Thursday, April 30, 2015

That Was the Week That Wasn't

The month of May is right around the corner, and that always gets me thinking about all of the summer youth ministries I was involved in over the years. Beginning in the late 1980's (see The First Youth Week) we included a Youth Week in every summer that we planned at every church I served. The week always had a theme, and always featured at least one event each day. It most often began with something at the church on Sunday evening and ended when Rec Around the Clock finished on Saturday morning. It was always one of my favorite weeks of the year, both in the planning and the execution.

In September of 1999 my future at FUMC-K was a bit up in the air, but I was still expecting to be there the following summer. The year 2000. It seemed like it should be big deal, and we began to formulate a plan to make Youth Week 2000 the most amazing ever. We had always joked about taking a group cruise; that was cost prohibitive, so we began thinking about a cruise themed Youth Week instead. But then life happened and I left the church in March of 2000. Fast-forward to late 2004. I was the speaker at Youth Tremors, a post-Christmas camp for students held at Quaker Lake. My old friend Tim Vestal, who coordinated the event, used a cruise theme for the long weekend. It reminded me of my previous plans, and upon my return to Wesley Memorial UMC we began to put together a special Youth Week for 2005. The theme would be the 2004 Ian Eskelin song Save the Humans (you can hear it at the bottom) and we would "tour the world" with the message of Jesus. I wrote scripts for skits, and we even went to the beach and made our very own Save the Humans video. Then once again life intervened, and I left WMUMC in June of 2005. My last official act was a scaled down Youth Week- just not THAT one. Again my plans went unused. In January of 2007 we began to prepare yet another cruise themed Youth Week for the students of Trinity UMC. But due to my own sin and stupidity, my career ended in February, with the plans already in my computer. Three times I tried, and three time I failed. Clearly, that was the week that wasn't (TW3)!

Now all these years later it occurs to me that this is still a great idea. My life may no longer include student ministry, but my heart and my head still go there on occasion. All this thinking (it's always dangerous when I think!) makes me ponder what TW3 would look like in 2015. It makes me wonder what we could do with modern technology and (I can dream, right?) unlimited resources. So I have decided to plan another Youth Week, this time without the restrictions of reality! That means for the next 6 Thursdays this blog will be will be fictional! Instead of memories of events and people that were part of my life, there will be stories of things that never actually happened. I will combine some of the original elements from FUMC-K with some of the ideas from WMUMC and TUMC (and lots of brand new stuff!). What you will get in the end is a killer (if outrageously expensive) dream Youth Week Worldwide Cruise as it might happen in the Orlando/Kissimmee/Tampa area today. It will be totally unrealistic, but hey- it's my dream, right? So don't get hung up on the facts- just enjoy the ride! Each day's events will be drawn up just like we would have done in a summer brochure if we were actually doing it- so feel free to sign up for the events you like! And the great part is it's all free!!! This little experiment is my way of taking care of some unfinished business. For my former youth, I hope it will remind you of the excitement of looking ahead to great youth events. This may be even more fun now that you are an adult. And for my friends in student ministry, perhaps you will find a bit of inspiration in my over-the-top plans. The fun begins May 7th!

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be the Thunder!

There are few sporting events more exciting than playoff hockey. There are even fewer things more exciting than a game 7. And if a game 7 in a hockey playoff series happens to go into overtime then it becomes an instant, heart-stopping classic. And if the Tampa Bay Lightning are involved, so much the better!

Tonight, in Tampa, the Lightning take on the Detroit Red Wings in game 7. The city of Tampa is ready to do our part and Be the Thunder! Amelie Arena will be rockin' and the crowd will be at a fever pitch. Playoff hockey. It's just the best! Now LET'S GO BOLTS!!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Road Less Traveled

Modern Christ-followers often want the #NarrowRoad to be the familiar path, the one that most people seem to be walking. We tend to follow the lead of those who have gone before us more closely that the leadings of the Savior, when in fact the #NarrowRoad is nearly always the road less traveled. Nothing explains this better than the amazing poem The Road Not Taken by the late Robert Frost. Read it below, no matter how many times you have read it before. Soak in it. And understand that the path Jesus calls us to is a path that is not well worn, for so few dare to journey on it. It is not well marked, nor is it easily followed. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, "The #NarrowRoad has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." We are called to choose the rugged road that leads to a rugged cross. We are called to follow Jesus.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Jesus makes all the difference. And loving the way he loved continues to be the road less traveled. Amen.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I Believe in the Prince of Peace

"I'm a writer, not a fighter..."  - Gilbert O'Sullivan

Some of you know that I am in the midst of a series of random posts called Things I Believe (and you probably don't)! This post is another in that series. Lately several of my posts have been about what it means to be more like Jesus, and one of the aspects I have focused on is his role at the Prince of Peace. This has caused several readers to question if I really believe peace in possible in our lives and in our world in these crazy times. This is my response to those queries. I know this an unpopular opinion. But it is something I believe with all my heart.

I am a pacifist (a believer in nonviolence and peacemaking) because I believe that is what Jesus calls me to be. For me, pacifism is a matter of faith, not politics. Today I would like to tell why I believe pacifism to be the way of the Prince of Peace. (The sound you hear may be half of my 2500 Twitter followers clicking "unfollow" all at once...)

