Check the Guilt at the Door

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I had a conversation with someone recently that got me to thinking about what it is that I think is important when it comes to being a pastor. The person hemmed and hawed a bit and then allowed as how they haven’t been coming to church “as much as they should”.

Instantly, two thoughts came to mind. The first thought was, “I didn’t say ANYTHING that should have prompted that.” No “Gosh, haven’t seen you lately!” No “Have you been out of town…for two months?!” No “You DO remember where the church IS…don’t you?!” And yet, “Sorry I haven’t been to church lately” came out of their mouth.

The second thought was this- guilt and/or shame are HORRIBLE motivators! They have been used for…well…as long as there have been people as ways to try and manipulate. And while they CAN force people to do things…sometimes…they are HORRIBLE motivators! And yet, we have all seen churches and pastors use them as methods designed to illicit the “proper” behavior from “unruly” members.

I, for one, simply don’t have a gear for that. I don’t want people to like me and want to hang around me simply because I guilt or shame them into it. So why in the WORLD would I want to shame them into a relationship with Jesus? The truth is- that’s no relationship at all.

Do I want people to come to church? Yes. Do I encourage people to come to church? You bet. Do I try and help people see the benefits of a stronger relationship with Christ? Every day and twice on Sunday. But the second…the SECOND…I am willing to try and make them feel guilty or ashamed…I have lost the whole point of what Jesus taught.

Think about the people who have had the most impact on you, spiritually. They didn’t chide you. They didn’t harass you. They made you feel welcome. They made you feel loved. They encouraged you to be all that God made you to be. We are called to love people…period. We’re called to meet them where they are. Leave the judgment to God.

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

The Pop-In

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I am a fan of the TV show Seinfeld. I will fully admit that there are times when it “pushes the envelope” shall we say. But for the most part, I find it a very funny, well-written show. If you are a fan, you know that there are a myriad of running gags throughout the run of that show. Frankly, I could go on and on about them…but I won’t! (“Oh, thank GOODNESS, Pastor! I thought I was going to have to jump over to YouTube and just not read you today!”)

But ONE of those running gags is about…The Pop-In. It comes up often throughout the show. It involves somebody dropping by unannounced. Elaine loves the pop-in. George loves the pop-in. Kramer LIVES for the pop-in. There is a LOT of pop-in on Seinfeld!

Last night, we had an AWESOME pop-in. It was, according to the calendar, Wednesday night. And, again according to the calendar, Wednesday nights at the church I currently serve are BUSY events! The evening starts with dinner at 5:15PM. Some weeks, I help with the dinner- this was a week when I didn’t. So I came over to the church (The LONG commute.,..from immediately next door!) about 4:50PM. My usual route is up through the Education Wing to the lobby. There, I make sure the doors are unlocked and all the light one. They were. Then it’s up half a flight of stairs to the Fellowship Café, where my Wednesday evening Bible Study meets at 6PM. The plan there is to again make sure all the lights are on, set my things for class down and then head downstairs to the dining room.

I came up the stairs, around the corner and into the Café. And there stood…my sister! Now, if that doesn’t seem amazing to you, then let me explain. She lives about 4-ish hours south of us. And so a pop-in just doesn’t happen..or so I thought! But…there she was! And you know how it is- you see someone entirely out of context and, for a moment, your brain simply is incapable of computing what you’re seeing. She said I cocked my head, like the dog does when I make that weird, high-pitched sound, scrunched up my face and then said, “What are YOU doing here?!”

Turns out, she was on her way to a seminar that is happening today. And one of her daughters said to her, “You know, Uncle Mark’s family doesn’t too far from where you’re going- why don’t you stop and see them?!” And so…she did! And it was great!

Since we were literally minutes from eating dinner, she stayed and ate with us. The 100 or so folks who gathered for dinner were incredibly gracious and my sister never met a stranger, so…! (On a side note, my last couple of sermons have featured stories that prove that my brother and I didn’t exactly get along when we were kids. More than one person asked, with my sister standing there, why they never hear stories about her. Each time, I just smiled and said, “Because WE liked each other!” My brother and I get along GREAT now…I would like to point out!)

