Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On the Road Again

"Misery is how God lets us know we are on the right track."
Michael Kelso, That 70's Show

Those of us who seek out the place in life called the #NarrowRoad do so because we seek a deeper relationship with God, the Creator of everything. We walk with Jesus because we believe him to be the shining example all all we could hope to be and because he is the King of Kings and LORD of Lords who bridged the gap between our sinful nature and God. The message he came to bring us in often called the GOOD NEWS. We should be a joyful people, full of hope and wonder even when the sky turns dark. And yet...so many of us are not. Kelso may be the King of the Idiots, but we often buy into his words in our own ways. We think of the #NarrowRoad as dark, quiet and lonely. If we are having fun on the path, we are dong something wrong...

On the road again.
I just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends,
and I can't wait to get on the road again!

Willie Nelson may not be a theologian, but in this case he does have a great theological point. Christianity is at its best, its brightest and its boldest when it is done in community. This is true of life on the #NarrowRoad as well. Jesus began his journey in ministry by gathering a group around him with whom to travel and share life. The good times become so much better and the bad times become so much less daunting when we are surrounded by people we care about. They push us when we need pushing, hold us back when we begin to get too self-involved, hold us when we feel broken and laugh with us as we discover the joy in the journey. Making music- sharing life- with our friends is an important part of our spiritual growth. If you feel alone on the road, then perhaps you have chosen the wrong path.
On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again

One of the problems people have when they consider the #NarrowRoad is a real misunderstanding of the path that Jesus calls us to walk. Far too many of those outside the church, and even more tragically, far too many of those who call themselves Christians, think of the #NarrowRoad as a joyless, dismal path where every road sign reminds us of the things that we are called not to do. The markers along the trail all read Thou Shalt Not for these folks. To them, God is the great judge and a cosmic killjoy, and fun is forbidden by hidden biblical passages they have heard about but never read. Yes, there are commandments that we should obey because they were given to us by our God. But so many others that too many people hold near and dear are man made. Nowhere in scripture are we told not to have fun. Paul writes that we should find joy in everything. Following Jesus should lead us into great adventures, new places and unforeseen moments of life. If you think life on the #NarrowRoad is boring and drab, then perhaps you have made a wrong turn.

On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way and our way
Is on the road again

The slideshow I put together featuring students from my years in youth ministry to the soundtrack of Steven Curtis Chapman's The Great Adventure has been through dozens of changes, but the picture you see above has always been in the same spot. They lyrics to the song are "Let's leave long-faced religion in a cloud of dust behind." Look at those faces. Do they look somber or bored? Does it look like they are worshipping a joyless God? My youth groups did indeed travel like a band of gypsies, friends bound together by God's love. Life wasn't perfect, but it dang sure was never boring! Life with Jesus should be anything but bland. There are highs and lows for sure, but they come with knowledge that in the end, God wins. Think about the events of the last week of the life of Christ on earth. What a rollercoaster ride! And at one point, Jesus was arrested and then killed, the disciples dispersed, Peter denied knowing Jesus and all hope seemed lost. Far too many Christians live as if the week ended on Friday. But it didn't. And Sunday always comes, no matter our circumstances, when we travel the #NarrowRoad. And what an amazing, joy-filled day it is- every single time!!!

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for every purpose under Heaven. A time to mourn, a time to grieve, a time for suffering and a time for letting go. But Philippians reminds us that we are to count it ALL joy. Remember the old children's song "I've got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart?" That should apply to everyone on the #NarrowRoad. And for some of us, if we've got that joy in our hearts, we need to notify our faces. The world needs to see our smiles, hear our laughter, and know that we are on the road again- ready for them to join the family!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Next-to-the Last Supper Revisited

The scriptures are full of amazing stories from what has come to be known as Holy Week in the Christian church. With today being the Monday of that very week, here's a bit of a different take on one of those stories. I love to share this 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. Lazarus 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, March 29, 2015


Today is Palm Sunday, a celebration of the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers and praises of the crowd. According to to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, the crowds shouted things like "Hosanna" and "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!" It was a glorious day. Here is the account from the gospel of Luke:                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Luke 19:28-40 (New International Version)                                                                                                                                                        
The Triumphal Entry                                                      
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.' "

Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 
They replied, "The Lord needs it." 
They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" 
"Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" 

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" 
"I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."

It is hard to believe that less than a week after such an entrance those same people would be shouting "Crucify Him!" This Lenten season we have spent much time seeking to praise God and lift high the name of Jesus. But we too often turn our backs when times get tough. In what ways do we turn our backs on the Messiah, despite the fact that we claim to be his followers? Have a blessed Palm Sunday, and prepare your hearts for Holy Week. Easter is only a week away!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Haven't We Been Here Before?

This is the first in a series of random posts you will see over the next few months that I am calling Things I Believe (and you probably don't)! Some will be goofy. This one is not. So be warned...

