Monday, August 31, 2015

A Day of Prayer

This- more than most- will be a day of prayer for me. There are 2 amazing women I know- both named Lisa- who are fighting cancer. One begins her battle as she undergoes surgery this afternoon; the other grows weary of the fight as her body turns against her. Another old friend continues her chemo treatments trying to chase that same demon from her body. There is a former student from one of my youth ministries who had an emergency C-section over the weekend, and her baby now faces surgery. My brother-in-law continues to slip away as Alzheimer's turns him into someone that even he can barely recognize. And there are so many others. So much need. It can make you feel helpless. So today is a day of prayer. Because some days there is nothing left to do but pray...

And sometimes miracles are exactly what we need. The truth is I have always been hesitant to ask out loud for specific healings. It feels a bit like asking God to play favorites in a word where so many hurt and suffer. But today, I pray for miracles. 

God, take away the cancer from Lisa, Lisa and Leigh Ann. Heal Missy and her baby. Restore the mind of Bill. For these and so many others I pray that you would indeed step in and do what we cannot- make the ones we love whole again. In the name of the One who healed the lepers, the blind man, the bleeding woman and who told the paralyzed man to get up and walk, AMEN.

Maybe such a prayer is selfish, but today at least, that is not what is important. Some days there is nothing left to do but ask God for miracles- and then believe they can happen. And today feels like such a day. Blessings to all.

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Very Special Day

Today, my wife Marilyn and I celebrate 29 years of marriage. We have shared life's highs & lows, twists & turns and joys & sorrows- and we have survived with love. This is another milestone for us along life's highway, and it is a road that I am honored to travel with her. Today is a special day. Happy anniversary, sweetie!

One of the best parts of our life over the past few years has been how much of it we have been blessed to share with Lisa Jewett (pictured above with Marilyn). Tomorrow, Lisa faces surgery for ovarian cancer. While scary, it is also another reason that this day is very special. Today, we all become prayer warriors for her. It is Prayers For Lisa Day! Marilyn and I ask that you honor our anniversary by praying for our dear friend. Pray for her family. Pray for the surgeons and the other medical professionals at the Moffitt Cancer Center. Pray that tomorrow will be the beginning of the end of her disease. If you know Lisa, contact her and let her know you are praying, because your prayers matter to her. If you don't know her, pray anyway- and feel free to leave her a note in the comment section of this blog. Together with God, we all make up Team Lisa. And together, we can do this.

Not every guy is blessed to be able to celebrate two such amazing women on one special day. But today is that day, and I am that guy. I love them both and am blessed by them both. Today is a special day indeed. Celebrate with us!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday Shout Outs!

If you read this blog at all then you know that life has been kinda crazy these past few weeks. Life tends to be that way from time to time. There have been many posts about questions, doubts and frustrations- because those are the things on the tips of fingers when I write these days. But those things are fleeting, and will pass as we keep the faith and we keep praying. The things that are real- the things that are permanent- are things like God's love and the friendship, courage and support we can offer each other. And those things are plentiful in my life. They are the things we remember here today as we do our Saturday Shout Outs! So keep reading, and be encouraged. There is much to be thankful for...

  • Marilyn and I are so thankful for all the thoughts and prayers sent our way since Conner's death and Will's departure for UCF. We miss them both very much. The house is very strange still, but we are adjusting. And we are used to that. Tomorrow marks 29 years of marriage. We KNOW how to adjust!
  • Prayers continue for Lisa Moran, whose courage and spirit know no limits in her fight with pancreatic cancer, but whose body is struggling. We love you Lisa, and pray that you will be able to join us on...
  • September 9th (good LORD willin' and the creek don't rise!) we head to Ocean Isle, NC for a gathering of some old friends for a few days at the beach. I'm not just excited to see Denise, Carl, Beth, Tammy, Steve, Rob and all the rest- I NEED this getaway. 
  • In the past week I got sweet notes from Jay Osborne, Susan McBane TuggleLeigh Ann Venable, Marie Allen Duke, Cheryl Deal Meadows, Ashley Goad and Teresa Tysinger offering words of comfort and encouragement. I also got calls from Jan KoernerJennifer Kuramochi and our old buddy Lewis Farlow. Old friends ROCK!!!
  • We have seen on Facebook where Jennifer (Gastler) Chan and Isabelle Davis Randolph are expecting! Prayers for both of these wonderful former youth as they go forward. And I SOOOO look forward to Debbie Davis being a grandmother!!!
  • As if it was really needed, here's further proof that Taylor Swift is cooler than you...or me...or most anyone else...

  • Speaking of great songs, Tammy Foster requested that I prepare a few Brown/Jones classics for the beach trip. Anything in particular, Tammy? The Parakeet Song? We've Got Gas? Roll Over Lucy? Cast your votes!!!
  • While moving Will into his luxury accommodations last weekend we got to share whatever meal it is you have at 4 PM with the Hanbery clan! Great to see them and to know they are local to Will's new home. Jerry is already making plans. Oh. My. Goodness.  :)
  • Speaking of Jerry...he ran an idea past me that I will now run past my other Kissimmee era friends. He was wondering - if we booked part of the Betsy B for a long weekend in the Fall of 2016 (perhaps right after Labor Day) could we get folks to commit to joining us? So...could we? Voice your opinion here! I know Brook Teoli is pushing for another reunion. We need input!
  • I'm only gone for 21 years and the NC Yearly Meeting of Friends just falls apart. I knew they couldn't make it without me...
  • Another reason to be jealous of my son's new college digs. He has a Bojangles close by. We in Tampa do not. This is just wrong!
  • For those of us living in Tampa Bay, here's the big question. What's more likely to be a dud- Tropical Storm Erika or the 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Right now it's even money.
  • And many of you (over 400 of you read yesterday's post Maybe Chicken Little Was Right) know Lisa Jewett is having major surgery on Monday. So let's make tomorrow Prayers for Lisa Day! How do we participate, you ask? First of all- PRAY! Secondly, send her a message on Facebook, Twitter (@lisajewett18) or by leaving a comment here. Let her know that we are with her and God is for her. And finally, pray some more. We can be her support team on Monday by lifting her to God tomorrow. Prayer matters.
That's it for today. Have a great Saturday and keep smiling.
    Because of Jesus,

    Friday, August 28, 2015

    Maybe Chicken Little Was Right...