I believe that if we call ourselves followers of Jesus then we must be willing to heed all of his teachings, not just the ones that are convenient in this day and age. He even goes so far as to warn us that when we follow him, we may lose lose everything- because "to find your life you must lose it." It is difficult to love our enemies, yet we are called to do just that. It is hard to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile instead of seeking revenge or "justice," yet that is the path we are called to follow. In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5Jesus gives us a quick list of life-attitudes that will make us blessed. Included are things like mercy, meekness and peace making- all of which seem so out-of-step with our society. As the great Tom Lehrer once wrote, "It takes a certain amount of courage to speak out about things no one else believes in- like peace and justice and brotherhood." It's a strange world. When Jesus was attacked at the time of his arrest and Peter came to his defense, Jesus rebuked him and told Peter to put away the sword- to my mind disarming me as well. Everything Jesus taught us encourages us to respond to others with God's love, no matter the situation. I believe that scripture declares human life to be sacred, and that there should not be exceptions to that- that pro-life should REALLY mean that God values every life, both the sinner and saint. I believe that the ways of  Jesus are the ways of non-violence. You may not, and I do not claim to have cornered the market on knowledge of what Jesus thought. But as I said before, I find pacifism to be a matter of faith. Psalm 23 reminds us to "fear no evil for God is with us."  Yet we insist on fearing and trying to protect ourselves rather than trusting in God. To again paraphrase Lehrer, "the LORD's our shepherd says the Psalm, but just in case...I better buy a gun!" I know that without grace and the love of God whose name is Jesus that I am condemned to death by my own sin. I owe him my life and my salvation. How can I not trust Him to protect me when I need protecting, even as He did Daniel, Rack, Shack and Benny? It is a matter of faith.

Over the years this stance has often made others question how I would actually respond when faced with violence against myself or my family. I have good friends, people I love and respect, who cannot imagine not fighting tooth and nail to protect their families if the need arose. They find my beliefs to be hard to understand...or downright ludicrous. Surely if I had a way to defend my family, I would. How could I say that I would respond to such a situation with non-violence?

The scenario that is often presented is this-  intruders invade my home and threaten my family. They have a gun, and I have mine. How could I know I would not kill them to save myself and my family? And the fact is that situation requires me to answer I don't know. How could I? Under those circumstances, under all of that tension, it is possible I might just shoot first. I hate to admit it, but it is the truth.

But such scenarios are missing the point for a true pacifist. There is only one way I can stick to my beliefs and practice non-violence in such situations. I must simply never have a weapon. And so I don't. You may think this makes me weak. And you know what? You are right. I am weak, in so many ways. That is why I must lean on the strength of the One who has already saved me from this world. If someone wants to do harm to me or my family, they will have to deal with Jesus, and we will be with Jesus- no matter the outcome. What more protection do I need? 

This is NOT specifically an anti-gun post. I have many friends who are responsible gun owners, hunters and target shooters. But I am anti-violence, and there are far too many gun deaths in our country. More people have been killed by gunfire in the county I live in than by car wrecks so far in 2015. We have a problem. Handguns and assault rifles are not sporting guns, and many of the "people" (I mean idiots, but that seems insensitive to say!) who own them shouldn't be allowed to have Swiss Army Knives, much less high powered weapons. Something needs to change. I do not have the answer for our nation. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. And for us, that means no guns. It means trusting God as we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." It means having the faith to trust God more than guns. And I do...

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Worshipping Worship

For many, today is a day of worship. We enter into our sanctuaries, our auditoriums, our Fellowship Halls and our worship rooms all in the name of God. We worship through music, the spoken word and through liturgy. Our styles and traditions may vary, but we come to worship in the name of Jesus

Or do we? Too often we judge our worship experiences by human standards. We either love the soaring guitar solos or miss the classic beauty of organ music. We love singing the hymns our parents sang or we throw our hands in the air at the direction of a praise leader leading us in the newest songs. We listen to sermons, either soaking in the teaching or complaining about how long it is to our neighbor. We may be at church because it communion Sunday; or we may be skipping church for the same reason. We wonder about baptism. Is it for babies or adults? Is it blasphemous to be baptized for a second time? And why does THIS pastor do it THAT way- our last one was MUCH better? Our thought process often revolves around how  the elements of worship effect ME rather than how do they help me praise God. We often seem to worship the act of worship more than we worship the One who created both it and us.

Do we show up for church services expecting a "good show" or anticipating the presence of God? Do we despise change in our worship styles because we are certain that God hates change as well? Do we sing words of praise because we want to bring glory and honor to our Creator or because it has a good beat and we can clap to it? Are we in church to hear a preacher or to seek out THE teacher? Do we gather to hear what God has to say to us, or because we have always gone to church? These are important things to know. We may be able to fool ourselves into believing we understand worship, but we cannot fool God- because God is no fool. Now go- and give praise to the LORD!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Marvel Movie Musings

One week from today I will be sitting a movie theater watching Avengers: Age of Ultron- unless I have already seen it by then! Marvel Comics were a part of my life growing up and the Marvel movie universe is one that I find fascinating. Not only has the entire Avengers series captured my fancy, but so have the X-Men (Note- X3 The Last Stand is one highly underrated film!) the two Fantastic Four movies and even the original Tobey Maguire Spiderman trilogy (which had serious flaws but they were fun anyway). I have not seen either of the Spiderman reboots. I've even watched every episode of Agents of Shield on tv. So needless to say my anticipation is high for the new Avengers flick next weekend. Hulk smash!!!!

