissimmee than it is to say it is in Orlando. So between his grandparents, his parents and his place of birth, Will never had a chance. He was an ultimate Disney baby!

My parents lived about an hour a way from us in those early years, and they would come over pretty much every Tuesday and take Will to "the parks."  I say that parenthetically because until we moved to Illinois in 2000, Will thought "park" meant WDW. He was there as an infant, seeing the characters and taking naps in his stroller. As a toddler he was there so often that some of the costumed characters seemed to recognize him. He developed his own favorite places to eat, his own favorite attractions, and his own places to play and act out scenes from his favorite Disney films- especially Beauty & the Beast. We often went as a family as well and developed our own traditions. He had seen the Christmas Candlelight Processional at EPCOT before he was 4 years old. And over and over again we heard from well-meaning friends about how much we needed to enjoy these years- because there would come a day when Will would outgrow WDW. In fact, we all would. The rides would become boring, the characters passe, and hanging out with family a thing of the past. We spent a number of years with this widely accepted myth hanging over our heads. I have to admit I was always a doubter, having taken youth groups from NC for a week on 3 different occasions and knowing that those teenagers had absolutely had the times of their lives - but the myth was still there. So we enjoyed, we waited...and we watched for signs.

After a brief stay in Chicagoland, we moved to Tampa in 2001 and quickly renewed our annual passes. WDW was once again our favorite getaway, even if it was just for a birthday dinner or to see the fireworks.  And Will was always first in line to go,often with his Gigi and Pawpaw joining in the family fun. As he got older he got to go with friends and with my youth groups, experiencing Night Of Joy and some of the other special events. As he headed into his teen years his excitement actually grew as he explored new rides and new adventures. He also began to develop a taste for the more expensive restaurants and often pushed to make sure we made reservations. Even after I gave up my pass in 2007, Will and Marilyn have continued to maintain theirs. They still go as often as they can on great mother/son days, choosing a park (or park-hopping) and spending great days together. They were at EPCOT just this past Sunday, and once again came home tired, but excited- which is how you know you had a great day at WDW!

So what's my point? Just this- as long as you keep your childlike spirit and believe in the magic of PLAY, you will never outgrow Walt Disney World. Or Disney movies. Or spending time together as a family.  Marilyn, my parents and I came to love the place as adults. We loved staying on property; we loved discovering new restaurants and returning to old favorites; and we always rode Pirates of the Caribbean first upon entering the Magic Kingdom. Will has now reached adulthood himself, and he has never been through an "anti-Disney" phase. In fact, because his girlfriend Michelle loves Disney movies so much, he may be in deeper than ever! The magic of WDW is what it does to your heart. I am sure for some it is easy to focus on the cost, the crowds and the commercialism.But if you truly get it, it never fails to light up your face and put a spring on your step. It is a constant reminder that growing older is inevitable- but growing up is optional. I am 54 years old now. If I am ever going to outgrow Disney World, I need to hurry.  :)  MYTH BUSTED!!!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Magic Moments: A Worship WOW!

The 2004 Chicago Mission Team
Today's Throwback Thursday post takes us back in time to 2004 and a mission trip we took from Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa to serve with the Center for Student Missions in Chicago. It was a great week full of hard work and special moments, and that particular group is one of my favorite mission teams I was ever blessed to be a part of. But today's Magic Moment comes from a specific memory of a very wondrous worship time we shared together.  Here's that story.

Each night of our of the trip we would gather in the common area of the  dorm we were sleeping in for some devotional time led by one of the students. I would bring along my guitar and we would sing a song or two just for the fellowship- it was much like an indoor vespers service.  We had no song sheets or means of projection; we had to sing songs we knew by heart.  By heart...that phrase would mean something completely different to me after our last night in the dorm...