After dinner, she stayed for my Bible Study class. We are working through the John Ortberg study called The Life You Always Wanted. The discussion was great. After class, my wife, our younger son and I spent a little more time visiting with her. Then, she had to head out.

Life takes us in so many directions. I have a sister who lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The sister who visited us and my brother both live in the St. Louis area. My wife’s sister lives in Southern California. And we live in northwestern Illinois. So the reality is that none of us get to see each other very much. You know- the best of intentions and all. But life seems to ALWAYS get in the way. So it was REALLY nice, even though it was for such a short time, to see my sister. So now, after last night, I can say, “I love the pop-in!”

Has life given you a room full of…horse manure? Then start looking for the pony!

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

Look For the Pony

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I have shared before in this space the quote from that great theologian John Denver, “Some days are diamonds; some days are stones.” And in don’t know about you, but for me…that sums it up pretty well, thank you! I mean, some days ARE diamonds- wondrous, sparkling jewels that are beautiful to behold. And some days ARE stones- hard, unforgiving, messy, smelly…you get the idea!

Now, I DO believe that Mr. Denver (Not his real name, by the way. Do you know what his real name was? Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. A perfectly good name, to be sure. But I understand why a guy who sang about places like West Virginia and Colorado might want a name like Denver over and against a name like Deutschendorf! Let’s be honest- Denver sold a LOT of records. I’m not as convinced that Deutschendorf would have rolled so trippingly off of the record buying public’s tongue!) was intentionally painting with a broad brush with his diamond/stone assessment. The truth is that a LOT of days are somewhere in between- cubic zirconia, perhaps.

But whether your day is diamond…or stone…or cubic zirconia, what the day IS isn’t nearly as important as how you respond to it. Why is that? Because, frankly, we have little to no control over what the day is like. Yesterday was sizing up to be a diamond. But as I write this, looking back over the day, cubic zirconia is the best I could do yesterday. Maybe even stone. That happens. Can’t so much about it.

So what DO we have control over? NOT MUCH! In fact, I would argue that the ONLY thing we really have any control over is how we respond to life. Day was great? Awesome! Thank God for it. Day was…not so great? That happens. Thank God for another day above ground.

People, circumstances, the world- none of it…NONE of it…can ruin your day, your week, your life unless you let them. They can dump on you all day, every day. But they CAN’T dictate the way you respond. Think about the story of the family that had identical twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed he couldn’t hear it. These boys were opposite in every way. One was an eternal optimist while the other a doom and gloom pessimist through and through. Interested in how identical twins develop, their dad decided to do an experiment. On their birthday, he loaded the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist’s room- he loaded with horse manure. Later, he went to check on them. When he got to the pessimist’s room, he found the boy sitting in the middle of all his new gifts…crying bitterly. “Why are you crying?” his dad asked. “Because now my friends will be jealous. And I’ll have to read all of these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff. I’ll constantly need batteries. And all these toys will eventually get broken.” The dad shook his head and ent to check on the other boy. Amazingly, he found the boy surrounded by horse manure…and dancing for joy! “What in the name of all that is holy are you so happy about?” The boy smiled even bigger and said, “With all this manure, there has GOT to be a pony in here somewhere!”

Has life given you a room full of…horse manure? Then start looking for the pony!

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

7 Years of Stick With Jesus

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I have been thinking about this blog recently. Do you know how it started? I had been reading about other people doing blogs and it sounded like something I might enjoy doing. I started looking into what other people were doing and, perhaps more importantly, HOW they were doing it. (I had, at that time, NO idea how to physically make a blog happen! I’ve learned a LOT since then!)

I then thought a lot about what my blog would look like. The ones I had checked out wrote when they were so inclined and had something specific to say. That seemed to often mean that postings were pretty hit and miss and impossible to predict. I know myself well enough to know that, if I leave it up to “when I get around to it”, this blog would have one post- the FIRST one!!

