Saturday, November 30, 2013

7 Things That Never Happened

The Wesley UMC group posing in the gym we never got to use...
Since August 26 of 2009, this blog has existed to exalt the name of Jesus and to tell stories of people and events from throughout my 28 years of youth ministry and my life today. I want to switch things up a bit this morning and tell you about 7 Things that were advertised as events for students in my ministries over the years, but NEVER HAPPENED!  Here we go:

1)  Few people remember this now, but back in the late 70's and early 80's GROUP Magazine was actually a magazine for youth, not for youth leaders.  They also sponsored some big events for youth, and in 1982 I wanted to take a group of students from New Garden Friends Meeting to their National Youth Jamboree in Orlando.  I worked up an application, planned some fund-raisers and sent out the information.   A few youth even completed the application before I was told by the Youth Council that the trip could not be worked out.  It would have been great- but it never happened!

2)  In my very first summer brochure, at Springfield Friends Meeting in 1988, I described an event called the Big Burger Bash and Volleyball Exhibition Fundraiser (Whew!  Way too long a name...). We would sell burgers and drinks while teams of adults battled a team of youth for volleyball supremacy. It never happened, and I don't know why. I tried it again in the summer of '92- with the same results. You will see a pattern developing...

3)  While we did well in our on-going ministry serving at the soup kitchen in High Point, I never got the SFM gang on the road for a mission trip. In the summer of 1992 I set it up for us to go do some painting at my grandmother's home in Washington, NC. No one signed up. I tried it again the following summer, and this time 2 people signed up- still not enough to go. I am wondering - was I just that stubborn or just that committed?

4)  In 1995 at FUMC-K one of the big summer events was to be the Ben & Jerry's Basketball Challenge! Named after our own Ben Thacker and Jerry Hanbery (Neither of whom were noted for their skills on the court) this three-on-three tournament with bizarre rules would offer Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream to the winner. No one won, because we found no court to play on. We tried again in 1997 on an outdoor court, only to be rained out. "Never give up, never surrender!"   :)

******  Special Bulletin******  I am not sure we did anything I planned the two summers (2000-2001) I served the Union Church of Hinsdale.  Dick Nye, the senior pastor, told me to "get used to summers off..."

5)  Our big trip for the summer of 2003 from Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa was to be a week at a Big Stuf Camp at Panama Beach, FL. We had a group all ready to go, only to discover the part of our church budget we planned to use for the trip was not there. It was no one's fault, the church just had no money. So we had to cancel. Never got to do the Big Stuf...

6)  In our 2004 summer brochure at Wesley Memorial, we planned several days of Gym Blasts, great play times in our brand new gymnasium. The same building would also be the home of our new youth room, and we planned some "hang out" time there as well. Alas, due to some really strange events and poor decisions, not only was that building not ready in 2004, it wasn't open in 2005 either. It is open now.

7)  In the summer of 2006 I was serving Trinity UMC in Waycross, GA. Every year since 1982 (except the Hinsdale years) I had taken groups to Atlanta to see the Braves play, and I scheduled one for '06 as well. The timing didn't work (band camp, or more likely, cheerleading camp) and it never happened. The one summer I worked in the state of Georgia I didn't get to see the Braves play- go figure!

So there they are. Most of them would have been great events, but it just was not meant to be. Youth Ministry is full of mysteries, mishaps and malfunctions. But without stepping out, without risk and envelope-pushing ideas, youth ministry stops being effective. These were just a few of the things that were planned but didn't happen. There are about 1000 posts on this blog about the wonderful things that did. I count them all as blessings!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, November 29, 2013

Frozen Friday

My family had an awesome Thanksgiving yesterday, and I trust you did too.  I have so much to be thankful for.  So much food, so many blessings- and Christmas Vacation and The Great Gatsby! But now it's BLACK Friday.  For those of you who got up early this morning (or never went to bed last night) to shop for bargains, I salute you.  For those of you who may be working ridiculous hours today (and that includes Will) so that others can shop, I salute you. For those of you who are waiting for the crowds to get tired and go home so you can find a great bargain on socks, I salute you. I hope you all have a wonderful day.

But Marilyn, my Mom and I are going to see a cheap early showing of Frozen, then out to lunch and back home to veg out and start getting out the Christmas decorations. We expect to be having a FROZEN Friday while the masses shop on BLACK Friday. We will pray for you all...  Stay safe, be blessed, and I'll see you back here tomorrow!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thank You, My LORD!

A few years ago my Canadian friend Tom asked me to write a guest post for him for "American Thanksgiving," I admit the sound of those words hit me a bit funny. I knew that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October (I just saw an old episode of How I Met Your Mother in which the very Canadian character of Robin comments that Thanksgiving in November just seems odd). But truth be told I never really think of Thanksgiving as "our" holiday. I know the history of it all- the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sitting down over a feast to celebrate surviving another year. I, like so many others, will enjoy sitting down today with family and friends for a feast- and I will eat way too much. There will be parades and football games to watch, and there will be the happy realization that the Christmas season is now officially welcomed in my house. I realize that many USAmericans (technically, Canadians are Americans too.  So are Central & South Americans. I'm just saying...) manage to turn most every holiday into an excuse for patriotism, but I do not think of Thanksgiving as a day that belongs to God and country. It simply belongs to God.  It is a day to give thanks for the many blessings in each of our lives, even in times when we do not feel as blessed as we might hope.  