We gathered that last night of our mission work and one of the students shared a devotional, and then I pulled out my guitar asked our little group if they had any requests.  They did.  We began to sing, and as we went through several of our favorite songs from youth group. I could feel the Holy Spirit making itself known in the room.  I decided to wrap up our time by singing three of our favorites-  Sometimes By Step ("O God you are my God..."), It Is You and Sanctuary - as a worship medley.  As we sang these very familiar songs the atmosphere in the room became thick with worship.  We were so connected to each other and to God. The team was completely absorbed in the songs.  I was still playing, but had closed my eyes and was no longer leading music- I was merely a vessel.  As was our tradition, we sang Sanctuary through a final time acapella.  Those 13 voices sounded like a heavenly choir.  We were no longer simply singing words- we were making a promise to God.  "With thanksgiving I'll be a living sanctuary for You."  The singing stopped and there was total silence.  I opened my eyes only to discover that I was no longer facing the group.  I had been spun around and was facing the wall, completely lost in that moment of pure worship.  We all looked at each other and said in a collective voice, "Wow..."

In the days that would follow we would try to explain that moment to parents, friends and even the rest of the church staff, but soon realized it was a "You had to be there" magic moment.  We all knew we had experienced - no, been overwhelmed by- the presence of the living God that night in a very powerful way. I have one prized souvenir from that trip- a bright orange t-shirt I bought to work in. One day on a work site we were doing some painting, and Alexis Woods and Christine Gastler decided to paint on me. They painted names on the front of the shirt, and this messy "I love you" on the back.  Every time I think about this shirt, I am reminded of that trip and the way God blessed us. And how much I loved those kids...

I spent some amazing evenings sharing in worship with youth over the years, but this certainly ranks near the top when it comes to EVERYONE present sensing the Holy Spirit in the room. Come back next Thursday for the story of how some "warm fuzzies" helped create a night no one who was at Melbourne Beach that night will ever forget...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Breathe Deep

Back in my youth pastor days at FUMC-Kissimmee we used to sing this weird song at youth group on Sunday evenings. At the time, I had never heard a recorded version of the song- I found it in the Songs & Creations songbook. So we sort of made up our own version.  We liked it because it was different. We liked it because it had a message of hope for the hurting, the outcast and the disenfranchised. And we liked it because it was full of big words we had to look up to actually get what the song was about! That group loved to sing- and this Terry Taylor tune was one of the songs we sang with gusto.

We live in a day and age when the church universal struggles with how (and how much) we reach out out to the poor, the different, the hungry and the sin-filled. The fact is there should be no debate. Scripture deems very clear to me. The love of God is for everyone- including the very people from whom you and I seek to protect ourselves. We don't get to pick and choose the people who are in the family of God based on our prejudices and preferences. Everyone is entitled to breathe deep the breath of God. And the more broken or damaged we are, the more we need it.

So listen to and watch the video below from the band Lost Dogs. It turns out the old FUMC-K gang was pretty close on the melody.The lyrics are included, but you must follow closely to catch them all. If you have never heard the song before, I promise the listing of who should be allowed to "breathe deep" will stun you a bit. That's a good thing. And then when you are done listening, pray for the people in your life who need to feel grace and forgiveness from you, and who need to know that the breath of God is for them...too. Because one of those people may be you...

And one more thing.  When we sang this song in Kissimmee we shouted the last line of the final verse with power, like the bold statement of faith it was meant to be. I hope you will feel the same way - that "EVERYBODY EVERYWHERE!!!" deserves to know they are loved by the love of God whose name is Jesus. Amen and Amen!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Parrothead Theology

In the early 1980s I took a few Christian Education classes at a small Methodist college in Greensboro, NC. It was called (conveniently enough) Greensboro College. My favorites of these classes were taught by Dr. Jim Hull, an ordained UMC pastor who was famous in some circles for writing creative liturgies for large denominational and ecumenical events. He shared with us in class one day that for one such worship service he had done a call to worship using slides of the rapid changes going on in the world and the song Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes by Jimmy Buffett. When one of the Christian legalists in the class questioned the propriety of using Buffett music in a worship service, Dr. Hill responded with this quip- "There is more good theology in Jimmy Buffett's music than in most of the books I read in seminary." I have never forgotten that strange quote, and I have found it to be more than a little accurate in my own experience.