So I decided that the ONLY way this would work was if it was a daily blog. I understood what that meant, but committed to it anyway. (As it turns out, I really had NO idea what it meant!) OK- so it was going to be daily. But I realized that I simply couldn’t write 365 days a year about “theological stuff”- there would be no way to maintain that for very long. So…it became “a daily look at life as a shaved-headed, earring-wearing, rock-drumming United Methodist minister”. That way, it would always be about what was on my mind at the moment I sat down to write. Some days it would be more serious and theological and some days it would be…well…goofy!

My first blog post “hit the airwaves” on September 14, 2009. It was about why I have an earring! If you do the math, that means there have been 7 YEARS of blog posts. SEVEN YEARS! That comes out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,555 posts. (And that doesn’t count the daily Bible verse that I started posting a few years ago!)

Sundays have traditionally been the transcript from that week’s sermon. Wednesdays have, at times, been Bible Study Wednesday or Sunday NIGHT’S sermon. The Bible Studies simply take too much time and I am no longer writing a second weekly sermon for Sunday nights. So Wednesday is now…you know…Wednesday!

I have been intentional not to make third-party advertising a part of this website. I have had opportunities to add that as regular part of the site, but I have always felt that wasn’t what God had in store for Stick With Jesus. So it doesn’t make the money it could make…and I’m OK with that.

I want to thank you for reading Stick With Jesus. I also have a request- share it. When you see it posted on Facebook (3 times a day- 5AM, 1PM and 8PM- every day) hit “share”. Tell people about it. Invite them to check it out. In my mind, the more people who read it…the better!

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

Time Passages

Image result for time passages     Do you remember a singer named Al Stewart? Not ROD Stewart…AL Stewart. If you were actively listening to music in the mid to late 70’s you will remember a couple of his songs, even if you don’t remember his name. In late 1976, he released the song “Year of the Cat”. Recorded at eh legendary Abbey Road Studios, it reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March of 1977. But his biggest hit came in 1978, when he released “Time Passages”. It climbed all the way to #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.

That song- Time Passages- has been on the tip of my tongue a lot lately. We all know that life goes on and things change- it’s the way of the world. But there are some things that seem to mark the passage of time more than others. And, at least for me, one of those things is our sons growing up.

Our older son is 28. He is a successful human being in every measurable way. But most of all, he is an awesome person. (I’m partial, to be sure…but it’s STILL true!) Our younger son is 16 (Yes, we have a LOT of years between our kids! I will sometimes point at our older son and say, “First marriage.” My wife will tell me to stop it! I point out to her that he IS from my first marriage. Of course, so is our younger son, too!) He is a Junior in High School. Because of a rather late birthday, he just got his driver’s license in early August. And that, coupled with other things, have me very sentimental and singing…you guessed it…Time Passages.

This past weekend was a good example of that passage of time. It was Homecoming week at the High School and that meant, among other things, a home football game. The Homecoming theme was The Wizard of Oz. Therefore, the marching band, of which my son is a member, played songs from both the original movie and The Wiz remake. In one of those songs, there is a trumpet duet- a sort of “call and response” piece- based on the song Home. Our son and another student were chosen to play that part.

So there we are, proud parents that we are, beaming from our Bleacher Seats as our son is named over the PA system as one of the two soloists. Then, he and the other student walked out from among the band members, played their piece and then moved back into the group. At the end of the song, the announcer again named the two boys as soloists.To quote that great theologian Andy Griffith, “Proud! Proud! Proud!”

That shift from driving your kid everywhere to making sure they have their AAA card and telling them to be careful happens in the blink of an eye. The shift from “I think I might want to play the trumpet” to “I have a solo this Friday night at the game” happens just as quickly. But what I NEVER want to do is lament that change. I don’t want to be the parent who is dragged, kicking and screaming, into every new phase of my kid’s life.

Instead, I want to be the parent who celebrates those changes. I want to be the parent who marvels at what my sons are capable of. I want to be the parent who is delighted with every new revelation God has in the lives of my children. So while I am still OK with singing “Time Passages”, I also do it with the solid understanding that A. this is what we raise our kids to do and B/ God has a plan for my sons that is EVEN better than the one my wife and I have for them!