    Normally I am man of many words. But today I struggle to find the ones that truly express what I am feeling. This faulty post will have to suffice.
    Our "Ohana"
    One week ago today I wrote down my thoughts about Riding the Crazy Train. In that post I listed a number of bad things that were happening in my life recently and talked of a desire to follow the example of Dr. Sheldon Cooper and just jump a train and ride- to anywhere! My somber mood threw off many readers and old friends- they are so accustomed to "Sunny Side Up" Carl. Several voiced concern, and their thoughts were much appreciated. What they didn't know- and what I have not said- is that by late last Friday afternoon my world had gotten even darker as yet another piece of bad news rolled in. 

    My dear friend Lisa Jewett- one of the people I love most in this world, someone I see and talk to most everyday- was told that she might have ovarian cancer. After a few days of worry tempered with hope and prayer, yesterday that diagnosis was confirmed. A scary road lies ahead for Lisa and her family, beginning with surgery on Monday. Will, Michelle, Marilyn and I are an adopted part of that family. Lisa is Marilyn's Disney buddy and Will's other mom. She, Marilyn and I eat dinner together far more often than we don't. We watch TV shows together- including some I would be embarrassed to admit- via text messages. We are truly Ohana. And while we believe that God is in control and we have faith that the doctors will do what is needed- all of us are scared too. And I am left to question if my crazy train analogy from last week went far enough. Maybe Sheldon wasn't the right source of inspiration. Perhaps I should have turned to the great philosopher Chicken Little- because it does indeed feel like the sky is falling. Words cannot tell you what she means to me, but this goes even beyond our love for her. Lisa becomes the third of my friends, all under the age of 55, to currently be battling cancer. There are times in each of our lives when circumstances feel overwhelming. That point is currently in my rear view mirror and things just keep feeling more out of control. If you think there are some cracks in my faith - the source of all my hope - you are right. If you think I am pissed at the universe, you win again. I yelled at God last night. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. Fortunately, God understands, loves and forgives. God is so much bigger than our anger and so much bigger than the storms in our lives. And it's far better to be yelling at God in the darkness than to have no one in the darkness at whom to yell. 

    Far too many of us know firsthand that Cancer Sucks. Please pray for Lisa, and feel free to leave a comment letting her know that you care. Pray for your friends, my friends and everyone touched by that horrible disease. And more than ever, take time today to tell the people you love just how much you love them. Hold nothing back. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy every sandwich. And remember- and please keep reminding me - that in the end, God wins! Always...

    Because of Jesus,

    Thursday, August 27, 2015

    #TBT: The Asheboro Flash

    Today will begin and end with prayers for a friend that I love very much and who need God's healing touch. Please join me in praying Big Honkin' Prayers for miracles in her life. In the meantime, we enter my 7th year of blogging by "flashing" back to one of my all-time favorite people and a guy I don't get to see much anymore. Enjoy this Throwback Thursday.

    That's Alan front and center, flanked by the Semmler brothers in
    front of  Danny Hines at one of our classic 80s parties.
    There is absolutely no question about the identity of the number one character I ever met at Quaker Lake Camp. It has to be Alan Brown. I met Alan at a winter camp sometime in the mid 1970's. I didn't really hang out with him in those days, but I knew I liked him. Some of my earliest memories of Alan are of him playing guitar and singing Mr. Bojangles with the late Jeff Morgan. I also remember him performing I'm Easy in the Fireplace Room at the lodge (and being overly impressed because I thought he wrote it!). It really wasn't until the summer of 1976 when he was on the QLC staff and I volunteered most of the summer that we became close. My life, and Quaker Lake, would never be the same.

    Alan was known in those days as Flash, shortened from The Asheboro Flash. Wallace Sills had given him the name after catching Alan kissing two girls in one night less that an hour apart, and it stuck. There was a whole generation of campers who didn't even know his name was Alan- he was, simply, Flash! But to me, he was my partner in crime. Alan taught me early on in my days at camp that dead time for campers usually led to trouble, and we saw it as our job to entertain, even if only for a five minute lull in the action. We created Opera Day (everything you wanted to say had to be sung) and Chant Day (everything had to be chanted like you some sort of monk) just to pass time. We would sing silly songs and create disturbances to get the kids attention and pull them together. I vividly remember Alan entertaining the troops with a camper named Eric Hunsucker, who could belch on cue. Alan would sing "bright eyes don't cry.." and Eric would let loose with huge "BUUURRRRPPPP!!!" And the other campers would love it.

    Alan's influence in my life extended far outside the boundaries of camp. We were at Guilford College together. We were roommates in two different apartments (Hidden Lakes and Chateau at Random Woods) and together with Carl Semmler we spent a month in 1979 travelling across the country. Spending a month together in a Honda Civic will seriously bond people together. We shared so many classic moments together. Here are a few of my favorites:

    1) Alan comes to my house early one morning and says on his way into class from his home in Asheboro he has had an idea for a song. Actually, he had almost a whole song, and within the hour Blue Pick-Up Truck was finished.
    2) The night before a winter camp was to start we were at my parent's house, where we stayed up all night writing Roll Over Lucy. Unfortunately, when we got up the next morning we could no longer remember the tune! To this day I am still not sure if the way we sang it was the tune we intended...
    3) We, along with our friends Mark Hyde and Bill Terrell, loved to play hearts and spades- in fact, I think we could have received advanced degrees in both! There were a few times when we convinced unsuspecting newcomers that we had never played, and allowed them to teach us the games...too much fun!

