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!

What I’m Thankful For: Part 2

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Yesterday began three straight days of “what I’m thankful for”. Yesterday, I talked about the folks who have made up the three congregations we have served over our 20 years in the ministry. Today, I move on to the three people who are closest to me in the world- my wife and two sons.

Our older son is 28 years old. He lives in Chicago and has a demanding job with a large ot-for-profit company. He is frighteningly smart. He is a very talented writer. And he is one of the best guitarists I have had the pleasure to work with. In addition, he has an incredibly kind heart. He is very aware of any injustice and is very interested in doing what he can to right that injustice. He has a deep, abiding love for people. My wife and I have felt for a LONG time that God has given him the gifts and graces for ministry. He can’t think of a worse idea…and I understand that!

Our younger son is 16 and a Junior in High School. He is a trumpet player in the Jazz Band, marching Band, Concert Band, Pep Band and Community Band. (He plays a LOT of trumpet!) He is also a vital part of the Scholastic Bowl team, having served as the captain for several of the now seven years he has been involved. (He got to start early!) He is one of the most level-headed people I know. He is easy-going and loves kids and animals. He has a great heart for people and is very caring. He is incredibly bright and quick-witted.

And then…there is their mother. I met her on a hayride in October of 1976. We became friends over the next few months. Our first date was her 16th birthday in April of 1977. I was smitten right off the bat. (I was the first one to say, “I love you!” I knew a good thing when I saw it!) We married in 1985. So, if you have done your math, we have been married for 31 years, dated (most of) 39 years and known each other for 40 years. That’s amazing!

She is the most fascinating person I have ever known. After 40 years, we still never run out of things to talk about. She has stood by me when most people would have given up. She has weathered more changes in life (many related to the ministry) than most people even dream about. She is the best mother…ever. And she is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Today (and every day), I am thankful for my family. Don’t misunderstand- I am thankful for my WHOLE family…parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews- the whole nine yards. But it all is predicated on my thankfulness, my love for these three people. I can’t imagine what I did to be SO blessed with them, but I pray that, whatever it is…I keep doing it!

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

What I’m Thankful For: Part 1

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Today starts three straight days of “what I’m thankful for”. (Or, for all of you English teachers out there- “for what I am thankful”! There is an English teacher who is a member of the church we currently serve and when I mentioned one day about not ending a sentence with a preposition, she looked at me, grinned and said, “Yeah…what’s that about?!”) A friend of mine recently threw out a challenge- don’t be in such a hurry to get to Christmas that you miss the thankfulness of the closest holiday. So I will spend the next three days in this space sharing about some things for which I am thankful!

Today, I am thankful for the folks who have made up the three congregations we have served in our 20 years in the ministry. (Technically, we are IN our 20th year. The United Methodist Church counts the year you are IN as the number of years of service.)

It all began at a church in the St. Louis area- Illinois side of the river. After a lifetime of living in that general area, we were appointed to a church there as well. We were there for 7 years- 3 as a half-timer and 4 full-time. My title the entire 7 years was Associate Pastor, but the truth was that, for the first 4 years, I was “the Youth Guy”. My main role was youth and children’s ministries. Then, starting in Year 5, I moved into a true Associate Pastor role.

That church loved us as we found our “sea legs” in the ministry. They were generous with my pay during the “half-time” years, as I went to seminary full-time and served…more than half-time. They remodeled the parsonage we moved into ahead of that move, gutting and redoing the kitchen, new carpet, new window treatments…it was great!

Then, in 2004, we were moved to a church in central Illinois- Champaign County. The week we moved went like this- Monday, we tried to finish packing. Tuesday, my mom died after a brief, intense struggle with cancer. Wednesday, the truck came to load our stuff. Thursday, we drove to Southern Missouri while our stuff drove north to be unloaded by gracious people we didn’t even yet know. Friday, I performed my mom’s funeral. Saturday, we drove from Southern Missouri to Central Illinois, stopping in Southern Illinois to get our dog and our other car. Sunday, we collapsed in our new parsonage and tried to catch our breath. And Monday…I started work at the new church!

They were used to a certain “type” of United Methodist minister…and I am RARELY a typical UM minister! We moved from a busy, growing, upwardly mobile urban area near a major city to a rural community surrounded by cornfields. So it was an adjustment for them…and us. But they stretched…and we stretched…and some great ministry happened during our 8 years there.

