Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: You Had To Be There!

In the late 1970's Jimmy Buffett was just another artist trying to make a living. This was before there were Parrotheads, before he became a best-selling author, restaurant owner or tequila guru. But even way back then, his concerts were not shows- they were events. The late Dan Fogelberg, a friend of Jimmy's, was once asked to describe what it was like to see him live. Fogelberg responded that no explanation could possibly do it justice. He couldn't describe it.  Dan said,  "You had to be there!" Jimmy liked that so much that it became the title of his 1978 live album, which was the first (of MANY) Buffett albums I have owned.

Over the years those words became a sort of personal mantra for my student ministries. We never wanted the teenagers who went on trips or attended events at the churches to feel like we were just going through the motions. We wanted them to feel like they were a part of something unique, something special, something that had not happened before and might not happen again. I wanted them to walk into school on Monday morning and talk about how amazing youth group had been the night before. And when their friends asked for explanations, I wanted them to feel like words were not adequate. All that could be said was, "You had to be there!" Right or wrong, it always felt that any method of reaching students that was predictable or too tame was destined to fail. Jesus himself was always unpredictable and always pushing the envelope of what was acceptable. As the Jesus Revolution gained momentum throughout the region in those three years Jesus spent preaching and teaching, you just know that as the word spread from town to town about this amazing Rabbi people were at a loss for words. How could they describe what they were seeing? I suspect that more than one person fell back on these words- "You had to be there!"

Today is the first day of Advent, a day when many churches will light a candle of hope. It is a time when our churches need to help our communities experience that hope through the awe and wonder of the coming of the Christ child. We need to help our world see that Jesus was not just a baby, but the most powerful agent of change ever to come into this world. He came to bring hope to the hopeless and rest to the weary. The power, love and grace of the Messiah cannot be contained in a manger. The story of the first Noel should inspire awe and wonder. Because I guarantee you that a few days later, as the town of Bethlehem was still buzzing and attempting to figure out what had happened, someone asked one of the smelly shepherds who witnessed the whole event to explain. And it seems likely that the shepherd thought a moment, smiled, and then said to anyone who cared to listen- "There is no explanation. You just had to be there!" This Advent season may we remember the miracles and the blessings of that first holy night, and the hope that Jesus brought into each of our lives. Amen & Amen.

My Deliverer is Coming...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Favorite Christmas Movies & Specials

Now that Thanksgiving is over (and all of those "Black Friday" commercials have mercifully ceased) I can get into the spirit of the Christmas season! I am a serious Christmas lover in every way. I love the music, I love the shopping, I love Santa, and of course, I love Jesus! One of the things that helps gt the Jones family in the holiday spirit each year is our collection of Christmas movies and specials on DVD and blu ray. So today I thought I would share with you my list of "must-see" Christmas movies and specials. Ready? Here we go:

  • Four Christmases-There is nothing so funny as other people's families at the holidays...
  • Jingle All the Way- A Christmas movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger- what could be cooler that than? Includes the classic Arnold line, "Put that cookie down!"  Awesome!
  • The Lighting of the Tree at Rockefeller Center- The show is really pretty hit and miss, but it's a Jones family tradition to watch!
  • Christmas With the Kranks- One of the those rare movies that I liked better than the book it was based on, John Grisham's Skipping ChristmasTim Allen is the king of Christmas movies. Free Frosty, Free Frosty!!!
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer- The classic original! It's a great story with great music and Yukon Cornelius and The Bumble- what else could you ask for!
  • Home Alone 2: Lost in New York-I like this sequel even better than the original (which for some reason we do not own.  This must change.). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the "Sticky Bandits" are my favorite part of both movies.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas- Tim Burton's classic look at what happens when you try to "do" Christmas without "getting Christmas. Yay, Sandy Claws!
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas- The animated version with Boris Karloff narrating is amazing, but we also like Jim Carrey's live action Grinch as well.
  • Elf- We're just walking around the house saying today saying, "Buddy the Elf- what's your favorite color?" There is also a great message about believing when those around you do not...
  • The Santa Claus- I actually liked all three of these, but the first one is still my favorite. You gotta' love the elves!
  • Saturday Night Live Christmas- There are actually 2 of these specials now, but we own the older one of DVD and watch it every year. So many great skits, including the all-time classics A Dysfunctional Family ChristmasSchweddy Balls & The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas. "On Herschel, on Moshe, on Schlomo!!!"
  • ScroogedBill Murray is great, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present just cracks me up, and the story is timeless. A very underrated movie.
  • Christmas Vacation- I feel a certain connection with Clark W. Griswald. We both manage to screw up most everything, but we mean well! And the lights-  ohhh the lights!
  • It's A Wonderful Life- Well, DUH!!!
  • The Toy That Saved Christmas- The first and best of the Veggietale Christmas stories. The Veggie's learn the true meaning of Christmas from Buzzsaw Louie. And after a sledding accident Bob the Tomato gets to utter these great lines: "Mousetrap.  I wanted to play Mousetrap. You roll your dice, you move your mice- nobody gets hurt!"
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas- More people have heard the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of Luke from Linus than from any other single media source in history. Think about that...
  • A Muppet Christmas Carol- Easily number one for all of my family. The music is awesome, the story is terrific, and it has Muppets. What else do you want? We own the VHS, the DVD, and the CD of the music. "After all there's only one more sleep 'til Christmas..." And BTW- we're seeing the new Muppet Movie this afternoon!  I can't wait!
So there's my list. I know many of you would include A Christmas Story but I don't share your love of that one. What else would you add? Let me hear from you. Enjoy your favorites, but don't let the reason for the season slip away from you. Listen to Linus- the little dude with the blanket knows what he is talking about!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday Musings