    4) Producing the infamous Four Songs...Two Fools cassette tape for our friend Brent Bill and his son Ben, who was our biggest (read as ONLY) fan. The Animal SongBlue Pick-Up TruckRoll Over Lucy and the rarely heard classic We've Got Gas were the songs. No question as to who the fools were...   Another time we came up with this card game called Triple Jim Bob, which had no rules except that you had to make up the rules as you went along. Alan and I would baffle people with ridiculous rules and names for the different situations in the game. It was great seeing how long it would take people to catch on that we were making it up as we went! Both Triple Jim Bob and a character very much based on Alan make appearances in the novel I finished earlier this year.

    I guess you get the idea...we were dangerous together. I can't even begin to tell you how much I miss him. There have been others in my life with whom I could get wild and creative (Jerry Hanbery comes to mind) but no one else quite like Alan. I will never forget walking from the lodge to the boy's cabins, late at night,and stopping to salute the flag post (actually a light pole!) and singing the Quaker Lake Alma Mater:

    In the city of Climax, past the Climax Mall, there's a place where campers visit and never return at all. Quaker Lake is quite a place to spend a week or two, but never press your luck with others or they might do unto you...

    Through the tough times, the great times, the silly times and our Sunday afternoon conversations about the campers we were about to spend a week with, Alan was always there. I just hope someday we get to do a farewell concert featuring We've Got Gas and The Parakeet Song...

    Because of Jesus,

    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    I'm 6 Years Old Today!

    On August 26th of 2009, just weeks after being inspired by the movie Julie & Julia, I began writing a blog. Writing had always been a passion of mine, and blogging seemed like a good way for me to get some discipline back in my very scattered life. My goal was to post something every day for a year- 365 posts - and then re-evaluate. Initially the purpose was to tell stories about my days in youth ministry, which had ended in 2007. And that is what I did- told stories, remembered people and places and celebrated the love of Jesus in my life. Today we arrive at the 6th birthday of this adventure with some 1900 posts having been shared here. I'm still telling stories and still reminding myself and my readers that life is all about Jesus. And along the way we've shared some remarkable things...

    • We have relived the great adventure of my life, the 28 years I spent in student ministry. We traveled back to Centre Friends Meeting (1978-79), New Garden Friends Meeting (1979-1983), New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (1985-1986), Springfield Friends Meeting (1986-1994), First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee (1994-2000), Union Church of Hinsdale (200-2001), Wesley Memorial UMC of Tampa (2001-2005) and Trinity UMC of Waycross (2005-2007). Telling the old stories has been a blast; hearing from readers at every one of those stops along my journey has been simply the best! I've also been able to share a a little of the wisdom I accumulated over the years with a new generation of youth pastors, making new friends along the way. It's all been a blessing!
    • You've been here to watch my family change and experience life. You've been a part of our birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments and struggles. You encouraged and loved me when I could "Cross the Bridge" after my probation was terminated in 2014, and wept with us when Disney banned me a few months later. You were there when Will graduated high school, when I was diagnosed with diabetes and became 7 Toe Jones and when Marilyn's dad passed away. Most recently you shared with us as our beloved Conner Dog passed away and Will moved into his new college apartment. The pages of this blog have been filled with emotion. Thank you for being here for us.
    • This has been a place to celebrate friendship, from my very oldest friends right up through the wonderful people I have met via Twitter. I have said here before that one of the reasons I have survived the pitfalls of life is that I have the best friends in the world. That has not changed.
    • Many of you offered love and support when I shared the stories of my own fall from grace and the aftermath of that sin. There were people who advised against sharing those tales, saying some readers would be disappointed and others would run away. And that did happen. But the love, grace and mercy shown by those who stayed let me know that telling those stories was the right thing to do. Thanks to so many of you for showing me what it looks like to encounter Jesus with skin.
    • You have grown with me. In the earliest days of this blog I was ecstatic to have 1200 page views in a month. In July of 2015 there were 21,000. Each of the 6 posts in my Beach Boys countdown got more than 1200 hits eventually. The excepts from my novel, Even Better Than Before, were widely read as was my series on the justice system. While still on the small end of big-time blogging, knowing more people are reading is exciting for me. And the number of folks tuning in every Tuesday to read my thoughts about the #NarrowRoad continues to astonish me- and to remind me that my ministry is a long way from being finished. Truth be known, I would love to preach again somewhere along the road...
    • We have prayed together. You have prayed for me and I have prayed for you. We have lifted up those who are hurting, those who are sick and those who have suffered loss. We have celebrated great achievements and prayed for new parents and their children. The Saturday Shouts Outs have long been a place to share prayer requests, and that will continue as we move forward. Being bound together in Christ's love means being bound together in prayer. This blog has always attempted to celebrate that.
    • You have allowed me to approach this blog the same way I have always tried to approach life and ministry- wholistically. That's not really a word, but it is a mindset. It means recognizing that all of life ties together. We tend to make boxes for God, boxes for family, boxes for culture and so forth, when in fact life is one giant box. And God made the box! Remember, "all good things come from God," not just the things we talk about in church! I've shared about music and movies, about politics and religion, about faith and doubt and about silly, ridiculous things- and you guys have accepted it all. Even my rants didn't cause too many of you to run away screaming! Most bloggers are niche writers, focusing on one major topic. My topic has been life, and my belief that all of life is about Jesus. Thank you for giving me that freedom for these 6 years.
    We head into year #7 with my life in a bit of an uproar. Will is at college, Conner is gone and dear friends are battling insidious diseases. I am at a bit of a loss of what to with myself, and that includes what direction this blog will go next. But it will go forward simply because I need it to. I need the outlet, the discipline and to keep my creative juices flowing. So thank you for sticking with me. It's been a wild ride- and I have no reason to believe it won't keep getting wilder! Let's meet back here again tomorrow and start a new year together. And as a bit of a tease, how about this news- on Friday there will be a new inductee into my Hall of Fame for the first time in over a year. Curious? That's the idea. Always leave 'em wanting more, right?  Much love to you all!