I have always used a very simple exercise to help keep me focused on the meaning of this day, and I thought I would share it with you all today.  We used to sing a song at camp and youth group that went like this:

"Thank you, my LORD for the day, 
Thank you my LORD for they day.
"Cause you've given me your Son 
and you know I've just begun,
Thank you my LORD for the day."

We would sing those words over and over again, but each time through we would ask for suggestions on words to substitute for the words, "the day."  For instance, we might substitute "friends" or "turkey" or "family."  The list of things we were thankful for was usually endless. Each year on Thanksgiving I use this song as my morning devotion, taking time to list many of the things I am thankful for.  Taking time to thank God for our blessings is at the very heart of this day, whether you live here in Tampa, Florida or you live in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  Today, even more than usual, we should remember the words of the psalmist in Psalm 118 when he tells us that "this is the day that LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!" Live today in God's glory, filled with the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and no matter where you are or what you are doing it will be Thanksgiving Day! Be blessed! And thank all of you for your efforts to praise God in every day life and #SaveThanksgiving!

 "Thank you, my LORD for Jesus!!!"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Top 11 New York City Memories

An FUMC-Kissimmee crew loving life in NYC!
For many years the week before Thanksgiving meant one thing to me: New York City.  Beginning with my own high school United Nation Seminar experience on this week in 1976, I spent many of the next 20 years with groups of teenagers in NYC. In the later years of my ministry the trip often took place during Spring Break for school purposes. I would like to share with you today 11 of my favorite memories from those trips. Most of these stories I have shared before here on the blog; links to those posts are included. Here we go:
  1. On one of the earliest UN Seminars (1978 or '79) we were discussing the concept of bringing peace to the Middle East. Due to a scheduling conflict, the representative for the Palestine Liberation Organization (the PLO was a radical Arab group) and the representative from Israel were, for a few moments, in the same room. We almost got to see what war looked like up close and personal...
  2. On the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty in 1982 a group of us turned our Paul Newman look-alike leader Wallace Sills into an instant celebrity with Asian tourists. That's also the same place where Alan Brown and I sat on Liberty Island watching mentally defective seagulls crash into the rocks off the island while diving for fish. That inspired another Brown/Jones unreleased classic song, Watching the Seagulls Crash!
  3. Over the years we saw many of the greatest shows that Broadway had to offer, including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music, Cats, A Chorus Line and Rent. We also saw shows like Shenandoah, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Starlight Express, Movin' Out!, Good Vibrations, The Scarlet Pimpernel, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Beauty and the Beast and Once Upon A Mattress. And with the exception of Cats they were all wonderful...
  4. We saw the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular a number of times. Almost every person who sends me their memories of these trips mentions the living nativity in that show, complete with live animals- including camels. Very moving and truly spectacular!
  5. The food was always memorable, whether it was eating at pizza places, Chinatown, tiny deli/stores or from street corner carts like we did in the early years, or dining at Mama Leone'sCarmine's or Ollie's Noodles like we did later on. We also often had meals at Planet HollywoodThe Hard Rock Cafe or The All-Star Cafe. For my favorite food-related story, check out the Chinatown Chicken Head.
  6. Several of the most memorable moments of our New York adventures were provided by the dynamic duo of Charles Freedle & Mike Mercadante from Springfield Friends Meeting. You can read 3 such tales by clicking here and checking out a great vintage post!
  7. On my last trip in 2005 the group from Wesley Memorial UMC was waiting at LaGuardia airport. I convinced them we were waiting on a shuttle bus or van, when in fact I had pre-arranged limos. When they pulled up and the kids saw my name on the signs (see picture) they went nuts! 
  8. When we first started going to NYC, Times Square was a terrible place full of hookers and drug dealers. By 2005 it was one of the safest, most tourist friendly places in the city.  Walking to the Virgin Megastore (and sticking those Virgin: $9.99 sale stickers on each other) became a very late night tradition. That and cheesecake at the Celebrity Deli located in our hotel.
  9. Speaking of hotels, from the late 1980's on we stayed at the Milford Plaza in the heart of the Theater District- 45th & 8th. But before that I also had groups at the Hotel Tudor (42nd & 2nd) and the Madison Towers (38th & Madison). The Towers had phones in the bathrooms (that's me on that very phone in 1982, pictured), which we thought was the ultimate in luxury...
  10. In the early years we used to go worship on Sunday morning at 15th Street Friends Meeting or Marble Collegiate Church. At 15 Street the "silent worship" often turned in to a political debate. One year at Marble Collegiate (despite the preaching of the legendary Norman Vincent Peale) we had a guy sitting near us who snored so loudly we couldn't help but laugh. Shorty afterward, we started doing our own worship...
  11. Great stories from the Kissimmee years include the year we lost Jennifer Johns; the strange incident of the well-dressed African-American man photo-bombing our group picture at the UN; Angie Whalin carrying a gigantic stuffed animal all over town; Jacob Lupfer nearly being arrested for buying illegal t-shirts; Jerry Hanbery horrifying Teresa Reep on the stairs ou the Statue of Liberty; Jill Souther on crutches navigating NYC; and around 63 stories about Jocelyn Sessions! And who could forget the magical hot chocolate that started every day from Oh-La-La?  Great memories and great people!
There is so much more, including mission projects handing out sandwiches to the poorest of the poor in the depths of Grand Central Station and working in the coldest place anyone has ever been with Habitat for Humanity- but that's it for today! Great memories from some great years. But I will forever regret not staying just once for the Macy's Parade...maybe someday! Tomorrow's the big day! Enjoy and be blessed!!!