We had an awesome Thanksgiving the last couple of days at my Mom's, and I trust you had a blessed day as well. I have so much to be thankful for. So much food, so many blessings- and ELF! 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 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. And please know that I will be cheering for you all from the comfort of my own home...

But just so you know it's not JUST laziness that will keep me out of the crowds today, I am making sausage balls for the family this morning. That's about all the special I need for a Black Friday. Be well and be careful, my friends!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Marilyn, Will & I will be at my mom's for the holiday, so I am getting a head start on wishing all of a blessed and happy Thanksgiving! And please know how thankful I am for each of YOU!!!

Here's my prayer for Turkey Day 2014:

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music Trivia: Beach Boys Connect-the-Dots

My regular readers know of my long-standing love of the Beach Boys. While I am not (contrary to popular belief) old enough to have been a fan all the way back in their earliest days, their music has been a part of my life for a very long time. From hours spent listening to various albums to seeing them in concert with artists like Billy Joel and Chicago to singing their songs when no one is around to hear, I love me some Beach Boys!  And their music has been very influential in the lives of other artists as well. So today we are going to play a little trivia game I am calling Connect-the-Dots. Here's how it going to work. You will see a list of 7 artists and songs, all of which have some direction connection to the Beach Boys. Your task is to identify the connection. For example, if the list reads Jan & Dean- Surf City, then the connection is that Beach Boy head honcho Brian Wilson co-wrote the song. See how it works? Just to make it more of challenge, you will not know if it is the artist or the specific song that connects it to the Boys. This is not going to be easy, but it should be fun! Take your best guesses, and then after another picture you will find the answers. Enjoy, and let me know how you do. Steve Semmler, if you don't get 100% you should turn in your fan club badge!!!  :) OK- let's do this!

  1. Barry Manilow - I Write the Songs
  2. Wilson Phillips- The Dream Is Still Alive
  3. Chicago- Wishing You Were Here
  4. Glen Campbell- The Wichita Lineman
  5. The Beatles - Back in the USSR
  6. Jesse and the Rippers - Forever
  7. The Captain & Tennille - Love Will Keep Us Together

Think you have some of the connections figured out? Let's take a look at the answers and see how you did!
  1. The huge Barry Manilow hit was, ironically, not written by Manilow but rather by longtime Beach Boy Bruce Johnston! It seems that Bruce writes the songs that makes the whole world sing!
  2. There were 3 Wilson brothers in the Beach Boys- Brian, Carl and Dennis. Carl and Dennis have passed away, but Brian is still going strong. The "Wilson" part of the 90s pop trio Wilson Phillips were 2 of Brian's daughters- Carnie & Wendy. For a little pop music bonus, the "Phillips" was Chynna, who was the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas. Pretty cool, huh?
  3. The Boys did a couple of tours with Chicago over the years, and seeing them close a concert with all of both bands on stage was truly something to behold. On the Chicago hit Wishing You Were Here the Beach Boys provided the background vocals. And they are amazing...
  4. Around 1964 the band was constantly on tour, and an inner ear problem made the noise and the travel unbearable for Brian Wilson. He stopped touring and dedicated himself to songwriting and studio work. Brain had been the band's bass player, and he was replaced for a while on tour by an unknown studio musician named Glen Campbell. Things that make you go hmmm!
  5. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were rivals in many ways in the early 60s, but later on became friends and were often inspired by each other. Paul McCartney has stated that Sgt. Pepper was pushed to new levels in the studio because they were so amazed by Pet Sounds. Back in the USSR was written as a California Girls style tribute to Brian Wilson and his musical genius.
  6. Uncle Jesse (a character played on Full House by John Stamos, who has sat in with the Beach Boys on numerous occasions over the years ) was in a band called Jesse and the Rippers. They struggled to get a break for quite a while before the Beach Boys appeared on the show and gave them a song called Forever. The song was one of the few BB tunes written and sung by Dennis Wilson, who died in 1983. The song became a hit again after being on the show, and the Rippers reunited on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2013 to sing it again as part of a Full House medley!
  7. When Love Will Keep Us Together became the #1 song of 1975, Daryl (the Captain) Dragon and Toni Tennille were unknown artists. But not to Beach Boys fans. Daryl had spent several years as keyboardist for the group on tours, and on his recommendation Toni was added as an additionally keyboard player for a year. That stint was enough to qualify her as the band's one and only "Beach Girl."
It's difficult to find musicians who were not influenced in some way by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I hope you have fun playing along with me today, and that you have enjoyed the good vibrations. Wouldn't it be nice to listen to some Beach Boys today, and the get together and do it again?  Have a blessed day!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ten Things You Must Know