Then, in 2012, we got the call…”The Bishop has discerned a new call for you.” We were moving north again- this time to a community just south of the Quad Cities, along the border between Illinois and Iowa. So, for those of you keeping score at home, that’s Illinois just across the border from Missouri to Illinois just across the border from Indiana to Illinois just across the border from Iowa! Apparently, we are always ready to escape across the border if necessary!

This congregation welcomed us with such open arms that they spent a BOATLOAD of money to make the parsonage handicapped accessible for my wife’s parents, who lived with us. They also saw us through the frightening time of the golf ball-sized tumor in my head. They walked every step of that journey with us. They even approved, without batting an eye, what turned out to 6 full weeks off- PAID- while I recovered from surgery. In fact, they kept the church going- without any interim clergy- so well while I was out that I’m not sure they even realized I had been gone!!

Today, I am thankful for the folks who have made up the congregations we have served. That number would be somewhere north of 1,000, and I am grateful for every one of them. God doesn’t call me to DO ministry- He calls me to equip others to do ministry. And it has been a joy to do that!

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

And We’re Live!

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We have officially entered the 21st Century! The church I currently serve, that is- not me! Let me explain! First, I have a passionate, abiding love of music. And I was looking through the top 100 hits from each year several months ago. It dawned on me that my knowledge of popular music came to a sudden, grinding halt in 1988. Not 1987. Not 1989. 1988. I thought that was odd. That is, until my wife pointed out to me that we became parents in…1988! Ah, yes! It all becomes clear now! So. While Ronnie Millsap might be lost in the 50’s tonight, I am…at some level…stuck in 1988!

But the church I currently serve has busted through the end of the 20th Century and we are firmly planted in the 21st! Our website becomes a bit more “high tech” every week. We use a decent amount of “tech” in worship- including weekly “in-house”produced anouncement videos. But we had not been successful in “livestreaming”- having part or all of worship available live on the internet. And that was something that I wanted to have happen. But it has been a challenge. Until, that is, now.

You probably know that Facebook started offering live broadcasting a while back. With almost no effort at all, you could be broadcasting live video on your Facebook page. So we recently jumped into the stream…the live stream, that is! We started, a week ago yesterday, livestreaming the sermon from our 8AM service. We do three morning services- 8AM, 9:15AM and 10:30AM and they all get the same sermon. But for a variety of reasons, streaming the 8AM version is the best choice. Last week’s “maiden voyage” garnered 500 views over the course of the week. We had NO idea what to expect, but found that a great start!

I fully understand that there are lots of folks who see Facebook as a waste of time. I get that. It is painfully easy to spend WAY too much time trolling through the posts. But as a pastor in the rapidly changing climate of the 21st Century, I find Facebook to be a great ministry tool. We use it to post uplifting thoughts. We use it to promote ministries that we are in the midst of. We use it as a form of communication. And now, we use it to reach more people with the weekly sermon.

We already have former church members who have moved away that are “worshiping” with us. We have current members who, because of travel or health, can’t actually be in the building but can still interact with the sermon. And we have folks who really have no true connection to the church at all who are also hearing God’s word. AND…all it costs us is the use of our Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries’ iPhone and a tripod. A pretty cost-effective way to reach hundreds of people a week! Good stuff!

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

Glory Days: God Fights For You

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Fred walked into the living room and said to his mom, “I’m not going to school today.” His mom asked, “Why?” Fred responded, “The teachers bully me. The janitor picks on me. And the other boys want to fight with me.” “Well, you’re going to school.” “No I’m not.” “Yes you are!” “Why should I? Give me one good reason!” “I’ll do better than that- I’ll give you TWO good reasons. One- you’re 35 years old and two…you’re the principal!”

Today, we come to the end of our current sermon series- Glory Days. Based on the book by Max Lucado, we have focused on a concept he calls living your Promised Land life…now. When we face challenges that are bigger than we can handle, a GREAT place to go for hope and inspiration is the Old Testament story of Joshua. So we’re walking through that book, focusing on how Joshua led the Hebrews out of the wilderness and into the land of Canaan- the Promised Land.

