God is Security

security

Late one night a burglar broke into a house. He froze when he heard a loud voice say, “Jesus is watching you!” Silence returned to the house so the burglar crept forward. “Jesus is watching you!” the voice boomed again. The robber stopped dead in his tracks and looked all around. He spotted a parrot in a cage. “Was that you?” asked the burglar? “Yes,” answered the parrot. The criminal sighed in relief and asked, “What’s your name?” “Moses,” said the bird. “That’s a dumb name for a parrot,” sneered the burglar. “What idiot named you Moses?” “The same idiot who named the
Rottweiler Jesus!”

Today we look at a “one and done” sermon, God Is Security. Dictionary.com defines security as: “freedom from danger, risk, anxiety, or doubt; well-founded confidence.”Actor Richard Dreyfuss, star of such movies as “Jaws” and “Mr. Holland’s
Opus”, was being interviewed by Barbara Walters. She asked him: “Richard, if you could have one wish, what would that wish be?” Dreyfuss pondered for a few seconds, then said, “If I could only have one wish- I would wish for inner security.”

Security is big business. Burglar and  smoke alarms are wired directly from our houses to police and fire stations. Cars make loud noises in parking lots when somebody pushes the wrong button on their key pad. High school students walk through metal detectors as they’re buzzed into their school buildings. There are multi-colored alerts regarding
the threat of terrorism. 10’s of thousands of troops are in harm’s way. North Korea has nuclear warheads and a restarted plutonium-producing reactor. Never have so many experienced such chronic anxiety about the state of the world as now. In an endless search for security, early humans learned how to use a club in self-defense. As we continuously upgraded our destructive capacity, we transitioned from the club to the bow and arrow, then to gun powder, through the gasoline engine to the jet engine and the atomic bomb. And to keep from simply bringing about the ruin of the human race, we have to find ways to match our nearly frightening ability to make “bigger and better” with an equally
amazing spiritual and moral maturity.

Security can be hard to see…even when you are in the middle of it. We live in nerve-wracking times. Our mountains are very real. We’re constantly trying to climb over obstacles like a bad personal history, a poor education, a short temper, illness, addiction, depression. And how does Jesus respond to all of this gloom despair and agony on me?
“Don’t worry!” And yet…we worry. 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich said, “Worry is the state in which a being is aware of its possible non-being. Worry is experienced as one’s own finitude.” Saturated by a world of worry, it’s no wonder we respond irrationally- devising careful plans about where and how we will meet up with our loved ones when the world blows up. And we wonder if, perhaps…just perhaps…Jesus is a bit…well…naive. “Don’t worry,” he says, as if THAT’S really possible. He might as well say, “Don’t breath.” It’s NEARLY impossible not to worry. In fact, the only cure for worry is trust. The only
answer to despair is hope.

Would you bring along a sack lunch along when invited to dinner at someone’s house? No! Would you invite 20 people to a party and only make enough food for 10? Of course not! Would you send your kid out into a snowstorm in a swimsuit? Not on a dare! As rude
and self-centered and uncaring as we humans can be sometimes, we still adhere to a few basics of good behavior and common sense. So why do we think Jesus wouldn’t? Jesus wants to offer us not just a life of sustenance, but of abundance. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. Let’s see what else Jesus has to say on the subject.

Matthew 6:25-34- “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

A man was always bragging about his love for children. He bragged all over the neighborhood about how special children were to him and how much he loved them. One Saturday he worked all day pouring a new cement driveway, then went into the house. While he was inside, the neighborhood kids got into the concrete- they walked all through it, wrote their initials in it, even put some of their toys in it…and it hardened that way! When the man came out of his house, he exploded. And every time he saw the
neighborhood kids, he’d scream at them and run them away. After awhile, one of his neighbors said, “I thought you loved children?” The man said, “Well, I love them in the abstract…but not in the concrete!” God, on the other hand, loves us EITHER way.

Birds may not sow, reap, or store…but they DO scavenge for seeds, unearth grubs and scoop up insects. The lilies of the field might not labor or spin, but they DO know how to put down roots, take in nutrients, reach for the sun and move with the wind. In order to teach us how to give our worries over to God, Jesus encourages us to do two things. 1st,
we are to look to the lilies of the field, which, as weapons of mass destruction cast a shadow over everything, seems…well…a bit preposterous. But Jesus isn’t describing some kind of mythical bliss. Instead, He encourages us to study the patterns of nature around us- look and learn. The lilies He refers flourish for just one day and then are burned as fuel. These flowers have one spectacular shot at life, and in that brief flash there is beauty and meaning and joy. Each flower is unique and irreplaceable, but also part of something
bigger than themselves. In other words, Jesus is suggesting that by comparing
ourselves to the lilies of the field, we are facing our fears, and moving through them. And as we do that, our worry will begin to lose its power over us.

2nd, Jesus asks us to live…but to live in a particular way. He asks us, in the midst of our worry, to live FOR God and LIKE God. He asks us to strive, first and foremost, for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then, He promises, all the things we worry about will be taken care of as well. Jesus reminds us that we need to get our priorities
straight. Jesus reminds us of how divinely graced and gifted we are. He insists that there is so much more to our lives than the quest for physical essentials. As children of God, our first priority is to strive “for the kingdom of God and His righteousness”. We aren’t called to be mere consumers of stuff — the “goods and services” that keep our economy afloat. We are called to keep discovering God’s righteousness, God’s intentions for us- in everything we do, say, and experience.

New Testament scholar Helmut Koester was serving as guest preacher. Prior to the sermon, there was a baptism scheduled. During the ceremony, 5-year old Benji, the brother of the infant being baptized, got scared and crawled under the altar, which had a large cross on top of it. Despite the plaintive cries of his parents, the church’s pastor, and
assorted members, Benji would NOT come out. Finally the pastor shrugged his shoulders and continued with the service. When it came time for Koester to preach, Benji was still under the altar with the big cross on it. As he stepped into the pulpit, he turned and spoke to the table…under which the boy had found his security: “That’s all right, Benji, for centuries people have taken refuge under the cross. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.”

Jesus chides his listeners for worrying- about food, about drink, about clothing…all the things necessary to make life livable. Sustenance and shelter were a daily challenge for the average Joe 6-Pack of 1st Century Palestine- as they are for the average Joe 6-Pack in 21st
Century America. It’s hard to make ends meet…and Jesus knows that. But He wants us to live a life that reaches beyond the struggles for everyday existence.He invites us to come along, to join Him in a lifelong journey to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And the journey Jesus invites us on feeds our soul, clothes our mind, and fills our heart. Helen Keller says, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