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The No Turkey Thanksgiving Feast

During my 28 years in youth ministry the Sunday before Thanksgiving always held a very special significance. For many years I was often in New York City (come back for tomorrow's post) with some of my youth in the days preceding the holiday. Some years it was because I was attending a National Youth Workers Convention during that weekend. And for a few special years it was because the Sunday before- and on at least a few occasions the Sunday after- Thanksgiving was the home of The No Turkey Thanksgiving Feast!

The concept of TNTTF was very simple and elegant. All of the youth and their families were invited to the church during our normal Sunday evening youth group time to share in a meal and worship together. Every one was asked to bring food to share, and there was only one guideline- NO TURKEY! We knew there would be enough of that in the days to follow- or we didn't want their leftovers. It just depended on the year. This was a way of seeking to connect with the families of our students, many of whom were not church members. It was also a simple means of celebrating all we had to be thankful for, as families, individuals and a group. I tried to be as creative as possible with worship, allowing lots of participation and sharing- never a sermon! Over the years we only got to do this a handful of times, but each experience was significant and meaningful. It was just one more way that we helped a youth group become a FAMILY!

I should start this remembrance by telling you that while my memory for such things is VERY good, it is entirely possible (in fact, likely!) that the story you are about to read happened over the space of two dinners, not all at once. But it makes a better tale this way, so I'm sticking with it! As with many student ministry functions, the heart and soul of the event was food. And one particular year at the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee. one of our families made the food the most memorable thing to ever happen at a TNTTF.  The Esry family was a big part of our ministry. Caitlin and Bethany were part of our youth family, and their parents were very involved as well, with their mom serving as the church's Children's Director for a time. There were also younger brothers who were not of youth group age yet. They had a very unique sense of humor. Adhering to the letter of the "No Turkey" rule, Craig brought SPAM to share with the crowd. But not just any SPAM. He had put several cans together and molded the mystery meat into the shape of- wait for it - a TURKEY! It was at once creative, fascinating and more than a little repulsive, but it was the talk of the meal. For at least a little while. As with any church potluck, the really important part of the meal was the dessert table. As folks grazed through the plethora of options one of the things they came across were what appeared to be truffles, coated in delicious looking chocolate- some dark and some white. They were quickly snatched up by the vultures hovering around the desserts. A few moments later, there were gasps, moans and shouts of disbelief. It seems that the Esry's had struck again! Under the scrumptious looking chocolate outside was not a cake or gooey dessert filling, but a BRUSSEL SPROUT! The shock and surprise on the faces of those biting into them was absolutely priceless. It gave us a huge laugh, a great memory, and yet another reason to be thankful for the family we had become and the sense of community we shared. 

I am blessed to have so many fond memories of so many creative moments in student ministry, and each TNTTF came with its own special memories. As I have written 1000 times before, I believe that the primary purpose of a youth ministry is building relationships that connect us all to Jesus, and TNTTF was another means to that goal. Having a SPAM turkey and brussel sprouts for dessert certainly gave us a very unique connection- and for at least one evening, we ate, worshiped and celebrated as family. And that was something to be thankful for. Be blessed my friends!

Because of Jesus. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Real Christians Don't Curse (A Rant)

A while back I observed a conversation on Twitter that simply amazed me. A minor "Christian Celebrity" had used the word "ass" in a tweet- and he didn't mean donkey. This drew a number of responses. Some just laughed. Several people jokingly chastised him. A few others lightly reprimanded him. And then came the doozy. He was asked if he was still a Christian- because as the writer pointed out, "Real Christians don't curse."

Really? So that's what it comes down to? That's what our faith is all about? We believe that God sent His only Son to live among us, to teach us how to love, to bring us a new covenant, to die for our sins and to rise from the dead so that we could live out this eternal truth among our fellow human beings- "Real Christians don't curse."

There are words that I find terribly offensive, and I very seldom use them. They are words that humans choose to give a special foul significance to, for there is no biblical list of banned words. When Jesus commanded us to "Swear not at all" He was speaking about always telling the truth and not swearing on the Bible or your first born son- "Let your yes be yes and your no be no!" The 3rd Commandment tells us not to take the LORD's name in vain, but as the late Rich Mullins used to say what that really means is to not take the meaning out of God's name. That's what "in vain" means. If Rich was right, then a "GD" is no more offensive to God than an "OMG." Either way, we are using the name of God without meaning. But this post is not a referendum on cursing and swearing (or cussin'- I'm from NC ya'll!), and if you think that is the issue here- well, you are just proving my point that we are missing the point. 

"Real Christians don't curse."  How did we arrive at this? What was the historic moment when our faith became about the things we don't do? I am so tired of reading about the things that Real Christians avoid. They don't drink. They don't gamble. They don't support gay marriage. They don't dance. Apparently they hate Obamacare and picture Jesus as some sort of Rambo look-alike. They don't serve those little wafers for Holy Communion because they are nasty. They don't curse. To the people who espouse such philosophy, Christianity is nothing but a list of laws that can be used to judge others. Another group once did that. They were called Pharisees - or as Jesus liked to call them, "a brood of vipers." Certainly, there are things that scripture commands us not to do. But Jesus came because we were not capable of keeping the law. If we could have done it on our own, Jesus would not have been necessary. So despite our best efforts, we sin. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak..."