    Because of Jesus,

    Tuesday, August 25, 2015

    Searching for Answers

    "I would take no for an answer, just to know I heard You speak..."

    Many of you know that over the past few weeks it's felt like the universe has been punching me in the gut on a regular basis. Lately I've been praying some pretty specific prayers about the things going on in my life and how God wants me to deal with them. The #NarrowRoad has become a little bit of an out-of-control roller coaster that is no longer simply exciting- it's making me nauseous. I'm praying to feel the leading of the Holy Spirit, to be open to how to deal with with all of these body blows. And to be completely honest, I'm just not getting any answers- that I'm aware of. Now I spent enough years teaching and preaching about prayer to know that God answers all prayers. I am fully aware of the sermons that teach us that there are 4 answers we may get. They all seem to follow this basic format:
    1) NO- Sometimes God just says no, and we have to get over it and trust that God knows best.
    2) SLOW- Sometimes God wants us to be patient and to wait on whatever it is we are asking for.
    3) GROW- Sometimes God has areas of of our spiritual life that He wants to see mature before giving us what we ask for.
    4) GO-  Sometimes God simply says YES!

    It is entirely possible that I am getting the SLOW or GROW answer from God and that I just don't want to hear it. But what it feels like to me is that God is backed up with prayer requests and that mine is not getting past the secretary. Anyone else ever feel that way?  

    "Now I'm not looking for burning bushes or some divine graffiti to appear..."

    I know better than to expect God to spell it all out for me. Jesus' disciples never had a clue what the plan was for them- why should I be any different? God likes to make us search, because there is much to be learned in the process. It's just that sometimes in my life- like right now- I want answers. More specifically, I want God's answers. Sometimes I wish He was a CEO, so I could file a plan and He could accept it or reject it. Or maybe if I could just send God a text to make sure I'm going the right way. But that's not how it works. God wants me to discover what He has coming up next in my life, not file my plan with Him. And no matter how hard I search, I cannot find the home office. I know that Jesus is all the proof I should need that God loves me and will take care of me, but I struggle with wanting more. It's like Chris Rice wrote in his amazing song (all the quotes in this post are from it) Smell the Color 9:

    "Cause I can sniff, I can see, and I can
    count up pretty high; but these faculties
    aren't getting me any closer to the sky,
    but my heart of faith keeps poundin' so
    I know I'm doin' fine but sometimes findin'
    You is just like tryin to smell the color nine."

    You know what? I lied. I do want a burning bush. I want a GPS and crystal clear road signs on the #NarrowRoad. I want to know God's will in my life, and I want to know it now. My friends and family with heath issues need answers. My friends who are lonely need answers. I want a return text message from God giving us life directions. But I'm not going to get it. There is a great mystery to following God and putting our lives in Jesus' hands. It is in many ways a trip into the unknown, one of the scariest places there is for human beings. That's why we call it faith- the evidence of things unseen. We want control and we try desperately to hang on to it. We want to fix things and we ask God to help us. But in fact, real prayer is about letting go of control and trusting God totally. So I'll keep praying, and trust that the answers will come. Until then, I'll just keep trying to smell the color 9... 

    "Nine's not a color, and even if it were you can't smell a color.
    No, that's my point exactly..."

    Because of Jesus,

    P.S. Happy birthday to Jillybean & Heather BBBB.  August 25th is forever etched in my brain because of you two!

    Monday, August 24, 2015

    The College Life: Then & Now

    Will & his Mom at move-in day
    Many of you are aware that this past Saturday my wife and I moved our son Will into his apartment at the University of Central Florida. As of today he is officially a Golden Knight! While it is his junior year, it is also his first time living away from home so in some ways it was a difficult day. But for the most past it was a celebration, and we are excited for him and what the future holds. There was one thing about the move-in that really struck me, and it's what I want to share with you today. His first experience on campus will be drastically different from mine. Let's compare and contrast.

    I arrive at Lenoir-Rhyne College (now University) in Hickory, NC in the autumn of 1977, a wide-eyed freshman excited to be living on my own. My best friend Steve Semmler had also matriculated to the "Big Hickey," but we chose not to room together to expand our horizons. We moved in to Morgan Dorm (we called it the Teddy Bear Motel because from the outside it looked like a cheap tourist trap) excited for the possibilities. Each room had two beds, 2 desks (I think) and almost enough room to walk between them. It was always loud, with parties going on even though girls were only allowed in the dorm during specific hours on weekends. There was no kitchen (even hot plates were banned). The bathroom was located across the hall- one for the entire floor. It had multiple toilets and multiple showers- none of which had any privacy at all. It was like high school gym class every time you needed to shower...there were naked guys everywhere. If memory serves correctly there was no AC. There was no laundry facility in the building, we had to walk across campus for that. We had a stereo of some sort, but no one had a TV in their room back then. But at least there was WiFi, right? Oh wait....that hadn't been invented yet. In fact, the internet hadn't been invented yet. In truth, none of us had a clue that there would ever be a need to have a personal computer. And in those days, everything you read above was both expected and normal. We had the time of our lives, having no idea we were living in squalor. There were amazing guys who became fast friends, and the legend of The Stallions was born that year- but more on that another day. I will say, however, that Steve and I choosing to move outside our comfort zone and have different roommates was a total flop. His was a drunken playboy and mine was a drug dealer. But you live and learn... 