I read a story about security I wanted to share with you. It was an unusually cold day in May. Spring had arrived and everything was alive with color but a cold front from the North had brought winter’s chill back. I sat in the picture window of a quaint restaurant on the town-square. As I sat, my attention was drawn across the street. There was a man, walking into town, carrying all his worldly goods on his back. He also carried a well-worn sign that read, ‘I will work for food.’ My heart sank. I had errands to do and quickly set out to accomplish them. I glanced toward the town square, looking for the strange visitor; I saw nothing of him. I stopped at a store and then got back in my car, but deep inside, the Spirit of God kept saying: ‘At least drive once more around the square.’ So…I headed back into town. As I turned the corner, I saw him, standing on the steps of a store front church,
going through his sack. I pulled in, got out and approached the town’s newest visitor. ‘Looking for the pastor? ‘Not really, just resting.’ ‘Have you eaten today?’ ‘Oh, I ate something early this morning.’ ‘Would you like to have lunch with me?’ ‘Sure!’ As he began to gather his things, I asked some surface questions. ‘Where you headed?’ ‘St. Louis.’ ‘Where you from?’ ‘All over; mostly Florida.’ ‘How long you been walking?’ ’14 years.’ I knew I had met someone unusual. He removed his jacket to reveal a bright red T-shirt that said, ‘Jesus is The Never Ending Story.’ Then, Daniel’s story began to unfold. He had seen rough times early in life. He’d made some wrong choices and reaped the
consequences. 14 years earlier, while backpacking across the country, he had
stopped on the beach in Daytona. He got a job with some men who were putting up
a large tent and some equipment. A concert, he thought. But the tent didn’t house a concert…but a revival, and from that service he saw life more clearly. He gave his life over to God. ‘Nothing’s been the same since,’ he said, ‘I felt the Lord telling me to keep walking, and so I did, some 14 years now.’ ‘Ever think of stopping?’ ‘Oh, once in a while, when it seems to get the best of me.  But God’s given me this calling. I give out Bibles, that’s what’s in my sack. I work to buy food and Bibles.’ I was amazed. My homeless friend…wasn’t homeless. He was on a mission and lived this way by choice. The question burned inside for a moment and then I asked: ‘What’s it like?’ ‘What?’ ‘To walk into a town carrying all your things on your back and to show your sign?’ ‘Oh, it was humiliating at first. People would stare and make comments. But then it became humbling to realize that God was using me to touch lives and change people’s concepts of people like me.’ We finished our lunch and walked out. Just outside the door, he paused, turned to me and said, ‘Come Ye blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom I’ve prepared for you. For when I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, a stranger and you took me in.’ I felt as if I was suddenly on holy ground. ‘Could you use another Bible?’ I
asked. We stopped by my church and I was able to find my new friend a Bible- he
seemed very grateful. ‘Where are you headed?’ I asked. ‘Well, I found a map on the back of this amusement park coupon.’ ‘Are you hoping to get a job there?’ ‘No, I just figure I should go there. I figure someone there needs a Bible, so that’s where I’m going next.’ He smiled, and the warmth of his spirit radiated the sincerity of his mission. I drove him back to the town-square where we’d met two hours earlier, and as we drove, it started raining. We parked and unloaded his things. ‘Would you sign my autograph book?’ he asked. ‘I like to keep messages from folks I meet.’ I wrote in his little book that his commitment to his calling had touched my life. I encouraged him to stay strong. And I left him with a verse of scripture from Jeremiah, ‘I know the plans I have for you, declared the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you; Plans to give you a future and a hope.’ ‘Thanks. I know we just met and we’re just strangers, but I love you.’ ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I love you, too.’ How long’s it been since someone hugged you?’ I asked. A long time,’ he replied And so on the
busy street corner in the drizzling rain, my new friend and I embraced, and I felt deep inside that I had been changed. He put his pack on his back, smiled his winning smile and said, ‘See you in the New Jerusalem.’ ‘I’ll be there!’ was my reply. He headed off with his sign, his bedroll and pack of Bibles. He stopped, turned and said, ‘When you see something that makes you think of me, will you pray for me?’ ‘You bet,’ I shouted back, ‘God bless you, Daniel, wherever your feet take you.’ ‘God bless,’ he said. And that was the last I saw of him. Late that evening, the wind blew strong and I bundled up and hurried to
my car. As I sat back, I saw them…. a pair of well-worn brown work gloves sitting on the seat. I picked them up and thought of my friend and wondered if his hands would stay warm that night without them. Then I remembered his words; “If you see something that makes you think of me, will you pray for me?” Today his gloves lie on my desk in my office. They help me to see the world and its people in a new way, and they help me remember to pray for my unique friend and his ministry.

When we humans are faced with mounting security concerns, some tend toward the “cabin in the wilds of Idaho” approach. But to the contrary, as Christians we’re called to reflect God…and live IN the world. But to do that, we need protection from the evil forces of the world- because the Church wasn’t meant to hibernate its way into the future. We
can’t water down the teachings of Jesus to encourage passivity and meekness. There is no greater security than that which is found in Jesus Christ. It’s the security that allows us to walk with grace and reverence under all circumstances. I think everybody ultimately wants security. But it only comes when we realize that Jesus Christ paid for our sins- when we put our faith in Him…trust in Him. Then we can truly say we have security.

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

July 30? REALLY?

 I SWEARcalendar-RevMark-PC I just looked at the calendar yesterday and it was January. I mean, we JUST started 2016…didn’t we? In fact, I’m still writing 2015 on my checks half the time, for goodness sake! (Even thought I don’t actually write checks anymore!) I remember when I was a kid- time just CREPT by! Especially the school year- once late  August/early September showed up, it felt like YEARS before May came around. (The summer months, on quite the other hand, made me feel like I had gotten the DeLorean up to 88 MPH and simply “zapped” straight from June 1 to  August 31! That darn flux capacitor!) 

     You know what I mean- waiting for Christmas when you are a kid was like waiting for Judgment Day…you KNEW it was coming but you couldn’t imagine when. You have ALL the time in the world when you’re young. There is NO hurry, no worry. 
     Then…you grow up. Things start to happen- you get out of college, you get a job, you get married…you have kids. And once those things happen, life becomes a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering speed, size and momentum. Life becomes that train from the movie that was out recently- racing toward the station with absolutely no way to slow down. A white knuckle flight, going so fast you don’t even have time to think…you can BARELY even catch your breath.
     Now that I have your attention- do YOU ever feel that way? If you said, “No”, you’re either…fibbing…or you have the secret that BILLIONS of people would like to know. Of course you feel that way sometimes- we all do. That’s the way life is. And I am convinced that there is NO way around that. Despite what some of the more optimistic theologians might say, we cannot completely avoid the craziness of life simply by being a follower of Jesus. While we are encourage to not be OF the world, we HAVE to be IN the world. BUT…and this is a pretty big but (if you will pardon the image!)…you CAN learn to deal with it better!
     I have learned (the hard way) that the world is going to keep on flying by, regardless of what I do. So, I have a choice to make- I can stay on the train, clinging desperately to the handholds, praying I won’t fall off, watching much of what is important to me fly by…OR…I can choose to better monitor my time, electing to step off the train occasionally, let it go on if necessary, knowing I can either get on another car farther back or simply wait for the next train! After years of beating my head against the wall, clinging to the train, missing so many important things in my personal life, I finally came to the understanding that there IS a balance to be had between a successful career AND a healthy family…if you’re willing to make some concessions along the way. 
     What is YOUR life like? Do you feel you have a good balance, or do you feel trapped on that runaway train, unable to get off…trapped? If you feel trapped- take heart. A. You are NOT alone. And B. Jesus cares about that…about you. Turn to Him. Pray to Him. Seek His presence in your life. Ask Him to help you find that much-needed balance. If you do those things…He will intervene. He will make a difference. You will find a better balance for your life. And the journey will be such a joy! Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’m late for an appointment!!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

 

Kids Are Funny

kid

Kids make me laugh. They are innocent, wide-eyed, smart, quick-witted and often brutally honest. There is simply NOT much sugar-coating when it comes to a kid- they lay it all out there and tell it like it is. They haven’t yet perfected the “filters” that we seasoned adults have…and I don’t always know if that is a good or bad thing! 

     I have spent a LOT of time recently with kids. And they have done…and said…some pretty funny things! One night at Vacation Bible School some years ago, one group of kids was in the sanctuary, learning a new song. The woman leading them set up the song in advance and then said, “OK…let’s listen to it.” That was my cue to hit “play” in Windows Media Player to start that particular portion of the DVD. There is a momentary pause as the player finds the right spot on the DVD…and then it starts. Only…it wasn’t making any sound! And it just HAD made sound 4 minutes ago! So I’m trying to figure out what the problem was, and JUST as I figured it out (I had “faded” the sound from the previous video clip and had not brought the volume back up…a simple fix) and was in the process of fixing it, one of the kids shouts up to me, “If you’d START the video…we could HEAR the song!” I near fell out of the organ loft- I was in…laughing!
     Later that same evening, a different group of kids was in the sanctuary practicing. The leader again prepped them for the next song, and just as I thought she was about to say, “Let’s listen to it.”, one of the kids called up to me. “Mark…you ready?” He then flashed the “thumbs up” sign to me. I thought he was asking me if I was ready to play the video clip, so I smiled big and flashed him the “thumbs up” sign back. Then, to my amazement AND amusement, he proceeded to put both hands on the back of his head, with his elbows sticking out, and then gyrate his hips in a full and wide circle! He looked like a young Chippendale wanna-be! Again, I had to brace myself to keep from falling out!
     Later, the brother of the kid who informed me that, if I would start the video, they could hear the song, was talking to me before the “main event” started. He noticed the shirt I was wearing- it was a Hawaiian-like shirt, bright and LOUD, covered in St. Louis Cardinal Baseball-related images. (The theme this year is tropical islands and I am a HUGE Cardinal fan!) I pointed out that it was a Cardinals shirt…and at that precise moment I remembered that he, his brother and his dad are BIG Chicago Cubs fans. (In case you don’t know, the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry is one of the biggest in all of sports!) He looked at me, his eyed narrowed, he pointed his finger, got a BIG mischievous smile on his face, and yelled, “You’re a traitor!” Whatcha gonna do?!

