Rise of the Machines

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I have mentioned before- 20 years in the ministry. That means we started in 1997. It means I was 36 years old when we started. I means I had already lived a LOT of life before we started. It means that the decade of my 40’s knew nothing other than ministry. It also means that a whole LOT of things that I deal with regularly have changed a whole LOT in those 20 years.

And one of the things that has changed greatly is technology…and it’s impact on ministry. In seminary, 1997-2000, basically NO ONE had a laptop. Basically NO ONE had a cell phone. The biggest “tech” I had in seminary was a micro cassette recorder that I used to record lectures.

The first church we served, which is now a mega church with multiple locations, weekly attendance measured in thousands and the highest of tech, had NO tech when we got there. In fact, when we added “Contemporary Worship” a couple of years in, the lyrics were projected with an…ready?…overhead projector! No foolin’! Our Visitation Pastor (arguably the finest human being I have ever known!) stood next to it with transparencies, changing them as quickly as he could between verses!

Fast forward to the second church we served. About a year in, which would have ben 8 years into the ministry, the “Technology Team” was ordering me a new desktop computer for my office. They showed me a spec sheet on it, and the first thing I noticed was…NO modem! NO modem! In case you’re unsure, that means NO way to get on the internet! When I questioned them about that, the response was a simple, “We didn’t think you would have any reason to get on the internet!”

Fast forward once more- to now. Again, 20 years later. EVERYBODY has a cell phone. And my cell phone has more computing power than the lunar module from the Apollo moon landing. Desktop computer? I don’t think so. Laptop at work. Laptop at home. iPad. Apple watch. iPod for home. iPod for church. Projectors. Computers. Sound boards. Sound systems. Digital music. Facebook. Twitter. Livestreaming worship. Websites. Bible apps. Mobile apps for the church. Electronic giving. The list goes on…and on…and on…

I will be the first to admit- I love technology. It makes sense to me and I enjoy it. But I also see it as an incredibly valuable tool in the current day and age. Being able to call or text the entire congregation at once. Being able to Facebook message people. Being able to broadcast the sermon…live…on Sundays. They ways that technology can positively impact ministry are nearly limitless.

And yet…it scares people. Some folks don’t trust the rise of technology in church. And I get that. But there’s the deal…MY deal- the message HAS to stay true. Our foundation MUST remain rock-solid. BUT…it if DOES, then the delivery system for that message should be as fluid as the times dictate. Guitar on Silent Night the first time it was heard- Christmas, 1818? Why not? iPod playing digital music during Communion so that everyone, musicians and tech folks included, can stop what they’re doing and partake? You bet!

Be open to the changes that come your way. The reality is this- they’re coming…regardless. Just keep the message at the core solid. Everything else will work itself out!

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

Art Vs. Science

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I have been in the ministry for 20 years. I am 55 years old. If you do the math, that means I have been a pastor- “Rev. Mark”- for about 36% of my life. Now, I have been a drummer for about 82% of my life. (Seriously!) I have been a performer/actor about 73% of my life. I have known my wife that same 73% and we have been married for 56%. But when it comes to “jobs”, I have been doing this gig longer than…anything.

Before the ministry, I did…well…a WIDE variety of things. But one thing I brought to the table in ministry was a relatively strong pedigree in management/leadership. And while managing/leading a church is different than doing that ANYWHERE else, the experience has been valuable.

And that experience that I brought in with me, which has been honed, toned and tweaked substantially over the past 20 years, has taught me one thing. (OK- it’s taught me more things than I could COUNT, but ONE thing that I’m focusing on today.) And that is this- management/ leadership/ministry (call it what you will) is far more art than science.

When I was an undergrad, earning a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in Acting, I created the first (FIRST!) minor in Theater Management at the university I attended. Even though I was convinced that I was going to be a successful actor, I understood that having something to fall back on would NOT be a bad idea. So I took accounting classes. I took business classes. I took management classes. And I have been given several opportunities, in several venues, to put that train into practice.

I got into what nearly became a knock-down/drag-out with a seminary professor when I had the audacity to say that what we were doing in the classroom was theory and when we got to USE that theory “out there”, that was the act of putting it into practice. Theory in HERE, practice out THERE! This particular professor was HORRIBLY offended (And, I would argue, more than a little threatened!) that what he was doing was theory. (But frankly, isn’t that what teachers do? And isn’t that step essential to the larger process? I mean, how can I put knowledge into practice…if I don’t have any?!)