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

Living a Red Letter Life: Light the Darkness!

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Last week, I shared a story about a party my brother had and how, with the help of my buddy, a German Shepherd and a bowl of Fritos, I exacted my revenge! Well, as I thought through this week’s message, it dawned on me that a LOT of my childhood centered around NOT getting along with my brother and trying to find creative ways to exact my revenge! Here is yet another example!

I was probably 10 years old- that would make my brother 14. It was mid- to late summer. And I KNOW it was mid- to late summer because the asparagus had already had it’s short season and our asparagus patch had been allowed to go to seed for the year. If you have never seen that, the plants grown 4-5′ tall and look like fine, rather prickly bushes. Keep that in mind- it’ll be important later!

It was late in the day- getting dark. My brother and I were the only ones home. (That, all by itself, was usually a recipe for disaster!) He had made me mad. (We called that a day ending in “Y”!) He wouldn’t let me watch what I wanted to watch on TV. But he was, at that time, quite a bit bigger and stronger than me so there wasn’t much I could do about it physically. SO…I once again got creative!

He was in the Family Room, which at that time was on the main floor of our ranch-style home and at the opposite end of the house from the garage. The fuse box (No circuit breakers back then, mind you!) was in the garage. (You can already smell what the Rock is cookin’ here, can’t you?!) So I decided that, if I couldn’t watch what I wanted to watch, then neither could he! I went to the garage, opened the fuse box, figured out which fuse covered the room he was in…and unscrewed it, plunging his room into darkness!

The impact was immediate! With what seemed like not even a second’s hesitation, I could hear the thundering of feet, running up the hallway. My “basking” came to a rather abrupt ending! I ran, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, out the front door of the garage and across the yard. But being older and faster…he caught me…right by that aforementioned asparagus patch, ripped the fuse- which I was still clutching- out of my hand, picked me up and threw me into the “gone to seed” asparagus…with only a pair of shorts on! He then stomped back to the house to screw the fuse back in and light the darkness….while I writhed in pain!

Today, we continue our current 5-week sermon series- Living a Red Letter Life. Based solely on the words of Jesus, we are looking at 5 different sayings of Jesus to see what they mean for us…more than 2 millenium later. Jesus’ words are powerful and life-changing. What if we were to intentionally build our lives around those red letters?

The first week, we looked at the failure of the disciples and talked about the fact that Faith Moves Mountains! Last week, we talked about the essential nature of Reconciling Your Brother. Today’s Red Letter passage takes us right to the heart of the struggle between good and evil as we consider what it means to Light the Darkness. If you remember last week, I said that we were backing the Scripture Truck up a bit from week one- stepping backward in the story. And as part of the lead-up to last week’s Scripture, I said that Jesus had JUST taught about the Beatitudes- the “blessed are” statements- and then He moved on to the notion that we are salt and light. And it is that transitional piece- salt and light- we focus on today.

     Matthew 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the world. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Even though we’re focusing on light and darkness today, let’s take a moment to consider what salt has to do with the whole thing. Jesus says we’re the salt, but if we lose our “saltiness”, we’re of no use. A pastor friend of ours used to call our older son Salty Dog…but I somehow don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about! So what IS He talking about?

Well, salt, as we know, was used extensively for flavoring and preserving in the Ancient Near Eastern world. It was even used in small amounts as a fertilizer.

Strictly speaking salt can’t lose its saltiness; sodium chloride is a stable compound. But most salt in Jesus’ time and place came from evaporated salt water, which contained a lot of impurities. The actual salt would leach out, leaving behind an impure residue that was of minimal value at best.

When Jesus asks, “How can it be made salty again?”, He’s using a rhetorical tool. He KNOWS it can’t be restored. The point is that, if we are to act as a spiritual preservative in this fallen world, then we have to maintain our Christian flavor and impact…or we’re of no use to anyone.