I despise the phrase Real Christians (as it is usually accompanied by the undertone of "I am one and YOU are not!"), but there is a biblical definition- "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself." It's found in Matthew 22:36-40, and it's very clear. These are things Christians do. Wouldn't it be awesome if the news was filled with stories (and there are plenty of these stories to tell) of Christians taking care of the homeless, feeding the hungry and loving those who differ with us- instead of the usual *^&# about who we are against and what we are protesting? Because here's the deal- not doing things others may see as outwardly "sinful" and protesting the things that people who think like us are against are much easier than loving your neighbor. And Real Christians love.

Philip Yancey once wrote that "Christians get very angry with other Christians who sin differently than they do"- and that is soooo true. We love to throw stones. So next time you feel inclined to make an ass of yourself because another believer called someone an ass, go read John 8:1-8. Then lay down your stones, walk away without judging, and go share Jesus' love with that person and the world. There are times when we have to go to a neighbor and confront their sins, but it must be done in love. If we all did that when we encounter struggling and hurting people instead of passing judgement on whether their faith is real or not, our churches would not be able to hold the crowds that would show up on Sunday mornings. They would be so ready to meet the Jesus they had seen in our lives. And people whose lives reflect the radical love of Christ- those are the Real Christians.  It's the @#*! truth!  :) 

Because of Jesus, 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The One Thing

The Beatitudes (a section of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:3-10) offer us an amazing insight into the heart of God. The late Rich Mullins once told me that this scripture is the condensed version of everything Jesus taught. Yet most of its concepts are so foreign to us today, even in the church.  Our culture is not fond of the meek, the merciful or the peacemakers. We in USAmerica certainly don't understand being persecuted for Jesus' sake. But perhaps nothing is a foreign to us as the concept of being "pure in heart."

I used to think that being "pure in heart" meant moving beyond sin; that my heart would be pure when I was free of sin and fully in the arms of God. I know now even being in the arms of God, even walking with Christ everyday and living my life under guidance of the Holy Spirit, will NEVER keep me free from sin. I am human, therefore I will sin. That is the Biblical truth. I think being "pure in heart" means something altogether different. In the movie City SlickersCurly (played by Jack Palance) is asked what the meaning of life is by Billy Crystal's character, and he responds by holding up a finger and saying, "One thing."  When asked what the one thing is, he tells Crystal that he has to figure that out for himself. Rich addressed this in song, pointing out that when Jesus becomes our "one thing" then we begin to become one of the "pure in heart."  We do not become sin free, but we do understand what it means to repent and know the grace of God. We focus our lives on the things of God and the teachings of Jesus. We begin to understand that while there may be more in our life than our relationship with Christ, there is actually nothing else we need. Rich wrote, "Everybody I know says they need just one thing, but what they really mean is they need just one thing more...You're my one thing, and the pure in heart shall see God." 

The truth is we are not likely attain this pureness either, at least not on this side of Heaven, because we are so easily distracted. But we can strive for it. We can seek to make Jesus our one thing. Notice I didn't say strive to make church our one thing, because the church so often distorts what Jesus taught with its own history and bias. If you make Jesus your one thing, you will lose some friends ("What will people think when they hear that I'm a Jesus Freak...). Your world view will change, and the only citizenship that will matter to you is the one you hold in the Kingdom of God. You will understand that politics have absolutely nothing to do with following the Christ. You will know that "the least of these" people in our society are of great value to Jesus (See Matthew 25). You will treat people differently, ceasing to judge and offering love to even those who despise you. And the more you make Jesus your one thing, the closer you get to a clear picture of the heart of God.  That is an amazing promise. And the best part is you don't actually have to do anything. You just have to surrender your heart, and be willing to live without the "one thing more."  Let Jesus take over, and you will discover that you can be meek, and merciful, and a peacemaker. You will "hunger and thirst for righteousness." And you may just see God in a whole new way. You will have what my friend Sabrina calls "I spy God" moments that you never expect and can barely imagine. You will know the presence of God in your life.

I know this is a rambling post, but God is putting it more and more on my heart to remind my readers that Radical Christianity is all about following Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our lives. Anything (including organized religion) that draws us away from that one thing is a distraction we cannot tolerate if we seek to be "pure in heart." My prayer is that I (and you!) may take another step towards that purity every day.

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Shout Outs! (#SaveThanksgiving Edition)

Can you believe November is almost over and that Thanksgiving is upon us?  2013 has been a blur, and today seemed like a good time to take a step back and remember some of the people, places and things I have to be thankful for this year. It's one more step in my drive to #SaveThanksgiving in my heart by remembering the blessings God has placed in my life. I hope it will encourage you to make a similar list. So here we go...