This world is a mess. We have known that for a while. But lately it is this nation that concerns me more. Laws have been passed, presidential campaigns begun, verdicts handed down, history rewritten, leaders quoted and social media exploding all with the same message- unless you are like me, I don't want you here. And it doesn't matter where here is, you aren't welcome. This would be disconcerting under any circumstances, but to hear so much of it coming from people who call themselves Christians is especially painful. My heart hurts. My brain hurts. And as a student of history I find myself asking the same question at my prayer time each day- Haven't we been here before?

It seems that many of my brothers and sisters (although some of these folks could care less what my sisters think) in Christ have taken a stance that anyone who does not agree with them is not only wrong, but somehow less a child of God than those who do agree. They come from two primary angles. You must be Christian- their version of Christian- and exclude and fear anyone who is not. In this version of the faith, judgement is a key element, and you worry less about your own soul and more about how to make others more like you. You must also hold to the theory of American Exceptionalism. It is no longer enough to love your country. Now to prove our patriotism we must adhere to the thought that the United States is and always has been superior to the rest of the world. If that means throwing out the facts to make history agree with the point, so be it. This country was not founded on exceptionalism, it was founded on and by the "wretched refuse." Our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world! These two ideologies are being used by the "elite" to exclude anyone who doesn't agree with them. People of color, our LGBT friends, immigrants and people of differing religions are more and more being targeted by people who claim to have a relationship with Jesus and being told that they do not belong. They are not Christian enough and they are not American enough. How is "religious freedom" enhanced by laws that encourage discrimination? 

History has taught us that there are few things more dangerous that religious extremism and radical nationalism. We live in a world where terrorists who fly an Islamic flag have made us afraid of all Muslims. ISIS is a band of extremists (who, by the way, walked into a leadership void WE helped create when we invaded Iraq in 2002) who in no way represent the entire religion. A few weeks back President Obama compared the extremism of ISIS to the Christian Crusades and was taken to task for it by many (As a side note, I read someone attack Obama by saying George W. Bush would have never said anything like that, and I cannot agree more. I have little doubt that W. has no idea what happened in the Crusades...). The truth is, he was right. There have been numerous atrocities committed in the name of Jesus, from the Crusades to standing in support of slavery to blowing up abortion clinics. Extremism is ugly no matter who is carrying the flag. Nazi Germany was all about lifting one nation, one race and one religion above all others and seeking to wipe out anyone who didn't "fit in." It almost worked. And yet even with all of this history to learn from, we find ourselves again posting new versions of "Whites Only" signs, fearing religions we don't understand and hating people we don't know. And doing it in the name of Jesus. We have been here before.

My big issue is this- these Christians who claim religious and cultural superiority often do it by choosing to ignore the teachings of Jesus. They see his teachings about peace, love, justice, mercy, grace and forgiveness as a part of the biblical narrative that can be debated and diluted through filtering and watering down. Then they can use their religion to exclude people, when Jesus clearly preached inclusiveness. His call to love our neighbors means loving our gay neighbors, our black neighbors our Muslim neighbors and our really hard-to-love neighbors. Some would respond with Old Testament scriptures (which Jesus gave a new spin) or twist the teachings of Paul, saying Jesus is only part of the story. Well friends, listen up, because I am about to drop some serious theology on you. Jesus is not a part of the story- Jesus is the POINT of the story! If we are willing to ignore his teachings, then everything else falls apart. Yes, there is a theology of salvation and a standard of morality that Christ-followers seek to embrace. But as Paul wrote in that passage they read at all the weddings, without love none of that other stuff means skubala (Carl translation). When we use our arms to push away rather than embrace, we are ignoring his teachings.

I confess there are days when this all seems hopeless, when it feels like the church is failing badly and there is nothing we can do about it. We are too often part of the problem in this country. But we must not- we CANNOT- give up. We serve an awesome God, a God of light and love, and we must take back our faith from those who seek to pervert it. Back in the early 1980s the band Styx recorded a rock opera called Kilroy Was Here about a morally superior bad guy named Dr. Righteous. He knew all the rules but understood nothing about love, mercy and individual freedoms. The story followed a band of rebels who worked under dangerous conditions to get the truth out- a truth that Dr. Righteous controlled. My favorite song on the album (yes, even better than Mr. Roboto) shares its name with this blog post. The lyrics are below:

Haven't we been here before
Footsteps lead down to the note on the door
That says I can't stay here anymore

And haven't we felt this same way
Sure in our hearts, but afraid just the same
To say I can't stay one minute more

You might think that it's hopeless
Beyond our control
But that's not necessarily so
Can't you see there's a chance
For the daring young soul
Who's finally learned to say no

No, I won't be misused
Ignored or refused
And I won't just give up and let go

So tonight hold me close to you
And don't give up what's important to you
And as time rolls on
Nothing can stand in our way

And I believe if we learn from the past
We'd find keys to unlock every door
Dark would turn into light
We'd be strong
We'd be right

So tonight hold me close to you
And don't give up what's important to you
And as time rolls on
Nothing will stand in our way

And I believe if we learn from the past
We'd say haven't we been here before
Oh, and I believe if we open our hearts
We'd find keys to unlock every door
Hearts could change overnight
We'd be strong...We'd be right
So stay with me now
The future is ours
And we'll be the ones who go on

The time is now for a Jesus Revolution. It is time for us to be the daring souls who say no to this blatant misuse of Christianity. Politics can corrupt the church; they cannot corrupt Jesus. Exclusivity may be championed by our politicians, but it will never be championed by Jesus. It's time to take a stand and Take Back Our Church- #TBOC (It should really be take back HIS church, but TBOC is a much better hashtag). Christianity was never intended to be a religious organization, it was intended to be a movement founded on the life and teachings of a radical Rabbi who was also the Son of God. It's not about moral superiority, or cultural warfare or national exceptionalism. It's all about love. Think of those final words of the song as being a direct order from the Christ. "Stay with me now, the future is ours, and we'll be the ones who go on." More than ever, it has GOTS to be all about Jesus! And that's all I have to say about that...