Now you might be thinking that Mr. Buffett may have written some thoughtful songs, but he has also written some very off-color tunes. You would be correct. Jimmy himself one once said, "People ask me how I can write those real sensitive songs and then write those real trashy ones. I tell them it's because I'm real sensitive on some occasions and real trashy on others."  With that deeply theological statement, Jimmy describes the human condition and our need for a Savior far better than most preachers. And with many of his song lyrics through the years he has often raised questions and made points that can help us better understand the work of God in our lives in this crazy world in which we live. Please know that I know, Jimmy seldom means to be spiritual. But for those of us who know the love of God whose name is Jesus, he offers unique insights. Witness the following examples:

*Changes In Latitude, Changes In Attitude - Our world changes at a pace that is often difficult to comprehend. Dr. Hull understood that while our faith is a very serious thing, too many Christians forget that life is often a laughing matter. We seek to control life instead of letting go and letting God! Sometimes we need to get a little crazy to survive.
"It's these changes in  latitudes, changes in attitudes.
nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning
if we couldn't laugh we would all go insane...
If we weren't all crazy we would go insane!"

*We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About - A reminder that few of us turn out to be the safe, sane people our parents hope we will be. This is especially true if we follow the Wild One himself, Jesus of Nazareth. :)
"I was supposed to have been a Jesuit priest or a Naval Academy grad,
That was the way my parents perceived me, those were the plans that they had.
But I couldn't fit the part, too dumb- or too smart? 
Ain't it funny how we all turn out?
I guess we are the people our parents warned us about!"

*Nautical Wheeler - A song about a group of dancers who understand the need to slow down and appreciate the blessings God gives us in life. Wouldn't the world be a better place if more us of us were content?
"Where the jukebox is blastin' and the liquor is flowing
an occasional bottle of wine
That's cause everyone here is just more than contented
to be living and dying in 3/4 time."

*Fruitcakes - Jimmy grew up in the church and is often a critic of it.  And sometimes, he hits the nail right on the head...
"Where's the church, who took the steeple?
Religion's in the hands of some crazy-assed people
Television preachers with bad hair and dimples
But God's honest truth is it's not that simple..." 

*Pascagoula Run - John 10:10 tells us that Jesus came so that we might live an "abundant life." This song is about how Jimmy's favorite uncle got him out of the house and out to experience the world. More of us could use an Uncle Bill.
"Time to see the world, time to kiss a girl, time to cross that wide Meridian
Grab your bag and take a chance. time to learn a Cajun dance
Kid you're gonna' see the morning sun- on the Pascagoula Run" 

*One Particular Harbor - There are special places in all of our lives where we feel more connected to the things of God and the people of God. For me, those places are Quaker Lake Camp and Springfield Friends Meeting. Where in your "One Particular Harbor?"
"I know I don't get there often enough, but God knows I surely try.
It's a magic kind of medicine that no doctor could prescribe.
I used to rule my world from a cell phone, from ships out on the sea,
but now times are rough & I've got too much stuff, can't explain the likes of me.
But there's this one particular harbor, a shelter from the storm..."

And I could go on. Songs like If the Phone Doesn't Ring It's Me, Death of an Unpopular Poet and A Pirate Looks at Forty all offer great theological insights into the work of God in the world we live in. Please understand- I am not suggesting we need to be singing more Buffett in church, or that he offers a more significant insight than anyone else.  It's just that we in the church tend to separate the world into sections- "holy" and "secular." Did you know that the concept of secular doesn't appear in scriptures?  God can (and does!) use everything to bring us closer to him if we don't try too hard to keep God in the box we call religion. The Bible is our source for inspiration. It is also, as the late, great Rich Mullins once said, "a reminder that God is right- and the rest of us are guessing." My inspiration seldom comes from theologians. I am guessing yours doesn't either. So today, kick back, take a moment to live in 3/4 time, and enjoy a little Parrothead Theology. It's never too early or too late in the day to take a moment to slow down and BE with Jesus. Because you know- "it's 5 O'Clock Somewhere!"