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. (verse 5)

Several years ago I heard a message entitled 10 Things You Must Know (if you have surrendered your soul to Jesus as Lord and Savior). From time to time the notes from that sermon still serve as a devotional guide for me whenever the world tries to convince me my life is not important. All of the points came from the scriptures (in parentheses) and were designed to remind us, just as the words of Psalm 8 do, that we are glorious creations of God. Despite our sins, our faults and our flaws, we are children of the living God- and that is something to celebrate! Because "God don't make no junk..."   

So check out the scriptures and keep this list handy. Check it out anytime you feel like a loser or a failure. It's the ultimate self-esteem booster. The Creator of the universe- the all-powerful Yahweh- is also your Abba (daddy) who loves you and knows your name. How awesome is that?

1.  You are handcrafted (Psalm 139:13-15)

2.  You are valuable (Luke 12:6,7)

3.  You are loved (John 3:16)

4.  You are rescued (Romans 5:6-11)

5.  You are privileged (Romans 5:1,2)

6.  You are powerful (Ephesians 1:19-23)

7.  You are invincible (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

8.  You are fearless (Romans 8:15,16)

9.  You are unbeatable (Romans 8:31-34)

10.  You are a winner (Romans 8:35-39)

May God use these ancient words in our lives when the darkness of this world closes in on us and labels us worthless.

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Shout Outs!

'Tis the season to be thankful, and to help in our never-ending quest to #SaveThanksgiving we've worked on a fresh new batch of Saturday Shout Outs just for you! It is my prayer that each of you will have a week filled with family, friends, turkey, parades, football and whatever else it may be that makes this holiday a special one for you. We will be traveling up to my Mom's on Wednesday and spending Thanksgiving Day with her. We all have so much to be thankful for, and here are just a few of the blessings, prayer requests and updates that I am shouting about this week...

  • My dear friends Chuck & Tammy Foster (New Garden Friends Meeting) are in the process of moving to new home in Kernersville, NC. I would offer to drive up and help, Tammy, but you know how my trick dancing knee acts up when I do manual labor! Best wishes to you guys!
  • So many friends have been dealing with sickness and health issues lately, and I just want you all to know that I am praying for health and recovery for each of you. And for those of you who are parents of young children who have been sick and not letting you sleep, a double dose of prayers for sure!
  • I am so thankful for my dear friend Lisa Jewett (Wesley Memorial UMC). Without her my life would be much less interesting and there would be a lot fewer rainbows and unicorns in this world. :)
  • Over the past couple of weeks I have had various days when I was really into listening to music from unusual (for me!) bands like Huey Lewis and the News, My Chemical Romance & Wilson Phillips. Not sure why these particular groups have been in my head, other than just to prove that sometimes things just get weird around here. And yes- I said Wilson Phillips. Taunt me if you must!
  • To all of my friends who live up north- it looks like it is going to be a very long, cold, snowy winter for you guys. You should be thankful that you have friends in Tampa, near the beach and with an extra bedroom! Reservations are now being accepted. 
  • This week we received the current issue of The Mickey Monitor, a quarterly publication mailed to Walt Disney World annual passholders. We have received this little magazine for many years. But this week, for the first time EVER, it was addressed not to Marilyn or Will, but to William Carl Jones. Anyone else see the irony there? :)
  • I received a text from my friend Denise May Langley (Quaker Lake & various other places) this week saying that she and Beth Vestal McGalliard (New Garden) had been discussing Mexican Pile-Up. This not only brought back great memories, it made me very hungry. You ladies really need to take a road trip...
  • It's now been over 2 years since my first toe removal, and I am so thankful for the way my body has adjusted and for my current good health. Yay me!
  • And finally, here's an update on my novel. The primary writing on Even Better Than Before is finally finished. I am currently doing a read through and my own edits before I decide what happens next. This project has really been a lot of fun, no matter where it goes from here. The characters in the book are now very near and dear to my heart. And Cassandra, you might even get to read it in early 2015.
So that's it for today! Have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving holiday, and try not to trample anyone on Black Friday! Love you guys!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, November 21, 2014

Here Comes the Judge!

Yesterday I read two blog posts from people calling themselves Christians that simply broke my heart. The authors spent thousands of words tearing down a couple of fine folks who happen to believe a little differently than the writers. The articles were full of judgement- and in one case, outright hatred. We will have disagreements with other Christ-followers in this life, and there is always room for debate. But if we cannot respond with love and compassion, how are we any different than the rest of the world? Ten days ago I wrote here about Preaching Like Jesus, and the only response that seems appropriate to me today is to offer up one of those brief sermons, as found in Matthew 7:1-3...