Because of Jesus,

Friday, March 27, 2015

Flashback Friday: The Very Definition of a BFF

Today is the birthday of Steve Semmler, my longtime best friend and partner in crime. Back in 2010 i wrote a post about him and about best friends, and I share it again (with updates) on this Flashback Friday. Happy birthday, Steve! Looking forward to our next adventure!

I don't remember when I first began to hear students using the term BFF. I know it's been a while now, and I know that those who used it were mostly teenage girls. Hearing it always brought a smile to my face. For the uninitiated, the abbreviation stands for Best Friends Forever. I am sorry to be so blunt, but there are few demographics in society who know less about the concept of BFF than teenage girls. Their best friend today often turns into an enemy tomorrow. Forever is the time between arriving at school and the end of the day. If you listen to conversations or read social networking pages you would be led to believe that each girl has numerous friends who fall into this elite category. In fact, by definition, you can only have one BFF, because "Best" is an absolute. And that is what I want to talk about today.

In truth, a BFF is someone with whom you share things that you have experienced with absolutely no one else. It is a person who knows you in ways other people are clueless about; it is a friend with whom you share so many inside jokes and stories that your conversations can leave other close friends wondering what language you are speaking. A BFF is not someone you share a brief period of your life with before moving on to a new group of friends. People like that can be among your best friends, but there is nothing forever about that type of relationship. There is something in the BFF relationship that is eternal.

If this post was taking a spiritual or theological path, then I would write about how Jesus should be everyone's BFF- and that would be accurate. But that is not my purpose today. I want to tell you about my best friend for the past 43 years or so. Steve Semmler became my best friend in the 8th grade. In the years that have passed since that time we have shared so many moments, so many adventures and so many laughs. We have listened to music from odd folks like Hurricane Smith, Tom Lehrer and Gilbert O'Sullivan and thought it was cool. We took long walks on Myrtle Beach under full moons, complaining the entire time that the moon (The Turkey, we called it) was doing NOTHING to help us meet girls. We memorized entire Beach Boys albums that no one else we knew had ever heard of.  We spent hours playing basketball and eating Fig Newtons. We went to a Jimmy Buffett concert in 1974 at an ice skating rink, and a drunk guy threw up on our dates. We learned to play guitar and went through the desert on a horse with no name at least a million times. We could always immediately pick which waitress we would have as soon as we entered a restaurant, because we always got the least attractive one! And I haven't even brought up Schlock Rod or Jim Stafford yet...

We made a friend, Sabrina Perry, who dated Steve once, then didn't speak to either of us for a year. She then became our adopted "Sis." Her parents Bill & Linda were like a second family to both of us; we ate more tacos and peanut brittle at their house than you can imagine. When they moved to Jacksonville, FL after our senior year, we went to visit them. The picture on the left is Steve, Sabrina, myself, her little brother Billy and some unknown rug-rat. Later on Sabrina decided she wanted to date Steve again (I might as well have been his agent) and when he picked another girl instead, she punched me as hard as I have ever been hit! It was not always easy keeping his admirers happy...

Steve and I attended the same college our freshman year, choosing not to room together. His roommate was a drunk and mine a drug dealer, so we spent lots of time with amazing friends like Danny Hines, David (The White Boy) Nelson, Andy Walker, Bob Peterson, Tom Piner and Bill Moser- The Stallions! Later on we shared an apartment with Alan Brown for a couple of years. Steve was always there for me when things went wrong, not just when times were good. We were in each other's weddings, and shared many great moments with each other's families. He was simply a part of my life.

We have now lived many miles apart for a lot of years. We have seen each other occasionally, and we call from time to time. I called him the day before he turned 50 so I could be the last person to wish him a happy 49th birthday; he texted me recently to quote some obscure song lyrics- and I sent the next line right back to him. There are friends I speak with more often.  There are certainly friends I see with more regularity. He and his brother Carl came down a year ago and we had an amazing visit. But even if I don't see Steve for another 20 years (when we have moved in next door to each other at Friends Homes) he will still be my best friend. The reasons are listed above, and those would be more than enough by themselves. But there is one thing more. Steve, with his unending invitations to join him at youth group at New Garden Friends Meeting in the early 1970's, started me on my way to finding Jesus. He didn't do it by preaching or quoting scripture; he did it by being my friend. And thus, his impact on my life is never ending. Eternal. That is the true definition of a BFF. And that is the best kind of best friend...

