Tuesday, April 29, 2014

#DangerDays: Drew Ward's Story

Today's #DangerDays guest post comes from my Twitter buddy Drew Ward, whom I have grown to love as a brother. Until now. A Duke fan? Really, Drew? As if the HIMYM finale bashing isn't bad enough! But regardless, it's an honor to have Drew share with us today. A bold step of faith into the danger indeed...

Hey guys, I'm Drew and I love Jesus, long walks on the beach, comedy movies, Seinfeld, comic books, live music, classic cars, the NY Yankees, Jets, Rangers (that's hockey – not those counterfeits who try to play baseball in Texas), Knicks, and gun to my head, I guess Duke basketball.  I have an aversion to belly buttons, Boston accents, eggs, and the How I Met Your Mother finale.  Seriously – thank you for taking the time to read my story.  I hope it blesses you and I pray that if you've experienced something similar, you don't feel like you're alone:  

How I walked away from an abusive pastor....

As a teen, I swore I would never live in this North Carolina town again!  And so I moved, several times, in fact.  Very long and complicated story short, my wife and I felt a calling and even a longing to come back to this area of western NC!  And during a visit here to scout houses/apartments, we attended a church service and we heard from God very clearly and directly that day.  He told both of us that He was going to be calling us to something big.  He wasn't going to say what it was, but only that we had better be ready when He called. 

So in May 2008, we make our move back.  THAT was a Danger Day in and of itself as took a gigantic leap of faith moving forward with our plans, not knowing for sure if the house we owned in Illinois would sell – but God came through and it did!  We felt a pull to a certain church and quickly became regular lay attenders and subsequently, members.  In late-2009, the youth pastor at the time resigned very abruptly.  We were called into the pastor's office one Sunday after morning worship during all of this and the pastor asked us to spend the week praying about a need that has come up in the church (we were unaware of what was going on) and that God had given him our names to fill this need.  My wife and I instantly recalled hearing from God that one Sunday afternoon just a year earlier. 

The next Sunday, we were offered the position of part-time youth leaders.  I was upfront with my pastor that I did not grow up in a Christian home, had not even gone to youth group as a teen, let alone led one, nor had I ever studied youth ministry in college.  I certainly felt behind the eight-ball, so to speak.  I was reassured and began the position.  I soon felt God's call to full-time ministry, enrolled at Indiana Wesleyan University in 2011, and after the first year holding this position, my pastor and I began to have discussions about a full-time position.  “After the first of the year” (2011) was what I was initially told.  It got to be July and nothing had changed.  I was working two other jobs, had a 2-year-old child, and was taking classes at IWU in addition to my role in the church.  It began to take a toll on my marriage.  My wife and I prayed about this and knew that there had to be changes.  We expressed the desire to the pastor and board members to go full-time and how our current circumstances were taking a toll on our marriage.  Long story short, we were offered the position full-time after an interview process, but our pastor never counseled us or offered any kind of support about the state of our marriage.  The only thing he said was, “You think you're overwhelmed now, well you're really about to be.” 

He was very clear that the bar of expectations would be raised upon going full-time, but he never taught me anything about how to meet these expectations.  I had no clue how to go about spending my days.  My tenure felt like four years of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what stuck.  There was no teaching, no discipleship, no emotional support. I didn't even receive a mission statement or goal to work towards.  If there were any suggestions made, they were always very vague and never an attempt to actually teach me.  A vast majority of the feedback I received was strictly negative.  Other times, I would not receive any at all.  A great example of this was this past fall, I collaborated with another local youth group to do a series of 5th Quarter events after local high school football games.  I never heard a peep of feedback as to whether it was a good idea or not, or any kinds of suggestions.  This silence from a man who supposedly had a vision for our church to minister to our immediate community...

In January 2013, my mother was diagnosed with kidney, bladder and ureter cancer.  We had been making plans for me to head up a new Sunday School class directed at college aged and young adults.  This news changed a lot in our lives and obviously made taking on something new very difficult.  I expressed my concerns to my pastor in a staff meeting and his response was, “Well, if we push the start date of this back a month, is that going to give you time to work out your 'personal issues?'  Because this needs to be done right.” 

This man also accompanied us to an international youth convention in Louisville, Kentucky over Christmas break in 2012.  Our first night there, he publicly lambasted me in front of five of my students about being “unorganized.”  The only decision that had not been made or planned out was what time to have breakfast the next morning.  I never received an apology for this.  In fact, I swallowed my own pride and apologized to him for being disorganized.  I apologized for this and several other things during my tenure which I had no business apologizing for, just to attempt to preserve unity in the body.  Recently when I announced my resignation to my students, one of them asked us after service if the pastor had done something to me to cause me to be leaving because she “remembered how he did me in Kentucky.”  I had another young man in my youth group we made a special connection with.  He is an angry kid, going as far as to attempt suicide last year, but God allowed us to really make some inroads with him.  He still reaches out to me from time to time, and called me at Christmas time asking me out of the blue if I “got in trouble with the pastor in Kentucky.”  I didn't give him a straight answer and he said, “I was just curious because I was at the hotel Starbucks one morning and he was in line with the other ladies from the trip complaining to them and just going off about how unorganized you were.”  That was his takeaway from such an awesome and life-changing event.

The last straw for me was when I was physically threatened in front of my wife the day before Thanksgiving.  Earlier that afternoon in a staff meeting, I was giving the pastor some details on a mission trip to Brooklyn, NY, which I was planning to take some of the youth and some people from church.  One of the people I chose to chaperone was a good friend of mine who attended this church with us for six years.  My thought there was to give this man a chance to serve.  He's great with the kids and really doesn't get to serve in church as much as he'd like due to his job in a retail establishment at irregular hours.  Also didn't hurt that he's about 6'4 and 280 pounds – very beneficial going into a rough neighborhood!  Our pastor – who ironically always preached on and drummed up giving opportunity to others – assumed I just wanted to take my buddy just to take him, and even told me so, going so far as to suggest I was lying.  I went home from that meeting in tears.  I told my wife that we needed to really pray because I really felt like this was it.  He never trusted me, he never respected me, and I just no longer had the energy or the zeal to continue the struggle.  This had been a matter of prayer for a couple years, but God told us through prayer on this day to express our feelings to him before service that night and I'd have my answer as to what to do.