I am thankful for...
  • Marilyn, Will & Conner. Obviously. :)
  • Jun & Jennifer (Bob) Kuramochi having a healthy baby boy (Noah) this past Thursday morning. Mom and baby are both well, and I am certain big sister Josephine is excited as well. Praise God for a wonderful family!!!
  • My Mom arriving is tomorrow and spending all of Thanksgiving week with us, and we are all so excited. She will be coaching Will as he prepares the feast again this year!
  • Speaking of the feast and of Will, his girlfriend Michelle will be joining us for the first time. I am so thankful for her and the love and joy she brings into our son's life. What a blessing!!!
  • Old friends like Ann Saunders Hale, Jeremy Godwin, Marie Allen Duke, Cindy Martin, Cyndi Reep Browning, David Hobson, Jan Purcelle Koerner, David White, Jennifer Wood Jones, Rebecca Jackson, Mike Newsome, Lauren Carr Cacciatore, Susie Thomas, Lisa Kraus Spires, Laura Wheeler, Jill Painter Watson, Edith Shepherd and others who have checked on me, encouraged me and picked me up when I was down at various times over the past year. You guys ROCK!!!
  • The nurses and staff at St. Joseph's Hospital here in Tampa. I love you all and hope to never see you again!
  • The reunion of old friends from FUMC-Kissimmee this past April was one of the great weekends of this year- or any other! It is a true gift from God to have so many people who have left footprints on my heart and are still part of my life.
  • And speaking of that reunion, the 5 days I spent with Teresa Reep Tysinger before and after the event are days I will never forget. It is so true- "the miles may separate as the years roll along, but the bond between friends will remain ever strong!"
  • Millie Simmons. It's been a rough year for Millie, and yet she is a fountain of strength and encouragement to myself and others. As well as the very BEST secretary any youth pastor ever had!  :)
  • Dr. Welch, who I continue to see every Monday morning and who is taking such good care of my right foot. The healing continues nicely, and he is a joy to talk to as well.
  • Todd & Kristin Willis, and and their unwavering support of both me and this blog. Knowing you are reading makes it fun for me to write.
  • Some of my oldest friends will be gathering the day after Thanksgiving in Greensboro, and I hate we will miss it again. But I am always thankful for you all- Steve, Carl, Alan, Denise, Tammy, Beth and all the rest. Some bonds will never be broken.
  • Another wonderful friend from way back is back in my life this year, and I couldn't be happier to be chatting with Sabrina Perry on a regular basis. She challenges and inspires me- and cracks me up!  What more could you ask for?
  • The constant support of my ever-growing Twitter family. They give me love and make me smile so often. Staying connected with old friends like James Robinson, Ashley Goad, Brent Bill, Jill Gilbreth Bryant, Scott Wagoner and Brook Teoli Phelps is a blessing. I look forward to meeting people like @jasonbhuffman@itslizawithaz@tljones91@amykiane@pyschomomi and @gasface99 & @citrus_sunshine in person some day. And I can't wait for Spring Training 2014 and a family gathering with @RLDamronJGanley3 and @JCClay24 here in Tampa! Even if they are all Yankees fans...
  • Taco Tuesdaze, Wacky Wednesdays, Soulful Sundays and every other day we get to share with Lisa Jewett. She is such a big part of of our family!
  • Van Dyke Church. To quote Pastor Matthew, "I LOVE my church!"
  • Susan McBane Tuggle, who keeps me on my toes and makes my life a little more interesting with every text and e-mail. Love you, Boom-Boom!
  • The Gastler Family for honoring me by asking me to participate in Jen & Will's wedding a few weeks ago. What a wonderful day and a wonderful family!
  • Jerry Hanbery. He is ALWAYS there when I need him. Thanks for being you, Sundance!
  • And finally, if you are reading this and don't see your name listed above, please know I am thankful for YOU! I love writing this blog, and I love knowing people enjoy it. It's a real blessing in my life.
And of course mostly I am thankful every day for a loving God who brings all these blessings to my life and who gave us Jesus so that we might live life together through him. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, one and all, and be sure to offer praise to the bringer of the feast- whatever that feast may be!  Love you guys!
Because of Jesus,

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Story I'd Love To Forget

November 22nd, 1963 was a big day in my life. I was 4 years old and living in Asheboro, NC. My mom and I got up early that morning and drove to Greensboro (the BIG city to us) so that I could be on the local kid's TV show- The Old Rebel Show. It was Wild West Day on the show, and like every 4 year old in 1963 I loved playing cowboy. The Old Rebel's sidekick, Pecos Pete, always had a "quick draw" contest with the kids on Wild West Day, and I was there in full cowboy garb and ready with my toy 6-shooter. I remember very few details of course, but I do know this- I won! I got to pick a prize (I think I picked a toy airplane that would actually fly) and get my own close-up shaking Pete's hand. The way that show worked at the time was they filmed in the morning and showed the episode on the local CBS affiliate in the afternoon. We drove back to Asheboro and I went to Mrs. Poe's pre-school as always. I excitedly told my classmates and the teachers about my exciting morning, and we were all set to watch me have my moment in the sun that afternoon. It should have been the biggest moment of my very young life.

When we turned the TV on and sat down to watch my moment of glory, something was terribly wrong. Old men were sitting and talking about something horrible that had happened. People were very upset, and almost immediately the teachers began crying. They tried to explain what was going on- that a famous and important man had been shot and killed in place far away from us- but we didn't really understand. What we did understand was that The Old Rebel Show would not be on that day. In fact, after several days of constant news coverage, my one shining moment never made it to the airwaves. And I was very sad...

I probably would never remember the TV show at all were it not for the horror that took place in Dallas that same day. The world changed. It got much darker over the next 10 years. We don't know how the past 50 years might have been different if President Kennedy had been able to serve 2 full terms, but we can make some guesses. We would have been out of Vietnam sooner. Civil rights legislation would have come faster and had more bite. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy may have been prevented. There might have been a Kennedy dynasty in the White House, eliminating Watergate and the total chaos of politics in the years since. We will just never know. All we know for sure is that our nation lost much of its' innocence on this day 50 years ago, and that we lost a charismatic and courageous leader. And I am still very sad...