All fans have their own favorites from among the 10 Avenger related films (including Guardians of the Galaxy; while not yet connected, they will be!) thus far and I am no different. Today I share with you my rankings. It should be noted that each of these movies were originally seen on the big screen and have since received multiple viewings at home. I know these films well. And here's the way I rank them:

  1. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
  2. The Avengers
  3. Iron Man
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy
  5. Iron Man 3
  6. Captain America: The First Avenger
  7. Thor
  8. The Incredible Hulk
  9. Thor 2: The Dark World
  10. Iron Man 2
There's no need to bore you with explanations as to why they are ranked in that order, but there are a few things you should know. Iron Man is that high because if it had flopped, NONE of the rest of this would have happened. So it's important. You should know that numbers 1-8 are all movies I can watch over and over and still love, so the separation between them is very small. Thor 2 isn't bad, it just doesn't grab me quite like the others, partly because the bad guys are pretty anonymous. And Iron Man 2 just annoys me. It's entertaining but fairly pointless. If it didn't introduce Black Widow it have no purpose at all in my mind.

So there you have it. It would be great to hear you thoughts on my list. I eagerly await Antman later this summer and the next wave of films to follow Ultron. If anyone from Marvel/Disney is reading, please hear this old man's request- make a Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo before I am too old to see it!  Thanks, and have a great Saturday, dear readers!

Friday, April 24, 2015

How To Ruin A Teenagers Faith

Strangely, encouraging this did not make the list!
WARNING: This Vintage Post contains sarcasm and overreaching general assumptions! Read with caution!

Anyone who spends anytime around middle school and/or high school students knows that they face many challenges in their day-to-day lives. Some of those challenges involve their faith. They are deciding who they believe, what they believe and how to live out those beliefs in the world they live in. You would expect the church to be at the forefront of helping these fragile followers of Jesus discover their true selves. And often it is. But on occasion the church (and the adults who "make the rules") actually provides more confusion than help. Today I want to take a look at 5 rules we use to turn teenagers away from God and towards a Double-Life Faith where they simply go through the motions of Christianity. These rules can also apply to new adult believers, so beware!

#1)  They must dress differently for church than they do for anything else. In my early days as a youth pastor most students were still being coerced into wearing their "Sunday Best" to every event at church- from weddings to worship. I myself wore a tie on Sunday for years and wore one on almost no other occasion. I was always told this was because we should wear our best for God, but I have come to believe it was a disguise we wore in the hopes that Jesus would not recognize us on Sunday after the way we had behaved all week...
#2)  They must talk differently at church than they do anywhere else. It's important for church youth to learn to speak in a language no one can explain. I'm not talking about the swearing- that probably should be different. I'm talking about "Christianese." At church, they can tell you that a worship service was"Spirit-filled," or that someone was "Saved" or "washed in the blood of the Lamb"- and give you a "Hallelujah" or an "AMEN" to back it up.  If you ask a youth at school on Monday how the church service was, about the best you can hope for is "whatever." We teach them to describe their faith journey in a language they will never use outside of church.
#3)  They must learn that we don't talk about "those things" at church. Teenagers must learn that some subjects are just unsuitable for church. Jesus may be LORD of All, but he obviously cannot deal with subjects like sex and evolution. If students hear often enough that "we don't talk about that here," then guess what? They'll quit talking about it with you and with God- and go back to gathering their info from the highly enlightened 17 year old who lives next door. Muuuuuch better....
#4)  They must learn to act differently at church than they do everywhere else. At church it is important to act happy and be nice. You must pretend to share a fashion sense (see #1) and musical tastes with people 4 times your age. As a real life teenager, your job is to be moody, grumpy and occasionally outright Gothic. Learning to pretend you are someone different at church than you are in real life is the basis of a good Double-Life Faith.
#5)  They must learn that Christians are perfect, and so are they! At church, you never admit sin, defeat or failure, because everyone knows that Christians are perfect. Those sins you committed during the week are best hidden away on Sunday, because goodness knows Jesus doesn't want to hear about them. If our kids hear often enough that our goal is to get to heaven, and that heaven is for perfect people, then they will understand the need to NEVER confess their sins- at least not when anyone in the church might hear them. Grace?  That's for losers...

History has shown us that if we teach these things well when our kids are young, we can be fairly certain that they will grow up believing that Jesus is "that one guy who lives in that one building." They will have learned that faith has no place in the real world, and that God lives in a tiny little box kept under the pulpit. They will have learned to live a Double-Life Faith. It is a lesson far too many adults have learned far too well- and now they know how to play church. Want to ruin the faith of a teenager? Maybe you should just send them to church. It's time to stop the madness. It's time to get real with our kids about faith. Quit giving them "church." Start giving them Jesus. And one more thing. Don't tell them how important they are and then not bother to learn their names or care about anything they are interested in. I'm just sayin'...