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?" Let those who have ears, hear. Jesus said he came to save the world, not to condemn it. Is your belief system built around judging others who believe differently than you? If so, you might just be be a Pharisee. And if that is true, you need our prayers, our love and our compassion more than you know. Because here comes the judge!
Because of Jesus,

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: New York Trips

For much of my life the weekend before Thanksgiving meant one of two things. I was either going to the National Youth Workers Convention or I was taking a group to New York City. There is something about this time of year that makes me miss the Big Apple more than usual, and this Throwback Thursday seemed like a great time to share this video with you again. Capturing the essence of the more than one dozen New York trips that I took with youth is pretty much an impossible task.The people, the hotels, the restaurants, the sight-seeing stops, the plays and so many other things would take months to write about. But pictures- pictures can capture the feeling much faster and with more clarity. Whether you went with me from NC Yearly MeetingNew Garden Friends, Springfield Friends, FUMC-Kissimmee or Wesley Memorial UMC- you will see friends here. So many great pictures, so many great memories from so many great trips- and the music of Mr. William Joel, whom we once saw on the streets of Manhattan. If these photos trigger any memories for you, I'd love to hear them. For me, it's easy to be thankful and be aware of our efforts to #SaveThanksgivng when watching this look back to wonderful times spent with people I love. For all of you who ever traveled with me to NYC, this one's for you. Be blessed!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

5 Sports Teams I Love To Hate

Yesterday on Twitter my friend Robert tried to "poke the bear" a little bit by reminding me that the Duke Blue Devils- he referred to them as "America's Team"- were playing basketball last night. Robert knows of my love for the UNC Tar Heels, which means my default setting is to dislike Dook. And generally speaking, I do. But the truth is more complicated. While it is always fun to watch Duke lose to other ACC teams and especially to UNC, I often cheer FOR them when they play teams from other conferences. This includes conference games against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame, because those schools are actually Big East teams pretending to be in the ACC. But the point is, when pressed on the issue, I don't hate Duke quite like I used to. And the reason is simple- there are other sports team I LOATHE with a passion- a far deeper, seething hatred that makes my dislike of the Blue Devils seems tame by comparison. Who are the teams? I am so glad you asked...

Before the list of teams, and before the hate mail starts, you should know that I do realize that a part of my dislike of these teams is due to their success on the field of play. I am jealous of their high level of achievement. But it's not just that. All of these teams and programs are arrogant from the top down. They have coaches who believe their own press clippings, players with attitudes and fans who are sometimes insufferable. Several of them live on the edge of improper conduct in their respective sports; a few have been caught cheating and never bothered to apologize. These are teams and players who win all the time, so when they do fail it is one of life's great joys for me. So without further adieu, here is my list of 5 sports teams I love to hate. To be honest I hate the word "hate." But it SO applies in this case...

  1. Whichever team Lebron James is currently on until he decides to leave them and go to greener pastures in his never ending and FUTILE pursuit of being the next Michael Jordan
  2. The New England Patriots (I'm still not over Spygate. Plus the Hoodie & the Pretty Boy just annoy me)
  3. The University of Alabama football team (It's all about the Saban)
  4. The University of Kentucky men's professional basketball team (Some team members take a pay cut when they go to the NBA after their 0ne year of "college")
  5. The Dallas Cowboys (Since around 1966 when I first started watching football with my Dad the Washington fan- so I was born into this one!)
So there you have it, and as you can tell it's going to be a long season for me. The Cavaliers will be very good and compete for the NBA championship. The Patriots looks like serious Super Bowl contenders. The Crimson Tide will likely get a shot to play for the national championship trophy, and Kentucky is stacked beyond description this year. My only hope is Dallas. They still have time to get their act together and finish 8-8 once again. 

Thanks for allowing me to be petty and snarky today. I'd love to hear which teams go on your list. I know some of you will hate on my Tar Heels, and that's cool.  One of the advantages of being a Tampa Bay Bucs fan is that no ones cares enough to hate on your team. But do your worst! Have a Happy Hump Day!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"God, thank you for my life..."

If you are a movie fan of a certain age then you are aware that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were at one time romantic comedy royalty in Hollywood. They had big hits with Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You've Got Mail (1998) during a period in which both of them became box office gold and the darlings of movie critics. What you may not remember- because so few people saw it- is that those films were preceded by the 1990 movie Joe Versus the Volcano. It happens to be my favorite of the Hanks/Ryan trilogy of films. The plot finds Joe, a simple man who is miserable in his work, his relationships and his life, being diagnosed with terminal illness- a "Brain Cloud." A wealthy friend (played by the great Lloyd Bridges) of his doctor offers Joe a lot of money to travel to a remote island and jump in a volcano to appease the natives (the Waponi Woo) so that he can continue to mine "bubaru," an element crucial to his business. Their volcano demands a yearly sacrifice and all of the Woo are too smart to jump. But Joe, a former fireman, is anxious to do something heroic before his life ends- so he agrees. Meg Ryan plays three different characters, the third being a daughter of the wealthy businessman. She is driving the boat that will take Joe to island of the Waponi Woo. It's a strange plot to be sure. But it gets very interesting.