50 years. Beginning when I was a teenager, I read everything I could find about JKF. I studied the conspiracy theories about his death (I don't know what really happened, but I am one of THOSE who believes we do not know the truth), watched the documentaries and read the histories of his 1000 days in office. Whatever else you may think of him, he was a man who inspired hope, even in the midst of dark days and threats of nuclear destruction. We could use such hope again. It makes me feel really old to know I can remember November 22, 1963. It is a day I will always remember. And it is a day I wish I could forget.

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Magic Moments: It Only Takes A Spark

Today's Throwback Thursday features a youth ministry Magic Moment from the dark ages of 1978 and my glorious summers working staff at Quaker Lake Camp. Those years are filled with so many great stories about so many wonderful people, but this one will always hold a special place in my heart. Camp was nothing if not an adventure...

There were many grand traditions at QLC in those days, from tossing staff member into the lake to gathering for vespers every evening on the hillside. Camp was full of mischief and fun as well as opportunities to worship God- but seldom did those 2 things coincide. The greatest of all the traditions, as it is at many camps, was our closing Campfire Circle every Friday night. The ritual was the same each week, no matter the age of the campers. We would process deep in to the woods and be seated on wooden benches around a roaring fire. Someone would lead us in a couple of songs, and then the campers would be given a short devotional talk and an explanation of how this was their time to share. We would settle into silence, broken only by campers and staff sharing what was on their hearts and tossing sticks into the fire as a symbol of sharing in all we done that week. It was often a very emotional time. We would then light individual candles on small wooden bases and walk back through pitch darkness, with only the flickering flames to light our way along the winding path. Upon reaching the main campus, there were several different ways we displayed our candles, joining the lights together as one. Sometimes we placed them on a cross. Sometime we placed them on the softball field in the shape of a cross. And sometimes we places them on the lake itself and just watched as they floated like stars on the water. No matter how many times I was part of those moments, they always moved me. They were very worshipful occasions.

 In the summer of '78 we were just finishing a 6th, 7th & 8th grade camp, which those of us on staff always thought of as a very tough week. On Friday night we waited for night to fall and then headed off to the Campfire Circle. After sharing in the time together we did our ritual candle lighting. Everyone held their candle securely as we marched through the woods, across the Rainbow Bridge and around the lake to the dock. The dock was "H" shaped in those days, and the entire camp walked out on the dock with candles lit. Jan Osborne, who was a newcomer to the QLC family that summer and the camp director that week, said a few words explaining the significance of sharing our light with the world. She was explaining that in a few moments we would all place our candles on the lake, where the combined light was always a wondrous sight to see. As she leaned over to demonstrate, the sleeve of the flannel shirt she was wearing as a jacket got too close to the candle next to her...and Jan was on fire! Joseph Neal helped her get the burning shirt off and stomp out the fire as everyone looked on in shock. Jan was fine, and determined to give this week of camp the spiritual ending it deserved, so she went right back to her speech. She told everyone to place their candle on the lake, and then asked Martha Ratledge to lead us in singing Pass It On, a camp favorite. As we stood on the dock and admired the candles on the lake, Martha began to play her guitar, and the first line was sung: It only takes a spark, to get a fire going... I don't know if I laughed first, but I do know I laughed out loud, and so did many others. The moment was gone. Suddenly everyone there was doubled up with laughter. Jan tried to restore some dignity, but it was too late.  I am sure someone closed with a prayer, but I don't remember it at all.  And that is the last thing I remember about Jan Osborne's brief QLC adventure.

The great things about memories is that they often become more meaningful with age. At that moment, it was hilarious. Now, some 35 years later, it serves as a reminder of a great truth as well. It really does "only take a spark to get a fire going." And we never know where the spark will come from, or who will light it in our lives. Several months after this event, Jan invited me to go to a youth ministry conference with Joseph and a few others. The main presenter was a guy named J. David Stone, and among the things he said was that youth ministry was a calling- that some of us would make it our life's work. That was radical news at a time when youth pastors were simply considered to be young men and women who dreamed of being "real" pastors some day. God used that conference to change my life. And God used Jan to light that spark. 

So Jan (wherever you may be), thanks for all of the fires you lit and for one of my favorite Magic Moments. I hope that in my own small way I took that spark and passed it on...

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Team Jesus

Last night I tweeted this: Tonight is one of those times when I am so thankful that Jesus is SOOOO much bigger than any denominational label or theological tradition. What follows flowed out of that prayer...

When I first moved to Florida from NC in the spring of 1994, one of the most common questions I was asked concerned my allegiance to college football teams. To many of my new friends my faith, my youth ministry experiences and my plans for the future of the student ministry were all well and good, but what they really wanted to know was this- Florida, Miami or Florida State? These were 3 of the best programs in the country, and I needed to choose. I explained to them that while I had a long love affair with college football (even though in NC it's just a time killer until basketball season starts!), I really didn't cheer for any of those teams.  I might as well have claimed to be an atheist. For so many people, it's not about the sport. It's about THEIR team. And that's true everywhere, not just in Florida.