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Springfield's 1991 Myrtle Beach Trip

Stacy finds yet another camera to pose for!
Today's Throwback Thursday trip takes us back to my glorious years (1986-1994) at Springfield Friends Meeting. In the summer of 1991 we took a group of students to North Myrtle Beach, SC. We stayed at a house called The Spinnaker (the Betsy B was booked) for a week. As always I brought along my trusty video camera- a Magnavox about the size of your average 50 pound TV camera. And as usual, I was having too much fun to worry about actually taping anything! Finally, on our last full day, I broke out the camera in the morning and shot for most of the morning. What you are about to read is a blog I wrote while watching that video in 2010. It was a hoot! It should be mentioned that the following is rated PG!  Here we go...

* We open on Jon Moran's temporary dragon tattoo purchased at the Pavilion the night before. Jon addresses the camera and says "I will now attempt to eat a whole box of Fruity Pebbles." It was our own little cliffhanger- stay tuned to see if he was successful!
* Stacy Gilbreth, Natalie Whitaker, Holly HarwardCharles Freedle and Ben Moran are on the oceanfront porch, watching the action on the beach as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Stacy wants me to film some guy named Marcus, who is not with our group but who is "really cute." I refuse and harass her. Good times...
* Jennifer Simmons discusses forgetting her swim suit on a beach trip, and also how"gross" she looks. Marilyn suggests that she wear Stacy's "flowery bra" and that no one would notice. Jennifer responds by telling the camera her sister Amy looks gross too...Amy, now pictured, is not amused. 
Kelly, Kelly, Kelly...K-E-L-L-Y!!!

* A group of us wake up Kelly Allen by invading her bedroom and singing her the "Kelly, Kelly, Kelly" song from the TV show Cheers. She is also not amused.
* Avis (a friend of Jennifer Woods whose last name I have forgotten) threatens to expose herself again (A note of explanation: Avis had lost her bikini top in a wave on our first day, exposing what the kids came to call "her flippers."  Yes, this stuff really happens...) but does not.
* Shon Hildreth, Ion Hildreth, Noel Cecil and Donald Fleischman are on the porch now, listening to Guns and Roses and bothering Holly and Nat in what can only be considered an awful attempt at flirting. A moment later Journey is playing. The soundtrack to this video rocks!
* Holly, Nat, Jennifer and Stacy are walking on the beach in front of the house and screaming my name, wanting me to film them. I do briefly, but then we hear the voice of Charles in the background saying "don't get that." He then tells me to focus on two other girls walking the beach, and he yells at them "Hey ladies!  WAVE!" And they do...
* Ryan Simmons and Steven McGrath make a brief appearance, but say nothing.
* Wendy Mattocks and Kelly, sitting in a chair on the first floor, tell the following joke: "What's green and goes slam, slam, slam, slam?  A 4-door pickle!!!" I taught them that's my own fault! 
The legendary Charles Freedle

* Charles and Mike Mercadante (who has just gotten up) have tattoos, too. Jon has indeed finished the entire box of Fruity PebblesTom Petty is now playing in the background. I love this trip!
* Kelly begins to tell us the story of being awakened earlier, then realizes if anyone is actually ever watching the tape, they have already seen that happen. She also tells of how we forgot to awaken her stuffed animal Yolanda, who apparently had fallen into a crack.
* Stacy takes this opportunity to once again tell us that her raft has a hole in one of the seams. And just as she has the entire week, she does this by reporting "there's a hole in my crack." Ah yes- these are my people!
* Josie (again, the last name escapes me- all I can think of is & the Pussycats and I know that is not it!), Natalie and Holly give us a tour of their room. Clothes and hair spray are everywhere! I threaten to condemn the place...
* Wendy and Kelly have changed floors but are still sitting in a chair just like the one before. Jennifer Wood has now joined them. They begin telling jokes, and then Stacy (who seems to be everywhere the camera is) tells a classic: "What do you get when you play a country song backwards?  You get your wife back, your dog back and your truck fixed!" 
Woodhead & Wendy!

* Wendy remarks that Jennifer Wood, dressed all in green, looks like a pickle. This prompts Natalie to tell the exact same pickle joke as before. We all try to act surprised. 
* Kelly brings out Yolanda, and a lengthy discussion ensues over whether this creature is a dog or a bunny. Someone even suggest a bear. Kelly swears it is a bunny. I suggest it is a "Dunny," to which Kelly replies "Yes... I mean NOOOOOO!" 
* Marie Allen is finally awake...
* Jon, Charles, Mike and Bryan Dowling emerge from their room, looking suspicious. Mike and Charles are wearing Speedos, and they proceed to run around the building. Mike has dollar bills tucked in his. As they run back into their room, Charles shouts "Well I never!" I respond "Well maybe you should!" Jimmy Buffet plays as the camera fades to static...
* One final scene- the next morning, everyone is banging pots and pans trying to wake everyone else up.  Jon, Mike, Charles and BD sleep through it all.

That's it. I missed filming the devotions, the singing on the porch, Black Thursday and all kinds of other excitement. I seem to remember sitting up one night and trying to count all of the "Na-na-na-na-na's" in the Journey song Loving, Touching and Squeezing. Every trip offers so many memorable moments. The video did capture the feeling of community and the love that we all had for each other, even if only for one day. I hope you enjoyed this flashback- I sure did! 

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Favorite Live Albums EVER!