     Working with kids reminds me that Jesus calls us to have faith like a child. NOT childish faith, but child-like faith- wide-eyed, trusting, sincere, awestruck. That’s hard to pull off some days in the materialistic, cynical world in which we live. But I have found that, if you CAN manage it, it literally changes the way you view the world, yourself, your faith. Here’s my challenge for the rest of the week- try and exhibit a child-like faith. Try to set aside the cynicism and the distrust. Live life moment to moment. Appreciate the flowers, the birds, the trees, the breeze. Thanks God for all of it. See the world through new, younger eyes!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Carpet Stains

carpet stains

I have mentioned Vacation Bible School many times. The Craft Station is always in one particular room on the main floor of the church. Why? Because that’s the way we’ve always done it! (And it IS the best spot for it!) About 10 years ago, at a church I used to serve, we re-carpeted the entire main floor of the church (except the sanctuary, which had already been done). It was an  attractive, yet appropriately neutral, variegated blue/dark tan, maroon sort of deal- quite nice…as carpet goes. During VBS that year, the woman who was running the Craft Station texted me (I was in the sanctuary being Tech Guy!) to tell me that the kids had gotten paint on the carpet and she would come with a steamer and get it clean. I could tell from the tone of the text that she was concerned.

     I was not in a position to go and talk to her at that particular moment and I didn’t want to respond in a text (you know how hard it is to convey intent and feeling in a written communication!), but when I had a second, I dashed out of the sanctuary (OK…perhaps I didn’t “dash” so much as I sauntered. There was certainly no gamboling going on!) and into the room where she was. I could see the look on her face- she was concerned that I would be upset. We made eye contact and I said, “I got your text. Let me tell you a quick story!”
     I proceeded to tell her about an experience I had with a United Methodist Pastor in Caseville,  Michigan. I had taken a group there on a Mission Trip, and we were living in his church for the week. Some of work was done directly for the church and some of it was done for both other ministries and the community at large. There were so many of us that we slept EVERYWHERE in that church. (And I mean everywhere!) Partway through the week, I was talking to the pastor and he was asking me how we were getting along with sleeping arrangements. I assured him that everything was great- we were quite used to Spartan accommodations while on Mission Trips, so sleeping bags and cots in a perfectly comfortable church was just fine!
     He then proceeded to tell me about several conversations he had with parishioners. It seemed that A. the church had JUST re-carpeted the entire building about a month before we came and B. some members of the church were…less than excited…about the fact that 52 strangers were…GASP!…sleeping…and LIVING…on said carpet! I asked him what he said in response to that. He said, “I told them that, when I stand before my Maker on Judgment Day, I want to be able to say more than ‘I kept the carpets clean’!”
     How many churches fail to do active, vital, transformative ministry because…well…they don’t want to get the carpet dirty? In a perfect world- none! In the world in which we live, however- a bunch! And that’s such a shame, because I am convinced that God is MUCH more concerned about us going out and making disciples than He is about us maintaining the status quo…or keeping the carpets clean! As Christians, we need to understand that our buildings, our grounds, our church vehicles, our…whatever…are ministry tools. Should we do our best to be good stewards of them? Absolutely! But NOT to the detriment of real, life-changing ministry. We need to live a little, let our hair down (metaphorically speaking, in my case!) and think outside the box…and the building…as we endeavor to be God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears in this world!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

28 Days to a Better YOU!

28 Days

I was watching one of my favorite movies recently…Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. (I must confess, the first time I saw it, I thought, “What a stupid movie!” But something compelled me to watch it again the next time the opportunity arose. THAT time I got it…and loved it!) In the movie, Murray plays Phil Connor, a self-absorbed Pittsburgh weatherman who gets “stuck” on Groundhog’s Day, forced to re-live that same day over and over…until he “gets it right”. (SPOILER ALERT!) He finally DOES get it right in the end.

     I have probably seen the movie, or at least part of it, 10 times or more. (Hey, give me a break! I said I loved the movie!) But THIS time I realized something I hadn’t quite thought of before. In the movie, Phil goes through nearly every emotion possible, trying to win the love of Andie MacDowell. And in the meantime, he figures out a great deal about life. He starts out a jerk and ends up a pretty decent guy. (He SHOULD have- I’ve heard that the the author who wrote the book upon which the movie is based envisioned that the character of Phil spends…ready?…10,000 years stuck in that one day!)
     As I thought about WHY he changed…or perhaps the better word is HOW he changed, it dawned on me that the WAY he changed was by repeating specific behaviors over…and over…and over again. ONLY by doing that was he able to become something different…something new. In other words…he formed new habits. Most statistics say it takes between 21 and 28 days to form or change a habit. (He had the…what?…benefit?…of 10,000 years.) And that’s exactly what he did- by repeating specific behavior over a period time, he was able to change his habits…change himself.
     What are things about YOU that you would like to change? Come on now…we ALL have things we would like to change. Maybe you want to quit smoking. maybe you want to exercise more. Maybe you want to cut back on your caffeine. Or maybe…you want to become a more Godly person, a stronger Christian. How do you do that? By changing your habits. Figure out what it is you do that you feel keeps you from a deeper relationship with God. Maybe you are a bit too judgmental. Perhaps you tend to gossip. Maybe you aren’t very friendly and open to others. Maybe there are behaviors that you exhibit that you are not so proud of. Whatever it is, the bottom line is this- the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. If you want things to change, you HAVE to do something different…and you can’t just do it for a day or two. You have to do it over an extended time…say…28 days! (Hey…it’s a LOT less than 10,000 years, right?!)
     If you are willing to try this, I guarantee two things: 1. it WON’T be easy! And 2. God will walk every step of the journey with you. And I don’t know about you, but I always find that a great  comfort! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Fun With Extreme Weather

melting-man1

   People say I’m fun…but if they ONLY knew! I am merely the giant head on the screen, babbling on and on, trying to keep people’s attention! My wife, on quite the other hand, is the wizard behind the screen, making everything happen! Let me explain.
     I have shared before that my wife is the fun one- thinking up fun things to do with the kids, building lasting memories. (She’s the one who convinced me to loosen up a bit and join her and the boys playing Frisbee in the pouring rain! They STILL talk about it!) Once, when our older son was a kid, we had a few winter days that were beyond cold- I’m talking WELL below zero with a wind chill of somewhere south of -40! Those are days when “normal” people would stay in at nearly any cost. But not us! My wife had read about soap bubbles freezing in that kind of weather…and wanted to try it! So we bundled up and trudged out in the arctic winter. It was SO cold that it hurt to breath. Your face hurt, your legs hurt (regardless of how much clothing you were wearing)…it was just flat cold! And there we were in the driveway…blowing bubbles! (We MUST have looked a sight!) And it was SO cool. They DID freeze, and depending on how much water was in the particular bubble, they either shattered when the hit the ground or the rolled down the driveway! We stayed out for a few minutes, then ran back in and had hot chocolate!
     Well, a few years ago, we were living in central Illinois, and it is hotter than smoke! The air temperature was 97 and the heat index was 118! So my wife said, “I wonder if you could bake cookies in the car on a day like today?” To which my then 10-year old replied, “Let’s try!” They dutifully made cookie dough and portioned it out on a cookie sheet. meanwhile, I moved the “old” van out of the driveway and along the street…where it would get the MOST sun and get NICE and hot! Then we put the cookie sheet on the dashboard…and waited. At the hour mark, there was no real change. But at the 3-hour mark, they were clearly beginning to bake! We decided at that point to take them in and finish baking the traditional (i.e. boring) way. They were delicious!
     Sometimes you just have to let your hair down (metaphorically speaking for me!) and do something a bit off the wall! And I will admit, that’s sometimes hard for me. That’s one of many reasons why I’m so glad to have my wife in my life. What do YOU do to just let go and have some fun sometimes? Is that easy for you? Hard? It IS very therapeutic, so if you don’t do that now…try it. You won’t be disappointed! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Another Day in the Life

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Every so often, I like to take a Monday blog to review what yesterday was like and how it points to the fact that I have the best job in the world. (If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “You CAN’T have the best job, Pastor, because I do!” That’s OK- you go ahead and tell yourself that. But you would be…you know…wrong! Because I do!) Yesterday would be good one to look back at!