That night, I expressed my feelings to him that I honestly felt like resigning and wanted to talk about things.  He jumped to the defensive immediately.  My wife was crying and pleading to him that we didn't want things to get to that point, that church has meant so much to us, and we just want to get on the same page.  He said to her very sharply, “Well if you don't want things to get to this point, then why are you in here in my office talking about resigning?”  I interjected, “Because you're my PASTOR!”  I admittedly said that in an animated fashion, but was very careful not yell at him.  He swung his office chair around, leaned forward, glared at me and said, “You wanna raise your voice to me?” like he wanted to fight.  God told me that I would have my answer by his response.  I meditated on it a couple days, but the day after Thanksgiving, I emailed him my notice and never even got a reply.  We haven't spoken to one another since. 

God never promised me that it was going to be easy – just that it was going to be big. 

God gave me a new job just 3 days later and called us to an amazing new church home that next Sunday.  Here I sit five months later on 1/3 less income than I was earning, but with three times the peace of mind I've had in years.  I'm also working a job where I work from home and can keep my 6-week-old daughter.  We're also at a very awesome church where I'm playing the drums, and under a very awesome teaching pastor.  (One thing I've learned from this whole experience is that there is a HUGE difference between a preacher and a pastor.)  I'm currently on the sidelines of professional ministry and sort of at a crossroads about what may come next.  I once felt like Christian counseling was what I wanted to pursue, but now I don't feel that way at all.  I don't know where I'm headed or what's next.  I voiced these feelings to our current pastor a couple Sundays ago and you know what he told me?  “You know, I think that would have been a big waste.  Not for everyone, but for you specifically, it would have been a waste.  God has BIG things for you!” 


Monday, April 28, 2014

A Graceland Fairytale

Once upon a time...there was a man named Bubba. He lived in two worlds- this planet we all occupy together and a wondrous place called Graceland. Now you won't find Graceland on a regular map, and if you Google it you'll probably be told it was the house Elvis lived in. This was not that Graceland. This was a very different kind of place...

Bubba, being human and not any kind of magical creature, made mistakes in his life. Some were bad, some were not so bad, but they were mistakes. One was so bad that he was locked in the Tall Tower of the dreaded castle Hillsborough County for 7 years, where the local friendly gargoyles made sure he didn't leave until he had been properly punished for what he had done. In the beginning Bubba was very sad and often without hope. But somewhere along the way he remembered something VERY important. He was a citizen of Graceland, and no matter what else was happening in his world he would be OK. You see, Bubba knew the KING. The KING had already called Bubba by name, and had forgiven him for the things he had done. This made Bubba very special, but not at all unique. The KING of Graceland offers grace and forgiveness to everyone. We just have to accept it. 

Then word came from the Royal Court that Bubba was to be freed from the Tall Tower. He could once again travel throughout the land, doing things he had not done and seeing people he had not seen. And so Bubba began to cross drawbridges and expereince life all over again as a free man. He traveled to the magical land of Tropicana Field to see his beloved Tampa Bay Rays play baseball...

He traveled to mystical Clearwater Beach with his fair maiden to eat a REALLY good blackened grouper sandwich and some conch fritters...

And then yesterday Bubba found his way back to his Happy Place, where he visited with Pirates and Ghosts- but more importantly walked down Main Street again with his family and friends in a place where he has shared so many memories with so many people over the years. Word has it that our friend Bubba got a little teary-eyed...

So many people were so happy for Bubba, and they congratulated him on his new found freedom- which was indeed an amazing thing. And the joy Bubba felt as he explored his new life was not to be denied. But the truth is this- the real freedom in his life had been confirmed years before, when he was reminded that the KING of Graceland loved HIM. That all he had done was forgiven and forgotten because of the King's Son. That regardless of what life in this world might throw at him, his happily-ever-after was already assured because of the love of the KING. And so at the end of his magical weekend of travel and rejuvenation, Bubba simply fell into bed and thanked the KING for a life full of blessings and the grace he could never earn or deserve. And then our friend Bubba- with dreams of more adventures and more people who need to know about the wonders of Graceland still dancing in his head- slept like a rock. 

So what's the point of this Graceland Fairytale? Embrace the magic that comes from living in God's grace and spending time with the KING. And always...ALWAYS...remember to say thank you to a God who loves you beyond all measure and to the friends and family who help you to never forget that fact. Have a blessed week, fellow travelers!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Low Sunday

The Sunday after Easter (and the one after Christmas) is known in church circles as Low Sunday. Not a year goes by that this day doesn't remind of this story...

The spring of 2001 found me serving the Union Church of Hinsdale in the western suburbs of Chicago. A large, very traditional church, we had just celebrated Easter with great pomp and circumstance. A huge crowd had filled the building to overflow. Trumpets played, handbells rang out and choirs sang. It was quite a spectacle. The following Sunday one of our Associate Pastors, a young man named Mark Toole, was preaching. Mark was one of my favorite staff members I ever worked with, both as a pastor and as a person. He currently teaches world religions at High Point University in NC. I was sitting up in the pulpit area with Mark, as I was the scripture reader that day. Mark rose and looked at the crowd, which was sparse, certainly compared to the previous week. He addressed the congregation with the following thoughts (my paraphrase): Remember last Sunday? Remember how the choir processed in with the trumpets playing? Remember the amazing sound of a full choir and the great handbells? Remember how amazing you all sounded as we proclaimed that Christ the LORD is Risen Today? Remember how the crowd filled not only the sanctuary, but the overflow area as well? It was truly a wonderful day and the people of this community filled Union Church. So today I just have one more question. All of that captures the feel of what Mark said. His next question is a direct quote that I will never forget. He paused, starred into the crowd and asked loudly and firmly, "So where the hell are they?"  The congregation erupted in snickers and gasps and outright laughter (that would be me...). The point he went on to make, at least in my mind, was very basic. How can, each year and all over the world, so many people hear the message of the resurrection and then go back to living life as if it never happened? It's not about church attendance- in fact my family is missing church today- it's about PASSION! Why are we more concerned with beating the Baptists to the best lunch spots than forgiving our friend who hurt us? Why is it that so many people walk away from our churches each week saying "What a nice service" instead of proclaiming "Jesus is alive...and THAT IS AWESOME!" I wish I knew the answer, or even understood how such things can happen. Thanks Mark, for stepping out of the box for a moment that never fails to remind me that Jesus is to celebrated every day!  I mean really...how can you have a "Low Sunday" when you are walking with the Savior?