And as I think through where that whole art vs. science awareness and balance come from, it seems obvious to me that it comes from God. God gives us unique gifts- you have gifts and graces that I can only dream of. And then He gives us one more thing that makes it all come together- discernment. Yes, there are overarching themes, approaches. But that God-given discernment is what helps us tailor the gifts we were given to the unique circumstance in which we happen to find ourselves.

Life is not a cookie-cutter existence. Every unique situation requires…deserves…a unique approach, based on the gifts and discernment that are God-given. And you deserve to GIVE each circumstance that effort. The way to more fully become who God made you to be is to more fully use the unique gifts and graces He gave you to their fullest.

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 GREAT Day!

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Man, what a GREAT first Sunday in Advent! Advent, by the way, is the season that leads to Christmas- a time of waiting and preparation. It starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. And since Christmas is ON a Sunday this year, yesterday was THAT day!

The day began at the 8AM worship service. (Honestly, the day began WAY before that, but you simply aren’t interested in hearing about shaving, taking the dogs out and making coffee!) That service included the lighting of the first Advent Candle, some great music including Christmas carols, the first week of our Advent Sermon series- A Very Disney Christmas- and the unveiling of our new Reverse Advent Calendar. (More on that tomorrow!)

Next, it was time for the 9:15AM worship service. Again, lighting the Advent Candle. Again, great music including Christmas carols. Again, A Very Disney Christmas. Again, the Reverse Advent Calendar. (Did I mention- more to come tomorrow?) And also…Communion. (It’s a weekly feature of our Rock and Worship Service.)

Then, on to the 10:15AM worship service. Advent candle. Music- Christmas carols. Disney Christmas. Reverse Advent. AND…new members. Two of the them, to be exact. And as well pulled up two more chairs (and a high chair!) around our ever-expanding Table of Grace, it brings the number of new members we have brought in this year to…drum roll, please…36. 36 new members at the end of November. By comparison, more than 50% of the United Methodist churches in our conference won’t have one new member this year. 36 is good stuff!

When the morning dust had settled, we JUST missed 300 in attendance- 296. Again…good stuff!

Then, at 4PM, we had our annual Hanging of the Greens event. Decorating. Crafts. Activities. Dinner. The reading of the Christmas story and the singing of carols. And for that event, after a great morning and with crummy weather, we fed 110 people! Again, good stuff!

So, what about this Reverse Advent Calendar? Well…tune in tomorrow to hear about this awesome new ministry we are running up the flagpole this Advent season!

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

A Very Disney Christmas: You Can Fly!

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Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel.

Growing up, Sunday television was dominated by Walt Disney. Starting in 1961- the year I was born, which makes me either young or old, depending on your perspective- it was called Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, focusing on NBC’s ability to broadcast in color. That version continued until 1968, when it became The Wonderful World of Disney, because color TV wasn’t any big deal anymore.

Every Sunday evening as I grew up, “Uncle Walt” came right into my family room and introduced a story that not only entertained me- it helped me better understand the world in some way. From animated classics featuring Mickey, Goofy and the rest through live-action movies like The Parent Trap all the way to nature-oriented programming like True-Life Adventures, Uncle Walt was “must-see” television when I was a kid.

Today is the first day of Advent- the 4-Sunday season leading up to Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. We wait for the coming of Emmanuel- God with us- and we prepare for that coming while we wait. Our District Superintendent says that we only have ONE story…and we have to find 52 different ways to tell it. And that is NEVER more true than during the Christmas season. The Christmas story is well-known, to say the least. So well known, in fact, that it easily becomes like an old shoe- comfortable but not terribly functional.

So with that in mind, this Christmas season we’re going to take a nostalgic look BACK that will help us take a dramatic look forward. Each week of the Christmas season, our Advent sermon series- A Very Disney Christmas- will meld together three somewhat unusual pieces: 1. a portion of the Christmas story as found in the Gospels, 2. Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah and, of all things, 3. a classic Disney song that helps inform the theme for the day.