The day started with a GREAT cup of coffee. (And, just in case you aren’t sure…that is an incredibly important part of EVERY day!) After some time spent unlocking, turning on lights, printing a few things and going over my serand going over my sermon again, it was time to practice with the 8AM Praise Band. So I got to spend about 45 minutes playing the drums.

Then, after 15 minutes of visiting folks, it was time to start the 8AM worship service. In that hour, I got to lead worship, pray, invite people to the altar, lay the drums and present the sermon, which was in a monologue format.

Next, it was grab some breakfast at the Fellowship Café…and some more coffee…and head to Sunday School, where I got to spend an hour teaching and being in conversation with the folks who are part of the class.

After that, it was on to the 10:15AM worship service, where I got to…wait for it…lead worship, pray, invite people to the altar, lay the drums and present the sermon, which was in a monologue format. (That sounds vaguely familiar!)

Then it was downstairs to the dining room to help serve a lunch for our CIA (Caring Individual Adults) group- folks who often find themselves eating alone. We do a once-a-month lunch that provides an opportunity for fellowship. It is well received!

Then it was 2 WHOLE hours of…nothing. After that, it was back to church to…play drums! The new praise band for the new 9:15AM worship service practiced. So it was another two hours of playing the drums. It was great!

Then it was back home for a whole 90 minutes for dinner. (We wimped out and drove through McDonalds!) After that, it was back to church for the monthly Administrative Council meeting. And while NOBODY puts meetings at the top of their “what I love to do” list, this was a GOOD meeting!

So, for those of you keeping score, I got play drums for…like…3½-4 hours. I got to use my Bachelor’s Degree in Acting to present the sermon in a unique way. I got to lead worship…twice. I got to pray with…and for…people. I got to help serve…and eat…a good lunch. I got to promote the new service. I got to participate in a meeting that focused on celebrating the good things that are happening at the church. Long day. Busy day. All in all..GREAT day!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

UPICKEM: Jacob Wrestles With God

UPICKEM Jacob

I have more names that Carter had Little Liver Pills! I am, in no particular order, One who follows another, The Supplanter, The Holder of the heel, One who seizes the heel, Heel-catcher, Leg-puller, Circumventer, Restrainer…it goes on and on. Even my BEST name- Israel- isn’t my GIVEN name. My GIVEN name is Jacob.

And depending on what you personally think about me, I also have a wide variety of titles. I’m the one who stole my brother’s birthright. I’m a liar. I’m the third Hebrew forefathers with whom God made a covenant. I’m a foundational patriarch of the Israelite people. Pretty big shoes to fill. Don’t you think? Let me tell you about myself.

I’m the son of Isaac and Rebecca- the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. I come from what most would call “good stock”. My mom was very uncomfortable during her pregnancy with me and my twin brother Esau. A prophet told her that she would have twins and that they were fighting in utero..and would continue to fight all of their lives. The elder shall serve the younger.” That would prove to be a problem! When we were born, Esau came out first…but I grabbed his heel and tried to stop him. And we DID spend the rest of our lives in that struggle.

It was pretty obvious from early on that dad loved Esau best while mom loved me the best. But Esau, being the “oldest”, had the birthright and I had…nothing. That is, until one day when everything changed. Esau had been out in the field working. He came back home and was nearly starving. I had some stew and it looked and smelled SO good to him that he begged me for it. After getting him sufficiently worked up over how good it was I offered it to him…in exchange for his birthright. He said, “What good is my birthright if I’m starving?” And then…he agreed. I’m not sure he gave it much thought after that…but I did.

Now, fast forward. Dad is old and blind. It’s time for him to officially bestow his blessing to Esau. So he tells Esau to go out and prepare him a meal. When he brings it back, he’ll receive his blessing. But Mom was listening, heard it all and ran to tell me. (Remember that the prophecy she received said Esau would serve me.) So she told me to fix food, dress up like Esau and come back..as fast as I could.

So I fixed the food, put on Esau’s clothes and laid a goatskin across my arms and neck to simulate the hairy skin of my brother. I then went in to see Dad. He was instantly suspicious, because even though he couldn’t see, he could still hear and he knew my voice from Esau’s. So he demanded that I come close. He reached out, smelled Esau’s clothes, touched the goatskin and said, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the smell and the hands are Esau!” Finally, he was convinced that I was my brother…and he gave me Esau’s blessing.

Soon after, Esau came back with the food Dad had sent him to fix. When we found out what I had done, he was shocked and heartbroken. At that moment, he hated me. In fact, he swore he would kill me as soon as Dad died. Well, I may be an idiot…but I’m no fool. I left and went to live with my uncle Laban in another land.

On the way, the first of two really unusual things happened to me. I had a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven. And there were angels on the ladder, going up and down. And then I heard the voice of God, offering His blessings upon me.

Finally, I made it to Uncle Laban’s house. Soon after I got there, I met his daughter Rachel and it was love at first sight! I asked Laban for her hand in marriage. In return, I offered to work for him for 7 years. He agreed. But after 7 years, Laban deceived me and sent his older daughter, Leah, to the wedding with a veil over her face. I didn’t realize it until we were married.

I confronted Laban about it, but he tried to justify his actions by saying that it was unheard of to give your younger daughter before your older daughter was married. But he offered me a deal- he would also give Rachel to me…if I would work another seven years for him. I loved her so much that I agreed.

So, I had two wives, Leah and Rachel. But I loved Rachel more than Leah and they both knew it. Leah gave me 4 sons in relatively short order. But Rachel was barren- no kids. But God was faithful. He remembered Rachel and allowed her to have children- two sons: Joseph and Benjamin.

Some time passed and I had a bit of a falling out with Laban. Then God spoke to me and told me to go home…to my family. So we left Laban’s home and land and headed back to mine. But all the while, I was worried about Esau. Remember, he had sworn to kill me. So I sent messengers ahead to him, letting him know I was coming…trying to gauge his response. He told the messenger to tell me that he would come and meet me…with 400 men. I wasn’t sure what that meant…and I was more than a little apprehensive to find out!

So I prepared for worst. I spent time in prayer. And then I sent several herds of livestock to Esau- I hoped he would see it as a peace offering. And we continued our slow but steady march toward home..and uncertainty. When we arrived at the Jabbok River, we set up camp. The next day, I helped my family and our flocks   cross the river. I then told them to wait for me while I went back across for my things. I set that up intentionally because I wanted to be alone to commune with God.

That evening is when…it…happened. A…mysterious being showed up. We began to struggle with each other and wrestled until daybreak. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to give in, the being touched me on the thigh, causing an injury that gave me a limp for the rest of my life.

And yet…I would still not give in. I demanded that the being give me God’s blessing. As part of the blessing, I was told that I would no longer be known as Jacob. From that moment forward, I was to be called Israel, which means “one that struggled with divine angel” and “I have seen God face to face and lived.”

In the morning, I crossed back over the Jabbok, reunited with my family and went to see Esau. That went MUCH better than I imagined- the reunion was emotional and heartfelt. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, our youngest. I buried her just outside of Bethlehem. As we drew near my ancestral home, I was reunited with my dad at Mamre, which is where Father Abraham had a Heavenly visit of his own. When our father died, Isaac died, Esau  and I buried him in the Cave of Patriarchs- the land Father Abraham bought and where he was buried.

From there, my story is rooted in that of my son Joseph, my favorite, and his coat of many colors. He was lost but was founded, we were reunited, I lived in Egypt for a time and, when I died, was taken back to Canaan to be buried in that same cave as Abraham and my father. My 12 sons went on to become the patriarchs of the 12  tribes of Israel- the founders of the Israelites.