I know he often reads this blog and saw this the first time I posted it. I hope he is reading today. There is talk of a beach trip in September, and when that happens, I look forward to hanging out, listening to Beach Boys, eating at Calabash and walking the beach and singing. "Hit it, Hal!" And if you didn't get that reference, then I guess you are not my BFF...

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Youth Ministry Aptitude Test

Sometimes student ministry looks
like this...
Many years ago, when fire was first a flicker in the eyes of the first cavemen and there was only one Star Wars movie, I began a career in student ministry that would last nearly 30 years. In those days no one "chose" youth ministry as a lifelong vocation. It was something you did for a variety of reasons, almost none of which were good. Like these:
  1. You hoped to be a "real" pastor someday, but youth pastor was the only job available at the time.
  2. You had enjoyed your own days in a youth group so much that you wanted to stay connected to the ministry in any way possible. When they asked for volunteers at a meeting, you were dumb enough to raise your hand...
  3. You couldn't live without the $50 a month paycheck it provided.
  4. You knew that if you didn't help get the student ministry up and running, Sally and Johnny's parents were going to do it. And NO ONE wanted that!
  5. A pastor came to you when you were 18 and working at a summer camp and told you he thought you would be good at it- mostly because you could play the guitar. Being a sucker for encouragement, you bought it. That's how I got started!
Fast forward 37 years. Now there are degrees in student ministry, both undergraduate and post-graduate. There are dozens (hundreds?) of conferences every year designed to train those who seek to serve God through serving teenagers. There is a level of professionalism in youth ministry unlike anything we have ever seen before or frankly ever imagined back in the day. And these things are all great advances. But all of that education, training and professionalism cannot, in the mind of this old dinosaur, turn someone into a youth pastor. It seems to me that in scripture and in life God does indeed equip the called far more often than God calls the equipped. In fact, the very worst youth pastor I ever knew had 3 doctorates. None of his titles and degrees helped The Reverend Dr. Dr. Dr. Steve actually LOVE teenagers! None of that stuff really prepares you for what it is like to live life, day out and day in, with teenage students & their families. Education and training can prepare you for how to do student ministry, but not how to be a youth pastor. You can learn how to teach theology, but not how to have patience and show unconditional love to kids who are often falling short of expectations. Those things have to come from the heart. I said for many years that here is no greater calling than student ministry, but it does have to be a calling. There are few "jobs" that would be worse. You have to feel the desire to fully, totally and completely share the love of God whose name is Jesus with teenagers by loving them no matter what. And in youth ministry, there are a lot of "whats!" Anyone can be taught to plan events, teach bible studies and drive the church van. It takes a calling to actually love those messy, irrational, irritating and complicated creatures we call "youth."

So today I am going to give anyone who is interested the chance to discover if God is calling (or has already called) them to student ministry. This test will work if you've never really considered the option, and it will work even better if you are already involved in ministry. Just answer these 4 questions. I will even tell you in advance that the correct answer is always "3." If you feel any inclination to argue with me about the correct answers based on what they taught you in a youth ministry class, then you have already failed my course. Ready for your final exam? Here we go...

A)  You go with a group of students to get ice cream after youth group.  Some of the newer kids don't have any cash because they were unaware of this tradition.  Do you...

  1. Tell them better luck next time and taunt them with your cone of chocolate.
  2. Offer to loan them money if they will wash the church van.
  3. Offer to buy them ice cream because they are part of your youth group family now.

B)  David calls from a party around midnight and says he has been drinking and needs a ride.  Do you...

  1. Tell him he has the wrong number. Give him the number of your senior pastor. (I will accept this answer as well!)
  2. Give him a stern lecture on the evils of alcohol, reminding him that Jesus never went near the stuff.  Well...except when he turned water into wine. But nobody ever saw him drink it!  Now call a cab and stop bothering me.
  3.  Go get him and take him home. Along with any of his friends that have no business on the road and no one to call. You can talk about this later.

C)  16 year old Beth strolls into your office and tells you she is pregnant.  Do you...

  1. Offer to hunt down and destroy the father, Predator style!
  2. Explain to her how embarrassing this will be for you and the church. How could she do this to you?
  3. Offer to sit with her and pray for her while she tells her parents and they face a new future together.

D)  Keri (an actual name of an actual caller!) calls you in the middle of the night because she heard an old song on the radio and knew you would know who sang it and what it was called.  Do you...

  1. Scream and yell at her demanding that she seek psychiatric help.
  2. Hand the phone to your spouse and say, "It's for you, dear."
  3. Ask her what the lyrics were and then answer her question, thrilled that she knew that she could count on you. THEN ask, "Couldn't this have waited 'til morning?" 
So there it is.  You have now completed The CJ School of Youth Ministry. I'm sure that some of you cheated, but hey- it's youth ministry! :) My point today is simply this- student ministry is not about "fixing" teenagers. That is a task best left to God. It's about loving them in a way that shows them who Jesus is and how much he loves them. It doesn't take advanced degrees to to do that. It takes a heart full of the love of God, and a willingness to share it.  And a ton...TON...of prayer.  Do you have what it takes?