Today, we gather up Sherman and Mr. Peabody, hop in the Way Back Machine and head all the way back to February 5, 1953- the day that the animated classic Peter Pan was released. We will look at the song You Can Fly and focus on the fact that being open to God’s new plan can bring about great spiritual growth.

If you remember the story, Peter shows up at the home of the Darlings. He encourages Wendy, Michael and John to go with him back to Neverland. But first, he has to convince them that they can, in fact, fly.

Think of a wonderful thought. Think of the happiest things. There’s a Never Land waiting for you, where all your happy dreams come true. When there’s a smile in your heart, there’s no better time to start. Think of all the joy you’ll find
when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye. You can fly!”

Now, I will be the first to admit that, on the surface, that is simply a collection of feel-good thoughts that rank right up there with kittens and moonbeams. But if you dig beneath the surface, you find some pretty profound thoughts. Positive attitude. Focusing on the right things. Keeping joy in your heart. Looking toward the promise of a better place waiting for you. If you can do all of those things…you can fly. Let’s look at today’s Gospel reading.

     Matthew 1:18-25 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Advent is all about waiting. Traditional Jewish marriage in Jesus’ time was also about waiting. The marriage customs of the Ancient Near Eastern world included a one-year waiting period, the engagement, which preceded the actual wedding ceremony. It was intended to test the faithfulness and purity of the bride. If she remained pure, the groom would lead her back to his house at the culmination of that year to live as husband and wife. If, however, she became pregnant, the marriage could…would…be annulled. Mary and Joseph were in the middle of that one-year waiting period when the unthinkable happened- Mary became pregnant.

Put yourself in Joseph’s position. He has worked HARD preparing to support his new bride. He loves Mary, and he THINKS she loves him, too. That is, until the news comes…she’s pregnant. Heart-broken, he wonders how to respond. He imagines all sorts of responses. “How could you do this to me? Who’s the father? Tell me his name!” Should he humiliate her with a messy public divorce? Should he follow the law and turn her over to death by stoning?

And then, there’s her explanation- hard to believe at best. Joseph is between a rock and a hard place. He has some hard choices to make. But he chooses the path of mercy. And notice- he does that BEFORE he is convinced of the truth. In the midst of devastation and shame, Joseph chooses the path of mercy. No malice. No humiliation. No accusations. Just tenderness. The Nazareth rumor mill is in full

swing, but Joseph isn’t going to toss Mary under the proverbial bus, no matter what she may or may not have done. He chooses to divorce her quietly, instead of having to go before a judge.

And then…the angel comes, in a dream. And God’s incredible, scandalous, world-altering plan is fully revealed to Joseph. The angel assures Joseph it’s OK- all is well, Mary’s baby isn’t of man, but of God. And then…it’s over- the angel is gone. As soon as Joseph wakes up, he obeys. He violates all the customs of his day, bypasses the one-year waiting period, immediately takes Mary into his home, and begins to care for her as they prepare for the birth.

There are 4 parts to this story, and each part has something to say about how we respond to hard times and difficult choices. The story begins with Great Expectations. “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph”. It was the best of times. Then, quickly, it switches to Great Disappointment. “But before they came together, she was found to be with child.” We don’t know when or how Joseph found out, but he knew. It was the worst of times. It was hard times. And he was deeply disappointed.

Then the story shifts to Great Joy. “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph’s joy knows no bounds. Life is real. Life is earnest. Once Joseph understands the truth, the story moves to Great Obedience.

Busybodies lined every street corner of Nazareth, all of them watching Mary and Joseph walk by. Mary was 7 months pregnant…and they could do the math. Joseph tried to explain, “An angel told me the baby is God’s.” “Sure, Joseph- I believe you! And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you, too!” After a while, he stopped trying to convince them. But despite what anybody thought or said, Joseph remained obedient to God. He flew.

A person’s true character comes out under stressful times, which can either be moments of growth or devastation…or both. In this story, we see Joseph’s true character. He counts the cost of discipleship, faces the hard times, and makes the difficult choice. What will it cost him to respond to Mary in a Godly way? Joseph thought he would marry the girl, settle down and live the quiet life of a carpenter in Nazareth. He was hardly seeking greatness– he surely didn’t imagine we’d be sitting here 2000 years later talking about him. But he gave up HIS plans to instead become the earthly father of the Son of God! Joseph may have given up a

lot, but look how richly he was blessed! He was flying.