The first week, we focused on WHEN the Glory Days are…and we stated that they are NOW! Week two, we looked at the fact that, since they ARE now, we have a responsibility to accept our inheritance. Week three, we moved forward, right to the walls themselves. We face our fears as we Circled Jericho. Week four, we stepped further into the story and looked at the impact that talking to God can have as we considered Audacious Prayers. Last week, we came within a week of wrapping this series up as we stated that, in a world where trust is an endangered species, we need to put our trust in God. We need to be sure we offer up No Falling Words. Today, we arrive at the end of the journey as we hold fast to the fact that God Fights For You.

The history of the Hebrew people has unfolded- from captives in Egypt to victory in the Promised Land. And now, at the end of Joshua’s story, at the end of our series, we go back to where it all began. Today’s Scripture comes from the very beginning of Joshua’s book- everything old is new again!

Joshua 1:5-9 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law My servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

We’ve all seen those t-shirts- you wear them and stand next to someone. The t-shirt has an arrow that points to the person next to you and it says…”I’m with stupid!” We wear a t-shirt when we stand next to Jesus, as well. However, THIS t-shirt says, “I’m with…HIM!” When we feel pressured to stray from being the person God has called you to be, all you need to do is say, “I’m with Him!”

We don’t walk alone. We are not unprotected. We are not helpless victims.
When we consistently walk alongside Jesus, we learn that He watches over us, protects us and, when necessary, fights for us. God doesn’t just WANT you to live a Promised Land life- He fights for you so that you can. Joshua faced big enemies. We do, too. God fought for Joshua and the Hebrews…and He fights for us, too.

He’ll surround you. He’ll be present with you. He’ll fight for you. He promises that He’ll chase away your fears, your negative thoughts, your guilt and despair.

We are never alone. We don’t have to be helpless victims of life. Sure, we might be weak in our own strength, but God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend. When we face challenges and attacks, we can confidently know that God is our defender. He’s ready and willing to fight on our behalf. And when you are willing to actually believe that- to fully embrace it- you’re able to walk through life with a bold, new confidence because God’s power brings a with it a peace that passes all understanding.

What fears are you facing today? What have you tried to do…on your own…to protect yourself feel more secure? How’s that working? The Good News of the Bible is NOT that we fight for God…but that God fights for us. Here’s what we have to do- say “No” to wilderness living and instead say “Yes” to Promised Land living- embrace the Glory Days. The One Who made you is always with you. He will never leave or forsake you. Our inheritance as Christians is a rich one: more victory than defeat, more joy than sadness, more hope than despair.

God fights for us, but He also calls us to fight for Him in the world. This week, thank God for being your Good Shepherd and seeing you through every valley. Praise Him for never leaving you alone. March like a Promised Land conqueror.
Pray for the courage to share the hope and joy of a life lived in Jesus Christ with those who haven’t yet experienced it. Live with fearless confidence as you walk in the shadow of the Holy Spirit.

Nadin Khoury was 13 years old, 5’2″ and 100 pounds soaking wet. In 2000, his mom and he had escaped war-torn Liberia. They moved into a rough Philadelphia neighborhood because that’s all they could manage.  The hazing started almost immediately. And it culminated in an all-out assault on snowy a January day. They 7 teenage boys beat him, stuffed him into a tree and then hung him from a 7′ tall wrought iron fence. Amazingly, he survived the attack. They attackers were caught and jailed- one of them videotaped the attack and posted it on YouTube. The TV show The View got wind of his story and brought him on. He tried not to cry as he watched the videotape and relived the event. But even in his sorrow, he managed to show concern, “Next time, maybe it could be somebody even smaller than me.” Then, 3 other Philadelphia residents came out onto the stage- 3 members of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, including All-Pro receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson told Nadin, “Any time you need us, I got two linemen right here.” He signed a jersey and gave it to the boy…along with his cell phone number. From that day on, Nadin was only a phone call away from his own personal bodyguards. Who wouldn’t want that kind of protection?

That’s the kind of protection God gives us. He says, “Oh, Jericho has tall, impenetrable walls? Great- you’ve got me! The Amorites are bloodthirsty AND have home-field advantage? OK- but you’ve got Me.” They may be strong…but I’m stronger. AND…I will never leave you or forsake you.”

THAT’S the promise God gives us. He never takes a smoke break. He never takes a nap. He never takes a vacation- “I need some time away!” The job market stinks? Yes it does…but God is with you. Your blood cell count is down? That’s REALLY hard…but God is with you. The world seems to be going to H-E- DOUBLE HOCKEYSTICKS in a handbag? Indeed it does…but God is with you.