We live in a day and age where the live concert album is in very much the same category as greatest hits albums. They tend to be collections of familiar tunes released after a band is finished or at least way past its peak. This has not always been the case. There was a time when live albums were filled with rare performances and deep cuts that thrilled fans and made them extremely popular. Some of my friends never cared much for the raw sound of live recordings, but I was- and am- a big fan. The other morning a few live songs popped up on my iPod and I began to piece together a list of my Top 10 Favorite Live Albums of all-time. As you would expect with me, some of the choices are a bit off the beaten path. But I still love them all! So in no particular order, here we go...
  1. After the Flood, Bob Dylan & The Band (1974) - Remarkable electric live performances of classic Dylan tunes like Blowing in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone paired with The Band singing their hits like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. A true tour-de-force of the era.
  2. Wings Over America, Paul McCartney and Wings (1976) - Because of enduring popularity of The Beatles, it's easy to forget just how huge this band was in the 70s. McCartney is at his live best on this album which actually included a few Beatles tunes. In 1976 all 4 mop tops were still alive and we were still hoping for a reunion. This was as close as we got to hearing the Fab 4 live. It has lots of hits, the definitive version of Maybe I'm Amazed, and a few acoustic hidden gems like I've Just Seen a Face and Richard Cory. One of the best selling live albums ever recorded.
  3. Mighty Day on Campus, The Chad Mitchell Trio (1961) - The soaring harmonies, acoustic guitars and folk banjo of the Trio are just brilliant, but the songs are the thing here. Great stories, some moving and some hilarious, fill the record from beginning to end. In addition to the title track, there's Lizzie Borden, Super Skier and Hang on the Bell Nellie. My dad introduced me to this great album, and his favorite song was Puttin' on the Style. The CD is in my collection and on my iPod. Great stuff.
  4. 4 Way Street, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1971) - We discovered this double album that was half acoustic and half electric when I was in high school- and we wore the sucker out! The acoustic sides featured solo efforts from each member of the group (Triad, Love the One You're With, Chicago, Don't Let It Bring You Down), with the others playing supporting roles- along with a few CSNY classics like Teach Your Children. The electric album was classic 70s jam, with lots and lots of guitar solos on Southern Man, Ohio and more. The album concludes with an amazing acapella version of Find the Cost of Freedom. It's a very political album that captures the era perfectly.
  5. That Was the Year That Was, Tom Lehrer (1965) - Tom Lehrer was a professor at MIT who also happened to be a musician. In 1965 he wrote humorous songs filled with political commentary for a TV show called That Was the Year That Was, but other artists sang the songs on the show. He recorded this album so the world could hear the songs as they were meant to be. I can sing every word of this brilliant performance, from Who's Next? to New Math to Pollution. Don't know Tom's music? Then check out the wonder that is The Vatican Rag! I owe the Semmler brothers and their dad Hank a great debt for introducing to me to this music.
  6. The Live Set, Michael W. Smith (1986) - In the mid 1980s I still thought of contemporary Christian music as a bunch of people trying to play Jesus Loves Me on electric guitars, but as a youth pastor I kept exploring the genre in hopes of finding something I thought my students would like. The first time I ever heard this album everything changed. This was good stuff, performed by outstanding musicians- and the songs were great! Before The Live Set the only MWS song I knew was Friends. Hearing Lamu, EmilyOld Enough To Know and In the Pursuit of a Dream played live gave a new appreciation of the music. And my youth didn't like it- they LOVED it! We gave away so many copies of the cassette at TNT. SO many...
  7. Jimmy Buffett at Fenway Park, Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band (2004) - There is nothing quite like Jimmy Buffett in concert. It's more of an event than an show, and I've been fortunate enough to be there a few times in my life. He has released many live albums, but this is my favorite for a couple of reasons. The set list is classic, with all the songs you know by heart plus some hidden gems. JB and the wild crowd of Parrotheads seem truly psyched to be playing Fenway Park, and the recording captures the party atmosphere. And finally, this album holds the secret to the real reason the Boston Red Sox would finally win a world series just a month or so later. At one point the Ghost of the Bambino takes the stage, and Jimmy's dancing girls beat it to death with baseball bats. No more curse. Red Sox win!
  8. The Beach Boys in Concert, The Beach Boys (1973) - You knew there would have to be at least one from my favorite band, right? This album would make the list even if the only song on it was Marcella, but there is so much more, including an incredible rocking version of Surfin' USA. So it nudges out the 1963 classic simply called Concert. Listening to the double live set reminds me just how incredible the guys sounded live at their peak. Not many live bands could pull off Good Vibrations and make it sound BETTER than the studio version!
  9. Live/1975-1985, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (1985) - This one is a bit of a cheat, as it is not a concert album but a triple album collection of live recordings from a 10 year period. But WHAT a 10 year period!!! Bruce and the gang are captured at the top of their game and all of the classics are there, from Badlands to Rosalita to Hungry Hearts. The demand for this box set was so great that record stores (remember them?) would sell out as soon as shipments arrived. At the time I didn't yet own one of those new fangled CD players, so my copy of this great American classic is on 3 cassette tapes. Oh well...
  10. An Evening with John Denver, John Denver (1975) - I know I said that these are in no particular order, but if they were ranked by actual "playing time" this double album would be at the top. Again, like so many of the others from the 70s, it is filled with hits- but that's not what makes it great. Songs like Farewell Andromeda, Summer, Forest Lawn and Saturday Night in Toledo Ohio are what make this a must have collection for any John Denver fan. A soaring version of Rocky Mountain High, great stories from the singer, the definitive version of Thank God I'ma Country Boy and the very moving This Old Guitar make this a masterpiece. I bought the entire album on iTunes and love to just let it play. Great memories for sure.
And here's one bonus for you. In 1976 a previously unknown artist released a double live album that took the world by storm, becoming one of the biggest selling records in history. I was never a big fan of Frampton Comes Alive, but I am fairly certain that when I graduated high school in 1977 you had to prove you owned a copy before you could get your diploma. It was that kinda big...