At one point on their journey a huge storm shipwrecks their boat and they are left floating at sea for days on end, kept alive by the really expensive luggage Joe purchased with the money he was paid. Patricia (Ryan) is unconscious. As they begin to run out of fresh drinking water, Joe finds himself thinking not of himself for the first time in years, but of Patricia. He cares for her, giving her sips of the water to keep her alive. Finally, as Joe is suffering from dehydration, he awakes one final time and has the following revelation:

I won't spoil the ending of the movie, because it's awesome and you WILL have to see it now...right? But my focus today is on Joe's simple, honest prayer. We do forget just how BIG our God is, don't we? No matter the weight of our circumstances, God is bigger. No matter the depth of our despair, God is bigger. Mo matter the pain in our relationships, God is bigger. No matter our sins, our doubts, our frustrations and our failures- GOD IS BIGGER! Joe figures that out, and eventually decides that life is indeed worth living.- after a few twists and a lot of orange soda. The Waponi Woo love them some orange soda...

My hope is that today you will join me in praying Joe's prayer. You may be like me and just have days where you feel overwhelmed by life, or like Joe and be unsure of who God is or if God could possibly care about you. Today put that aside and remember that God is BIG, that God loves you, and that you are here on this spinning orb we call earth to make a difference. "God, thank you for my life..."  Never give up hope.

One last thought- if you are ever diagnosed with a "Brain Cloud," get a second opinion...

Because of Jesus,

Monday, November 17, 2014


Recently I have been pondering the future of this blog. The number of page views for my efforts here recently passed 400, 000 and that seemed very cool. And on some level, a little impressive. After all, I began this blog over 5 years ago with the expectation that I would write every day for one year and no one would ever read it. It was just for me, to give me something to commit to and put some discipline in my daily life. So to have lasted so long and had so many people read my posts and encourage me has been a true blessing and very unexpected. But I am also very aware that for REAL bloggers- the famous ones- 400,000 page views is a bad DAY of blogging. I have never been one to worry about how popular my blog is, but on Saturday my curiosity go the better of me. I used some online analytics to find out where this little blog ranks among U.S. bloggers. I then tweeted out the results:
Recent data suggests that I am among the top 343,721 bloggers in North America. So I've got that going for me...

343, 721. I mean I knew it wasn't Top 100 or anything, but still, it seemed awfully sad. The world chooses to read over 347,000 blogs each day before they turn to mine for wisdom, insights, laughs and encouragement. It was depressing. But then I began to consider the silver lining of this new information. There are several million bloggers in our country, which means there are at least a million bloggers who have fewer readers than I do. True confession- there may have been a small celebratory dance following that revelation! While discovering my blog is not among the most popular hurt a bit, realizing it is not among the least popular was a moment of pure joy. Everything is relative, huh?

There is still some question in my mind as to whether this blog continues to meets a need among my friends and my readers. There are days when there seems to be little response to my posts and I wonder if my words still speak to people. But just like my reaction to the analytics, everything is relative. It these words speak faith, hope and love to one person each day...I'm good with that. It not about breaking in to the the top 300,000. It's about touching lives. So if you are reading this, thank you! You have brought me much joy and encouragement, and I hope I have done the same for you. And together, we'll keep going. Have a great week!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"I Stand Amazed in the Presence..."

Happy Saturday, dear readers! I am old enough that I have spent more of my life singing from hymnals than from video screens. I have been in many more church services with organ music than I have with praise bands. Needless to say, there are many of the great old hymns of the church that are near and dear to my heart. One of the ones I find myself humming most often begins with the words, "I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. And wonder how He could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean." In fact,  I found myself humming it again this morning. And I started to wonder. How often do we really grasp the amazing love that Jesus came to bring us? Do we really understand that it is only because of the grace given to us through the love of God whose name is Jesus that we do not remain "a sinner, condemned and unclean?" How often do we really stand in His presence it total awe of what He has done for us? For me, the answer is clearly "not often enough."

So today I ask you this question- when was a time that you stood "amazed in the presence?" Was there a time when you were overwhelmed with awe and wonder at the majesty of our loving God? Remember- and then share your experience in the comment section if you would like. Then join me and sing along with the amazing chorus to this great hymn:

How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be
How marvelous!  How Wonderful!
Is my Savior's love for me?

We cannot #SaveThanksgiving without be thankful to and amazed by the One who came to save us. Give thanks with a grateful heart today!
Because of Jesus,

Friday, November 14, 2014

Understanding Worship

I came to an uncomfortable conclusion very early this morning when my dog woke me up. My dog worships me. Just look at the evidence. When I am sitting at the computer he lies my my feet, making sure I don't go anywhere without him knowing. He follows me everywhere I go. I go the kitchen and he is on my heels. I go to the bathroom and he comes in looking for me. I grab his leash and he heads for the door, ready to follow wherever I will lead him. The neighbors have told me that when I am gone they hear him howling in distress, uncertain what to do without me.  Sometimes when I leave he pouts the entire time I am gone, howling and laying on the bed starring out the window, waiting for my return. I just have to face the facts. Conner the Dog worships me, unworthy as I am. 