Because of Jesus,

Monday, October 21, 2013

How I Came To Despise the Boston Red Sox

It wasn't always this way...

The first professional sports team I ever cheered for was the Boston Red Sox.  I loved baseball, and even though I began playing Little League ball for the Guilford College Yankees in 1967, the Red Sox became my team (I was too young to realize I couldn't like the Yankees and the Sox at the same time) and Carl Yastrzemski my favorite player. I wore #8 as a young player and was angry that I was not left-handed.  I watched anytime they were featured on the NBC Game of the Week (the ONLY TV game back in those dark days) - and in 1967 they were featured a lot. The Sox won the American League pennant and Yaz won the triple crown. But they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, and I was devastated. I didn't yet know how long it had been since they won the Series (1918), or about the Curse of the Bambino. I just knew my Sox had lost. There were many years of learning still to come.

The years passed, but my love of the Sox never wavered. I lived in NC at the time, and could get Atlanta Braves games on the radio (and we lived close to enough to go to a game each summer), so I became a Braves fans as well. But Boston held a special place in my heart. In 1975 they had another magical year. Fisk, Evans, Lynn, Rice and Yaz got them back into the Series, where there were 7 epic games with the the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati.  I watched every game, nearly dying of joy when Carlton's home run stayed fair in Game 6, and nearly dying when they dropped Game 7. The drought continued. I then watched in horror in 1978 as the Sox blew at 14 game lead to the Yankees, then lost the one game playoff in part due to a home run by Bucky (F'n) Dent. It was painful to be a Red Sox fan.

I secured my official Red Sox fan card in 1986.  I had moved to Worcester, Mass. to take a youth ministry job with New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, and in the summer of that year year I was able to attend to 6 games at one of the true cathedrals of baseball, Fenway Park.  Attending was much easier in those days, as while the Sox had long been sacred to New Englanders, they were not yet the tourist attraction they are today.  In fact (as pointed out by my friend Hal Gastler recently when some Red Sox fans were slamming Rays fans for their poor attendancewhen Roger Clemens struck out 20 Mariners in a game that year, the attendance was 13,404- not exactly standing room only. I saw great games and legendary players that season, including seeing Reggie Jackson hit a home run off of Tom Seaver (Trivia Time: Which of those 2 was a Red Sox player at the time?) After their miraculous comeback against the Angels in the ALCS (thank you Dave Henderson!) they had the Mets beaten in the Series...and then things fell apart.  And the "Curse" continued. But I had now been to Fenway. I was now totally invested. I had lived in New England, felt the pain, and become a true part of Red Sox Nation.

There were more playoff disappointments in 1988 and 1990. Then in 2003, they seemed on their way to beating the hated Yankees when Aaron Boone hit an 11th inning home run to send the Sox home losers once again.  By now the entire country knew of the "Curse" and the epic wait of Boston fans for a World Championship. And it was becoming popular to cheer for the Sox. So when 2004 arrived, and the Boston Red Sox FINALLY claimed a world title, there was great rejoicing in Red Sox nation...and the bandwagon that was attached to it. Bill Simmons great book Now I  Can Die In Peace captured the heart and spirit of long-suffering Sox fans. The movie Fever Pitch led still more newbies to the bandwagon. Suddenly there were more Red Sox fans than ants at a picnic. And in the midst of being so happy to have finally won, I began to realize a horrible truth- many of these new Boston fans were just like the Yankees fans we had always despised so much. Pompous. Entitled. Insufferable. By the time the Sox claimed a 2nd title in 2007, I was losing interest. In 2008 the Tampa Bay Rays were actually better than Boston...and some of the Boston fans in the Tampa area could not have been more obnoxious. They sounded like Yankees fans- but with 25 fewer world titles to back up the trash talk!  The Sox spent the next several years trying to buy another championship- just as we had accused the Yankees of doing all those years. Slowly but surely, the Red Sox became the team I hated to see win.  I loathed talking baseball with "new" Boston fans. Many would talk about the streak of sellout crowds at Fenway- which began AFTER they won in 2004. They would talk about suffering and being part of the Red Sox nation, but couldn't name a player from before 2000, except for maybe Bill Buckner- who they hated, although some were not sure why. It finally became just too much for me, and I dropped my life-long allegiance to the Red Sox and became a Tampa Bay Rays fan. 