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday Shout Outs!

It's almost May- can you believe it? Seems like just yesterday I was trying to #SaveThanksgiving!  But 2014 rolls along, with lots of exciting news and lots of good reasons for another edition of my Saturday Shout Outs!  If fact there is so much shouting to do today I may be hoarse when I'm done. So let's get the ball rolling- and remember, if you have news to share, a prayer request or a cause to lift up, let me know. My blog readers are family to me, even if I've never met ya!

  • So many of us from the FUMC-Kissimmee were saddened this week by the passing of Beth McKenna, wife of Mark and mother to Brooks and Nolan. Mark was part of the best dang youth ministry team ever during my years at First Church, and Beth was always a huge support to me as well. I saw them last year at the reunion and knew she had been fighting illness, but she was in great spirits and seemed to be getting stronger. Her passing was rather sudden. A memorial service will be held May 3rd, 2 PM at the church. Mark shared on Facebook that Beth had always said she wanted no one to wear black at a celebration of her life; the more bright colors the better! I think Hawaiian shirts would bring a big smile to Beth's face...I'm just sayin! Our prayers go out to the family and the many lives she impacted. Beth will be missed.
  • Our friend Karen Chester (Springfield Friends Meeting) discovered an old picture of her family, the Lori Cox family and our family at WDW in 1994 last week. It was a reminder of the many great times we shared with so many wonderful people at the Disney parks over the years. Karen and Lori, (and Jimmy & Jeff!) we miss you guys!
  • Had a great lunch on Wednesday with my good friend Todd Willis (FUMC-K). Always great to catch up with Todd and share a little bit of our hopes and dreams with each other. And I can't wait to see his lovely wife Kristin so we can get serious about her take on all things How I Met Your Mother! She's another big fan...
  • Please keep Susan McBane Tuggle (Quaker Lake Camp) and her family in your prayers. Her mother fell and broke her ankle last weekend and is having a hard time with recovery.
  • Does anyone on all of Facebook post cuter pictures of her kids than Meagan Hill Halquist (FUMC-K)? Seriously, almost every day there is an "awwwwww" worthy picture!
  • Continued prayers for Ashley Goad (Springfield Friends) who is once again working with a team bringing fresh water wells to Haiti. 
  • Many of you know that Teresa Reep Tysinger (FUMC-K) is one of my favorite people in the world...but for right now, she is only the 2nd coolest person in her family! Her husband Eric, a stage manager, is currently working on rehearsals for a new musical on Broadway called The Last Ship- and currently he is in the same room as STING (who wrote the music for the show) almost every day! How awesome is that! And while we're talking about Reeps (and you can never talk about "too many Reeps") Teresa's sister Cyndi Reep Browning and her family moved into a new home this week, even as Cyndi is nursing a badly sprained ankle. No unpacking for her- good work, Reep! But seriously, keep Cyndi in your prayers.
  • My little sis from Twitter, Jenn Ganley, is going to be at WDW next week and it looks like I am going to finally get to met Jenn and her family. So stoked to start seeing some of my Twitter friends face-to-face in the months ahead!
  • Almost every week I hear from a former youth who remembers something we did as part of a youth ministry, and those stories often end with "I can't believe we did that!" This weeks memory- playing Centipede and having shopping cart races in the K-Mart parking lot at 2 am during a Rec Around the Clock. Yep...these are my people!
  • I'm thinking about a Springfield Friends youth ministry reunion (1986-1994) in August. Anyone interested?
  • Some of you may have heard that Jennifer Minnigan Kuramochi (FUMC-K) and her husband Jun will be closing their sushi restaurant in Clearwater after tonight. While disappointed, they are bouncing back in a hurry and ready to try life with actual weekends and nights off! Please keep them in your prayers and they face a new and exciting future together. And Jun...Rays game. Soon! :)
  • Thanks to prodding from my dear friend Denise, I have been toying around with writing a novel based on the adventures of the group of friends I had in NC back in my late teens an early 20's and the incredible bonds we shared- and in some ways still share. I'm thinking of calling it Amazing Stories of the Society of Secret Shriners. What do you think, gang? "Coy... dadblame it this here is Bubba!" It's time to break out your fez...
  • I am so proud of so many of my former youth for the way they live their lives, raise their families and serve God. But I am continuously amazed by all that Kelly Jeck Trace (FUMC-K) does for her church, her friends and her community.
  • Had a long talk with my "seasoned (but never old!)" friend Donna Haynes Myers (Quaker Lake Camp, New Garden Friends, Guilford College...geez we had a lot of connections!) yesterday. I think we reached three conclusions- we had a lot of great friends back in the day, QLC was an amazing place, and while we remember facts from the old days, the dates are lost forever the dark misty corners of all our minds! Thanks for a great visit, Donna!
  • Marilyn and I noticed last week while looking at a few old pictures that Ann Saunders Hale (Springfield Friends) looks about the same now as she did in the early 90's. We are happy FOR Ann. We are not happy ABOUT it!  Show off! :)
  • I am starting to get serious about planning a couple of big trips to cross more than one bridge at a time. Still not sure when or where. However, I am currently accepting bribes to add YOU to my short list!
So that's all for now. Have a blessed weekend, and remember- Easter didn't end last Sunday. We are a resurrection people every day!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 25, 2014

30/30: Twelve Interesting Facts About Me

The 30/30 Vision Blog Challenge returns today after taking a week of for Good Friday, and the prompt is simple- 12 interesting facts about me. Like most people, I don't find myself to be all that interesting, but since that is order of the day I shall attempt to come up with a dozen things that are at least semi-noteworthy. Here we go...