Sometimes we have to decide whether or not we’re ready and willing to pay the price– to live with the consequences of the choices we make. If we want to live Godly lives, we have to be able to cooperate with God’s plans and purposes. Are we willing to settle for second best only because we’re unwilling to submit to God and immerse ourselves in THE best? Or are we ready to fly?

What do you live for? Is it worthwhile? There are a LOT of folks out there who aren’t really living—they’re simply existing. Punching the clock, literally and/or figuratively, going through the motions, limping through their days, waiting. Waiting for Friday. Waiting for the weekend. Waiting for vacation. Waiting for retirement. That’s NOT living. That’s treading water. God made us for SO much more than treading water.

You CAN make a difference. And you don’t have to go anywhere to do it. You don’t have to quit your job. You can make a difference right here and you have PLENTY of non-work time in which to do it. It all comes down to what you do with your time, what’s important to you. Your church has SO many ministries in place that have LOTS of room for more people to dive in, rolls up their sleeves and get busy. And on top of that, there is LOTS of room for even more ministries. What new idea has God planted in your heart?

There is ONE thing holding us back from being a major force for God in Northern Illinois. It’ not money. It’s not this building. It’s manpower. What’s keeping you from stepping out in faith and fully committing yourself to being involved in what God is doing here? What is it that holds you back from more than Sunday morning attendance? What is it that you are doing that is more important than what God has in mind for you? I can only speak for myself, but the second…the SECOND…I admitted that NOTHING I was doing was more important than what God had for me…my life…and my joy…took off in directions I could have never imagined.

Do you make a real difference in the world? If the answer is, “No”, then the next question is, “Do you WANT to?” Do you want a life that matters? Do you want to help change the world? Then take Joseph’s lead and be a part of something greater than you. Take a leap of faith and see if you can fly.

Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

The Stockings Are Hung

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My family is big on “Don’t blow right past Thanksgiving and jump straight to Christmas”. So we look VERY forward to Turkey Day. We plan the menu. (My wife, awesome human being that she is, asks each person who is coming what one thing THEY want…and then we make it! One of the COUNTLESS reasons I am completely head over heels about the woman!) This year, the menu was turkey (a 20 lb. bird!), spiral-cut ham, mashed potatoes (made from potatoes grown in the garden of one of our parishioners!), gravy, stuffing (complete with celery, spicy sausage, apples and craisins), fresh green beans, roasted broccoli, whole cranberry sauce, cranberry salad, pretzel/Jello salad and LOTS of Hawaiian sweet rolls! Oh yeah, and pumpkin pie, pecan pie and cherry pie!

We did a decent amount of the “prep work” on Tuesday and then cooked in earnest (actually in the kitchen!) on Wednesday. There were 6 of us gathered around the table and we had a great time. We ate, we talked AND…we didn’t fall asleep afterward! The leftovers have been featured at every meal since!

But as of waking up yesterday…Thanksgiving is over. Let the (Christmas) battle begin! Our older son is home from Chicago right now. So we took advantage of that fact to do most of the Christmas decorating. (“Most” because we do a live, cut tree every year and it’s simply too early for that!) But we dragged out the decorations and went to town. (Our Christmas decorations are housed in three large plastic storage tubs and two large, rolling wooden that were custom built to house the drumset I had at the time.)

The stocking were hung. (NOT over the chimney with care…because there’s no fireplace in this parsonage!) All of the decorations we have accumulated over the years were put around the house. Our two sons hung icicle lights from the front porch roof while I put two small artificial trees out on that same porch. And as an added bonus, a couple of guys from church put the church Nativity set up in our yard. (It’s pretty big, with characters that stand about 3′ tall, and sits on a trailer.)

My family thoroughly enjoys things like Thanksgiving and decorating or Christmas. Certainly the event itself is a good time. But we also, and more importantly, genuinely enjoy being together. We talk…a LOT. We laugh…a LOT. We act goofy. We kid each other. We just enjoy our time together. No guilt about when we CAN’T be together, just joy about when we CAN! I am proud of my wife and my sons. I am honored to be a part of their lives. And they are everything to me! 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!