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Great iPod Experiment

There are currently 1793 songs on my little iPod Nano, and I am in the midst of a grand experiment. For several weeks it has been set to "shuffle" with the intention of hearing every song in random order. There is no way of predicting if that will actually happen, but this morning I listened to songs 990-1000, and that felt like a milestone of sorts to me. Here are the tunes that I heard:

990- Dancing In the Moonlight- King Harvest
991-  Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting- Elton John
992-  Back Home Again-  John Denver
993-  Desperado- The Eagles
994-  Cool Cool Water-  The Beach Boys
995-  Argument Clinic-  Monty Python
996-  I Am, I Said-  Neil Diamond
997-  16 Little Red Noses & a Horse that Sweats-  Jim Stafford
998-  Everybody I Love You-  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
999-  Revolution-  Jars of Clay
1000-  Let Your Heart Hold Fast-  Fort Atlantic

As usual, an eclectic collection of songs that are near and dear to my heart- no matter how odd you may think they are! With this experiment. every day is a musical adventure and I am loving every minute of it. My life has always had a playlist; this is just what iPod chose for me this morning. What's on your playlist?


Monday, March 23, 2015

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Official GMD autographed
 baseball- 1997
I've spent the last couple of day at Spring Training baseball games. Saturday, my wife and our friend Lisa headed to Clearwater to see the Phillies and the Blue Jays. Yesterday I joined the Todd Willis family in Lakeland to watch the Tigers and the Nationals. It was a great way to combine two of my passions, baseball and my love for all the students who passed through my youth ministries over the years.. Today, with a little help from my old friends Geoff Moore & the Distance, I'd like to think a little about both...

In the great song Home Run, Geoff (and co-writer Steven Curtis Chapman) use the imagery and passion of baseball to remind us of a very different story-  one that is extremely relevant today. There are many differences between the people who call themselves Christians. We can read the same words in scripture and come away with very different interpretations. But we do claim to follow the same Jesus. The words of the song remind us that "we're on the same team though we're not all the same, that's why we have to learn to play together." The bridge lays out some steps we need to take to do just that.  

You gotta keep your eye on the ball, swing straight
 and true and follow though
Don't be afraid what ever the call
Because we're never alone, 
our Coach is there to cheer us on...

And therein lie two of our biggest problems. We have stopped listening to the Coach- Jesus! We are trying to save the world under own own power. And we are afraid- so afraid that we have lost trust in the overwhelming power of the Creator of the Universe. It is so much easier to argue about sin than it is to love a sinful world, and so we are afraid we cannot do it. In doing those things, we have forgotten our primary purpose in God's plan. We are called to be the carriers of the disease known as The Good News. It is our job to spread God's love to the world. And so many of us want so much to be a part of that effort.  As the song says, "I didn't join this team to sit on the bench, I'm going deep and swinging for the fence- I've got some friends on base I've to get home!"  

My youth group in Kissimmee in the mid 1990s loved this song. We talked about the meaning a lot, and we focused on the references to the biblical Great Cloud of Witnesses. The lyrics say, "We are not the first to pass this way or stand over this plate. We are surrounded by a legacy..." Wanting to do our part to fulfill the Great Commission was one of the reasons we invited Geoff and the band to do a concert for our community at the Tupperware Convention Center in the summer of 1997. We were trying to hit a home run. We risked a great deal and lost a lot of money, but people came to Jesus that night. "You gotta pray and swing, then watch it as it's going, going...it's GONE!" But we had to work together to make it happen. We could not focus on the things we do not agree on. We had to focus on the ONE we do. And we had to share his love to with the community. The ENTIRE community!

We got to hear this song performed live that night, just like you will hear it here in a video I posted to YouTube (it's got over 4000 hits, which is  lo for one of my videos!) back in 2012. For our FUMC-K family, it turned into a sing-along as we celebrated being the family of God- a true team. My prayer is that in the days to come the Christian community will set aside the things that divide us and focus on the mission we have been given- sharing the love of God whose name is Jesus with our world. If we will do that, we can make the Coach proud. He is indeed cheering us on, saying- "GO! GO! All the way!" Enjoy the video, filled with lots of great baseball images and a few select shots of my youth families. Now get out there and Play Ball!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

That Sinking Feeling

The following in an excerpt from my friend Rick Bundschuh's brilliant 2011 book, Deep Like Me. It is my hope that this will comfort you as you walk this season of Lent. It is so easy to feel like we are failing at Lent, falling short of stated goals and expected growth. We often beat ourselves up for our lack of faith, lack of commitment or failure to grow as quickly as we think we ought to. We want the faith of Peter so we can take a few steps on the water; instead we often see ourselves as sinking and in over our heads. Rick writes these words of encouragement. Soak in them today, and remember that God loves you as you are.

You are not alone. Others of us have those same thoughts and feelings.

You are not that weird. Our faith is often convoluted, inconsistent and conflicted.

You will make it. You still have a long way to go, but by hanging on to Jesus, your faith understanding and wisdom will grow, and yes, it is difficult and even baffling a times.

I would like to tell you that the journey gets easier over time, but that would be a half-truth. At the very point that you acclimate and finally get used to the new spiritual altitude, God hollers at you to get and get moving again.