And when you KNOW that, when you truly BELIEVE it, then everything changes! Since God is strong, you can be strong. Since God is able to handle adversity, you can, too. Since God has no limits, you have limitless potential. But just like those marvelous late-night infomercial- WAIT…there’s more! The best news is that God is not only with you- He fights for you. Not only does He want you to live a Promised Land life, He fights for you so you CAN.

The Hebrews were rescued from slavery in Egypt. They were miraculously spirited through a parted Red Sea AND a parted Jordan River. They were given the walled city of Jericho. They defeated enemy after enemy. They were living in a land flowing with milk and honey, planting farms they didn’t plow and harvesting vineyards they didn’t plant. And so Joshua, nearing the end of his life, uses some of his last words to remind them of something important- something life changing. “The Lord your God has fought for you.”

They weren’t there because of their skill…but God’s. Likewise, we’re not where we are- which, quite frankly to a lot of churches and ministers, is a pretty enviable position- because of OUR skill but because of God’s power and might. God has claimed our Glory Days for us. God has given them to us. And God is defending them on our behalf.

Rather than run away from your fears, turn and face them. Unsheathe the promise of God’s Word and stand defiantly in the face of the enemy. The devil is the cockroach that scurries away when the lights come on while God is the 400 lb. Gorilla Who sits wherever He wants!

God fights for you. Let those words sink into your soul for a moment. The CEO of the universe…also fights for you! He’s tireless, strong…and perfect. He has endless joyful, exceeding wisdom…and an overwhelming willingness to defend you.

Are the odds stacked against you? Yes, you…with the sordid past, the receding hairline, the absentee dad, the bad back, bad credit and bad job. Do you wish you had somebody who would regularly, consistently come to your defense? Stand up on your behalf? Rally against those who’ve railed against you? You DO have that somebody! God doesn’t just fight for the rich, the powerful, the pretty and the pious. He fights for all the you’s and me’s of the world.

Here is a Glory Days Declaration that I want you to take to heart. “These days are Glory Days. My past is past, my future is bright, God’s promises are true and his Word is sure. With God as my helper, I will be all He wants me to be, do all He wants me to do, and receive all He wants me to receive. These are the Glory Days.”
When you first wake up and as you go to bed, pause and say, “These days are Glory Days.” Pray for God’s presence and power to be unleashed every day. Invite God’s Holy Spirit to remind you of the truth of who you are and what God calls you to be.

When you face challenges, be confident that God is your defender. His goal for you, your inheritance from Him is this: more victory than defeat, more joy than sadness, more hope than despair. We weren’t made to live in fear. We weren’t made to be nothing more than slaves to our past. We weren’t made to just limp through life. We are living, breathing expressions of God. We are called to Glory Days living. And these days are the Glory Days.

A Few Laughs

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It’s always a good thing to laugh. Here are a few things to (hopefully) help you do just that!

If you have seen Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (or, as us “old people” call it- the 2nd Star Wars movie!), you probably recognize the following interchange-