So what about you? Does anyone listen to live albums anymore?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

OxyMorons & Redundancies on the #NarrowRoad

It seems lately that things that have always bothered me a bit in nagging sorts of ways have become magnified. This is true in both my day-to-day living and in my writing. Part of it can be attributed to me having too much time on my hands these days, and thus my brain is free to wander. Part of it can be accredited to my advancing age and an "I'm too old for this sh*t" Lethal Weapon mentality. And a part of my newfound irritability is due to the circumstances I have lived under for the past 8 years. When your life is controlled by rules and restrictions that often make no sense the frustration level rises and you begin to see things differently. And that's not always a bad thing...

The #NarrowRoad is filled with Christians seeking to follow a path that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. We all desire a closer relationship with Jesus, but we go about building that bond in very different ways, often using labels to describe the kind of Christian we hope to be. One of the most popular labels believers give themselves is one that has often bothered me- Conservative Christian. Much of my consternation over the term comes from my dislike of mixing religion and politics, and this term often serves to do just that. But lately there has been something different that bothers me, something almost- dare I say it- theological. Let's take a look at the dictionary definition of the word conservative:

Holding to traditional and safe attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

That sounds about right. And take a look at some of the synonyms listed along with the definition-  traditionalist, conventional, orthodox, old fashioned, unadventurous, set in one's ways, middle-of-the-road, moderate and stick-in-the-mud. These are indeed words that could be used to describe a large number of people in any USAmerican church. When standing alone, there is nothing wrong with these descriptions. It is fine to be conservative in politics, in dress, in social behavior and in finances. But when paired with the word Christian- the definition of which means one who want to be like Christ- there starts to be an issue. It has come to mean a branch of the faith that is more interested in legalism and judgement than in the amazing love and grace as taught by Jesus. They are more concerned with being right than being holy. It is easy for a Conservative Christian to become a modern day Pharisee.

There was nothing safe, cautious, unadventurous or conventional about Jesus of Nazareth. From his birth story to his visit to temple at age 12 to his earthly ministry, Jesus set out to be an agent of radical change. He stood up for the weak and against the powerful. His harshest words were saved for church leaders who were weighed down by traditions and an unwillingness to change. In fact, he altered traditions and created new ones. He loved the least, the lost and the broken; he broke long-held Jewish Sabbath laws in the name of loving people; and his preaching turned the world of his day upside down. He came that we might be saved and be world changers in his name. By the very definition of the word, there was not a single conservative bone in his body. Even his death was radical and out of the ordinary. To say you are trying to be like Jesus and call your faith journey "conservative" is to label yourself an oxymoron. And no one likes being called a moron...

There is another label I like and use here quite often that has its own problem. Radical Christianity is a great phrase, and in my mind it is what we are called to as we walk the #NarrowRoad. But it is a redundancy. In fact, the only way to practice Christianity as Jesus taught it is to be radical. We don't need both words. The path Jesus leads us on if we follow him is not only narrow, it is full of twists and turns and must be navigated with our throttles wide open. We are to live abundant lives. We are to go onto all the world. We are to love everyone we encounter. We are to make peace, feed the hungry and love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. These things cannot be done conservatively; we have to be all in and open to new experiences and feeling out of control because we allow Jesus to be in control! When we accept Jesus receive the Holy Spirit, we don't try to manage it or control it. We open the floodgates and let what we have been given flow out and alter the world we live in. Does that sound like work for moderate, conventional stick-in-the-muds?

Choose to be conservative with your clothing or in the stock market, with the color scheme of your home or with your political views. All of those are valid options. But Conservative Christian? That's a label that needs to bite the dust and be tossed out like a money-changer in the temple. There are plenty of ways to be morons on the #NarrowRoad. I should know. I've tried most of them. But we need to follow Jesus in ways that are WIDE OPEN and never conservative. It's time for the followers of Christ to be the wild things he intends us to be!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, April 19, 2015

If You Say So, Jesus...

Most people who have ever been around church know the story from Luke 5 of Jesus calling Simon Peter to be a disciple. Remember the story? Jesus is preaching and finds himself with his back to the Sea of Galilee, so he asks Simon is he can get in his boat. After a while, Jesus tells the fishermen to push out into deeper waters and they will find fish. Simon explains to Jesus that they had fished all night, and that this area was a "Not Spot." That is a spot where the fish are not (Thanks, Ted & Lee). Jesus tells them to go there anyway. Simon responds with all of his negative stuff, and then says (in Luke 5:5), "but if you say so, I'll let the nets down again." Of course the boat fills up with fish, and that is amazing. But it is the words of Simon Peter that I want us to think about today. "If you say so, Jesus..."