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great example of true worship it is! I want to feel that way about Jesus every single day. I want to long to know where he will take me next. I want to follow him everywhere he wants to lead me. I want to feel the need to be in his presence so strongly that when I feel like I have wandered away (because if we feel separated from God, it is us who moved) I howl with grief, hoping he will hear my cries and come rescue me yet again. I want to be constantly vigilant, following him in the here and now and waiting for the glory of his return. This is what true worship is- giving ourselves completely to the One we worship. I want to be like that.  Jesus invites us all, with all of our faults and failures and blemishes, to come follow him. It is a come just as we are invitation, but it comes with a price- that we take up our cross and follow him no matter what. I realize now that Conner is not only a faithful dog, he is a walking object lesson. I want to need Jesus so bad that is hurts. LORD, I want to howl for you. That is my prayer today. And as long as I'm praying, I wouldn't mind if Conner wanted to sleep all night tonight. It's the little things...

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Student Ministry Warning Signs

Tuesday's encounter with a youth pastor with no passion for youth took me back to this vintage post, first published in 2012 and shared here with updates. I still really like this one...

I have been out of student ministry for nearly 8 years now. In youth ministry, 8 years is often a lifetime. The large, big-budget church my family attends has completely reorganized its student ministry 4 times in those 8 years. Some of my youth pastor friends have changed jobs 5 times in those 8 years. So I have missed a lot of changes. I have always been suspicious of people who try to teach youth ministry when they are not doing it- and that is me now, so you should probably take this rand with a grain of salt. But lately, I have been aware of some scary stuff. I read lots of blogs written by youth pastors, and I tweet with a couple of hundred youth workers each week. And I can't help but notice that there are some things they seem to be quite proud of that my 28 years of service in youth ministry cause me to see as red flags- warning signs that a storm is coming! My purpose today is not to say anyone is wrong. I do not know other the inside workings of other student ministries or ministry situations. My purpose is to ask everyone involved in youth ministry to step back and make sure your ministry is doing all it can to build relationships between the students you serve and the Jesus you worship. Here are questions I hope you will consider...

  1. Has your ministry become lopsided?  Ministry to students should cover many areas. We need to teach them to be disciples. We need to show them what it means to have the heart of a servant and how to share the gospel with others. We need to give them opportunities to worship. We need to offer them a place where they feel loved and included, and where they experience true fellowship. Has your ministry become a place that focuses almost exclusively on one or two of those things? Lopsided ministries often begin to exclude those on the fringe, or to become social clubs that have no heart for Jesus. Neither of those is acceptable...
  2. Do you preach to your students each week?  We have known for years that lectures and sermons are the least effective ways to communicate with young people, yet I read each week of all the time youth pastors are spending on sermon preparation. We think our words inspire and convict them, but often they are rolling off teenagers like rain off of a freshly waxed car. There are so many better, more creative ways to teach and engage students with the Word of God- but they require much more planning, work and risk. We ask better of school teachers. We in the church should demand better of ourselves.
  3. Do parents like you too much?  If parents are on board with everything you do, you may have a problem. Yes, we should work with parents (the ones who care and love their teenagers, never forgetting that we also serve students who get zero parental support), partner with them and be supportive of them, never seeking to undercut them as the primary models for the students we serve. But who is it we have been called to serve? If you never have to explain yourself to parents, then chances are you are not challenging your students. The radical Jesus of the gospels makes adults uncomfortable; your ministry should too. You know teenagers. If adults are approving of all of your exotic lessons, weird games, strange meeting times and loud music, then perhaps they are not exotic, weird, strange or loud enough! Occasionally it is a good and holy thing to scare some parents...  :)
  4. When you start planning a new year of ministry, do you begin with last year's calendar?  If you know what you will be doing January 22 of 2015 because you know what you did January 21 of this year, then get help. You are in a rut, and your creativity is dying- or at least in pain! Start from scratch. Brainstorm brand new ideas! You may wind up doing similar things, but don't make what you HAVE done the starting point for what you NEED to do!  Lameness alert!!!
  5. Are all of the adults who work with your student ministry from the same age group?  It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking all adult volunteers (and paid youth staff, for that matter) need to be young and hip. The truth is, teenagers come in all shapes, sizes, personalities and needs. Seek variety in your team. If every youth ministry team meeting takes place at Starbucks or via Facetime on your iPhones, you may have an issue. It is not the church's job to raise a new generation of hipsters...
  6. When was the last time you tried something that failed miserably?  If it has been a while, then you may be playing it too safe. Challenging and engaging students requires a little craziness and a lot of outside-the-box thinking. Those things lead to ideas whose times have not yet come- and abject failure. God will use those failures to make a difference. And on occasion what we see as failure becomes a glorious success in the hands of God. I once lost $8000 on a concert where nearly 100 people gave their lives to Christ. Failure...or not? If you aren't failing a couple of times a year, then you aren't risking enough in the name of Jesus.  
  7. Is your group too homogeneous?  I am not talking about ethnic or racial diversity; those are important issues that deserve more space than I can give them here. I am talking about the caste system that exists in our schools. I am talking about cliques.  Are you actively seeking to help break down barriers? Do you seek to reach all types of students, or just those who fit some predetermined profile set forth by your church? Are you only accepting of teenagers who have already cleaned up their act? You know- clean language, proper attire, no tattoos or piercings? Too many youth pastors are drawn only to students who are like them. Beware of this. Paul wrote we should be all things to all people so that they might know Jesus. As a youth pastor, I would have loved to have been described with the same words Grace the school secretary used to describe Ferris Bueller: "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, ****heads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." Jesus is for everyone... 
  8. Is spontaneous a dirty word in your ministry?   Some of the very best lessons, worship times and fellowship events I was ever a part of were NOT the things I had planned for that day. I heard from a youth pastor a while back who almost had a stroke when his guest speaker didn't show up. Come on, people! We are supposed to be the "Masters of Disaster," the queens and kings of improvisation! Sometimes I think in our desire to appear "professional" we have cut out a big part of the heart of youth ministry- spontaneity. Be willing to go with the flow. Be willing to endure a little holy chaos. In fact, be willing to CREATE a little holy chaos! And above all, be willing to let the Holy Spirit take you places you didn't plan to go. Tameness, sameness and lameness will always be the enemy when it comes to reaching the hearts of students, because none of those words describe Jesus.
I could go on, but I will stop now. This feels like a sermon, and I am sure most of you quit reading back around #3! It is my prayer that these words may rattle a few cages. I gave much of my life to doing student ministry, and I believe with all of my heart that it still has a huge role to play in the future of the church- if we go about it with passion and creativity. Let me know what you think!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You Have GOT To Be Kidding Me...