BLACK FRIDAY!

blackfridaykarloff Today is (cue the ominous music)…Black Friday! Some people think this is the BEST day of the year! Others (i.e. ME) would rather have a pointy stick jabbed at them than to have to go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. (Although, if I’m honest, I don’t REALLY like to shop the other 364 days of the year either!) Here are some interesting tidbits about this phenomenon known as Black Friday:

 
     It’s called “Black Friday” because it traditionally marks the day retailers move into profitability for the year — from “in the red” to “in the black.” (It’s also used derisively by many retailers to mark a very long day of impatient shoppers, boorish behavior and adults elbowing one another to get a cheap video-game system!)

     Everyone thinks that Black Friday is the biggest money-making shopping day of the year…but that’s not necessarily the case. It is almost always the biggest shopping traffic day of the year, but it doesn’t always generate the most sales. Often, the most sales are generated on the last Saturday before Christmas. 
 
     55% of all Americans will shop today- either in person or on line. And 66% of Black Friday shoppers say they are actually shopping for themselves the day after Thanksgiving, according to Consumer Reports. Last year, 22 million people visited a Walmart on Black Friday. By comparison, 18.5 million people visited Disney World last year.
 
45% of ALL consumers will shop on Black Friday.
 
Top selling Black Friday items at Target last year were:
1. Apple iPads
2. Gaming consoles
3. TVs
4. DVDs
5. A 3′ stuffed teddy bear, priced at $10 (a surprise hit)
6. Toys like LEGO, Barbie, Disney Princess and Star Wars
7. Beats Solo 2 headphones
35% of American adults start their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving.
 
Last year, a whopping $595 MILLION was spent on Black Friday alone, not to mention the $318 million spent the day before.
 
Roughly 172 million people will visit retail stores and websites over this weekend. 
 
Shoppers will spend an average of about $300 this weekend.
 
More and more shoppers will forgo the lines today and do their shopping in cyberspace.
 
9 people actually lost their lives in Black Friday-related stampedes last year.
 
     Are you going out to shop today? Perhaps you’ve already BEEN out. If you ARE going, please be safe. If you already went- glad you made it back safely! I pray you have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving weekend!

What I’m Thankful For: Part 3

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Tuesday began three straight days of “what I’m thankful for”. That first day, I talked about the folks who have made up the three congregations we have served over our 20 years in the ministry. Yesterday, I moved on to the three people who are closest to me in the world- my wife and two sons. Today, I bring this little trilogy to a close with the thing I am MOST thankful for- God.

I grew up as what I like to call “a Godless heathen”! We were not church goers. We tried, but it didn’t “take”. On the one hand, we weren’t totally horrible people. We didn’t go out and kick puppies. We didn’t knock down old ladies in the crosswalk and we didn’t knock OVER banks. But faith was not something we were terribly connected to. In fact, it was pretty easy to laugh at the “Bible thumpers” who always wanted to tell us about “Jee-zuz”!

All that started to change when I was going to get married. There was this beautiful girl that I wanted to marry. And she wanted me to come to church with her so that I could get to know the ministry brfore he performed our wedding. Little did I know her nefarious plan!

So I started going. We got married. And our involvement in the church started to ramp up. Teach a Sunday School class. Read Scripture. Lead a prayer. Lead a Youth Group. Be the Sunday School superintendent. The list just grew. One day, we woke up and realized that we were HEAVILY involved.

And then God started working on me. Well, at first it was “working”. But as time when on, “working” became “prodding”. And then “prodding” became “shoving”. And finally, “shoving” became “hammering”. That went on for quite some time before I finally gave in. I did NOT “accept a call”, I gave in so that He would stop hammering. And it was the best decision I have ever made!

People say, “Well, shouldn’t your family be first? How can you follow God properly if your not first taking care of your family?” My response is, “How can I properly take care of my family if I’m not first following God?” I am NOT the same person I once was…because of God. I am NOT the person I am called to be…yet…but I’m a WHOLE lot closer than I once was…because of God. God not only changed me…He saved me. Literally. I would not only not be where I am today without Him, I am relatively certain I wouldn’t be alive. And I certainly wouldn’t have this awesome family- they are a true gift from God.

So, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the congregations that we have been blessed to serve. I am thankful for my family. And I am thankful for th God of Creation Who loves me enough to NOT leave me where He found me!

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