There are three things about my story I want you to remember. First off, who WAS that who wrestled with me on the banks of the Jabbok? Over the years, he’s been identified alternately as a man, an angel, God, even the pre-incarnate Jesus. I think the identity of the stranger is intentionally obscured so that everybody who reads it has to “wrestle” with it.

But notice that I named the location of this event “Peniel”. That name means “the face of God” or “seeing God”. There is NO doubt in my mind that, regardless of what form, it was absolutely God with Whom I wrestled. In some form, in some way, I saw God…face to face.

So, if that’s the “Who”…what about the “why”? Why did that happen? My whole life was a struggle. I struggled with Esau, with my dad, with Laban…everything I did was a struggle. And if you paid close attention, the thing I was always struggling for…was a blessing. Now, on the very threshold of re entering Canaan- my homeland- I finally am made to understand that, all along, it wasn’t Esau or Isaac or Laban or any other human that I had to wrestle with- it was God. It was God’s blessing that I so desperately wanted..needed. So much so that I even told Him, “I won’t give in unless You bless me”. And in the end, I won my struggle, because I finally understood Who and what I was seeking. I finally acknowledged that the blessing had to come from God.

I said there were three things. The second one deals with the whole “touching my thigh” part. To get me to stop, God touched my thigh. That left me with a permanent limp. And maybe you’re thinking, “That seems mean of God to do that.” But look at it this way. When you have a true, a face-to-face encounter with God, you WILL end up broken and bowed. Why? Because the high look and the proud heart are gone and we are bowed in quiet humbleness. Going into that day, I was as twisted as a corkscrew. Maybe not on the outside, but certainly on the inside…where it truly counts. And it took an act of God to straighten me out. The humble posture was a worthwhile trade-off.

The third thing is that, once all this happened, God changed my name. In my time, your name defined who you were. And my original name- Jacob- didn’t mean anything good anymore. THAT’S why God gave me a new name- Israel. That name comes from 2 Hebrew words: “lisrot”, which means  “wrestle” and “El”, which means “God”. I wrestled with God and was forever changed by the experience.

Like me, when you meet God, when you come face-to-face with the One Who created you, you become a new creature. You’re born anew, with a new heart and with new desires. And just like I wrestled with God alone on the banks of the Jabbok, you also have to make our own peace with God. Nobody else can do it for you.

Be willing to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of God. Be determined in your goal of seeking God’s blessing for your life. And don’t give up on that goal until you’ve made peace with Him. My life is a prime example that God can use anybody and that He will never give up on you.

Rock and Worship Draws Near

Free Ride 9

The church I currently serve moves closer and closer to the launch of a new, 3rd Sunday morning worship service. Dubbed Rock and Worship (Just GUESS who came up with that!) The “Soft Launch” (In theater terms, the previews) begins on August 21st. The “Hard Launch” (Opening Night) is September 11.

The service is designed to reach a Target Audience we aren’t currently reaching. Our 8AM Service is a Contemporary Service that has growing a lot in the past 2-3 years. Our 10:15AM (soon to be 10:30AM) Service is a blended service that features Praise Band, Choir, Hymns, Bell Choir, liturgy…it is TRULY blended.

So this new one will be sandwiched between the existing ones. It will be a tiny bit shorter- 50 minutes- and will feature weekly Communion. It will also feature electric guitar-led music (with an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, a keyboard AND drums backing it). The songs will be pretty upbeat with that nice “rock and roll” edge. In fact, the very first week will feature a song by Classic Rock royalty The Doobie Brothers- Jesus Is Just Alright!

This is the third church I’ve served…and the third church I’ve served that went to 3 Sunday morning worship services! And since this ain’t my first rodeo, there is one thing I know about this new schedule- the train HAS to run on time! Many of my clergy brothers and sisters don’t seem to worry too much about sermon OR service length. But- and perhaps it’s my theater background- I am a firm believer of “leave ’em wanting more”. And with this new schedule- service at 8AM, service at 9:15AM and service at 10:30am…I will HAVE to be on time! Let the games begin!

The band for this new service practiced together (some of us, at least!) Wednesday. And it…was fun! We started with the music that will be featured on Week 1- it makes sense- and spent a bit over an hour just making music and enjoying the DAYLIGHTS out of it. Very few things bring me more joy that sitting down with talented musicians and making music. Good stuff!

I would invite you to pray about this new venture. A new service is one of the hardest things a church can do. And yet, if we take seriously the notion that we exist to connect people to Jesus Christ, then if connecting 250 people/week to Him is good, the connecting 500 people/week to Him must be twice as good! God is good, all the time!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Those Niebuhrs!

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I went to seminary in St. Louis. I think every seminary has a theologian (or two, or three, or four…) that seem to be their “favorites”. For any number of reasons, they focus much of their attention on that (or those) theologian(s). Nothing wrong with that, by the way. You can’t focus on ALL of them; why not pick a small handful who seem to lift up a theology that is congruent with the theology espoused by the seminary? Well, at my seminary, two of the theologians who were lifted up quite often were brothers- Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr. Now, let me qualify- they were NOT the only theologians we focused on, by any means. But they are revered in the hallowed halls of my seminary, to the point that they are forever memorialized in the stained glass of the chapel there. (I SERIOUSLY doubt I will EVER see ME memorialized in stained glass. A DC comic book perhaps, but never stained glass!) You might ask, “Why them?” If you are like most people who haven’t attended seminary, you probably haven’t even heard of them. Here’s why- both brothers are graduates of this seminary, and Richard also taught there. They went on to be among the “giants” of 20th century theologians and Christian thinkers. They impacted and influenced a generation of national and world leaders. Pretty big stuff! Or so one would think! But read on, MacDuff!

The Niebuhrs grew up in a small town outside St. Louis called Wright City. So, one day, two of my seminary professors decided to take a run out to Wright City and see where the Niebuhrs grew up. They found the town and drove around. They went to the house where the brothers had lived as kids. Then, they decided to go see the church the Niebuhrs had attended. They found the church, and they also found an elderly lady out in the churchyard pulling weeds and planting flowers. They stopped and struck up a conversation with her. They asked her if she remembered Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr. Well…YES…of course…she absolutely remembered them! They told her they had come out to see where the Niebuhrs had grown up- to see their house, their church, their town. She listened to them, and when they were done, she looked them in the eye, and with a straight face asked, “What ever happened to those Niebuhr boys? Did they amount to much?”

Let me say right up front- YES, the “Niebuhr boys” DID amount to much! But how often do we get to feeling full of ourselves, thinking we are all that AND a bag of chips, only to be knocked down a peg or two…or three…or twelve? I don’t know about you, but every time I start feeling like the world owes me something, that GOD owes me something, I get a great big heaping tablespoon of reality shoved down my throat! I sadly cannot count the times that has happened in my life! (I’m a bit on the slow, thick-headed side- it takes A LOT to get through to me!) Why do you suppose that happens? I have a thought. (Now THERE’S a surprise!) At least for me, I think that when I am getting a little “too big for my britches” (to quote my mother!), God has a way of stepping in and taking me down a notch or two- putting me in my place, as it were! That used to REALLY make me mad! But finally (remember, I’m hard-headed!) I recognized it for what it was- the correction or discipline I needed in my life at that moment to be a better, more productive, more loving Christian. When I am able to put it in those terms, suddenly it becomes much more palatable! So, next time you start having trouble getting your big ‘ol swelled head through the doorway…keep an eye out. My guess is…the correction is coming. It may not be pleasant. It may not be fun. It may not be ego-boosting. But it WILL be just the thing you need to re-align your perspective!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The End of VBS

barnyard-roundup

Well, another year is in the history books! No- I KNOW it’s not New Year’s Day! Instead, the curtain came down on this year’s version of Vacation Bible School. And it…was…great! I shared a couple of days ago that the church I currently serve does a 4-day, evening VBS, complete with dinner for everybody and an adult class.

The dinners were great. The menus were: Night 1- Chili Dogs, Night 2- Walking Tacos, Night 3- Spaghetti with Garlic Bread and Night 4- Pizza Bread. The hot dog buns, garlic bread and bread for the pizza all came from our weekly free bakery delivery from a grocery store chain. The chips for the Walking Tacos were donated from our recent Relay For Life dinner. In other words, we are really GOOD at creating menus…GOOD menus…around what we have available!