  1. Breakfast is my favorite meal to eat out.
  2. I would love to try my hand at professional improv comedy. I've been doing it in real life situations forever- it would be fun to give it a try on stage with some experts in the field!
  3. I only have 7 toes.
  4. As I grow older the thing I fear losing the most is my memory. Not only do I love telling old stories and sharing wisdom from days gone by, but I am often responsible for helping my oldest friends remember what happened to them in their younger days as well. I am so thankful to be blessed with a mind that retains those moments of great joy and sorrow.
  5. I have seen the Pacific Ocean in California, Washington, Oregon and Mexico...but I have never been swimming in it.
  6. Despite all of my injuries and ailments over my lifetime, I have yet to break a bone. Knock on wood.
  7. I play the guitar. I sang in school choruses and ensembles in jr. high and high school. I was in numerous church choirs over the years and led worship at national youth events. I have written close to 100 songs, words and music. And I cannot read a note of music...
  8. Aside from loving people in the name of Jesus there is nothing that brings me more joy than making people laugh.
  9. Aside from The Godfather Part 2 and The Empire Strikes Back, I believe the greatest true sequel in the history of movies is The Lion King 1 1/2
  10. I am 54 years old and am still in touch with friends I have known for over 40 years. To me, that's an accomplishment.
  11. I am not much of a cook except for 3 things: Sausage Balls, Fudge, & Shrimp and Crab Casserole. 
  12. I have been to paradise. It's also known as Spanish Wells, the Bahamas. And I've been twice. That may just make me better than you.  :)
So there you have it- 12 things about me that at least interest me! What do you find most interesting about yourself? I'd love to hear!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

We're Already Enough

We all have (or at least I have) books, movies and songs that seldom come to mind, but when they do we think to ourselves, "OH YEAH! I love that one!!!"  Over the past couple of months I have had that moment with three different movies. The first was Being There,  the 1979 classic starring Peter Sellers. It's the story of a simpleton gardener who finds himself alone in the world after his millionaire boss dies and the estate where they both lived is sold. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, this plain man who speaks only in gardening terms and with lines he learned from TV shows becomes a consultant to the wealthy and powerful who find him to be incredibly wise. Even his name gets transformed- he tells people he is Chance, the gardener and before he knows it he is Chauncey Gardner. He does absolutely nothing to try be someone he is not or change who he is, but people see the best in him. They crave his simple words of wisdom. They want him to run for President. In the end he is "exposed," and the last we see of him he is walking on water- because he doesn't know he can't. Chance never does one single thing to better himself or to impress people. It just happens.

The second movie hit me yesterday, when it occurred to me that Chariots of Fire may be the least shown movie that ever won the Oscar for best picture in the history of cable TV. I suspect people are more familiar with the theme song from the film than the actual movie itself. But I love it and always have. It is a great story of faith, but it is also a story of trying to find happiness (and perhaps even salvation?) through accomplishments. The British sprinter Harold Abrahams reaches the Olympics and wins a gold medal, but freely acknowledges that he is still chasing something- and he has no idea what. His success does nothing to help him feel whole, while his rival Eric Liddell runs for the glory of God and feels victorious before even taking the track. The contrast is stark, and makes for a very compelling movie.

The final film that I thought of was Cool Runnings. It was the Olympics that brought this film to mind and reminded me how much I love it. So much, in fact, that I was tempted to watch it on VHS- the only version in which we own it! As great as the story of the bobsled team is, equally intriguing to me is the story of their coach, played by the late John Candy. He had once cheated to try and win a gold medal and was caught. Now, as his team seeks to do something no Jamaican had ever done before, he has to remind them that winning does not make or break who you are in life. His famous line- "A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without the medal, you'll never be enough with it" - speaks to me very clearly about some of my own goals. We all know people who spend their lives chasing a goal, only to achieve their dream and discover they had missed too many of life's great joys in order to get there. The question becomes this- which is more important to us, the journey or the destination?

Each of these great films, while very different in tone and content, speak to that question for me. I believe in praying big prayers and dreaming big dreams. I believe in having goals. But I also believe that those goals should be part of finding God's will for our lives. These movies remind us that if we base our lives around looking, feeling and being important, then we are likely to be disappointed. On the other hand, if we be who we are- who God created us to be- and follow Jesus on the wild ride of discipleship- life can be full of unexpected joy. Life is not about power, prestige, money or possessions. It's not about awards, medals or grand successes. God created to us to live with joy if we live in love. Jesus came so that we might live an abundant (full) life, which is not the same as a life of abundance. I want to be like Chance the Gardener, being myself no matter what that might bring me. I want to be like Eric Liddell, living life for the glory of God instead of chasing after some dream or goal that I think will complete me. And most importantly I want to understand that there is really nothing more I need in life to feel like I'm enough. I am not defined by what I do, what I have or what I accomplish. As the late Rich Mullins wrote, "I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it, no it is making me- it is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man." I believe God created me. Jesus forgives me. My friends and family love me. No matter what else happens in my life, I'm already enough.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

#DangerDays: Andrea Ward's Story Part 2

This is my friend Andrea Ward's second guest post in the #DangerDays series, and just like the first one, it's gonna blow you away! You can follow Andrea on Twitter @citrus_sunshine and visit her blog (which I HIGHLY recommend!) at http://jesusyoume.blogspot.com/. Now if I can just get her hubby Drew to write one as well. He knows all about danger and adversity. He's a New York Mets fan....

The Danger of Staying Home

I think most every Christian has faced the fear of being called to a strange foreign country as part of their service to God. That is dangerous service and those that go are the brave servants. My friend, who didn't speak Albanian, went to Albania for 2 years. A girl I grew up with went on a mission trip around the world and then settled in the Philippines. Those girls are living out a radical and dangerous faith. I'm certainly not included in that group. All I did was go to college, become a teacher, get married, and have two kids. There isn't any danger there. Or so I thought.