So Wednesday, when the 2013 World Series begins, I will be cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. My closet still contains a Red Sox jersey and a Boston hat, and Yaz is still my all-time favorite player. They are a part of my baseball past that will never be forgotten. But the past is just that- the past.  And today, I cannot cheer for the Boston Red Sox. I have had a Twitter hashtag for them throughout the playoffs- #ABBA. It means "ANYONE but Boston again." So lets go Cardinals- and no, that does NOT make me a part of the Cardinal Nation!  I really can't stand front runners...

But one bright spot for you Sox fans- I do still like them better than the Patriots!  :)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

It Is Well With My Soul

One of my favorite hymns of the church is the great classic It Is Well With My Soul.  Written by Horatio Spafford in 1871 after his family drowned at sea, it has been sung in churches for many years.  It is a glorious reminder of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, even in the midst of our greatest struggles.  It is a song of hope and perseverance.  It has lifted my spirits on the numerous occasions when I realize that I, like all humans. am a sinner saved by grace. It was the last hymn we sang my final Sunday at Springfield Friends Meeting in 1994; it was a song that brought me comfort during a great personal darkness in 2007.  The song is a brilliant reminder that Jesus loves not because of what we do or who we are, but in spite of those things.

Despite my head-knowledge of the love and grace of God, there are days when my heart still hurts. I imagine this is true for everyone. So today I have a challenge for you.  Watch this very cool video (complete with lyrics) of a modern arrangement of the song by the great band Jars of Clay from their album Redemption Songs.  If you listen to this song and feel a sense of true worship and a sense of thanksgiving for the sacrifice Jesus made for each of us, then take some time praise Jesus on this Sabbath.  If you don't feel those things, you may need to get your heart checked.  I'm just saying...

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Saturday Shout Outs!

October is flying by, and it's time for another edition of my Saturday Shout Outs! Today the yelling includes more than a few prayer requests, and I hope those of you who pray will add these to your list.  And if you need to be added to mine, PLEASE let me know!  Now let's get to it...
  • We would like to thank so many of you for all of the sweet happy birthday wishes for first me and then my wife Marilyn over the past couple of weeks.  We are blessed to have so many great friends.  But be warned...  Sooner or later I will be able to travel again. And when I can, I am coming to see YOU...and YOU...and especially YOU!!!
  • Marie Allen (Springfield Friends Meeting) has been battling really severe headaches. This is bad under circumstances, but even worse when it's 10/20 and you are getting married on Halloween! Please pray for Marie's health and upcoming nuptials. 
  • The number of visitors to this blog has grown exponentially over the past couple of weeks.  There is no real explanation, so I am attributing the BOOM in views to the induction of Boom-Boom (Susan McBane Tuggle) into my Hall of Fame. That's got to be it, right?  :)
  • Congratulations to Jenn Gastler (Wesley Memorial UMC) on her engagement and upcoming wedding. I am excited and honored to be officiating the event. I do love being part of my youth group "kids" growing up!
  • Jennifer "Bob" Kuramochi (FUMC-Kissimmee) is approaching D-Day (that's delivery day!) for her second child, and we certainly want to keep her in our prayers, as well as hubby Jun and first daughter Josephine! What a blessing for a wonderful family!