Han Solo: Well Princess, it looks like you managed to keep me here a while longer.
Princess Leia: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it’s dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they’ve activated the energy shield.
Han Solo: That’s a good story. I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.
Princess Leia: I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.
[Chewbacca laughs] 
Han Solo: Laugh it up, fuzzball!
     Bob was in real trouble. He forgot his wedding anniversary. His wife was
really mad! She told him “Tomorrow morning, I expect to find a gift in the driveway that goes from 0 to 200 in 6 seconds AND IT BETTER BE THERE !!” The next morning he got up early and left for work. When his wife woke up, she looked out the window and  there was a box gift-wrapped in the middle of the driveway. Confused, she put on her robe and ran out to the driveway, brought the box back in the house and opened it…to find a brand new bathroom scale…Bob has been missing since Friday!
20 Ways To Annoy People
1. Sing the Batman theme incessantly.
2. Learn Morse code, and have conversations with friends in public consisting entirely of “Beeeep Bip Bip Beeep Bip…”
3. Leave the copy machine set to reduce 200%, extra dark, 17 inch paper, 98 copies.
4. Leave your turn signal on for fifty miles.
5. Reply to everything someone says with “that’s what YOU think.”
6. Invent nonsense computer jargon in conversations, and see if people play along to avoid the appearance of ignorance.
7. Signal that a conversation is over by clamping your hands over your ears.
8. Give a play-by-play account of a persons every action in a nasal Howard Cosell voice.
9. Holler random numbers while someone is counting.
10. Hide dairy products in inaccessible places.
11. Write the surprise ending to a novel on its first page.
12. Buy a large quantity of orange traffic cones and reroute whole streets.
13. Pay for your dinner with pennies.
14. Wander around a restaurant, asking other diners for their parsley.
15. As much as possible, skip rather than walk.
16. Deliberately hum songs that will remain lodged in co-workers brains, such as “Feliz Navidad”, the Archies “Sugar” or the Mr. Rogers theme song.
17. While making presentations, occasionally bob your head- like a parakeet.
18. Sit in your front yard pointing a hair dryer at passing cars to see if they slow down.
19. At a golf tournament, chant “swing-batabatabata-suhWING-batter!”
20. Select the same song on the jukebox fifty times.
     A pastor explained to his congregation that the church was in need of some extra money, so he asked them to consider being more than generous. He offered that whoever gave the most would be able to pick three hymns. After the offering plates were passed about the church, the pastor glanced down and noticed that someone had graciously offered a $1,000 bill. He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he’d like to personally thank the person who placed the money in the plate. A very quiet, elderly, saintly lady in the back of the church shyly raised her hand. The pastor asked her to come to the front, so she slowly she made her way towards him. The pastor told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much, and in thanks he asked her to pick out three hymns. Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation. She pointed to the three most handsome men in the church and said, “I’ll take him and him and him…”
     Life is TOO short not to laugh! Share these with someone today. Thanks for stopping by…have a blessed day! Please come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

VERY Bazaar!

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The church I currently serve is a busy place. And that is not automatically a good thing in a church. I have seen churches that are very busy places…but they are rarely doing MINISTRY. Instead, they are all about things that make them more like the local country club or social organization than the local church. So “busy” isn’t always good in a church.

HOWEVER…if a church is busy doing things that help connect people to Jesus Christ, then busy is STILL not a good thing…it’s a GREAT thing! And the church I currently serve is busy doing JUST that- connecting people to Jesus Christ.

At the end of October, we welcomed over 800 people from the community to the street outside the church for Trunk or Treat. And today and tomorrow, we again open our doors for the Follow the Star Holiday Bazaar. This is an amazing event that just grows and improves every year.

The event is 3PM-7PM today and 8AM-11AM tomorrow. There is just about anything you can think of there. The first room you come to holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 Nativity sets. As someone who has a (small) collection of Nativities, I always enjoy seeing the wide variety of types and styles.

There is the Candy Cane Café, the Country Store, the Sweet Shoppe, Love Notes, Deck the Halls, Creative Hands, Pampered Pets, Razzle Dazzle, Kitchen Korner. Dinner-To-Go, Secret Shoppers and the Fellowship Café- featuring soup and pulled pork on Friday and biscuits and gravy on Saturday.

The cool thing about the Bazaar is that SO many folks from the church work SO hard to make it happen. Then, SO many people from the community…and beyond…come to be a part of it. And in the end, three GREAT things happen. 1. Church members get to roll up their sleeves and be the hands and feet of God in a real, tangible way. 2. We get to show hospitality, grace and the love of Jesus Christ to a LOT of people. 3. a LOT of money is raised that is ALL used for local ministries. And for my money- it just doesn’t get much better than that!

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

Early Thanksgiving

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The church I currently serve has Wednesday night ministries. That does NOT make us unique. A LOT of churches have Wednesday night ministries. Ours does dinner every week. That ALSO doesn’t make us unique. In fact, I started…or helped start…this type of ministry at each of the first two churches we served. It was a bit refreshing to come to this church…and have the ministry already in place!

The dinner is really the centerpiece of the evening. There are children’s ministries that happen. There is a youth Bible Study. An adult Bible study. Bell choir rehearsal. Choir rehearsal. A lot of stuff happens! But dinner IS at the core of everything. Many folks come to eat and stay for other things. But many come for dinner…and go home. A great deal of fellowship happens during “the breaking of the bread”!

Different groups, classes, committees and teams in the church take turns cooking and serving the meal. That means a variety of folks help and a variety of menus are served. Last night was our annual Thanksgiving dinner. It was, and is usually, hosted by our United Methodist Men. And there is one United Methodist Man in particular who is the driving force behind this meal every year. And he is just one of COUNTLESS examples of folks in the church donating a TON of time, behind the scenes, to get ministries done…and most people never even know about it.