OK- so we are the salt of the earth and, in order to maintain our effectiveness, we need to maintain our “saltiness”…got it! So maybe our older son being called Salty Dog isn’t so far off! But what about the whole “light of the world” thing? Let’s look at some truths about light.

Light is SO much more than we can see or perceive. In fact, we only see a tiny sliver of the entire spectrum. If the distance between New York and Los Angeles- which is about 2,500 miles- represented the entire light spectrum, the part we can see would only be about a inch long! That’s how much of the world we’re not seeing! If we could actually see the entire light spectrum, what we now call darkness would become blindingly bright.

Light is hard for us to see. At its core, light is invisible energy. So for us to see it, light has to pass THROUGH something- dust, smoke, water vapor- or bounce OFF of something- a tree, a hand, the moon- and then reflect back into our eyes. While we use electricity and incandescence, In Jesus’ day people used small clay lamps that burned olive oil drawn up by a wick. The lamp itself was just the conduit- the oil was the true “fuel” for the light.

And along with being hard to see, light also travels fast- very, very fast…around 186,000 miles per second. The sunlight that we see right now left the Sun 10 minutes ago. And yet, with all of those challenges, the human body is an amazing creation. Did you know that, on a dark night, the human eye can see a candle flame…from 30 miles away? 30 MILES.

In those Red Letters we read today, Jesus also talks about a “city on a hill” and how it can’t be hidden. What does that mean? Think about it- a town, gleaming in the sun…the Light…sitting high atop a hill, simply cannot be hidden. Even at night, the olive oil lamps of those living there would cast a warm glow over the surrounding area.

So what does all of those have to do with…us? Light? Dark? Cities on hills? Lamps? Salt? Salt and light are among THE most common things there are. Dime a dozen. To quote my Southern Illinois roots, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one of them. (And there’s no need to call the ASPCA- it’s just an expression. I LOVE animals!) And yet few things are more useful than salt and light. They are, each in their own way, foundational. We are common, basic, inherently flawed. And yet, God made us as His crowning achievement. And there is NOTHING more useful to Him in His quest to save all of His children than…His children. And that’s what we are- His children.

Since we have shared several interesting facts today, here’s another one. Are you familiar with bioluminescence? Think those fish that live at the deepest depths of the ocean who produce light to attract potential prey. THAT’S bioluminescence. Would you believe me if I told you that…us humans are bioluminescent? We are…seriously. The problem is that the light emitted by our bodies is 1,000 times weaker than our eyes can see. We have the light IN us…it’s just REALLY hard to see.

We are the clay pot that holds the olive oil and the wick. We are the conduit through which the saving grace of Jesus Christ flows. We are the reflected light of Jesus in the world. And when we try to hide our faith under a bushel basket, we’ve stopped following Him. It is ONLY when we willingly let Him shine THROUGH that the Light is more fully seen and experienced.

Here’s one last interesting fact to share today- darkness doesn’t exist. Again…seriously. Scientifically, the term “darkness” is very similar to the term “vacuum”: it describes the absence of something rather than the existence of something. Darkness, as such, doesn’t exist. It is, instead, the absence of something- Light. Therefore, darkness can’t drive darkness out; only Light can do that. And when the Light of Jesus Christ shines, it defeats the darkness, it washes away the shadows of sin and death.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News of everlasting life for a currently dying world. We should WANT  to be on the hill, shining, where everybody can see us…and more importantly connect with Jesus Christ. He came into the world- Emmanuel…God WITH us…to BE the Light. And to say He did a remarkable job would be a gross understatement. But when He ascended into the Heaven after the resurrection, to sit at the right hand of God, He made it CLEAR that He expected His followers…US…to carry on His work.

We are called to help bring the Light into the world. We are NOT the Light…we merely reflect it. And…that’s enough. We’re in Sales, NOT manufacturing or development. Our job is to get people to experience the Product…because once they do, He will change them…like He changed us. Our job is to be the light in the darkness. And it doesn’t take much- the human eye can see a candle…a CANDLE…from 30 miles away. So, take your candle…go light the world.