  • The ancient artifact (early 80's?) above was sent to me this week by my old buddy Steve Semmler (New Garden Friends). What a classic!  In addition to Steve, his brother Carl and Marilyn (far left) you can see Martha Ratledge Farlow's head, Tim Vail sitting down (no clue who that may be laying down next to him) and my head poking around my old girlfriend Donna Haynes. And for those of you don't know any of those people besides Marilyn and myself, check out the building in the back- it's the pre-remodeled BESTY B!!!
  • That picture also raises a couple of "Where are they now?" questions for me. Carla Garrett and Belinda Marley are in the photo. I worked at Quaker Lake Camp with them both and shared lots of great times with them. But I have no idea what they are up to today. Do you?  Let me know!!!
  • My good friend Lisa Jewett (Wesley Memorial) has a big day coming up on Tuesday at school and would be glad to have your prayers. She's a great teacher fighting her way through the red tape!
  • I don't know about anyone else, but these Ron Burgundy Dodge commercials have Will and I hyper-excited for Anchorman 2. Come on December 20th!!!
  • There is a rumor on Twitter- unconfirmed of course- that the government shutdown may have been all Jacob Lupfer's (FUMC-K) fault...
  • My Twitter sis, @JGanley3, is a huge Auburn U. fan (just like Darin Miller and many other friends) who will be at their big game with Johnny Football and Texas A&M today. Enjoy, Jen...and just for you...#WarEagle!

  • Yet another picture from Steve. Anybody recognize that kid? Care to guess an age? 
  • I continue to be so excited to have my original little sis, Sabrina Perry, back in my life!  We have talked a great deal this week, and I feel like the prodigal has returned- I'm just not sure which one of us was more prodigal! Either way, I am sure ready to kill the fatted calf and get on with the party!
  • Clemson vs. FSU tonight?  Who you got? I say last team with the ball wins...
  • And finally, I would appreciate prayers for me. I am hoping to change my situation soon and be able to travel again.  I know that with God all things are possible, and that there is power in prayer. So get busy my friends!  :)
That's it for today. I hope you all have a blessed weekend, and that the sun will shine brightly upon all of you.  God bless!

Because of Jesus. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Dance of the Prepositions

In John 17,  Jesus explains to the disciples that while they are going to be left in this world after he is gone, they belong to him.  This call to be "in the world, but not of it" is a challenge to us all.  As Caedmon's Call once sang, "This world has nothing for me and this world has everything.  All that I could want and nothing that I need."  Christians struggle with this at every turn. We cannot follow Jesus in a vacuum. Following him means impacting the people and the world around us in his name. Some of us seek to hide from the world, because being faithful would be much easier than facing the temptations and struggles of living in it.  Some of us want the church to be more like the world, seeking to create a "Christian Ghetto"  full of all the things we love, but twisted in a way that allows us to feel pious about them.  And some of us simply let the things of this world take the place of God. We allow them to become our "false idols."

Today's "words to soak in" come from John Fischer's 1988 book Real Christians Don't Dance (Bethany House Publishers).  John has written a number of great books and a number of great songs including The All Day Song, one of the all-time Quaker Lake Camp and youth group favorites!  I have shared this prose with many groups over the years as well as once before on this blog.  Now I'll just shut up and let John talk.  Have a blessed weekend!

The Ins And Outs Of "It"
"In it, not of it," the statement was made
As Christian One faced the world, much afraid.
"In it, not of it," the call was made clear,
But Christian One got something stuck in his ear.
"Not in it, or of it" was the thing that he heard.
And knowing the world was painfully absurd,
He welcomed the safety of pious retreat,
And went to the potluck for something to eat.

Now Christian Two, he knew what to do,
He'd show those fundies a thing or two!
How will the world ever give Christ a try
If we don't get in there and identify?
So "In it, and of it," he said in his car,
As he pulled in and stopped at a popular bar.
"I'll tell them the truth as soon as I'm able
To get myself out from under this table."