The crafts were fun. Every night, kids would stop me to show me what they made that night. And the craft room was RIGHT across the hall from the room I taught in and, I fear, us adults were louder than the kids were!

The games were a big hit. It sounded like they had LOTS of fun every night. And the leaders did a GREAT job of using our somewhat limited facility to its fullest. The kids had a great time AND “shook some of their sillys out”!

The story time was also great. The setting AND the adult who does it are both really good. The kids really enjoy hearing the story (lesson) for the night. And, based on what I hear them say at the closing every night, they paid close attention and really learned some things.

The music was fun and energetic without being too repetitive and grating! (If you have EVER helped with VBS, you KNOW that there are some years…and SOME songs…that drill into the deepest part of your brain like a Craftsman tool. And once there, they take up residence and NEVER leave!)

And the class I taught had great attendance and great conversation. The topic was fear and how to overcome it. We had good sessions, shared a lot and added some “tools” to our spiritual “toolbelt”.

It takes a LOT of people to successfully pull off VBS every year. And every year, we have LOTS of people step up and willingly serve. It would be SO much easier to just not have it. But, thankfully, that is simply NOT an option for these folks. Instead, it’s “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get this thing done. Let’s find new ways to connect people to Jesus Christ!” Have I mentioned that I love my job?!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

What IS Heaven?

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I have shared over the past couple of days that the church I currently serve is in the midst of Vacation Bible School. We do four nights of VBS and it started Sunday evening. That makes tonight…the last night! I have also shared that I offer an adult class during VBS. That, along with dinner for everybody, is our attempt at making the event more family-friendly.

The class I have been leading is Fearless by Max Lucado. The gist of the class is that fear handcuffs us, cripples us. And Lucado offers some thoughts on how we can overcome that fear and live a life that is…fearless.

The study has 6 chapters and we have 4 nights. So it stands to reason that we can’t cover the whole book. Therefore, I taught Chapter 1 on Night 1 and Chapter 2 on Night 2. At the end of Night 2, we talked about which two chapters we would cover over the last two nights. The chapter the class picked for last night was Chapter 4, which deals with the fear of death. It as a pretty deep conversation!

One of the things we focused on was what IS Heaven? The Bible gives some clues as to what it MIGHT be. It talks about God preparing a place for us. It talks about mansions. It talks about a city that is HUGE, with giant pearls as gates, precious stones everywhere and streets paved with clear gold. Because of those things, and others like them, we often picture Heaven as a city- buildings, streets, houses…the whole nine yards.

It’s not all that unusual for folks to ask me, “What IS Heaven like?” And I will admit that I greatly appreciate the faith they seem to have in me just by posing the question. “He’s a pastor, he’ll know!” And I have seen plenty of pastors all too willing to tell folks EXACTLY what Heaven is like.

But I am apparently either TOO stupid…or TOO smart…to know the answer to that question. I mean, I know what I picture when I think of Heaven. But I don’t know what Heaven will be like. And to be entirely honest, I am more than a little skeptical of anybody- clergy or otherwise- who thinks they DO know.

I think that, at the end of the day, the descriptions of Heaven that are found in the Bible are more metaphoric than literal. I think that we couldn’t possibly grasp the reality of Heaven, so God couches it in language that we have some hope of wrapping our head around.

For me, whatever Heaven IS…it is infinitely better than anything HERE. And I have basically no chance of fully understanding it..this side of actually being there. So…I trust. We aren’t physical beings on a spiritual journey. We’re spiritual beings on a temporary physical journey. We are on this planet for a season. And when that season is over, we have the offer to join Christ in eternity. Pretty good stuff, if you ask me!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Great Walker Robbery of ’16

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I have a confession to make- I stole something on Sunday! I know- shocking. But it’s true. Let me explain!

Sunday was the “opening night” of this year’s Vacation Bible School. My wife is doing registration, and since dinner starts at 5PM, she needs to be at the church about 4:30PM to get set up and ready for the onslaught!

So at about 4:25PM (Remember, we live RIGHT next door to the church!), she and I walked over. We entered the building through the door at the end of our Education Wing and started up the hallway toward the lobby. As we got near the door into the lobby, I saw my father-in-law’s walker witting there in the hallway. (Before you think bad things about us, he only uses it when he comes to an event at the church so that he can use it as a chair…it’s taller and easier to get up from! Therefore, we tend to leave it at our house but had left it at the church the last time it was used.)

I said to my wife, “That’s your dad’s walker, isn’t it?” She replied that she thought it might be. So I decided that it was probably in the way where it was. I then proceeded to wheel it out into the lobby, through the church office and into my office. I locked my office, locked the church office and went on my merry way! Again, that was at 4:30PM.

Fast-forward to 7:10PM. The adult Bible study that I am teaching was over and I was headed to the sanctuary for the closing exercises. That journey took me through the lobby. As I passed through, one of the other ladies working registration got my attention (Sometimes, especially if there is a lot of noise and/or my deaf ear is pointed at you, that can be a pretty big challenge!) and asked me…you can just HEAR it coming, can’t you?…”Rev. Mark, you don’t happen to know where my walker is, do you?” Oh. Shoot!

My facial expression gave me away instantly. I proceeded to A. explain WHY I moved it and B. fall all over myself apologizing for the fact THAT I moved it! I then went and retrieved it from my office…PASSING MY FATHER-IN-LAW’S WALKER IN THE PROCESS! (I am NOT always the sharpest tool in the shed!)

So…a stolen walker. I assume that it would classify as petty theft- a misdemeanor. I’m hoping for time served and perhaps community service!

One thing that life has taught me is this- own up to your mistakes. As that great theologian Billy Joel said, “You’re not the only one who’s made mistakes, but they’re the only things that you can truly call your own”! They WILL happen- the key is how you deal with them!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Vacation Bible School: Night 1

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Vacation Bible School Night One is in the history books! And what a GREAT first night it was! At the church I currently serve, we do VBS a bit differently than many churches do it. For one, we have it in the evening. Many churches have it during the day. And for them, I assume it works well- they keep doing it. But my take is that offering it in the evening allows more folks to be involved. While not everybody works 9-5…a lot of folks DO, and having VBS after work allows them to be a part.

Another thing we do is offer dinner. This church started that a few years ago. (If I remember correctly, this is our 3rd year of offering dinner.) It’s open to anybody who wants to come and there is no charge. The fare is pretty simple- last night was hot dog/chili dog/chili, chips, veggies, desserts and drinks. And, for my money, who doesn’t LOVE a good chili dog with some shredded cheese on top? It’s NOT what I would have fixed at home, but I didn’t HAVE to cook at home AND it was GREAT!

We also do 4 nights instead of 5. Tradition VBS curriculum is built around 5 nights. But we noticed that, by Night 5, the kids are worn out, the adults are worn out…everybody is worn out! And Night 5 seems less like a great wrap-up to a great week and more like a necessary evil required to get the train into the station. So we went with the “leave ’em wanting more” approach. And…it seems to work well.

The other thing we do is offer a class for adults. For my money, VBS should be a family/whole church event, not simply something that kids get dropped off at. And so adding dinner and an adult class gives more people a chance to participate.

While I don’t have a “hard count”, I do know that we served just under or around 100 people at dinner. The food was great…as was the fellowship. I also don’t know yet how many kids showed up on Night One, but I DO know that there were a LOT of kids in the sanctuary. I also know that I had 17 folks in my adult class. And they were a marvelously diverse 17 at that! The adult class is studying Max Lucado’s Fearless, which looks at what fear is, how it cripples us and how God can help us overcome the fear in our lives.

The evening ended with eveybody in the sanctuary, where we reported the opening night totals for offering, the kids sang a couple of songs, we prayed and then…everybody went home!

I love that churches find so many diverse ways to connect people to Jesus Christ. On the surface, VBS is just…well…VBS. Make a few crafts. Sing a couple of songs. Eat. Go home. But in the midst of those seemingly mundane, daily activities, seeds are being planted. And while we never know which seeds are falling on the good soil, we know that some ARE. And sometime, maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe next decade…sometime, some of those seeds will sprout, flourish and bloom into full beauty. All because of a seed that was planted at a VBS! Gotta love the ministry! Now, on to Night Two!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

UPICKEM: The Stoning of Stephen

(This is Week 2 of a sermon series that features the congregation voting to chose the topic and then having the sermon delivered as a monologue by the Biblical character.)