Take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Get charged up knowing that God has more for you. Always.

Because of Jesus,

Friday, March 20, 2015

Flashback Friday: How NOT To Do Evangelism

This is- quite unfortunately- a true story first posted in 2013. But similar stories play out far too often in our communities every day, so it seemed worth sharing again on this Flashback Friday.

I guess I'm going to hell...

Yesterday afternoon my door bell rang and I peered through the peep hole to see two well dressed middle-aged men standing outside my door. My house is often visited by local Jehovah's Witnesses, and so I opened the door expecting to receive some literature and a few words of encouragement. I was surprised to be told that they were instead representatives of a local Baptist congregation that I am not familiar with (You should know that I  married a Baptist and have lots of wonderful Baptist friends, and that what follows should in no way reflect poorly on the denomination as a whole!). They said that were in the neighborhood to invite people to church and offer them the good news of Jesus. They asked if my family attended church, and I replied that we were a part of Van Dyke United Methodist Church. I expected that to be the end of the conversation. I was so wrong...

The shorter of the two gentlemen said that he was sorry to hear that I attended a Methodist church. He asked if I knew that I was being taught an evil, Satan-inspired theology. When I replied that I did not know that, his partner said that it saddened them to know that I was going to hell. Just like that. Didn't even ask my name before condemning me to hell. These men didn't know me at all, but they had already passed judgement. When I asked how they could be so sure of my eternal destination, they again parroted back the words that I was being taught a Satan-inspired theology and therefore was going to hell. I have to admit, they seemed quite certain! I then asked them if they considered what they were doing to be evangelism in the name of Jesus. When they said yes, I explained to them that I disagreed. I mentioned that I had read somewhere that Jesus came to save to world, not to condemn it, and that if we want people to know him then we need to show them love, because God is love. This staggered them a bit. I then threw another "punch," suggesting that they might want to check the Bible for more information- specifically suggesting that they read 1 John 4:7-8. I said I would pray that they understand the part where John writes that "if we don't love, we don't know God, because God IS love." I finished by saying that while it is important to tell people about Jesus, that Paul pointed out to the church in Corinth that evangelism without love is just noise. I then simply smiled and waited for a response.

None came. Apparently I had scored a TKO by quoting scripture, and so they wished me a good day and left. I didn't even get my copy of the 4 Spiritual Laws or the address of their church. I went back inside and thought and prayed about what I had just experienced, and then I tweeted a short version of the story. I received numerous responses from people who shared my assessment of the situation- that evangelism without love is empty and weak. Many mentioned bad experiences of their own with church folks trying to "scare the hell out of them." Labeling people and denominations, seeking to shock people into relationship with God and judging people we don't know is not what Jesus had in mind when he told to tell the world about him. It scares me to think that these men left me and wandered my neighborhood representing Jesus in such a way. There is simply no telling how much damage was done.

So while they think I am headed to hell, there is work to do in the meantime. If love is the answer no matter the question, then we need to get out there and share the love of Jesus in every way  possible. We need to do random acts of kindness, invite people to the wonderful church I attend, and be the best neighbors we can be. We need to love inclusively. And for our churches, I have a suggestion. In our teaching and training, let's just drop the word evangelism and just start talking about reaching out in love. It's not a program, it's a lifestyle. Just a thought...

And as for my fellow Methodists, I suppose we should all find out how we wound up on a list of "Satan-inspired Christians." My guess is that teaching that the love of God whose name is Jesus is for EVERYONE just rubs some people the wrong way! :)  Have a blessed weekend!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Greatest College Basketball Team You Never Saw

In honor of March Madness getting into full swing today, I am going way back in the old time machine to 1973. So far back that I'm sharing a vintage post (first published in 2011) on a Throwback Thursday. Now THAT's old! Now enjoy this tale from days gone by...

I grew up in North Carolina in the 1960's and 70's, and it is not an overstatement to say that college basketball was a religion. The ACC Tournament was the high holy season. And I was a fully-devoted follower. I was (and still am) first and foremost a fan of the UNC Tar Heels (who open NCAA play today). But that is not the basketball story I want to tell you today. I lived about a mile from Guilford College, a small (about 1100 students at the time) but prestigious Quaker college. I attended New Garden Friends Meeting (and would later work there) in the early 70's, which was across the street from the Guilford campus. Occasionally on Sunday afternoons we would use our connections to get access to Alumni Gym (original name, huh?) and shoot some hoops. We would occasionally run into some of the players from the college. During the 1972-73 season, we shared that tiny gym with one of the best basketball teams of which you have never heard. The Guilford College Quakers had been to NAIA (small college) tournament a couple of times, but it just seemed from the very beginning of the season that this team was special. Every game was an event, and I went to as many as I could. Alumni Gym (its nickname was "The Crackerbox") probably held 700 people, and there had to be 1000 packed in for each game. The noise was deafening. Opponents rarely had a chance in Alumni.