I watched this man spend HOURS at the church this week, getting things ready. And that doesn’t count the hours he spent PRIOR to this week planning and preparing. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing (homemade cornbread dressing!), gravy, corn, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, biscuits and LOTS of pumpkin pie. We even had a gluten-free pumpkin pie for those who have such needs!

Now, I don’t want you to think that this one guy did everything. He rallied the troops, to be sure. He had SEVERAL people baking pumpkin pies. He had SEVERAL people helping, both on Tuesday and yesterday, to help prepare food. He had folks serving food. Cleaning up. Dozens of people came together to provide a GREAT Thanksgiving meal for the church…and anybody else who wanted to come.

Yep, the community is invited and we make that clear. The doors are open and the cost is FREE! Every week. We have a free-will basket out every week…but the money collected all goes to fund a food kitchen we underwrite in South America.

I am constantly amazed at two things: 1. how many of God’s people are willing to roll up their sleeves and make a difference and 2. how much God glorifies and magnifies what we give. There are so many ministries at this church that have either limited budget or, in a decent amount of cases, NO budget. And yet there is NOT a lot of conversation centering around the fact that we CAN’T do something because of that. Instead, the conversation centers around how we make it happen anyway! That is when we truly become the hands and feet of God- when we are willing to stop saying, “Why?” and start saying, “Why NOT?”

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

Hanging With the Bishop

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United Methodists have Bishops. Each Bishop is the spiritual leader of a conference. The conference of which I am a part, the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, is basically the state of Illinois south of Chicago. Basically. And so, the resident Bishop of this conference is responsible for most of the geographical area of Illinois.

Bishops are appointed in 4-year blocks. Often, 8 years is the minimum they serve in a conference. Often, but not always. Our most recent Bishop retired earlier this year. So a new Bishop was needed. And that process happens once every four years. A group of folks, lay and clergy, elected by their peers, elect Bishops from a slate of candidates. And once Bishops are elected, they are assigned to a conference.

So…we have a new Bishop. His name is Rev. Frank Beard. And he has been on what I would call (if I were him!) The Bishop Beard World Tour 2016. Now, he isn’t actually touring the world- it probably just FEELS that way to him! In reality, he (along with his wife, at least in our case) is visiting each of the 10 districts that, together, make up our conference. The model is a meeting with the clergy in the later morning/early afternoon- including lunch and a meeting with the laity (and clergy, if they wanted to come back!) in the early evening- including dinner this time.

For me, the location of the meeting was a 45-minute one-way drive. And I chose to go to both events. So I spent 3 hours in the car on Monday- two round-trips. The first time, I drove by myself and sat with clergy brothers and sisters as we worshiped with, ate with and talked with Bishop Beard.

Then, at 6PM, 6 church members (including my wife!) joined me as I drove BACK for the evening session. This time, we gathered, ate and talked with the Bishop. It was at that evening event that his wife joined him.

The food was great both times. (We ARE United Methodists, after all!) The fellowship was great both times. But what made it SO worth it to me, in the midst of a BUSY week when I really didn’t have much extra time, was to be able to talk with and listen to Bishop Beard. The man is infectious and unapologetic about his faith and his passion for reaching the lost for Jesus Christ. Will he be a capable administrator? I have no doubt. But what he will truly excel at is this- he is a sold-out believer who has been changed through the power and presence of Jesus Christ and wants to do whatever he can to help other people experience that same thing!

Institutionalism is such a difficult thing to combat because it seeps in without you even noticing it. What starts out as a movement slowly morphs into a method…and then, unbeknownst to us, that method becomes a monument. And, in case you weren’t sure, a monument is a tribute to a structure placed over a grave in memory of..the dead. The last thing we want is for the Church to become a monument.

Bishop Beard comes into the episcopacy (being a Bishop) with a zeal and passion that is evident to anyone who meets him. I am as excited about the future as I have ever been. I believe with all my heart that God has placed Bishop Beard here for just such a time as this. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what God has in store!

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

Call the Whambulance!

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Let me say right up front…I am fully capable of complaining. In fact, there are times when my daily entry on this site is a whine festival. Having said that, however, I TRY not to be a complainer. Life is too short to spend too much time whining about what DID or DIDN’T happen. Or at least it seems that way to me. From experience, obviously not everyone agrees with me!