I wrote a post several weeks ago about my husband and I following God to a new church and to a new job for him. Based on that fact one would think I had redefined dangerous in my life. Unfortunately, my fickle heart and scattered brain have difficulty holding on to some concepts. So when I saw someone on Instagram taking about his family moving overseas, I thought about how he was really living out a dangerous faith. Then God derailed my train of thought. He emphasized the notion that staying home can be just dangerous.

How so?

It is no secret that we live in a country that prides itself and it's citizens on their ability to do it themselves. I see many people my age and older struggling to get to the next thing. Maybe that thing is a promotion or a bigger house or a nicer car or some other self imposed goal. So when I don't live that way or believe that way I stick out.

When you plant yourself in one place for a long time, you have the chance to see change become a new normal. And that new normal isn't just in my life.

I attend a Bible study that started in a tattoo studio ministering to addicts. Today it meets in the back room of a local restaurant and ministers to whoever walks through the doors. Through that Bible study I have connected with recovering addicts, the homeless, the elderly, some kids, and some 'normal' people. I have seen people get jobs, homes, and healing. I have seen some lose their way and find it back again.

Recently we saw a former youth of ours. This past Sunday he served as an usher. We have seen him grow from an angry surly teen into a young man going to NC State to be a veterinarian. He went from only being willing to run the projector at the back of the sanctuary to serving as an usher. He went from cursing God to having a faith strong enough to ask questions and watch for answers.

Now we are waiting on God to tell us what the next big thing is, and yes we have been told by multiple people it will be big. In the meantime, we are raising our two kids, enjoying family time and loving those around us.

Isn't it dangerous to stay when it gets hard because God told you to fight? Isn't it dangerous to walk away and wait for God to tell you what is next? Isn't it dangerous to stay in one place and keep reaching out? I think so and I think I will.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Crossing the Bridge

Because many of you have asked, I just thought I should tell you...I did it! On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the final paperwork was done, I drove myself across the bridge to Clearwater. Technically it was not a bridge, it was the Courtney Campbell Causeway. But you get the point. I was out of the county without permission. Because I NO LONGER NEED IT! 
And what wonders awaited me on the other side? Rain as I walked along the bay. The actual original Hooter's. And our closest Joe's Crab Shack which has taunted me these past 7 years. Clearwater Beach was only 8 more miles, but because of spring break crowds that would have taken another 45 minutes to drive. So I left that adventure for another day...
So what does it all mean? Almost nothing! But every now and then life requires us to take baby steps, and crossing that bridge was my first baby step. The second was eating that night at a Buffalo Wild Wings 15 minutes from our house, but previously forbidden fruit because it is in another county. Staying out past 10 PM for the first time since March 20, 2007 (albeit just to pick up Will from Chick-fil-A) was another. There are mores steps to come, and some of them will be giant steps. I look forward to writing some travel blogs in the near future. And I look forward to seeing so many of you.

But even if I don't take big trips anytime soon, I know they are coming. As hard as it is, I have to be patient. You can only cross one bridge at a time. My friend and youth ministry mentor J. David Stone wrote these words as the chorus to a song in 1981, and they have been ringing in my head this week:
Cross over the bridge when you come to it
Don't worry when you're miles away
Can't live tomorrow before it comes
Today's enough for today.

Or to paraphrase the great hymn, One bridge at a time, sweet Jesus! And let the blessings of this day be enough for me. Tomorrow we celebrate Jesus' victory over the grave and the coming of grace into each of our lives. There is no greater blessing that that! 

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

A gift of love that no words could express, given to a world that never deserved it. A sacrifice that we cannot understand made by a God that we cannot comprehend. 

This is the meaning of Good Friday.

But it's only Friday.

And Sunday is coming...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

Springfield Youth in Action
OK, so maybe it wasn't today- that just made for a much catchier title! But 20 years ago this week Marilyn and I made a move that changed our lives. It's been 20 years since we packed up the big truck and moved ourselves from High Point, NC to Kissimmee, FL. It was one of the hardest things we have ever done. We loved Springfield Friends Meeting, and by moving after 8 years there we knew we were "messing with happy"  - something my Grandpa Jones warned me never to do. Our family and friends were in NC. We were leaving behind an amazing youth ministry that we had basically built from the ground up. There were so many reasons to stay. But God was calling us to the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee. So we went. And as usual, God had some special things in mind...for us and for Springfield.

FUMC-K at the Betsy B
We went on to spend 6 years at FUMC-K and build relationships with so many great people who are still a huge part of our lives today. The youth ministry there grew and thrived, and we were able to witness God do some incredible things. I do not for one second regret the move to Kissimmee. Will was born there. we got to travel to Spanish Wells, as well as work with John Willis, Andrew Lewis and many other amazing staff members. And some of those "youth" I am now proud to count among my very best friends. My time there ended in a bit of a mess with a new pastor, but those things happen and then it was time to move on. Those years were a blessing to myself and my family.

Andrew and I singing- probably Amazing Grace to the tune of
Gilligan's Island! I miss that man!
And things turned out pretty well for Springfield as well. After taking some time to search for my replacement, they hired my old friend Ray Luther. That was in 1995, Ray never left. He is currently the Senior Pastor at Springfield. God's timing was perfect. As always.

So this Throwback Thursday, some 20 years in the making, seemed like the perfect to time to praise God for the people of SFM and FUMC-K and the miraculous difference they made in our lives. And for so many, for the blessings they continue to bring us today. A year ago this Sunday we had a fantastic reunion of Kissimmee friends. Springfield, your time is coming. I love you all!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

If I Ruled the UMC...

I started writing this post back in November, but today just felt like the day to share it. Wednesdays seem to be my days for getting in trouble here...