What Dreams May Come

dreams     I was going to be an actor. I knew that, at some level, from the time I was old enough to know better. I was ALWAYS putting on shows, doing magic tricks, playing drums…whatever…as long as it was in front of people…entertaining. When I was in Junior High, a group from the High School brought a play they were doing to our school and performed part of it in our gym. If I wasn’t smitten before…I sure was then! I couldn’t wait to get to High School so I could be in the plays. I got there…and promptly missed the auditions for the 1st show of the year! BUT…I was NOT to be defeated! I made sure I knew when the next auditions were. I tried out, and got cast…as 2 different characters, no less! I was walk-on #7 and walk-on #11! No lines, nothing to do but…walk on…and stand there. I don’t mean to brag, but I was good! (NOBODY stands and walks like me!!) From there, the roles got a bit bigger with every play. I NEVER missed a performance, 3 plays and a musical each year, my entire High School career…until the LAST one my SENIOR year! (Ouch!) I was…not cast AND I was NOT happy! But, I sucked it up and took the Stage Manager job (I ROCKED it hard, if I do say so myself!!)
Then, it was on to college. I played drums for all 5 “Mainstage” shows that year (everyone thought I was a music major!) in addition to acting in 2 other shows. I was cast more and more throughout college until I had both a co-starring role AND a title role my senior year.
Then I moved into the professional ranks, and that, of course, is tough! I did some live theater (including a starring role) as well some TV commercials. Then I got the chance to be the Business Manager of a theater in St. Louis. It was a steady gig, with decent pay and benefits, and it allowed me to continue to audition for acting jobs. So, I took it. And that began the slow drift away from my dream of acting. The job, while challenging, interesting and fun (I once got to write a check for $40,000 and deliver it to Jay Leno!), was demanding and really DIDN’T allow much time to pursue acting.
Meanwhile, I got married (to the most awesome woman in the world, thank you very much!) and got a house. Decent job IN THE BIZ (as “they say!), great wife, house…all was well. Then, the theater changed hands and the “new broom swept clean”! I was unemployed…with a house payment. I literally stumbled into the photography business, as a way to pay the bills, and ended up staying there 8+ years, climbing the corporate ladder to become an Area Manager, with the responsibility of 20 studios spread over 4 states. I was doing well, there was room for more advancement…but I was NOT satisfied in the least. I had strayed SO far from my dream…it was obvious I would never get back to it. That’s when God started working on me!
NEVER a religious sort, I started going to church just to appease my wife. And slowly, God started chipping away at my skeptical heart. After several years of trying HARD to avoid the call I clearly felt God placing on my life, I finally relented…just so He’d leave me alone!! And once I made that commitment…amazing things started to happen. My home church volunteered to pay my tuition. As I’ve shared before, a church I had NO connection to let us use a house they owned…free of charge! AND…God showed me ways to use the gifts and graces for performance I had. I began to play drums at church- which I have continued to this day! I began to introduce creative approaches to the worship services. I wrote and directed and performed in an original Classic Rock musical based on the life of Jesus. Let’s see- acting, writing, directing, playing drums, performing magic, juggling, speaking in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis…this is starting to sound A LOT like what my dream was! That’s when it hit me- God had been preparing me all that time for just such a time as this. The gifts and graces I honed in college theater WERE to be used- just not in the venue I imagined. I get to do ALL that AND serve God as a pastor at the same time. How blessed is that?!
Do you ever feel you have given up on your dreams? Maybe you, like me, just kept beating your head against the wall, trying to pursue those dreams, until finally you said, “Enough is enough!” and chucked it all, only to “settle” for something that feeds the family…but NOT the soul. I’m here to say, “Don’t give up.” Maybe God has a plan for you to pursue those dreams in a way you never even imagined. Maybe God has GREAT things in store for you…the timing just isn’t quite right yet. Pray about it. Ask God to reveal to you the plans He has. It may be revealed in a flash…or it may take some time. Be patient. I didn’t begin my career as a minister until I was 35 years old. God is NOT finished with you yet. hang in there- better days are ahead!
Thanks for stopping by today. I pray you have a blessed day. Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!