Yesterday I was in our local Publix grocery store and was standing in line to check out. A young man behind me in line commented on the t-shirt I was wearing, which has the following writing on the back:

He asked me if I was in youth ministry, and I told him not any more but that I had been a youth pastor for many years. He mentioned that he was serving as a youth pastor at a local non-denominational church. We began to chat about ministry, and he confessed that that his goal was to be a worship leader in a contemporary church and that this was just a step along that path, a way to pay the bills while he was searching. My response was to encourage him and talk about how there is much to learn from youth ministry that applies to all ministries and how he could still use his gift of worship leading with the kids. His comeback floored me. He said, "Yes, I find ways to do the things I like to do. It's not a bad job. I'm just not crazy about teenagers. If it was a different age group I'd love what I'm doing now."

His words left me dumbfounded, and I didn't really respond- because in my mind a plan was forming to run over him in the parking lot! My thought has always been that there are only two real prerequisites to being in youth ministry. One, you need to love Jesus. And two, you need to love the weird, wild. crazy, messy, amazingly wonderful people we call teenagers. One out of two does not cut it. I left the store hurting for him, his church and especially the students who are getting short-changed by a youth pastor whose heart is somewhere else. 

Maybe I am overreacting, but for me, youth ministry was a calling and a blessing- a lifestyle, not a job. Sharing life and God's love with teenagers gave me some of the great moments of my life and of the lives of so many of my friends. This guy didn't understand how blessed he was to have the opportunity. That makes me want to grab him, shake him, and just say "C'MON, MAN!

And just for the record, I did not run him over in the parking lot. This time...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Brevity: Preaching Like Jesus

This past Sunday was one of those times when I had trouble focusing on worship while attending a worship service. There were several reasons, most all of which were my own fault. I was distracted by the fact that every song we sang was written between 2012 and the present day, and I didn't know know 2 of them. The fact that there was a Veteran's Day celebration in worship (I respect and love those who serve and served, and wish them a Happy Veteran's Day today! But as you may know it makes me crazy to see the flag take center stage in worship instead of the cross) distracted me even more. And finally, not only was the sermon (despite a new title and and slightly new angle) a rerun, it was all about finances and tithing. And as with most tithing sermons, in my opinion there was a whole lotta' proof-texting going on! So my mind began to wander...

What would my sermon topic be if my life were ever find me in the pulpit once again? On this Sunday, with my head in a very snarky place, I was struck by the word Brevity. One of my mentors in ministry once told me that "you can never go wrong by finishing a sermon early, as long as you say all you need to say." And as the thought twisted it's way through my mind, it occurred to me that Jesus was quite often very brief with his teachings. Jesus always fed his audience well, but he seldom gave them the entire buffet all at once. He also often left them with questions and things they needed to figure out on their own. It was quite a revelation, coming as it did in the middle of someone else's sermon, but I realized I was on to something good. There could be a series of very short sermons that would simply quote Jesus each week and then close with another saying from the master teacher- either "Now go thou and do likewise" or "Let those with ears to hear, hear." The rest of sermon would come from the congregation by means of questions or comments. It would be a message series that would truly be all about Jesus!