Lately I have begun to wonder if the same is not true of many of us who call ourselves Christians. We have a hard time heeding the advice of the sign above- we constantly seem to be majoring in the minors. For those of you who don't know my history in the church, let me recap. I was a "birthright Friend"- born into the Quaker church. When I was 5 we moved and my family became very active at a United Methodist Church, where we stayed until a pastor left and took people with him- splitting the church, devastating my parents and leaving us at home on Sundays until I was 13. My parents never really went back to church. I went to a Quaker youth group in 8th grade (1972) because my best friend kept inviting me (and there was this girl...), and from then until 1994 my identity was very wrapped up in the Society of Friends. I attended Meeting for Worship and youth group. I worked at a Quaker summer camp and attended a Quaker college. I worked as a youth pastor in 4 different churches and was even a the regional director of Youth & Religious Education for New England Yearly Meeting for a short time. I served on national boards, spoke at national and regional conferences, and was the music leader (in the days before music and worship started being the same word) at a couple of national youth events. I was Mister Quaker. And for most of those years I was much more likely to answer questions about faith and theology by attempting to give a Quaker perspective than I was to tell you what Jesus said. I knew more about MY denomination than I did about my faith. And that seemed normal to me.

When I went to work for a UMC in 1994 it seemed logical to me that I would throw the weight of my support behind my new "home team." But there were several issues with that. First of all, I wasn't "certified" by any of the right people or organizations to take any leadership roles outside of the local church. I also found myself running into different perspectives on faith and theology than I had encountered in my Quaker years. As frustrating as that was at times, it forced me to take a hard look at what I believed and why I believed it. More and more I began to realize that no matter the question in Christianity, the answer is Jesus! My belief system became less about the Quaker Faith & Practice or the UMC Book of Discipline and more about the gospels. When I went to work for a UCC church in 2000, I morphed a little more before heading back to spend another 7 years with the Methodists. For the past 7 years my family has attended a UMC church- although it is somewhat free of many traditional UMC trappings. And yet I still have very strong ties to my Quaker roots- including my official church membership. Not unlike the college football scenario at the beginning of this post, there are people who just didn't get it. If I can't identify myself by my denomination, what AM I really? Calling myself a Jesus Follower just doesn't seem to cut it with way too many people. Just loving the game isn't enough. They feel like I need a team.

Lately there has been a lot of hand-wringing and consternation about the future survival of both of the denominations I have served at great length. Both are struggling with issues that divide the church, and having a hard time focusing on the ONE who brings us together. I have avoided discussions of denominational politics, because quite frankly I see no positive value in them. The church is not in the business of fixing institutions- we are in the business of loving people. While I believe that the long histories, great works and proud traditions of both groups still have much to offer the world, I have to wonder if perhaps we have become so entrenched as "fans" that we are asking the wrong questions. Should we really be focused on whether or not we can continue to create new Quakers or new Methodists? Should we spend so much time and energy trying to show the world that we have some sort of unique insight into the greater work of God? There is much work to be done in our society, and we do that work not in the name of John Wesley, George Fox, John Calvin, Martin Luther or even the Apostle Paul. We do it in the name of Jesus. And all of our theological infighting over how to do communion and baptisms, over gay marriage, over political issues and over who is qualified to lead God's people are not the things our Savior spent his time preaching about, and often distract us from loving others in Jesus' name. Maybe I am being too simplistic. But perhaps simplistic is exactly what we need. Denominations give us rules, hierarchies and 'proper" ways of doing things. Jesus taught us to love, go and tell. WE have made it complicated.

I am a pacifist and I love silence, prayer and other spiritual disciplines because of my Quaker roots, but also because I believe it is what Jesus taught. I believe in the Holy Trinity and the power of corporate worship and symbolism because the UMC taught me the Apostle's Creed when I was a child and because I have experienced those things. My brief time with the UCC helped me to understand the need for the Church to be open and affirming to all who seek the love of God whose name is Jesus. And my favorite church leader in the world today may well be Pope Francis, not because of Catholic theology but because of his willingness to be bold with the actual words and teachings of the Christ. In short, I am a potpourri of denominational influences. And I am so thankful that I am.

So if you ask me these days what team I cheer for, it's an easy answer. I'm Team Jesus. And that's all you really need to know.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Greatest of All-Time!

People make lists all the time of the "greatest this" and the "greatest that." Such lists are wonderful fodder for discussion and argument, as they are all based on personal opinion and taste.  But today I offer you a list with NO room for debate. With apologies to several Thanksgiving episodes of Friends and the Slapsgiving episode of How I Met Your Mother, I present the single greatest sitcom event in the history of the holiday. In fact, not only is it the greatest Thanksgiving episode ever, it is in my top 5 sitcom episodes of all time. Many of my readers are too young to remember WKRP in Cincinnati, and it is hard to find even in reruns. For the uninitiated, it is the story of a ragtag radio station run by a station manager (Arthur "The Big Guy" Carlson) who is totally inept and afraid of the owner- his mother. In this episode he decides to pull off a big Thanksgiving promotion for the station on his own- without the help of any of the semi-sane members of his team. He rents a helicopter and distributes live turkeys at a local shopping center, as an unsuspecting (and always clueless) Les Nessman reports live from the scene. From there, things go horribly wrong. As Les reports at one point, "OH THE HUMANITY!!!" Watch this 30 second highlight reel of The Turkey Drop, and then find the full episode somewhere. Experience the wonders of Turkey Day as only the Big Guy, Les, Andy Travis, Jennifer Marlowe, Bailey Quarters, Herb Tarlek, Venus Flytrap and Dr. Johnny Fever can give them to you. And then tell me I'm wrong.

BEST. THANKSGIVING. EPISODE. EVER! And getting to see this every year is just one more reason to #SaveThanksgiving! Have a blesssed day!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kick-Start Your Week!

                        Psalm 33 (The Message)
    Good people, cheer God!