Coach Jack Jensen had assembled an amazing collection of talent and roll players. M.L. Carr (later of the Boston Celtics championship teams in the early 80's), Ray Massengill and beefy ex-Marine Steve Hankins provided the size. Teddy East was one of the best defensive players I ever saw. Every game he would simply shut down the other teams's top scorer. Greg Jackson was a true point guard who could also jump out of the building; he had a 48" vertical leap (True story- one Sunday afternoon some friends went to the gym and found Jackson and Carr shooting around. They were debating just how high Greg could jump. Several of them witnessed as the 6'0" tall Jackson touched the TOP of the backboardRumor had it that he could actually take a quarter off the top, and I never doubted it. Another rumor said he could take one and leave one on the same jump. That's a bit more iffy...). The top 2 subs were freshmen Johnny Ralls and Robert Kent, both of whom graduated from what would the very next year be my high school- Western Guilford.  Johnny's dad was my dentist. The final piece to the puzzle was a freshman guard from Brooklyn named Lloyd Free. He could (and did!) shoot from anywhere. He was in range as soon as he crossed half-court. And he too could jump out of the building. He later changed his name to World B. Free and was an NBA all-star with two different teams. Jackson also played in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. This team was so good we actually had legitimate arguments about whether or not they could have won the ACC that year. For a school with an enrollment of just over 1000, this was an amazing team.

Despite the fact that UNC was already a mini-dynasty and that N.C. State had David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe leading them to an undefeated season that year and a national championship the next, our little community was obsessed with Guilford College basketball. They won the Carolina's Conference championship (no easy feat in 1973- almost every school had a future NBA player) and then advanced to Kansas City for the NAIA national tournament. They were unseeded, but we expected them to win it all. This being way before the days of cable TV and ESPN, we listened to every minute of every game on the local AM radio station, 1320-WCOG. This included hiding in bed with a transistor radio way after bedtime or listening with an earphone while in class. It was around 11 PM Greensboro time when they finally won it all, and all around the neighborhood car horns were blowing and lights were flashing. Our guys were national champions!!! National champs, with three future NBA players, a future NBA coach & General Manager (M.L.) and a future league scoring leader (Free). Hankins and Kent both went on to very successful careers as high school coaches. Today, with talent so spread out, that team would be one of the best 10 college teams in the country at ANY level. I promise you that they were the best team that you never saw. But I did- and I will never forget them.

When I first posted this in 2011 I received a comment that fully supported my own memory and made me smile. I share it here: 

I lived in Kansas City and had attended Rockhurst College (class of '61), which had won the NAIA basketball tourney in 1964. I was an NAIA tournament junkie, present at EVERY game from 1968 until they moved the tournament out of KC. The greatest team I ever saw, without a doubt, was Guilford College when they won the tournament in 1973 (I think? my memory is 71 years old!). Their run to the championship was one of the most exciting basketball experiences of my life. And, after the final game ceremonies, I took my twin sons down onto the court and got Lloyd's and ML's autographs!

Small world. Thanks for the reminder.

They were indeed a great team, and unlike with big universities and schools that are on TV all the time, they were very much OUR team in the community of Guilford College. I'll share one final memory. Just a few weeks later my connection to the team got one last unexpected boost. My Dad had gone back to Guilford after nearly 15 years to finish his degree, and was taking Anatomy and Physiology. One Saturday afternoon he and his lab partner dissected a cat on our screened-in porch. That lab partner? M.L. Carr (pictured above). Thanks for reliving with me the best March Madness of my life. 

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Time "Marches" On

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, and I hope each of you had a good one. Perhaps you even got to chase a snake! :) It occurred to me sometime during the day how insignificant that "holiday" is to me personally. I'm not into green beer, or leprechauns or potatoes. I am part Irish, but that just isn't enough to get me excited about the day. From there my thoughts drifted even further. If St. Patty's Day is the best March has to offer, then March is a pretty lame month. It's not like October. October is full of family birthdays. great memories, and horrible break-ups from my college years- not just mine, but all my friends too! October is cool. In my mind March just feet very blah. And for a moment that seemed true. But then I started thinking. It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb - no other month has that! March has March Madness, and that's a big deal. Spring Training is in March, and that means baseball is back! And I do love baseball. March often has Spring Break, and I always loved Spring Break as a student, a youth worker and as a parent. A few years ago March became the month we "spring forward" into Daylight Savings Time. March occasionally is home to Easter and always home to at least a portion of Lent. It was easy to see that my initial thought had been erroneous. March is not so lame after all.