     I’m stunned some days to see how many people seem to center their life around complaining. (And let me assure you that, as a pastor, I have a somewhat unique perspective on being on the receiving end of complainers!) Let’s be honest, there are folks that you just KNOW are going to complain. It could be the greatest day EVER in the history of the planet and they would find something to complain about. “There’s a cloud in the sky!”, “The cars aren’t parked in the parking lot correctly!”, “My shoe’s untied!”, “The grass is a funny shade of green!” You get the idea. And we ALL know people like that. (Hopefully we AREN’T people like that!)
     What really gets me is when someone offers a written complaint…and intentionally leaves it anonymous. I am going to be honest here…brutally honest…and call that cowardly. If you are so upset about something that you feel inclined to write it down and turn it in…then have the courage to sign it. An anonymous complaint is toothless- it can’t be confirmed or denied…or even discussed. (When I get those…I put them in that small, round “filing cabinet” that sits next to my desk. You know…the one with the white plastic liner it in?!)
     The bottom line is this- Life. Is. Short. And…life is precious. It is truly a gift from God. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to always focus on the negative. Life must be SO deadly when your glass is always half empty. Life is going to be hard. Life is going to be difficult. Life is going to throw you curveball after curveball. That’s a given. Therefore…make the most of it. Find the silver lining…and stop focusing on the dark cloud. Look for the positive and don’t always spout the negative. Assume the best of people and tolerate a bit of “not the best”. Smile. It looks SO much better…and it’s actually good for your physical AND mental health!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

A Response to Recent Events

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Yesterday was an interesting day- a day where several disparate pieces came together at the same moment. Or, as I like to call it, a God thing! There are, for the most part, two types of preachers. There are lectionary preachers and series preachers. (Again, note “for the most part” in a previous sentence! Nuanced between those two types are a nearly limitless list!)

The lectionary is a week-to-week list or Scripture readings. They are often laid out over a three-year arc and, when followed from week to week, cover basically the whole of the Bible. They are, for many, a great weekly guide and a way to ensure that preachers don’t simply settle into the “easier” parts of the Bible and ignore other sections.

I don’t use the lectionary. For me, there’s really no altruistic reason for it. There is no real sense from me that it’s to restrictive or anything like that. It’s, instead, a lot more pragmatic- I cut my ministerial teeth with a preacher who is a series preacher. It’s what I learned.

So, I preach sermon series. (Series-es? It actually turns out that “series” is both the singular AND the plural! Who knew?!) Scattered in the middle will be the occasional “one and done”, to accommodate for specifics in the calendar. But the vast majority of 52 yearly Sundays feature a week from a larger series.

And I plan those series months in advance. I can usually tell you what will be offered 2-3 months ahead. The choice of a series is affected by several inputs- the calendar, special Sundays/events, holiday seasons and the like. Prayer is also a HUGE part of the selection and planning process. Rarely do these series go more than 6 weeks. I choose an overall theme or goal. I figure out how many weeks this particular series will be. I break the “bigger” picture up into that many “littler” pictures. I choose 3 Scriptures- a main Scripture and two supporting ones; an Old Testament and a New Testament, for each week. I write a “thesis” sentence for each week- a quick synopsis that helps the reader/hearer get a better understanding of the focus.

The other thing I do is create an original, 2½ minute music video for each week’s sermon. It is used as the Call to Worship for 2 of our three morning worship services. The song is a non-Christian classic rock song and the theme of the video mirrors the title of that week’s sermon. Again, this is all laid out months in advance.

So when I laid out the pieces for yesterday’s sermon, I was NOT smart enough to have seen that yesterday would be the first Sunday after one of the most contentious presidential elections in US history. But even though I DIDN’T see it…God clearly did! The series, called Glory Days and based on a book by Max Lucado, follows Joshua and the Hebrews as they enter and take the Promised Land. And yesterday’s sermon was called No Falling Words. The focus was on the fact that the world is not always a dependable place. But God is ALWAYS dependable. The world uses falling words- broken promises- but God’s words NEVER fall. And the music video was built around the Billy Joel song Matter of Trust.

There could not have been a better topic, with better Scriptural underpinning and a better music video, than what I had to work with going into yesterday. And I can say that with absolutely no guile because it wasn’t me who put those pieces together- it was God.