Even though deep in my heart I am still a Quaker, once upon a time I worked for several United Methodist churches (UMC). My family still attends a UM church. There are dozens of UMC youth pastors, church members and clergy on Twitter that keep me up-to-date with what is going on the wider body of the UMC. In 2012 I attended some General Conference (world wide gathering of UMC leaders) sessions here in Tampa. And all of this connection to the the UMC has left me with one distinct, overwhelming feeling. The UMC is in a mess. The battles are many and the solutions seem few at this point. There is a great schism coming unless something is done to change the way things are done and the way United Methodists respond to one another. An old friend (and former UMC staffer) suggests that the hole is so deep that they wouldn't even know how to split if they wanted to, and that perhaps the only thing holding them together these days are pension plans and an inability to divest. So today I offer some modest suggestions as to how I would change things if were the new John Wesley. Or perhaps better said, if I were the Pope of the UMC for a day! These ideas will ruffle feathers, get hardcore Wesleyans to yell at me, and maybe- just maybe- offer some insight into issues from an outsider who has been on the inside. Here are a few things I would do if I ruled the UMC world for just one day...
  1. Change the hierarchy and structure of the denomination. All UMC churches are connected under one umbrella, and that should be a good thing. It allows us pull pool money for missions, disaster relief, camping programs and clergy support. It also means we spend an inordinate amount of money on administration. The gigantic, expensive GC I attended accomplished next to nothing because everything is lobbied for and voted on like it's the first Continental Congress. People vote in "blocks" with like-minded constituents and nothing passes that offers any real change or progress. Our business procedures need to be less democratic and more spiritual. Business should be a form of worship. Prayerful consensus for where God is leading should pave the way- not "I wonder how the African delegates will vote?" There are other issues as well. We have hundreds of  highly paid District Superintendents who are nothing more than glorified supervisors and administrators. Even worse, many of them were at one time some of our best pastors. Now they are wasted in impotent positions that offer little opportunity to minister in the community. And think of all the resources that could be pumped into MINISTRY if we rid ourselves of those positions and cut back on trying to administrate churches from afar. I am afraid that the UMC has lost sight of the fact that the farther leaders are from the people (such as DS and Bishop positions) the less they understand what the laity cares about. That's just one example of how the system needs an overhaul. And here's another...
  2. Give more autonomy to the local congregation. Let them hire their own pastor and establish their own structures. Many of the most prominent UMC congregations are already doing this as conferences look the other way. Check out the websites of the 25 fastest growing UMC congregations and you will often find no mention that they are a United Methodist congregation. There is no way on heaven or earth their pastors will be moved by an annual conference decision. Why not make it official and even the playing field for everyone? Every time the traditional itinerant system randomly relocates a pastor, it sets the entire church back a step- at least! My career featured two such pastoral changes, and both of them were disastrous for the churches I served and for me personally. Let each church determine the ministries and issues that matter to them and then seek the pastor they choose to lead them forward. We keep proceeding as if we expect all of our churches to think the same way and have the same goals. Trying to make a church in Backwater, Florida and a church in downtown NYC agree on much of anything besides "Jesus is LORD" is a complicated endeavor that takes energy and resources away from what should be our primary goal- connecting people to Jesus Christ and serving them in his name. There will still be a Bishop to oversee and maintain a certain "quality control" and provide direction for pastors (remember. we already ditched the DS position!) but we need to quit trying to be homogeneous. We aren't. And that leaves pastors in an often impossible situation, dealing with difficult situations- and feeling all of the responsibility while being given none of the power. And that's just asking for dissension and trouble. Some of my very favorite people are UMC clergy, and they deserve better. Pastors are entrusted with the spiritual care of their flocks. We need to trust them to KNOW their own congregations.
  3. And speaking of pastors...we assert that we believe in the priesthood of all believers. We also state that the clergy are called by God to lead our congregations. And yet our actual practices and standards show that we believe that clergy are created through education. Being gifted by God is a wonderful thing in the UMC. A cemetery seminary degree from Duke, Emory or Asbury is apparently even better. It's the age old debate of credentials verses calling. We have a shortage of pastors, with many aging into retirement everyday, yet we continue to make it more and more difficult to receive ordination. I have a good friend who came from another mainstream denomination where he was ordained and had worked for many years. He had served a UMC congregation for several years as an Associate Pastor and tried to get his credentials transferred. It would have been easier and less time consuming to become a lawyer. He eventually just gave up and remained an associate, hired by the local church- where he has been a rock as pastors have come and gone (moved by the itinerant system) for many years now. He is TREASURED by that church- but deemed unworthy by the system. The late Mike Yaconelli founded Youth Specialties, wrote best selling books, pastored a small church for 20 years and preached all over the planet, but he would have been deemed unworthy to be a UMC pastor because he was kicked out of bible college and never went back. That's just wrong. We need to allow that the primary factors in successful clergy are calling and gifts from God, and find ways to allow "under educated" people to serve our churches with greater freedom. Education is very important for sure. But ask yourself this question- do we believe ordination is from God through the Holy Spirit, or from a committee of humans who judge by advanced degrees and psychological testing? Too simplistic I know- but still legitimate to ask.
  4. When I was coming of age as a Quaker in the 1970's, one of the issues facing that group was that all of the things that had been traditional benchmarks of the denomination were being done better by other people. The Amish did simplicity better, Catholic monasteries did silence better and the UMC had a stronger peace testimony. What are our Methodist churches known for today? Fights over gay marriage? Splits over worship styles and how we do baptisms? Pet blessings? Our churches- each and every one of them- need to decide what they stand for right now. Not traditionally, not according to the Book of Discipline. not according to John Wesley- right now! And the answer had better include being the love of God whose name is Jesus to a hurting and needy world, or we are in deep doo-doo my friends. If our bottom line is not HIS bottom line (The Great Commandment) and our mission is not HIS mission (The Great Commission) then all other changes are just whistling in the wind. 
That seems like enough for my first day on the job. Please understand, I am not expecting any of my suggestions to come to fruition. Most of them are probably not even good ideas. But what I do hope for...what I do PRAY for...is that more folks will be willing to "rattle the cage" so that this denomination that is near and dear to my heart will begin to move past their past and dream of a bigger, more inclusive tomorrow and bold new ways to get there. I see far too many UMC leaders who are dreaming of returning to the past and the way the church used to be. It's time to go forward and face the future, remembering that our goal is not to save the Methodists. Our goal is to follow Jesus. May God lead each of us, individually and corporately, down that path.