And then my mind proceeded to go even deeper into the rabbit hole. It must be that March just had very little to do with my life. My family has no March birthdays, and Marilyn and I celebrate our anniversary in August. What could possibly have happened in March. It turns out that was a questions with far too many answers. It didn't take long to determine that March has indeed been a significant month over the course of my lifetime. Witness the following examples:

  • My best friend for the vast majority of my life, Steve Semmler, was born on March 27. Many, many years ago. And then last March he and his brother Carl came to see us in Tampa and we took in a couple of NCAA tournament games in Orlando. Good times!
  • In March of 1980 I attended a Creative Models of Youth Ministry Workshop in Charlotte with J. David Stone, which led directly to me both hearing and accepting the call from God to go into full-time youth ministry.
  • March of 1994 found me preparing to leave Springfield Friends Meeting for Kissimmee after 8 wonderful years, and we were doing EVERYTHING the kids in the student ministry wanted to do. It was one crazy month before leaving in early April.
  • Six years later in March of 2000 my family relocated to Chicagoland and the Union Church of Hinsdale. Just two weeks later I took my first trip with the youth there and discovered I was a fish out of water. But I hung on for 18 months.
  • The Graceland Student Ministries of Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa went to New York City in March of 2005- ten years ago this month. As of now, that was my last time taking a group to the Big Apple.
  • March 21, 2007, is the day I was arrested. A day not easily forgotten...
  • March of 2013 was spent preparing for one of the great day son my life, the reunion of the old youth group from my days in Kissimmee. The event was in April, but that March was full of magical moments as things came together.
  • It was also in March of 2013 that Will & Michelle officially began dating. That has been a blessing to us all!
  • Last March we were notified that a date had been set (April 1) to hear the case for early dismissal of my probation. It was both a stressful and hopeful week, punctuated by amazing support from friends all over the country. And it came with a happy ending!
See what I mean? When you really stop and think about it there are high and low moments in our lives during any given period, no matter how much they all seem to run together. Take any month, any year. any decade and even most days and you can look back to discover there were joys, sorrows and struggles. That's life. But the GOOD NEWS is this- during every high, every low and every place in between we are loved by our God, our families and our friends. Looking back at my March list reminds me just how blessed I have been and continue to be. Time does indeed march on. And that's not a bad thing at all...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Keep Doin' the Walk

We all know people who can tell great stories about their accomplishments in life. These tales often thrill and enthral us, and make us a bit envious that we have not achieved as much or do not have such wondrous stories to share. But let's be real. Many of us (and I do mean US- I am as guilty as anyone of this) like to spice up our stories so that they make us sound more exciting, more accomplished or more significant. It's fun to think that we have soared with eagles or run with the big dogs. We may not actually lie, but there are times when we all remember BIG. In the world we live in it sometimes seems more important to be able to talk a good game than to have actually played it.

This is often true when it comes to our spiritual journeys as well. If we can recite the right creed, memorize the right scriptures and give the right answers to all the regular questions, then we must be doing it right...right? All of those things can be helpful. But when it comes to being on the #NarrowRoad, it's not about talking the talk. It's about walking the walk. The scripture in Micah 6:8 asks the big question: "What does the LORD require of us?" The answer doesn't say that we should talk about how much we love God or love others. The answer involves walking. We are to "do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." It's not about telling the best stories. It's about doing the right things.

In John 13, while in the Upper Room, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This scripture always amazes me, but in a recent revisiting I was struck with something new (to me). The Messiah chooses to wash feet (and feet were disgusting enough with dirt roads and sandals) BEFORE sending Judas away. He washed the feet of the betrayer right along with the rest. He included everyone from betrayer to tax collector to fisherman. As he did throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was reminding us that to love like him, to follow the #NarrowRoad, we have to be inclusive. We have to be forgiving. And we have to be sacrificial. It's never about us. It's about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. If we are excluding people, holding grudges, seeking vengeance or living a selfish life, then I have bad news for us. We ain't doing the walk...

Steven Curtis Chapman has long been a favorite of mine, and the song below is on my top 5 list of SC2 hits. It is a reminder that quite often our best steps on the #NarrowRoad occur when no when is looking. Quite often the more we talk about our walk in ways that bring glory to us, the less significant they become. Steven sings about his time "on the big bright stage." He does his thing and people yell and scream their approval. But the big question is this: "But when the music stops- am I doing the walk?" 

This series (with a new post every Tuesday) was inspired back in December by a couple of church signs that reminded me how much easier it is to claim to be a Christ-follower than it is to actually be one. Yes, we need to share our faith, and as Saint Francis once famously said, "if necessary, use words." But more than that- so much more than that- we've got to keep doing the walk! Enjoy the song and have a blessed day, beloved of Christ!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Grace for Ragamuffins

Today's "words to soak in" for Lent are excerpts from the first chapter of Brennan Manning's classic book The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990, Multnomah Press). It could also be called The Official Guide To Grace- or maybe that's just me. Enjoy.

Something is radically wrong.

The Christian community often resembles a Wall Street exchange of works where in the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness believed. The institutional church has become a wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded... Put bluntly the American Church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice.

Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand. We resonate with slogans such as:
"There's no free lunch."
"You get what you deserve."
"You want love? Earn it."
"You want mercy? Show you deserve it."
"Do unto others before they do it unto you."

Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if it is only personal discipline and self-denial that will mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing.

Our approach to the Christian life is just as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber's license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, "I think I can fix this."

We believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps- indeed, we can do it ourselves. Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut.

As we walk through this season of understanding what God did for us in the person of Jesus, and what Jesus did for us in the sacrifice of his life, we pray for the God of grace have mercy on us- again. We are no good on our own. And the sooner we realize the biblical truth that we should should be thankful for that weakness, the closer we come to understanding the Easter event. Have a blessed Sabbath.

Because of Jesus,