    Now fast-forward to 2015. Will moved into student housing as well. But moving in was perhaps the only experience we will share in common. He will share the apartment with 3 other guys, one of whom he has known since middle school. It is furnished, with sofa, chairs and a flat screen TV in the living room.  The have a very nice, large kitchen. There is a laundry room in the apartment with washer and dryer provided. They each have their own room. The EACH have a private bathroom. Will's walk-in closet is almost as big as my room in Morgan Dorm. Internet and WiFi are included, and all 4 of them have TVs (that they brought) with cable included in the their rooms as well. You can see his bed and his turntable here; that's the last time that bed will be made until the next time his mother does it! They have a lake view out several windows (I think I had a parking lot view) with a pool and weight room nearby. Shuttles will take them to the main campus for classes. It's beautiful and it's a great place for Will to be. But as I have told him for months now, this is not college. Having your own bathroom cannot be college! Things have certainly changed.

    The bathroom-
    accidentally color coordinated!
    But here's what hasn't changed at all. Will begins today with the same excitement and hope I had on my first day way back when. As I said at the top, of course we will miss him terribly over the weeks to come. But as parents our job is to set our son up for a win. We believe we have done that. He is in the right place at the right time to accomplish his goals and live out his dreams. So even when we feel a little teary-eyed at the thought of him being gone, it is never a sad thing. It is a glorious thing. His future begins in earnest today. And if it can begin in a luxury spa being passed off as campus housing, all the better. 

    One final note. We took our ancient Mister Coffee machine, selflessly giving it to the apartment because Will loves his coffee. We arrived to find someone had already brought a fancy Keurig system for them all to use. As Will loves to say, "It's a hard knocks life." They just might survive this year. And I can still make coffee this morning. We may ALL survive...

    Sunday, August 23, 2015

    God Bless Our Teachers

    Last week teachers in Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) went back to work. They were preparing their classrooms, preparing lesson plans, receiving training and getting ready for a new school year. The students arrive on Tuesday. In some parts of the country this has already occurred; in other regions it is still to come. In any case, these dedicated men and women prepare to face a new group of students under increasingly difficult situations. Many are not paid as well as they should be. Some face budget crunches that force them to purchase many of their own supplies. They are often forced to teach to testing rather than for the purpose of true education. They will encounter difficult students, difficult parents, difficult school boards...and local politicians who simply don't get it. The simple fact that so many of them return to their schools year after year to fight these battles should earn them our unending respect and admiration.

    It should also earn them our prayers. Wherever you are, whether school has already begun or doesn't start for a few weeks yet, make today a day of prayer for the teachers you know. Ask God to bless them, protect them, encourage them and inspire them. And then ask the teachers in your life what you can do to help them this year. We count on teachers to make a difference in the lives of our children. Let's use today as a springboard to make a difference in the lives of those teachers. To those of you who continue in this most noble profession, may God grant you wisdom, energy, insight and serenity as you go through this school year. You are loved!

    Because of Jesus,

    Friday, August 21, 2015

    Riding the Crazy Train

    A coupe of years ago on the season finale of The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Sheldon Cooper had a breakdown. Life was changing far too fast for him. His best friend and roommate was engaged and preparing to move out. His university wanted him to change his field of research. His girlfriend suggested perhaps she could fill the void and be his new roommate. His favorite place of respite, the local comic book store, burned to the ground. And all of this took place over a few short days. Unable to deal with the madness, Sheldon decided to hop on a train and leave town. He didn't know where he was going, other than "away." And so he was going to ride the rails like a hobo, living off the land- or the local malls he encountered along the way.

    Why the sitcom recap? Because I have to tell you that Dr. Cooper's feelings have been very much my own these past few days, and that his train trip is starting to sound like a plan. I generally embrace change, but right now there's just too much of it. One of my dearest friends has been sick and not at all herself, and I worry because there is nothing I can do about it. Other friends- people my age or younger- are struggling with diseases so heinous that they are life threatening. That is both scary and surreal for me. One of my most significant friends continues to be absent from my life. My dog died suddenly this past Sunday, altering my daily schedule in more ways that you can possibly imagine (although it's 4 AM, I'm wide awake and don't even have Conner to blame) and leaving me teary-eyed multiple times each day. My son leaves for a new apartment and a new college in Orlando tomorrow (happy for him, sad for me) which also means a return to spending the majority of my days with no car. There are people I want to see that cannot be seen and places I wish to go that are currently unavailable to me (I know those things are true for everyone- but let me whine! This one is all about me!). Marilyn has been dealing with a sinus infection and stress over many of these same things plus worrying about her family's issues from 800 miles away. All of these things are part of life, and can be dealt with one at a time. But all together? All Aboard!!! It might be time to run away.

    This would normally be the paragraph where an inspirational blogger like myself would spout a few cliches to offer peace and comfort to my readers. I would remind you that God is in control, that God never gives us more than we can handle, and that this too shall pass. There would be platitudes reminding you that you are loved, and that friends and family are there to pull us through. But not today. You see, even though those are all things I KNOW to be true, today I am just not FEELING them. Life feels overwhelming. This guy - who normally tells you to enjoy every sandwich (treasure every moment, carpe every diem, etc.) and embrace the joy in the journey, who tells you that the glass is always half full and we should focus on the positive- is packing a bag and looking for a getaway ride on the Crazy Train, even though I'm not really crazy. Just like Sheldon, my mother had me tested. 

    So how do we power through times like these? For me, it's a process. First, it is important to realize that this is not the time to pretend to be strong and courageous for the benefit of those around me. It's time to be real and let things out, not suffer in silence. Then comes prayer- prayers for strength, wisdom, endurance and intercession. I pray that this is one of those Footprints in the Sand moments in life, when Jesus will carry me because the burden is too great for me to handle on my own. And finally, I turn to past experiences. There have been worse times in my life, and there will be others. There is hope that comes with faith and as I wrote earlier this week it is hope that must be leaned on in these crazy times. And I must persevere. This is not one of those "the sun will come out tomorrow" kind of things. Tomorrow will be another day I would really rather not face, but God willing, I will. Life does go on, and I will move forward- however slowly, however painfully- with the knowledge that Jesus will still be there, pulling me through to the other side of this funk.