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#DangerDays: Forward Motion

We all know the feeling I'm talking about today. The rock you get in the pit of your stomach when something you have looked forward to for so long has come to pass and you are left with that awful "So what do I do now?" feeling. After 7 years of waiting, a dream has come true. I am free. It's time to face some new #DangerDays. And like most normal humans, I am not an action hero. I am not likely to go sprinting into the flames in search of a chance to be heroic...or dead. But the time to take a first step into a bold new future is here, and it feels very dangerous to me. I suppose that is why it feels so much safer to keep looking backwards...

The band Relient K once sang the lyrics, "I struggle with forward motion, we all struggle with forward motion...'cause forward motion is harder than it sounds..." I find this to be true in my own life, and especially right now. I want to use my new freedom to revisit my past, to reconnect with old friends and travel to comfortable and familiar places. And those are good things. However...to be satisfied with those things is to admit that I have already accomplished everything God has in mind for me. To stay where I am or to dwell in the past is to forget that we care called to "keep pressing on towards the prize that is Christ Jesus." Asking if God is finished with me is a moot question- I'm still breathing, so I'm not done yet. So the real question becomes where do I go from here?

I'm still praying about the answers to that question, but God has laid a few things on my heart already. I spent nearly 30 years working in churches teaching about the love and grace of Jesus. I have spent the past 5 years trying to share stories of relationships and God's overwhelming love on this blog. But it is clear to me that I have now experienced grace, forgiveness and redemption in a public and concrete way that very few have experienced- and God wants me to keep telling that story. God wants me to deliver the age old message that we can all be forgiven and free through relationship with Jesus. My first dangerous step into what could be a whole new era of #DangerDays is to make myself available. I want to preach again. I want to share my story with small groups and retreats. I want to help church leaders remember that relationships and love are the basis of what we are called to do, not condemnation and judgement. I have many years of experience speaking to churches, national conferences and youth groups, so the speaking does not feel dangerous to me. But telling my story to strangers certainly does. Forward Motion requires that I make myself available and trust that God will us me as God sees fit. And my prayer is to be used.

I also completely understand that putting myself out there is scary. There will be people and groups who would never consider having a person with my past as a guest speaker or spiritual leader. I get that. But I also can't help but think that people who are so quick to pass judgement might be the very ones who could benefit from the stories I have to tell. It's important for me to risk some rejection so that God can get me to the places I am needed. That's part of being bold- it's part of the danger!

Sooooooo...  If you or someone you know would be interested in having me come talk about the love of God whose name is Jesus for your church or group, write for your publication or just come talk about the night I watched The Lion King with Michael Keaton, I'm available. And cheap. Just get me there and feed me and I'm yours. My email is youthguy07@aol.com and my phone is 813-919-3755. It comes down to this for me. I love my past and the many blessings God has given me. But it's time to focus on Forward Motion. Please keep me in your prayers as I think about taking new steps into the #DangerDays.

Because of Jesus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Next-to-the-Last Supper

The scriptures are full of amazing stories from what has come to be known as Holy Week in the Christian church. Here's a different take on one of those stories that I love to share every year at this time...

Mark 14:1-9 (The Message)

In only two days the eight-day Festival of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread would begin. The high priests and religion scholars were looking for a way they could seize Jesus by stealth and kill him. They agreed that it should not be done during Passover Week. "We don't want the crowds up in arms," they said.

Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly."

My old friend Curt Cloninger, the amazing actor and interpreter of scripture, calls the meal Jesus is eating in the scripture above "the next to the last supper." In Curt's brilliant one-man play entitled Witnesses, he plays a fictional character (Abe the Banana Man) who was present at this meal. He used to be unable to speak, he tells us. In fact, he points out, almost everyone there (in Curt's version) was a "used to be." Simon (their host) used to be a leper. Bart used to be blind. Lazurus used to be dead! Curt points out that Jesus most likely ended the party during his speech praising the woman who had anointed his feet with perfume, because he once again announced that he would soon be dead. Now THAT would end a party. The whole evening must have been indicative of the highs and lows of that last week.

We all used to be something else before Jesus got hold of our hearts. Some of us still are people that we would rather not be. Holy Week is a wonderful time to let Jesus make you a "used to be" all over again. He will- if you seek sanctuary in the grace he offers you. Honor him this week (and every week) with your very life.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Ain't No Rock Gonna' Cry In My Place"

Luke 19:29-40 gives us a glimpse into Palm Sunday. If you have ever been exposed to a traditional Palm Sunday service (especially in a liturgical church) then you have a feel for the pomp and circumstance of that day in the life of Jesus. He arrived in Jerusalem to cheering crowds who spread out their cloaks along the road to honor him. They waved the palm branches, just like the children do in our modern day celebrations.  The shouted "Hosanna!"  They worshiped him.  And for one of the only times in his life on earth, Jesus let them. He soaked it all in.  It felt like a coronation- a party for a King.  But there was so much more going on...
I have always wondered about the first part of our scripture. Why did Jesus decide to come to town on a borrowed stolen donkey that no one else has ever ridden?  There is no explanation given, but clearly this was his chosen form of transportation. He sent the disciples to get it. It's one of those questions I'm saving for heaven.

I love that as the party starts to get loud, the Pharisees decide to squash it. They want Jesus to tell the party-goers to hold it down. Instead, Jesus informs the would-be party poopers that if his followers get quiet that even the rocks will shout. If you're a Pharisee, how do you respond to that one? You don't. And if you are part of the crowd, doesn't that just fire you up even more? If it's me, I'm singing- "Ain't no rock gonna' cry in my place..." 

Of course, let's not give that crowd too much credit. Many of them were there because they, like Judas, thought Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to overthrow the Roman government. He was there to proclaim a new Kingdom, but not the one his Jewish followers were expecting- because they had not been listening to what he said the past three years. And those expectations would lead to a huge swing in his popularity with that crowd by the end of the coming week...

If you watch the scene from the movie Jesus Christ, Superstar in which we see Jesus arrive to a Mardi Gras style parade. I'm surprised they aren't throwing beads at Jesus and the disciples! It's a fascinating look at this story and the crowd expectations, which seem to be changing with each passing moment. Check it out.