Now along comes Christian Three jogging for Jesus,
In witnessing sweats made of four matching pieces.
His earphones are playing a hot Christian tune
About how the Lord is coming back soon.
"Not in it, but of it," he turns down the hill
And stops in for a bite at the Agape Grill.
Like the gold on the chain of his "God Loves You" bracelet,
He can have the world without having to face it.

While way up in heaven they lament these conditions
That come from changing a few prepositions.
"Not in it, or of it," Christian One thought.
But who is the world will know that he's not?
"In it, and of it," thought Christian Two.
But who in the world will know that he knew?
"Not in it, but of it," thought Christian Three.
But who in the world watches Christian TV?
And Jesus turns to Gabriel, shaking His head.
" 'In it, not of it...' wasn't that what I said?"

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Magic Moments: An $8000 Oops

Today's Magic Moment takes us back to 1997, and a night that by all worldly accounts was a failure. But God had other plans...

It was supposed to be the greatest day in the history of student ministry at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee.  It was a day we planned for over a year, that we poured our hearts and souls, our prayers and resources into, in the hopes that we could make a major impact for Jesus in our community.  This is the story of that day, and how it all went wrong.  Until God made it right, that is....

I met Geoff Moore & the Distance (GMD) at the National Youth Workers Convention in 1995, when we wound up sharing a table at the hotel restaurant for dinner.  I didn't know much about them at the time, but they were great guys with huge hearts for serving God, and I liked them immediately.  Once I began listening to their music, I was completely hooked.  About a year later our Youth Ministry Team began to dream and pray about bringing a major Christian concert to Kissimmee.  We wanted to do something huge for Jesus.  GMD had a big hit with Home Run around this time, and after much discussion we decided to contact their management and see what could be worked out.  We decided on July 10, 1997- a Thursday that was part of our Youth Week. We decided we would host them at the nearby Tupperware Convention Center (TCC), a 2000 seat venue that had been home to many concerts, including Willie Nelson and The Moody Blues.  After securing the arena and setting ticket prices, we knew we needed to sell 1000 tickets in order to break even.  A full house would earn us around a $10,000 profit to use in our ministry.   All systems were go.

Except that all systems were NOT go.  The TCC would not let us sell the tickets, except for a few hundred they gave us on assignment.  This meant people had to go to the box office to buy tickets that were more expensive than the ones we were selling.  We sold ours at church, and sold them all.  The TCC sold almost nothing.  We had also planned to save some money by doing the load-in and set up ourselves.  Again the TCC said no, saying that only union members were allowed to touch incoming or outgoing equipment.  We had planned to advertise on Z-88.3, the local Christian radio station.  Another concert promoter, hosting a concert at Universal Studios that same night, blocked us from running any ads until the week before the show.  We tried to get the word out, but we just didn't sell enough tickets.  By the day before the show, after my final meeting with the folks at TCC, it was clear to me that we were going to lose a lot of money. Maybe as much as $8000. I was very depressed.  Instead of the greatest day ever, it was looking like one of the worst.  I went to bed that night praying for a miracle that my weak faith was certain would not come.

The Geoff Moore & the Distance tour bus arrived at the Tupperware Convention Center around 8 AM on the morning of the show after driving all night.  At Geoff's request, I had arranged for he and a few others to play golf that day.  Jill Painter and friends shuttled them off to the golf course while myself and some others remained at the arena to make sure things went smoothly with the set-up.

Show time arrived, and my prayers for a miracle had seemingly gone unanswered.  A crowd of about 500 showed up to hear one of the best concerts I have ever attended.  If the band was disappointed in the size of the crowd, they never let on, and it did not effect their performance.  They rocked the house for two solid hours before closing with a moving time of commitment.  Even though I stood in the back of the TCC feeling depressed, I could tell everyone was enjoying themselves.  I especially remember that GMD played two new songs from an upcoming album- Only A Fool and Free. Both were awesome.  After the show, the band hung around and sold hats and t-shirts and signed autographs until the last youth had left the building.  Our students were thrilled.  It had been an amazing night.