    I'm sorry if this depresses you. Well, actually no I'm not- misery loves company! I do covet your prayers for my family, my friends and myself as we battle through the end of a very difficult week. Knowing you care is indeed a great comfort. In the meantime, I will try my best not to do anything too crazy. But if you happen to see a train pass by on Monday, you might want to honk and wave. You know...just in case. Thanks for listening.

    "Enjoy every sandwich."

    Thursday, August 20, 2015

    7 Things: A Youth Ministry Evaluation Quiz

    Much of my adult life was spent working in student ministry. I was employed by a church to work with teenagers when I was still a teen myself, and for the next 28 years that was my life. I loved it. But having said that I should also point out that success in youth ministry can be very difficult to judge. Youth Pastors are always seeking out some new way to measure their effectiveness and help make sure they are on the right path. Today I want to help. Here are 7 questions that may be a little different from the standard "How am I doing?" checklist. In fact, you may have never considered some of these questions to be an indication of anything positive. I am quite certain these are questions you will never be asked by your church board or HR committee. I simply invite you to answer them honestly for you and your ministry, and then think about the implications of your answers. It may change the way you see success. Here we go...
    1. When was the last time you had an all-out debate about a hot topic that is impacting the church today?  Not a program that informed students what they should believe, but a chance for them to talk about what they DO believe! Not a controlled, reasonable discussion, but a flat-out debate, with no holds barred?Remember, if you tell a teenager often enough that "we don't talk about that here" then pretty soon they won't talk about anything. And we want them to develop their own faith, not just be able to mimic ours. I can promise you if you do this, I already know your answer to #2...
    2. How long has it been since a parent complained about what you are teaching?  Obviously, there are standard things we should be teaching to our youth. But far too often parents (and church leaders) want us to sanitize the Gospels. Following Jesus is messy. It often goes against what the world teaches. If we really teach that Jesus is the way, then we will occasionally be saying that parents are wrong.  Oops. Consider the importance of money and material possessions, for instance...
    3. When was the last time you tried something that failed?  Whether a program, a trip, a mission project or a lesson, teenagers thrive on being challenged! If everything you do is safe and comfortable, with no risk of failure, then you are missing a chance to meet them where they are in a profound way.  Use your God-given creativity. Believe all those hats and t-shirts that say, Fear Not! Step out in faith. Do something wild and woolly! And if you fail, simply get up and try again. Jesus will always be with you!
    4. Does your church have a rule in place because of you?  This was one of the late Mike Yaconelli's favorite questions for youth pastors. Have you been so creative that the church trustees have met just to figure out how to stop you? Have you tested the limits of the church buildings, the church grounds and the church vans? Not because you have been thoughtless or reckless, and not because you lack respect- but because you know and love teenagers and keep discovering new ways to keep them involved. In my case, one of my favorites was the banning of playing Kick the Can in the church cemetery. Seriously.
    5. When was the last time you made your students uncomfortable?  We all want our youth ministries to be a safe haven for students in so many ways. But we also need to remember that following Jesus will ALWAYS take us outside of our comfort zones. We need to do ministry in neighborhoods that may not feel safe. We need to talk about subjects that our youth would just as soon ignore. And we need to take mission trips to places where our youth will encounter "the least of these." If your kids have not been uncomfortable lately, they are missing out.
    6. Do your youth know that you are real?  Your students do not need to know if you are having marriage problems or have a secret addiction. They do not need to know if you dislike your pastor or really can't stand the new worship leader. But they do need to know that you have frustrations and problems. They need to know that you are a real person. Part of youth ministry is being a model of Christian living for the students you serve, and a real model has flaws. You and I are not perfect. Students need to know that. Be honest when you mess up a program or hurt someones feelings. Be real about frustrations. How can we teach about the amazing grace of God if we spend our lives pretending we don't need it because we have out acts together? It's time to get real.
    7. How much ministry time are you spending outside of your office?  How many students who don't attend your church have you met recently?  I have written entire posts about this subject, but it remains a key question. If you are not out meeting students where they are and building relationships with youth throughout your community, then your ministry is missing a key element.  If meetings and paperwork have you trapped behind a desk, change something. Doug Fields once moved his office to a Taco Bell for after-school hours so he could be available to students and away from the "busy work" of the office setting. What do you need to do to make meeting students on their turf a priority?
    So there you have it- a list almost guaranteed to get you in trouble with the local Pharisees! It is also a list that will help you seek out new ways to bring the teenagers you serve into a deeper relationship with Jesus. I have one more suggestion that is sure cause a little commotion. Share these questions with the Youth Ministry Committee, your church staff or anyone else you feel is appropriate. Seek their input and guidance. Maybe...just maybe...such discussions can lead to a little more organized chaos in your church. I will say it again- following Jesus is messy. Has your ministry become a little too "sanitized for your protection?" Finally, the ridiculous picture at the top makes a little sense...  Blessings to you as you serve in the name of the risen Savior!
      Because of Jesus,

      Wednesday, August 19, 2015

      Nearly Wordless Wednesday

      I asked God for a sign. I should have been more specific...
      Because some days ya just have to laugh!

      Tuesday, August 18, 2015

      Along the #NarrowRoad

      It has been written here and many other places that one of the great lies of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you follow Jesus and walk the #NarrowRoad then life will be all rainbows and unicorns. You will be blessed with wealth, health and fame. There will be no suffering and sorrow. The preachers and churches who pedal such crap attempt to sell life with Jesus here on earth as if it were a preview of Heaven. It's not. We do not live our lives in the paradise that once was (the Garden of Eden) or in the paradise the someday will be. We live in the real world- and in the real world, sh*t happens. Even when Jesus is walking with us. This is a concept that should require no biblical proof-texting. The Messiah said it plain and simple- "In this world you will have troubles..."