     My name is Stephen. The name comes from the Greek “Stephanos”, which literally translates as “crown”. Don’t let that fool you- that does NOT mean I’m royalty…not by a long shot! Instead, it points to the fact that I follow the One Who wears the crown- the King of kings.
    My story’s an interesting one. A look into my life is also a look into the life of the early Church. The truth is…I’m just a guy. I’m what’s called a Hellenistic Jew. That simply means that, while I AM Jewish, I’m not Hebrew. Instead, I’m Greek. And I grew up a devout Greek Jew. But then, I was introduced to the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Scene 2- My Call
    I got very involved in the early Christian Church. But it’s important to understand that, while it WAS the “Christian” Church, it wasn’t as simple as “everybody’s Christian”. Instead, there were Hebrew Jews, Hellenistic (Greek) Jews, as well as Gentiles, who made up the early Church. And we all had our own distinct background, which made coming together as a unified community a bit of a challenge.
    And in the midst of that, a dispute rose between the Greek and Hebrew Jews. The Greek Jews felt that their widows were being neglected. So the 12 Apostles gathered us all together and said that there needed to be more people assigned to specific ministry tasks so that they- the Apostles- could continue to focus on their main ministries. They told us to pick 7 men to serve in a newly-created position- Deacon. The seven would offer aid to the widows and other poor members of the church community. So the people chose…and they chose me as one of the seven. In fact…they chose me first. I’m the FIRST Deacon of the Christian Church! That’s pretty…amazing. The apostles laid hands on us, prayed over us and ordained us to this ministry, freeing them up for other ministries. The result was a LOT of new believers.
Scene 3- Signs and Miracles
    But along with helping widows- a noble ministry, mind you- God gave me the power to perform wonders and miracles among His people. Members of some of the synagogues didn’t like what I was doing and so they challenged my teachings. God gave me the ability to defeat them in debate. That made them mad, so they started to plot against me.
Scene 4- The Arrest
    I was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin- think “Jewish Supreme Court”. They charged me with blasphemy- speaking badly about God. They got several false witnesses to intentionally lie about me. They said I spoke against the temple and the Law. They said that I said that Jesus would destroy the temple AND all the customs Moses handed down.
Scene 5- My Speech
    After hearing the false testimony, the high priest asked me, point blank, if the accusations were true. And they WEREN’T true. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law…He came to fulfill it. But I didn’t dispute them. Instead, I took the opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I made a long speech. In fact, it’s the longest speech in the Book of Acts. I offered my view of the history of Israel and denounced the Jewish authorities around me.
    I talked to them about how God appeared to Abraham, promising him that he would be the father of many nations, even though Abraham had no children. I talked to them about Abraham being the father of Isaac and Isaac being the father of Jacob, and Jacob being the father of the twelve patriarchs- the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel.
    I talked to them about Joseph being sold into slavery and yet saving his family and his people. I talked about the Hebrew people growing in number and eventually being enslaved by the Egyptians. I told them about Moses, growing up a son of Pharaoh despite being born a Hebrew slave. And of Moses experiencing God in a burning bush and following His call to save His people from bondage.
    I talked to them about Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land and the people eventually being taken off to Babylon in exile. I went through David to Solomon and the building of the temple. I told them that God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham through the events in history time and time again. And just when it looked like the promise of the coming Messiah would never happen, God intervened.
    And then…I got personal. I called the members of the Sanhedrin stiff-necked!
I told them that their ears…and their hearts…were flawed. I told them they were resisting the Holy Spirit. I asked them if there had EVER been a prophet their ancestors didn’t persecute! I even accused them of killing Jesus.
Scene 6- The Stoning
    The counsel started screaming at me and insulting me, but I refused to back down. Instead, I looked up to heaven…and saw the glory of God! I saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. I told the Sanhedrin what I saw…but it just made them more angry. They attacked me, dragged me out of the city and starting pelting me with huge rocks. I called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” Then I knelt and cried out, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” With that, I fell asleep…I died. They killed me. Some of my Christian brothers buried me. And as a result of what happened to me, I was given the title Protomartyr- the first martyr of the Christian faith.
Scene 7- Saul of Tarsus
    There was another important thing that grew out of that day. No one even noticed while it was happening, but it became pretty important later on. The men who threw the stones took their cloaks off first. And they handed them to a young man to hold…Saul of Tarsus. He watched as I was killed. And my death started a wave of persecution against the Christian Church. The apostles scattered, but Saul of Tarsus made it his goal to destroy the Church. Ironically, his hatred of Christians would eventually lead God to call him to convert and become Paul- the father of the early church.
Scene 8- The Rest of Me
    I’m considered a Saint in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. December 26 is called “St. Stephen’s Day”. And you sing about me every Christmas season- “Good King Wenceslas looked down on the Feast of Stephen”. “
    Historians have said that, even though I only really appear in two chapters of the Bible, my legacy impacts believers even now. I came out of nowhere. I was just a guy…trying to reach my highest ground. I lived my faith openly. I used my humble position as deacon to help put God’s glory on display. I didn’t back down when I was confronted by those who disagreed with the truth of God’s Word.
    I used my role to minister in ways that not only helped the apostles but directly impacted the growth of the church. I used my position to reach a broader base of people with the message of salvation. I relied on the Holy Spirit to give me the words to say, the strength to persevere and the heart to forgive those who were responsible for my death.
Scene 9- Close
    My strength comes from my faith- God gave me the ability to stand firm under even the most extreme persecution. My story shows that no matter how insignificant you may think your role is, you can use it to reach others for Christ. Your faith in Christ can lead to great things. Keep on climbing ’til you reach your highest ground.

(Almost) Everything Is Relative

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There is this expression- “everything is relative”. For me at least, is means that the setting and circumstances have a LOT to do with what’s “normal”. “Normal” is potentially different from circumstance to circumstance. And, for the most part, I firmly believe that. And it was proven to me…o’er and o’er…this week!

I grew up in a farming community. We were not actually farmers- my dad was a design engineer and my mom was an administrator- but we did a lot of “week-end farming” and we were surrounded by REAL farmers. In fact, I worked for most of those farmers…a LOT! So my “growing up” years were pretty full of manual labor. Baling hay, working with cows, cleaning barns, raising chickens, digging, chopping, hauling, trimming, mowing, gardening, driving tractors…you name it, I did it. Getting dirty, sweating, working hard for hours and hours in the blazing heat or the freezing cold was just another day in paradise. I could work hard all day in awful conditions.

But…apparently…something happened. It MIGHT be the fact that I am 55 years old and NOT 17 years old. It MIGHT be the fact that, while I still work HARD (I honestly do!), it’s often MUCH more taxing on my brain than my body and is done sitting down! But whatever the reason, I simply can’t GO nearly as well or as long as I used to be able to.

This week, I took vacation days to head south and take care of some family-related things. And those family-related things involved hard work. Physical work. Sweating. Dirt. Grunt work. It was necessary. It was important. And it…was…HARD! The work started in earnest on Monday morning. And by Thursday morning, I was having to BEAT myself to get up and get moving! Places hurt that I didn’t even know I had!

We got back home yesterday afternoon. Everything that we brought back was unloaded, the U-Haul truck was returned, an AMAZING dinner of smoked brisket, collard greens, cornbread and a great salad bar was consumed, a greatly appreciated shower was taken and then…my chair!

So…everything is relative. My ability to do a lot of physical labor is relative to my age and my circumstance. Once, it was the norm…now, it’s…you know…NOT! My self-proclaimed title of Webmaster is relative to whether or not anybody around me actually knows how to design and maintain a website or not! (The phrase “Even a sparrow appears as an eagle when there are no other birds” springs to mind!)

But actually…NOT everything is relative- despite what many seem to think. God is NOT relative. His saving power and unequaled forgiveness are the same…regardless of the circumstance. When we start to think that there is some outside influence that qualifies and quantifies God’s grace and power, we are treading on dangerous ground.