So why was I so down? I knew we had lost a lot of money and did not have the huge impact on the community we set out to achieve. I felt like a failure. But God was not done with that night just yet.  A man from FUMC-K came up to me and put his arm around me.  He knew I was down, but he wanted to tell me something.  He said that during Geoff's time of worship and response that night that his wife, who had never given her life to Christ before, went forward.  His exact words to me were "Carl, the whole thing was worth it- if just for that one soul." He had just put the night into perspective- God's perspective.  Over the next few days I heard from others with similar experiences. Someone donated a large sum of money to help cover the losses.  I had prayed for miracles, and even though I had lacked faith, those miracles were popping up all over the place!  God had taken what seemed to me like a massive failure and turned it into a Magic Moment!  "To God be the glory, great things He has done..."

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Happy Birthday, Marilyn!

Happy Birthday to my lovely wife, Marilyn!  She is pictured here at her favorite place with her favorite man, our son Will. I pray it is a day full of blessings for her!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It's Not About Me

"It's all about You, it's not about me- wherever I go I want people to see your light is shining like the sun in everything that I do; it's all about You."  - Nate Sallie

We live in a world that often seems dominated by resumes.  Status is achieved based on the places you were educated, the positions you have held and the the things you have accomplished in life.  Church is no different.  We want our staffs to have significant pedigrees; we want our volunteers to have rich backgrounds in what ever area of ministry they may serve.  In church as in the "real world," it's all about who you are and what you've done.  But today we remember that the Jesus Revolution says, "Not so fast..."

In Philippians 3:2-11 (The Message) the Apostle Paul reminds us of an eternal truth: It's not about us and our accomplishments, it's all about Jesus.  Paul is explaining to the church at Philippi that they need to be on the lookout for people who think they can align themselves with God simply by the things they have on their resumes.  He is specifically warning them that assuming that someone has become a Christ-follower based on the fact that they have followed Jewish law is a bad idea.  He lists his own very impressive Jewish resume, from circumcision right through his willingness to persecute those who followed Jesus, and points out that if anyone had reason to be confident that the law could make them right with God, it was him. But then he writes this: (Phil. 3: 8-9NIV):  "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him..."   In other words, his resume- everything of note he had ever been or accomplished- was junk.  Only knowing Jesus mattered.  My pastor told us several years ago that the word "rubbish" used in the NIV is watered-down from the original Greek.  So is the term "dog-dung" found in The Message.  The actual Greek word is skubala, and the closest translation is a vile 4-letter word- and it's not poop. (Pastor Matthew made us all repeat the word, then admonished us for swearing in church!). Paul is reminding us that all of the things we do to try to build ourselves up and attain a right relationship with God on our own are just one big, steaming pile of skubula unless we know Jesus.

I spend a lot of time on this blog telling stories about people I know, places I have been and things I have done.  Most you you know my resume- the good and the bad.  And the truth is it's all skubala.  The good will never be good enough to earn my way into the Kingdom of God. The bad has already been forgotten and forgiven through the love of God whose name is Jesus.  It's simply not about us- it's all about Jesus.  Do we need to seek to live holy lives and do good deeds in Jesus' name?  Certainly.  Should we seek to avoid sin?  Absolutely.  But in the end it's not about the past.  It's not about being "good enough."  It's about walking every day with Christ, living so that his radical love can be seen in our lives.  As Paul wrote, it's about "pressing on," and never forgetting that the "prize" is a relationship with Jesus.  It may not look as good on your resume as a Harvard education, but trust me- it's ain't just skubala.  The question becomes this: What is it that defines you?  Welcome to the Jesus Revolution, where the answer is obvious.  Jesus defines us.  

Because of Jesus,