And finally, in Luke 19:41-42, we hear Jesus lament what is about to happen. He weeps over Jerusalem and says, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes." His arrival on a donkey to the screams of adoring crowds would not last long- and he knew it. They were not cheering for him. They were cheering for who they hoped he was. The end was coming.
    So today, even as we celebrate Palm Sunday, we have to know that Good Friday is starring us in the face. There is no escaping what Jesus would do- what he had to do- for us. He was going to die for us and bridge the sin gap that separates us from God. He was going to rise again and demonstrate his power over death. With the advantage of hindsight, we know that we cannot turn our backs on Jesus. As we move through the drama of Holy Week, we must stand strong and lift high the name of Jesus, or even the rocks will shout. And like I said before, "Ain't no rock gonna' cry in my place- as long as I'm alive I'll glorify His holy name!"

    Because of Jesus,

    Saturday, April 12, 2014

    Saturday Shout Outs!

    Welcome to another edition of my Saturday Shout Outs!- although today it could just as easily be called Random Ramblings! There are quotes that moved me, prayer requests, news updates and other random tidbits, so jump in and hang on. I should also issue a warning. Teresa Reep Tysinger and her family are on vacation right now and may well be going to eat at Calabash at some point in the next few says. If she taunts me too much with everything she and Eric get to eat I may not be able to guarantee her safety! But I digress. Let's get on with the rambling...
    • Palm Sunday is tomorrow. Holy Week is upon us. Remember...
    • Please keep all of the teachers you know in your prayers. With around 7 weeks of school still to go it seems Spring Fever has hit in full force. Or maybe we should pray for the kids. Pray that the teachers don't just do them in- right, Lisa Jewett?
    • Many of you have been asking where all I have been traveling with my new-found freedom. Well...not so fast, my friends! While the court in Georgia has set me free, it seems that Florida and Georgia lack the ability to communicate. I still await official word to reach the Sunshine State so that I can be free to cross the bride to Clearwater! It makes me a bit nervous to know that GA officials had no idea where I was living for the past 7 years. For the time being, I'm singing the #RedTapeBlues.
    • Baseball season is in full swing. Life is good.
    • My friend and hero Ashley Goad (Springfield Friends Meeting) is getting ready to do some more globetrotting in the name of Jesus. Please keep Ashley and her ministry in your prayers.
    • I LOVE this---> "The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. 'They won't let me in LORD because I am a sinner.' God replied, 'What are you complaining about? They won't let me in either!'  -Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
    • Cyndi Reep Browning (FUMC-Kissimmee) and her family are in the very stressful process of buying a home in Alabama. Please keep Cyndi, Josh and Grayson in your prayers.
    • Colleen Martin Hooks (FUMC-K) sent me a link this week featuring an article by Heide Priebe that contained this quote: "If How I Met Your Mother has taught us anything it's that if we want to see something legendary happen, we're going to have to wait for it.This is not only a brilliant summation of a TV show, but a pretty decent piece of theology. Life happens all in God's time, my friends. All in God's time.
    • And speaking of which...as soon as I can travel freely one of the things I hope to do is get a chance to preach and to speak to church groups about my experiences and in particular about the grace and forgiveness that needs to be at the center of the Christian faith. I'd also love to do consultations with churches about student ministry. Or I can just come sing and tell stories. I'm easy! :) If you need me, I'll come for free. Just give me some travel money and feed me! More on this is coming Tuesday on a new #DangerDays post.
    • I confessed on Twitter a few nights ago that I do not care for Peeps. I was met with both support and disdain. Where do you stand on those creepy little Easter candies?
    • Planning on coming to Walt Disney World this summer? Let us know- we'd love to see you!
    And finally, one more thing I tweeted this week that I absolutely love! So many of you do this for me on a regular basis, but it is a reminder for us all. Love you guys. Have a blessed Saturday!

    Because of Jesus,

    Friday, April 11, 2014

    30/30: My Earliest Memory

    Today's 30/30 Vision Blog Challenge prompt calls for me write about my earliest memory. Many of my very early memories are of times spent with my mother's parents, Carl and Dorothy Clark. I was born in Asheboro, NC, and they lived only a couple of miles away from us until we moved to Greensboro when I was 4. I spent many days at their house and remember them fondly. I remember they had grapevines and I loved to pick (and eat!) the grapes. I remember their neighbors had older boys who would play with me sometimes. And I remember that Grandma always had Lincoln Logs for me to play with. But my clearest and best early memory is of time spent with my grandfather- at work!

    Carl Clark owned and operated an American Oil "service station" on Salisbury Street in Asheboro. It was a busy, popular place where folks bought full-service gas (sometimes on credit without credit cards, just paying monthly). There was a drink machine, an ice cream freezer and a constant gab session with groups of men sitting around and talking about life. The station was memorable to me for a few reasons. First, I got to hand out with my grandpa. Just as importantly, I got to help. Even as a very small child the guys who worked for Grandpa would let me help pump gas and clean windshields, and I thought that was great. But maybe the most influential part of spending time at the station was getting to know the men who worked for my grandfather and becoming friends with them. Their names were Roy and Nuddie, and they were both African-American men. This was the early 1960's in mostly rural NC, and trust me- no one ever used the phrase African-American. "Colored" was the nicest thing you could hope to hear. But to my grandfather, Roy and Nuddie were just employees that he respected and counted on. He encouraged me to talk to them, hang out with them and get to know them. When I was at the station they were often my babysitters. I was young enough not to have any built-in prejudices yet, and I believe it was because of my time spent with them that I never really developed any racial fears or stereotypes. Roy and Nuddie were my friends. Their skin color seemed inconsequential to me. Those days at the station as a 3 and 4 year old were important in making me the man I am today.

    I stayed close to my grandfather until he died of complications from Alzheimer's many years ago. My grandmother outlived him by many years, partly because (as I discovered much later in life) she was just too mean to die! But I do have great memories of those early years, and I thank God for the presence of family in my life- then and now.  Have a blessed weekend!

    Because of Jesus,