      The very first post ever made to this blog quoted the late Dan Fogelberg's wonderful song Along the Road. I share those words again today:

      Joy at the the start, fear in the journey, 
      Joy in the coming home
      A part of the heart gets lost in the learning
      Somewhere along the road

      For me, there is no better description of the #NarrowRoad. I write today with my eyes still watering every time I think about the passing of my beloved dog Conner this past Sunday. I pray daily for friends who are suffering with disease and heartache, and a part of that prayer is often "Why, God?" There is great joy in our friendships, and great fear and sorrow in their pain. Feeling those things is not a lack of faith, it is a human reaction to the human condition. Following Jesus does not and should not anesthetize us into some sort of zombies for Christ. We are emotional beings, and we were created that way by God. If you know any scripture at all, then chances are good that you know that "Jesus wept." And so do we.

      So if walking the #NarrowRoad doesn't provide us fame, fortune, health and constant happiness, then why bother with it? Are we just trying to insure our spot in Heaven, or is there a more concrete earthly reason why life is better when spent with Jesus? I believe there is- and I believe that reason is HOPE. This life is still filled with potholes, but Christ-followers walk in hope with the knowledge that we never face them alone. Dan wrote that "moments of rest and glimpses of laughter are treasured along the road." Even when there is pain, there can be peace. Even when there is loss, there is still hope. Those are the secrets of the #NarrowRoad.

      So today you have homework. Take 4 minutes out of your schedule and watch the video below. Enjoy the beauty of the pictures, but don't get lost in them. Get lost in the lyrics. Think about your own journey as you hear Dan sing about the trail. And know this- no matter where you may wander, Jesus is always there to "level and light your way." You want to know the real Prosperity Gospel? God's love NEVER fails us- even when we hurt. Have a blessed day, and enjoy the journey.

      Monday, August 17, 2015

      Rest In Peace, Conner Dog

      Conner J. Dog  March 15, 2003 - August 16, 2015
      Yesterday afternoon our beloved Conner Dog succumbed to heart failure and we had to have him put down. It was very sudden and very unexpected, with everything changing in the course of an hour. There were many tears, and it will be quite a while before the house feels normal again. We all got to give him final hugs and say our goodbyes, but it still doesn't feel real. He was part of our family for 12 years. All three of us have holes in our hearts.

      There are lots of great Conner stories to tell, and over the next few weeks they will be told. But this post is all about how important that fuzzy little cocker spaniel was in my life. Many of you know that he was my constant companion over the past 8 years. He woke me up in the mornings, often far too early. We took 4 or 5 walks together every day. I fed him, and he played fetch with me. And he knew exactly what to do to pry an extra Beggin' Strip out of me. When I got McDonald's breakfast for the family, Conner got a Sausage McMuffin. He would lay his head on my thigh to beg for food. We GOT each other. He was my buddy.

      But none of those things were his most important contribution to my life. When life fell apart for my family back in 2007 and we moved back to Tampa, I was very scared and alone. Marilyn and Will loved me, but they were gone to work and school every day. My neighbors were afraid of me. We had no internet and no social media, and this blog didn't exist yet. Almost no one even had my phone number because I assumed none of my friends would ever want to talk to me again. For the better part of 2 years I was alone all day, every day. Except for my faithful dog -he was always by my side. To Conner, I never stopped being a good guy and his love was totally unconditional, just as long as there was food. When Marilyn and Will took trips without me, Conner was always here. On days when it was hard to imagine life ever being good again, Conner would lick my elbow and beg to be rubbed. When ever I was tempted to give up, he was always pulling me out of my chair and taking me for a walk. Conner Dog was my life-support for nearly 2 years. And our bond was so strong because of it.

      There is no replacing a family member like Conner. You don't move on and you don't get over it and you don't forget. You just remember- and love. We are thankful that he did not suffer. We are thankful that we got to say goodbye. And we know our lives will never, ever be quite the same. RIP, C-Doggy. I hope that doggy heaven is filled with endless Beggin' Strips. And maybe even your own ice cream bowl.

      Sunday, August 16, 2015

      Blessed Are the Merciful

      There has been a lot of buzz and controversy throughout history about the place of the church when it comes to showing mercy to hurt and oppressed people of our world. Today I invite you to open your heart and your spirit to these words of encouragement and inspiration from some very wise men (such as Saint Francis, pictured). Live your life mercy-filled. Have a blessed Sunday.

      You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.  - Matthew 5:7 (The Message)

      And what does the LORD require of you? That you do justice; love mercy; and walk humbly with your GOD.   -Micah 6:8

      You should not let a single person in the world, whatever sin that person may have committed, come before your eyes and depart without having found mercy with you. And should that person not ask for mercy from you, then you must ask it of him. And were that person to come to you a thousand times, continue to love them so as to lead them back to the right path. Always have compassion, for all of us have sinned.  -Saint Francis of Assisi

      The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.  -Brennan Manning

      I will be my brother's keeper, not the one who judges him

      I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength
      I won't take away his freedom, I will learn to help him stand
      And I will, I will be my brother's keeper   -Rich Mullins/Beaker

      Do not waste time bothering whether you "love" your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.   -C.S. Lewis

      The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry; the coat that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.  -Saint Basil

      And finally, think about this old quote from entertainer Stephen Colbert, who boldly said what many in the church will not...

      Because of Jesus,

      Saturday, August 15, 2015

      We All Got Scars

      The other day I found myself driving Will's car and in the stereo was the new solo project from Nate Ruess, the lead singer of the band FUN. It was quite enjoyable so I kept listening. There was one song that jumped out of the CD player at me- a song called Harsh Lights. It's the inspiration for my post today.