God is the same- yesterday, today and tomorrow. And for me, in a world that is so tenuous, that is a GREAT comfort. Regardless of what happens in the here and now, with us flawed humans mucking everything up, God is always there, always guiding, always protecting, always forgiving. Thank you, God, for always being here!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Good Customer Service

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Customer service is a big deal to me. I worked enough retail in my day to know that it is often THE make or break thing when it comes to the success or failure of a business. Having a good product that people want is, obviously, pretty doggone important. But how the customer is treated is the key to whether or not they become a RETURN customer or not.

With that in mind, I have seen a decided decline in customer service. “Back in the day”, good customer service was the norm. Three or four guys- in bow ties, no less- would run out and check your oil, wash your windshield and check your tire pressure while they pumped your gas. Today, you’re lucky if anybody who works at the convenience store even notices that you’re there!

I got a healthy reminder about all of this two nights ago. My wife, younger son and I were with my brother, his wife, their daughter, her husband and their kids (10 of us) at a Mexican restaurant. (If you live near me, stop trying to figure out which restaurant it was! We were about 4 hours SOUTH of home!)

We went there specifically because some of our party had been there- several times- and had great experiences every time. They seated us WAY in the back of the restaurant. (I had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs just to find my way back to the door! Just call me Hansel!) We were in our seats for 15 minutes before our drink order was taken. That should have been the big tipoff!

We had been there for about 45 minutes before our food order was taken. And we had been in our seats for…ready?…95 minutes before food was put before us! 95 minutes! Drinks got refilled..once. They were ALL empty when we left the table!

I had said I would pay. So I took the ticket to the front counter. For about 2 minutes, nobody even noticed I was there. Then, the manager (I think) came flying up, looking about as frazzled as one human being could look! “How was everything?” Based on his reaction to my response, I could tell that his question was right up there with, “How are you today?” It was one of those questions you ask not REALLY expecting an answer to!

“Well, the food was excellent…and the service was awful!” It was like in those movies when everything around you freezes in time. He looked at me with an uneven mixture of shock and disappointment. “Well, was it the food?” “No, as I said..the food was excellent.” “So was it that you had to wait too long or was the server not good or…?” I looked at him, nodded my head and said, “Yes.”

I went on to explain that we waited WAY too long for everything. The server acted as if we weren’t even there most of the time. So, to sum up…the service was awful! It then seemed clear that it wasn’t any real surprise to him. He could barely ring up my order because he was so flustered. After I paid, he got a gift card, added $10 to it and gave it to me for our troubles. When we got outside, I gave the gift card to our niece and her family. “How did you get this?” “I complained!”

I try really hard to have a strong sense of who the customer is. If someone ELSE is the customer, I try really hard to give them good customer service. If I’M the customer, I expect the reciprocal. It’s my experience that there is an awful lot of the mentality of retail business that translates pretty well to how to run a church and offer Christian hospitality. I think many churches and pastors would benefit from applying those principles to their day to day church life.

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

“Bless Yore Heart!”

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There is a comedian named Jon Reep (very funny, by the way!) who does a bit about how you can say ANYTHING to/about ANYONE…as long as you end the sentence with “…bless their heart!” Some examples would be: “That man is the biggest idiot on the planet…bless his heart!” “She is the fattest woman I’ve ever seen…bless her heart!” “That is the ugliest baby EVER…bless its heart!” And while we laugh at that…it’s TRUE! And we do it all the time! We talk about people…ESPECIALLY when their back is turned (literally and/or figuratively) …all the time, and we try to couch the bad things we say by adding “…bless their heart” or some other similar platitude.

As I have thought through this, another…similar…phrase comes to mind that hits a bit closer to home. That phrase is “…God love them!” You know what I mean- “I just can’t STAND to be around that person- he is SO annoying…God love him!” “Did you SEE that dress Mildred had on today? It was HIDEOUS…God love her!” “Our minister couldn’t preach his way out of a paper bag…God love him!”
The implication, when we use one of these “qualifiers”, is two-fold: 1. we don’t REALLY have much respect for our fellow humans, and 2. we think we are better than them! Now that may seem a bit…um…harsh…but if you really think it through- it’s true. And I can say that because, frighteningly human as I am< I catch myself saying those things sometimes! So I am NOT just casting stones at others- I’m out there getting hit by the rocks as well!
The interesting thing about all of this is that, at least with the 2 examples I’ve given, there is a fairly overt Christian undertone to them: “bless their heart” and “God love them”. So it’s almost like we hide behind the mantle of religion when we speak ill of others. And that’s a shame, because if we’re going to behave that way, we should at least have the decency to accept responsibility for it.
The truth of the matter is that, even though we often use them in sarcastic ways, those two statements are dead-on true. God DOES bless our hearts…and God DOES love us…warts and all! We are NOT Number One with a bullet on God’s Top Ten Hit Parade because we’re so smart, talented funny or good-looking (and speaking personally…thank goodness for that!); instead we are at the top of God’s “chart” because we are His- plain and simple. God loves us and blesses us because we are His children…literally. And we are ALL worthy of that love and blessing.
So…next time you catch yourself about to use one of these phrases in this capacity….stop! Think about what you’re REALLY saying and then change it to be a positive blessing- both on the person of whom you speak AND on yourself! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Votes Are In!

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I have been writing about the current sermon series I am doing- UPICKEM. And I have explained that each week, those in attendance receive a ballot with three choices on it- three Biblical characters from which they can choose. They cast their vote and the character with the most votes for the week wins!

I have also written lately- yesterday, to be exact!- about the overwhelming response Week I received. What I DIDN’T write yesterday was…who won for this coming Sunday! And, based on responses I have received in the past 48 hours, apparently that is information that folks are interested in. Or, as one reader/parishioner stated, “Inquiring minds want to know!” So, here we go!

The choices for this Sunday were The Stoning of Stephen, Joseph of Arimathea Visits Jesus and Mathias Replaces Judas Iscariot. We had 230 folks in attendance this past Sunday and out of those ballots here are the results:

The Stoning of Stephen received 41% of the vote

Joseph of Arimathea Visits Jesus received 34% of the vote and

Matthias Replaces Judas Iscariot received 25% of the vote.

SO…The Stoning of Stephen will be the topic this Sunday. Joseph of Arimathea, being Second Place, will slide down into a later ballot, to “try it again”!

This has been a truly fun exercise. It keeps me on my toes because there is only so much prep I can do before the week of the sermon. It forces me to deliver the sermon in a different way than “usual”. And, if Week I is any indication, it is engaging those in attendance in a different…and greater…way. I’ll keep you posted!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

What a RESPONSE!

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There has been an interesting phenomenon that has happened to me over the past couple of days. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I just started a new sermon series (“Y’all- we’re gonna start a brand new 37-week sermon series…it’s gonna be GREAT!”) that I am calling UPICKEM. The idea is simple- each week, the congregation is given a ballot with three options on it. The options are Bible characters. They vote on which one they want to hear about the next week. And the sermons are presented as monologues from those characters.

I just started that series this past Sunday. The congregation had the choices of Samson Gets a Haircut, Jacob Wrestles With God and Joshua Leads the People into the Promised Land. By 1%…ONE vote…they chose Samson.

So I presented his story AS him. I talked about how he was called by God. I shared that his was a miraculous birth. We talked about his two unhappy marriages and the troubles he experienced- many of them because of bad choices he made. And we looked at how, in the end, after he had lost everything, he was redeemed.

I sat on a stool. I walked around the sanctuary. I stood and talked. There were (intentionally) no costumes, no wigs, no great affectations. It was (again intentionally) NOT highly theatrical. It was presented as a guy stopping by to share his story.

Now…here’s the interesting phenomenon I mentioned earlier. I have received MORE responses from this sermon in the first 24 hours after it was delivered that ANY other sermon I have EVER delivered! EVER! No, don’t get me wrong. I get relatively positive comments from my preaching. But this…oh my! For whatever reason, this sermon, this approach, has really struck a nerve.

It will be interesting to see two things. 1. How the rest of the series is received. Will the novelty wear off? Will they continue to be so connected to the approach? Time will tell. 2. Will the response to this approach cause an overall change in how I preach moving forward? I have been toying, for quite some time, with moving completely away from manuscripts ands notes and work “off the cuff”. Not “don’t write a sermon”. Just “work with no notes”. Again…time will tell!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!