Let's be real for a minute. There are a lot things the Christ teaches us in scripture that are pretty ridiculous sounding. If we use rationale and logic, they are things we should just toss aside because they make so little sense in the world we live in. So we are left with faith as a basis for response to many of the teachings of Jesus.  And in faith, our answer must be, "If you say so, Jesus..." Think about these scriptures and how almost comical they sound when taken out of context:

  • Matthew 5:39: If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer them the other. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Matthew 20:16: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Matthew 5:43-44: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Mark 10:25: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Matthew 5:5:  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Mark 11:23:  I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, 'May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' and it will happen. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Luke 5:10: Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. If you say so, Jesus...
  • Matthew 6:34:  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. If you say so, Jesus...
I hope you get my point. If the Jesus you are being taught about sounds passive and normal, or seems like he would make perfect sense in our world today, then someone is deceiving you. If he sounds like like a businessman interested in prosperity and patriotism, someone is trying to sell you something. If he seems like the kind of guy who puts his own needs first and thinks the poor should take care of themselves, then you have the wrong guy. The real Jesus calls us to be abnormal, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He seems so "out there," which is why the modern church has spent so much time focusing on the "thou shalt nots" and so little time trying to follow his example. The church wants to appear normal to the rest of the world when we are called to be anything but normal. So be radical. Let the world know you don't need proof, you have faith. And when Jesus calls us, no matter where he says to go or what he says to do, we'll know what to say. If you say so, Jesus...I will follow you.  

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thank You

In August of 2009 this blog began as a way for me to write down some stories and put some daily discipline back in my scattered and battered life. Since then there have been over 1700 new posts shared here, and it has been a true blessing in my life. In the beginning, it didn't matter to me if anyone was reading- and that was a good thing, because no one was! Over time that has changed. In fact, in the first 17 days of April there were more individual page views to this blog than there were TOTAL views during my first 14 months of writing. There were more visitors to yesterday's post than total views in the first 6 months of this blog's existence. While still a very small blog by many standards, it has become more than I would have ever dreamed of in the beginning. So today, to all of you who read or have ever read and shared in this journey with me, I want to simply say

You have been such a support and offered so much encouragement to me over these years, and you are much appreciated. Hang with me, my friends. There is much more to come...

Because of Jesus,

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Modern Prophecy

There was a Flashback Friday post all queued up for today, but last night God gave me a new plan and a different kind of flashback. I was listening to my iPod and heard the classic Larry Norman song The Great American Novel (1972). The late singer was one of the first prominent voices of the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s and a pioneer of contemporary Christian music. To my mind he was clearly a leading voice of that generation and I have long loved his music. But as I heard this song last night the lyrics overwhelmed me, just like hearing it for the first time. The song seems to have been written for a time such as this. No matter your politics or your point of view, the words are like ants in your underwear- uncomfortable, irritating and hard to shake off. There are lines that make me angry, yet are difficult to refute. In scripture, prophecies were always painful to hear. This 43 year old song speaks to NOW in ways that can only be called prophetic. Listen & watch. Think about the lyrics. Squirm a bit. And don't miss the truth and the hope found in the very last line of the song. Then get down on the knees of your heart and pray for my country. As another prophetic radical once said, "Let those with ears to hear...hear!"

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Wonders of Gravy

Welcome to post #3 in my very random ongoing series Things I Believe (and you probably don't)! The first two post were related to church and theology, and therefore quite serious. This one is a bit more whimsical. But that doesn't mean I believe it any less- or that any fewer of you will take issue with my stance! In fact, this post is dedicated to my friend Lisa Jewett, who thinks Gravy in any form is disgusting. So let's get started!

The word Gravy means different things to different people. For many folks it is a brown, watery substance often served with pork or with turkey and dressing at Thanksgiving. For others it is simply the juice from any cooked meat, thickened up a bit and poured over mashed potatoes or bread. I have Italian friends who call marinara sauce Gravy, because they serve it over almost everything they eat. Some people treat ketchup like it's gravy; Buddy the Elf used maple syrup in a similar manner. But while I enjoy all of these different forms of Gravy, it is my belief that all pale in comparison to the one, true GravyI'm talking about breakfast gravy, white gravy, sausage gravy, sawmill gravy, southern gravy- whatever you call it, it is one of the great culinary creations of all-time! It is wonderful with biscuits (by the way- if you can still see the biscuit, you need more gravy!); it is a marvel on country fried steak or chicken; it brings out the true spirit of mashed potatoes; and it ROCKS on eggs and hash-brown casserole! I believe that it should join mustard and ketchup as standard condiments on the table at most every restaurant. And not just for breakfast. Sausage Gravy makes pretty much everything but dessert better. And it makes for pretty good eatin' straight out of the bowl too. Now that I have revealed a bit of my Carolina-bred, redneck southern nature, I am craving Cracker Barrel, where it's ALWAYS breakfast! Ahhhh...the good stuff!

And one word of warning- Gravy that comes from a bottle or a can, or gravy that was made more than 24 hours ahead of time is no longer gravy and is not covered under this post. That just needed to be said...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Some Kind of Different

"Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves." ~ Luke 22:23-27 (NLT)

Way back in the dark ages of the 1970s some of my friends and I became big fans of the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and their live album called 4-Way Street. On that particular masterpiece, Stephen Stills performs a medley of his hits For What It's Worth ("There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear...") and 49 Bye-Byes. As part of the song, he launches into a politically charged "sermon" about the youth of USAmerica and the anti-war movement of that day. At one point he reminds the crowd that if they respond to violence with violence, then "that just means we ain't learned nothing yet...and we're supposed to be some kind of different..." He goes on to mention that Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary...but that's a post for another day. Dig it.