      Many of you know that I don't sleep very much. Bedtime is never before 11 PM and wake-up is seldom after 6 AM. Sleep is just not all that important to me, and it never has been. Unlike many insomniacs, my issue is seldom stress or worry about what is to come or things that we need in life. When laying awake at night or early in the morning, my thoughts are almost always focused on the past. On what has been and things that I once hoped or still hope could be. My needs are few, and they are not complicated. My wants are an entirely different issue. That's not healthy either, but my brain is not easily turned off at such times. And the line between past and present gets blurry. Nate says it like this:

      And it's so hard just to be
      There's such a fine line between the things you want
      And the things that you need
      So I'm not going to sleep

      My mind often turns to those I've offended and those whose love I've lost along the road. I am reminded of failed ventures and lost dreams. The struggles with the past are real, and often life is viewed through what Ruess calls a "harsh light." But in that light we discover one incontrovertible truth- "we all got scars." Everyone falls and everyone fails- and we have to move on. Again, Nate's words:

      I'm slipping into midnight under harsh light
      And nothing gets me down
      Running into old friends I don't need anymore
      Tonight I'm gonna show 'em
      We all got scars, we all got scars
      We all got scars, we all got scars, so what?
      I'm slipping into midnight under harsh light
      And nothing here is bringing me down
      No, nothing here is bringing me down

      Regret is such a huge word for so many of us. But there comes a times when we have to cast them aside, we have to go out and face not only who we are but who we can still become...

      And my heart is always breaking for the ghosts that haunt this room
      We fall asleep to revolution, but wake up next to a sad excuse
      Oh, what a shame how we got in our own way
      So tonight I'm going out, tonight I'm gonna stay out
      And it's so hard not to scream (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
      There's such a fine line between the things you are and the
      And the things that you've been...

      For so many of us our scars are a reminder of the pain and failures of times gone by. But scars can serve another purpose as well. They can serve as a reminder that we are not alone in this world, that the struggles we face are the same as so many who walk the road of life with us. My nights will probably not get longer and my sleep will likely remain restless. But I'm okay with that. We all got scars. And we all have to live with them.

      Peace, my friends,

      Friday, August 14, 2015

      7 Things: Growing Up In Youth Group

      If you've followed this blog from its inception then you know these stories and have seen all of these names before. Lately they have taken on added significance to me, and so today you hear them again. Much of my time here is spent telling stories of my days as a youth pastor, but I would have never become a youth pastor without my own youth group experience as a teenager. Between 8th grade and the end of high school (1972-77) I was a part of a very special youth ministry at New Garden Friends Meeting. You can read about how that happened in the 2nd post ever made here, called Beginnings. Today is about some of the great people and few of the random events that still stick out in my mind some 40 years later. There are so many memories. Here are 7 of the best...

      Becky, Tammy, Lisa & Beth
      1)  Our group was never huge, but we did have a fairly large group of people who passed through during those years. My best friends were Steve & Carl Semmler, Beth Vestal, Tammy Doggett, Becky Meredith, Lisa (Ram-It!) Ramos, Tim Vail, Andy Maynard and Martha Ratledge- but there were so many more who made that group special. We were blessed to know them, and Julie Oden, Jeff Vestal, Melissa Meredith, Roy Parkhurst, Jane Reynolds, Joe Willlingham, MaryLynne Burris, the Ossman family and more were all part of the fun. We also had incredible leadership from the Guilford College students who served as our part-time youth pastors- David Brown III, Beth Phillips, Rob Mitchell, Barb Brown and Louise Critz. They all made an impact on my life.
      2)  There was this kid named Gurney Kaufman who was also part of the group early on in my time there. On one of my first trips with the group, to Camp Pla-Mor in Myrtle Beach, Gurney shot bottle rockets at unsuspecting civilians and threw a smoke bomb in Jeff Vestal's shower stall. Somehow he was still alive when we returned home.
      3)  For reasons I do not remember, at some point DB3 had us making up our own musical version of Julius Caesar, set in Rome, GA. We all used our worst southern accents to say lines like, "Tis I, the sooth sayer!  And the sooth sayer say...Beware the Ides of March!"  At some point a couple of us had a scene where we skipped long singing, "Hanes makes me feel good all under..."  Thank God that there is no video of any of that...
      4)  Every autumn we would go up into the mountains and spend a few nights at Sam Levering's apple orchards, just hanging out under the stars together. Those were amazing times. If I recall correctly, the evenings usually ended with us guys giving some of the girls back rubs, with a promise of reciprocation. I am pretty certain I am still owed a TON of back rubs...
      5) In addition to Sam's Place, Myrtle Beach and Quaker Lake, a number of us went with a group to New York in November of 1976. I remember 2 things about that trip. One, while we were there the Guyana Jonestown Massacre (in which cult leader Jim Jones poisoned hundreds of his followers with Kool-Aid) took place, and was a major item of concern at the United Nations. Secondly, Lisa Ramos and Dan Moran met for the first time. They are still married today.
      6)  Roy Parkhurst had a friend named Annette Wells (I think?) who had an absolutely beautiful singing voice and wrote a haunting song about a female race horse named Ruffian who broke a leg and had to be put down. Always wondered what happened to her...
      7)  That group taught me great games like SardinesSecret Documents and Kick-the-Can (in the Graveyard!) from my days in the New Garden youth group. I learned to play guitar from Martha, Rob and Steve. I learned to hold doors (and many other good manners) from Beth, Becky and Tammy. I learned how to be both youth pastor and friend to students from DB3 and Rob. I understood how to make bible study and programs fun and educational because I saw it modeled every week- by college students who were paid next to nothing for their work. The life-lessons were many, and the teachers were the best.

      There are so many stories to tell. The night we carried a sleeping Carl Semmler out of a cabin at QLC without waking him up. The afternoon at Sam's when Becky was sleep talking about saving a tree. The New Year's Eve square dances and our wild, very sweaty rendition of the Virginia Reel. So many memories. Outside of my parents, nothing had more impact on my life in those important years than the youth group of New Garden Friends Meeting.  I thank God everyday that they are still such an important part of my life. Love you guys.

      Because of Jesus,