    Right-living people sound best when praising.
Use guitars to reinforce your Hallelujahs!
    Play his praise on a grand piano!
Invent your own new song to him;
    give him a trumpet fanfare.
For God’s Word is solid to the core;

    everything he makes is sound inside and out.
He loves it when everything fits,
    when his world is in plumb-line true.
Earth is drenched
    in God’s affectionate satisfaction.
The skies were made by God’s command;

    he breathed the word and the stars popped out.
He scooped Sea into his jug,
    put Ocean in his keg.
Earth-creatures, bow before God;

    world-dwellers—down on your knees!
Here’s why: he spoke and there it was,
    in place the moment he said so. 
God takes the wind out of Babel pretense,

    he shoots down the world’s power-schemes.
God’s plan for the world stands up,
    all his designs are made to last.
Blessed is the country with God for God;
    blessed are the people he’s put in his will.
From high in the skies God looks around,

    he sees all Adam’s brood.
From where he sits
    he overlooks all us earth-dwellers.
He has shaped each person in turn;
    now he watches everything we do.
No king succeeds with a big army alone,

    no warrior wins by brute strength.
Horsepower is not the answer;
    no one gets by on muscle alone.
Watch this: God’s eye is on those who respect him,

    the ones who are looking for his love.
He’s ready to come to their rescue in bad times;
    in lean times he keeps body and soul together.
We’re depending on God;

    he’s everything we need.
What’s more, our hearts brim with joy
    since we’ve taken for our own his holy name.
Love us, God, with all you’ve got-
that’s what we’re depending on.  
  It's all about you's not about us. Use us to change our world in your name this week.  Amen & AMEN!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Would Jesus Wear a Rolox?

This vintage post originally appeared on this blog 8/02/2011. It appears hear again today because a blog post I read yesterday reminded me how much this way of  representing Jesus INFURIATES me...

Do you remember the old Ray Stevens song that asked if Jesus would wear a Rolex? I  just heard someone who actually thinks the answer is "yes." Late Sunday night (actually around 3 AM Monday morning) I found myself awake and channel surfing. I came across a Tampa area TV preacher on local cable access who was talking about politicians and the debt crisis. At first I stopped because it seemed to be just political rhetoric and I found it humorous. Then he began to tell us what Jesus taught about the whole issue. I thought my head would explode. I have often thought that there are many Christians who would do a great service to the cause of the Jesus Revolution if they would just shut up. This was one of those times. This man was insane. He was on my TV telling me that Jesus would be against giving aid to the homeless, the hungry, the elderly and sick. He was telling me that Jesus taught that we were all responsible for our own actions, and therefore should handle our own problems. He mentioned pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps several times- as a teaching of Jesus! He quoted Jesus as saying (and said it was from the Sermon on the Mount), "God helps those who help themselves." It's not even from scripture, much less the SOTM. He talked about how we as individuals should be self-sufficient, and not rely on society to support us. He proclaimed that "true believers" do not want their tax dollars used to support those in need. Everyone gets what they earn and deserve, he continued. If a drug addict needs health care, Jesus teaches that "it's certainly not my problem," he proclaimed. He suggested that "the church," not the government (implied in that is "not my church, but you know, YOUR church"), take care of the homeless and the hungry, the sick and the elderly, the widows and the orphans- but only if they join the church first. He told us he knew that Jesus would be in favor of  tax breaks for the wealthy because they are the ones who support His (or was it his?) church. He mentioned that wealthy churches do not need to share their financial blessings to support the ministries and salaries of pastors at smaller churches because it is a waste of resources. Christianity is about capitalism and the survival of the fittest, and if is a church is weak, BOOM! Kiss it bye-bye! We are USAmericans, and what made our nation great was people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and making something of themselves. If people are being left behind in our great nation today, then they just need to pull harder. And then came his big finish- if people are homeless and hungry, left out or left behind in our country today, it is because they do not really follow Jesus. If you believe enough (and send money to his ministry) God will bless you financially. It's as simple as that! I think I dozed off for the part when he said that Jesus actually would wear a Rolex...

I have written here before that I have no problem having dialogue with people who have different political or theological view points from my own. But when someone combines the two and totally misrepresents and misquotes Jesus, I have a problem. I believe that for Christians there is no higher authority than the teachings of Jesus. This "preacher" was preaching a popular brand of crap, but it is crap all the same. Just one of his points- "we all get what we deserve"- might have been enough to have God warming up the lightning bolts. If that's true, what was the purpose of Jesus? Is grace a lie? At the end of his show there was an e-mail address and I fired one off to him. It read simply:  "I challenge you- in fact, I double dog dare you- to find me one teaching of Jesus in scripture that would support any of the the ideas expressed in your sermon tonight. Just one. Go ahead. Search the gospels. I'll wait."

I did not get a reply from him, and I won't- because what he is searching for does not exist. In fact, the words of Jesus pretty much completely contradict the things he was teaching.  We are called to care for another and bear one another's burdens. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, and taught that everyone is our neighbor. In other words, we're all in this together. The writer of Acts describes the first century church in the following manner in Acts 2:42-47 (NIV): They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

There are plenty of churches in our world that offer great teaching and uplifting worship. What sets apart churches that seek to be part of the Jesus Revolution is that they understand that concepts like love, fellowship, community, family and servant were more important to Jesus than things like numbers, prestige, power and wealth. Jesus said he came for the sick. He said the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He said whatever you do for the least of these your brothers you do also to Him. So if you come across anyone teaching a prosperity gospel that focuses on power and wealth, please- tell them to just shut up! And that's all I've got to say about that...

Because of Jesus,