In this world full of inequality, racism, sexism, violence, hatred and class and religious warfare, Christians have far too often assumed an air of superiority. We seek to position ourselves as leaders by assuming a "holier than thou" attitude that too many of us think sets us apart from the "heathens" of our world. It is just one more way that we have forgotten the teachings of Jesus because they are inconvenient or seem foolish in our modern society. Check out the scripture at the top. I preached a sermon a number of years ago in which I emphasized the phrase "But among you it will be different." What was Jesus saying? He we calling us to a life of service. To put ourselves not in positions of leadership, but in positions of service. We are being commanded....not asked, COMMANDED!-  to show the people the love of God whose name is Jesus by serving them in any way we can. Take the lowest rank. Leaders should be like servants. We should appear to be odd to our world, because we understand that it's not about us- it's all about loving and serving in the name of Jesus!  And yet we in the church spend countless hours figuring out ways to make ourselves feel and seem more important. We're supposed to be some kind of different. Could it be we ain't learned nothing yet?

There is a second phrase from that scripture that drives home a similar point. "Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves." If we are seeking to be Christians (CHRIST-like) then we have to realize that Jesus is setting an example for us all. The world is calling us to lift ourselves up. Jesus is calling us to get down! Wealth, power and prestige may be the way of the world...but not here! Not in the family of God. In this world you may be too young, too old, too uneducated, have too much of a past or feel like the good life has passed you by- but not here! And how do we communicate this truth to others? that? Those of us who know the real Jesus must overwhelm them with his radical, ridiculous and  redeeming love and grace. When we become servants of all, we let them know that they may feel left out in the world we live in, and they may feel unloved and worthless there. But not here! 

We (and by "we" I mean myself and the vast majority of USAmerican Christians) need a serious attitude adjustment on what it means to serve. Do you know what Jesus did to illustrate his point about service? Did he write a check to a charity? Did he just pray for the less fortunate? Did he send the disciples out on a mission trip while he went to the football game? NOJesus got dirty. He washed the disciples feet, which is the modern day equivalent of him coming to your house and scrubbing your toilet. Our service needs to be radical and it needs to be fearless. It needs to be a lifestyle not an event. We need to be feeding people, housing people, caring for the sick and loving the unloved- not yelling at people to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" or condemning people because they sin differently than we do. If we do this as Jesus taught, then people all around us will want what we have. They will beg to know WHY we are acting so strangely, so out of step with our world. And they will come to know our LORD and savior. And then, our world will be some kinda different. Right on... and dig it.

Because of Jesus,

Monday, April 13, 2015

Are You Ready For the Summer?

Dear friends in Student Ministry: Summer is almost upon us! Are you ready to make the most of all of the free time your students will have? Here are some thoughts on how I became a huge fan of summer ministries, originally posted back in 2009. 

In the early days of professional youth ministry it was commonplace for summer to be downtime for the Youth Pastor. This never made any sense to me. We would take three months when students were usually available and often bored and churches would slow down their youth ministries. Many youth workers were not paid during the summer months and had to find other jobs. In fact, I spent my earliest summers in ministry working at a summer camp because I had summers off. By the time of my first summer at Springfield Friends Meeting in 1987 all of this was changing. We planned events on Wednesdays and Sundays and our first trip to Disney World. At the 1987 NYWC I attended a seminar that challenged me to expand our summer ministry and to improve our communication. The summer of 1988 was my first shot at doing both.

The programs and events for that summer now seem very tame by my later standards, but they were the start of something big! We continued to meet on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights (giving our award-winning TNT program the summer off). We took trips to Myrtle
Beach (That's Amy, Lavonia, Andi & Heather pictured at The Betsy B in 1988) and Atlanta. We had our first ever Youth Week, with events every day, including a trip to Carowinds and a concert by me at the Covered Bridge Pizza Parlor in Archdale. We had our first ever Breakfast Club; our first ever trip to feed the homeless of High Point at Our Father's Table; our first ever end of the summer Luau!  We collected cans of tuna to help Urban Ministry feed the hungry. We attended Quaker Lake together and had our own class at VBS. Every ministry and event that would come in the later years got a start in the summer of '88.

It was also the year of the first Summer Ministries Booklet. This picture is the cover from 1990, but the little guy, Zed, was on the cover for the first four years. In 1988 he was carrying a surfboard. The booklet laid out the plan for our summer, giving details and sign-up deadlines. Students and parents alike loved the concept; looking back, it was a website in print years before anyone had a website! In the years to come the summer info packet would grow and the schedule would expand, but it all started in 1988. Nothing I ever accomplished in youth ministry created as much of a buzz or brought as much praise my way from students and their parents as my summer schedules over the years. And no one enjoyed the hectic pace, the frantic planning and the incredible amount of time spent with students any more than me! I thank God every day for the many blessings I received through the ministries, events and programs I led for all those years. Too many churches still treat summer as a time to slow down. I respectfully suggest just the opposite. Summer is a time to shift into high gear. Students have actual free time. Wouldn't it be awesome to have them spend it with the church? The time to start planning is NOW...

Because of Jesus,