The sermons would look something, EXACTLY  like...these:

John 14:6-  "I am the way , the truth and life. No one comes to the Father by by me." Let those with ears to hear, hear. You could then ask the basic question the disciples were constantly asking- "But what does it mean?"
Luke 11:9 - "Ask it it shall be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door shall be opened." Now go thou and do likewise. Does this mean God is a cosmic genie who will give us everything we ask for if we are faithful? Discuss...
Matthew 5:42-44 - "You have it heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Now go thou and do likewise. We all want to be loved, but what is Jesus saying about who we need to love? Love our enemies- all of them? Are you kidding me?

It could be done with everything Jesus taught, with every command and every parable. It could be done verse by verse with The Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord's Prayer. We could give the pulpit back to the greatest preacher who ever lived! Preachers (including myself in the days when I filled pulpits) tend to think their explanations of what Jesus said are more important to the congregation's spiritual growth than what he actually said. NO! His words and stories changed the world. His words did not need commentary when he spoke them, and they don't need it today. We need to be like the first followers, soaking in those words, discussing them, being blown away by the power with which he spoke them. There could be periods of quiet meditation to seek guidance from the Holy Spirit or to seek new revelations from these ancient teachings. Worshippers could learn from each other, hearing insights and life experiences that are not usually shared in the modern church.  Just think about it- what would happen if we turned our worship services over to Jesus

Sharing this with you today probably wipes out any small chance I still had of ever being invited to preach again. It's just too radical, too far away from the comfortable patterns of the established church. But you know what? So was Jesus. And that's really the point. The older I get the more I want to see what could happen if we quit giving people church and started giving them Jesus. And that, my friends, will PREACH!!!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Ragman

Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Please pray for Christians all around the world who today gather to worship under the shadow of arrest and even death.

I have posted this here before and most likely will do so again, but lately grace- or more to the point, our unwillingness to give it to others in our daily lives- has been heavy on my mind. We have all been told that "God is love." This is true. But if God is love, then Jesus the Christ is GRACE! In the world we live in, grace is so much harder to come by than love. Sounds radical I know, but I believe it to be true. To find people willing to care, forgive and take on the burdens and sorrows of those around them is rare indeed. So today I will shut up and let Walter Wangerin tell you a parable about what it really means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. It is a bit long, but so worth it. Enjoy- but beware! You may just wind up not only wanting to love your neighbor, but to become the grace that is Jesus and invade their lives. We must not be satisfied with being the recipients of God's grace. We must be dispensers as well. We must, if our own limited ways, become like the Ragman. The one who gave all so that we might be set free...

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange like nothing my life,my street sense, my sly tongue had even prepared me for. Hush, child. Hush now and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our city. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new,and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: "Rags!" Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music."Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!" "Now, this is a wonder," I thought to myself,for the man stood six- feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular,and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city? So I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn't disappointed.

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys and Pampers. "Give me your rag," he said so gently,"and I'll give you another." He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver. Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear. "This is a wonder," I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away a mystery.

"Rag! Rag! New rags for old!" In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage. Her eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek. Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity,and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart. "Give me your rag," he said,tracing his own line on her cheek, "and I'll give you mine." The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood-his own!

"Rag! Rags! I take old rags!" cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman. The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry. "Are you going to work?" he asked a man leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: "Do you have a job?" "Are you crazy?" sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket - flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm. "So," said the Ragman. "Give me your jacket, and I'll give you mine." Such quiet authority in his voice! The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman - and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman's arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs: but the Ragman had only one. "Go to work," he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider's legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.
I wept to see the changes in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so. The little old Ragman - he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labour he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died. Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope -because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep. I did not know - how could I know? -- that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was awakened by a violence. Light - pure, hard, demanding light -slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, beside that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness. Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: "Dress me.." He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. 
The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ! 

(from Walter Wangerin's book The Ragman & Other Cries of Faith, 2004, Harper & Collins)

We are called to be a Resurrection people. Thank you, Jesus, for saving me. Amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

My New iPod Playlist: Really?

Yesterday I was doing laundry and listening to music. As you may know, my iPod has over 1400 songs and is full of oldies, weird stuff and obscure music. Much of it is organized into playlists so I can find it more easily. I recently created a playlist called Really? It is a group of 50 songs that even I am a little suprised to find on my iPod. So while piddling around the house yesterday I set the device to shuffle- and here were the first 10 songs that played from my Really? playlist. Really...

  1. Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers
  2. Superstition - Stevie Wonder
  3. What You Do To Me - Carl Wilson
  4. Massachusetts - Bee Gees
  5. Creeque Alley - The Mamas & the Papas
  6. So What? - P!nk
  7. Alone Again (Naturally) - Gilbert O'Sullivan
  8. Crow On the Cradle - Jackson Browne
  9. I've Got the Music In Me - The Kiki Dee Band
  10. Losing My Religion - R.E.M.
Anything strike you as particularly odd, or do they all seem pretty normal coming from me? Yeah...that's what I thought! Have a wonderful Saturday- and go wherever the music takes you! more song from the list...if you don't know the 2012 song Bruises by Train (featuring Ashley Monroe) you should check it out. It has so much to say about life...