The last piece that God brought to the table was the first week of livestreaming the sermon on Facebook. We plan to do that every week going forward, but yesterday as the first. Therefore, there is a video of yesterday’s message…floating around on Facebook. The message seems to have resonated with a lot of folks, based on responses I have received. So, here is a link to that video, if you would like to take a look!

https://www.facebook.com/MyAledoUMC/videos/vb.117852841593520/1289409167771209/?type=2&theater&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic&notif_id=1479047961079938

or

Thanks for reading and watching…and thank you, God, for working so diligently to make things like yesterday happen! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Glory Days: No Falling Words

glory-days-no-falling-words

A buddy of mine once went to a well-known fast food establishment for lunch. (The name of the restaurant shall remain nameless…but its initials are McD!) He went to the counter, ordered his food, paid, and waited. In a minute or two, they slid a tray to him and said, “Here’s your sandwich. We’ll bring your fries out in a minute, when they’re done.” He took his tray and headed for a table, stopping to get his drink, pick up napkins and fill the ubiquitous portion cups with catsup. By the time he was seated and had the straw unwrapped and in his drink, here came an employee with a tray. As he placed it on the table, he said (and I quote), “Here are your fries. I burnt them…so I gave you extra!” Never at a loss for words, my buddy looked him in the eye and replied, “Well…if there’s anything I like better than burnt fries…it’s lots of them!” Trust is a wonderful thing!

Today, we draw closer to the end of our current sermon series- Glory Days. Based on the book by Max Lucado, we are focusing on a concept he calls living your Promised Land life…now. When we face challenges that are bigger than we can handle, a GREAT place to go for hope and inspiration is the Old Testament story of Joshua. So we’re walking through that book, focusing on how Joshua led the Hebrews out of the wilderness and into the land of Canaan- the Promised Land.

The first week, we focused on WHEN the Glory Days are…and we stated that they are NOW! Week two, we looked at the fact that, since they ARE now, we have a responsibility to accept our inheritance. Week three, we moved forward, right to the walls themselves. We face our fears as we Circled Jericho. Last week, we stepped further into the story and we look at the impact that talking to God can have as we consider Audacious Prayers. Today, we come within a week of wrapping this series up as we state that, in a world where trust is an endangered species, we need to put our trust in God. We need to be sure we offer up No Falling Words.

The Hebrew people have been delivered from the hands of Pharaoh, they have wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, they have crossed the Jordan River, entered the Promised Land and taken the walled city of Jericho. They have won battles after battle. They have done what they set out to do- what God called them to do. And we pick up the Scripture late in the book, as the events of the story are remembered.

Joshua 21:43-45 So the Lord gave Israel all the land He had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as He had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; everyone was fulfilled.

God led Joshua and the people across the Jordan River- in miraculous fashion. He led them to the walled city of Jericho, where we empowered them to take the city- in miraculous fashion. He led them to win battle after battle- again in miraculous fashion. And, near the end of Joshua’s story, today’s Scripture reminds them…and us…why all of this happened. It’s simple- God keeps His promises.

One could make a case that the three rather short verses we are focusing on today are the theological heart of the book of Joshua- maybe the heart of the Bible as a whole. Today’s Scripture is a less than subtle reminder that God does what God says He’s going to do. No falling words here. Just a remembrance of how steadfast, how awesome God is.

That’s an odd expression- “falling words”. Why “No Falling Words”? Falling words are broken promises, empty vows- words that fall instead of uplift and support. And we live in a world of falling words. Pledges made, then taken back. Assurances given, then ignored. Words like, “I’ll always be there for you.” Words like, “Count on me as your boss to recognize and appreciate your good work.” Words like, “Till death do us part.” When those words are spoken, they might be offered with all of the sincerity that can be mustered. But over time, thy often start to fall…like leaves from a tree.

You’ve heard falling words…from WAY too many people. You’ve been disappointed more than you would care to think about…or admit. But I just stopped by here this morning to assure you of one thing- you will NEVER hear falling words from God. People break their promises, but God keeps His. People’s words fall all the time, but God’s are steadfast. There may be a men’s ministry movement called Promise Keepers, but God is the ultimate Promise Keeper. People might  make a promise and forget it. But if God makes a promise, He keeps it.

Does God’s integrity matter? Yes. Is His faithfulness important? It is when everything around seems to be falling apart. It is when the foundation of your life seems like shifting sand. When you’re in those situations, you have a choice to make: faith or fear. And don’t be fooled; we ALL choose- either actively or passively. It’s HOW we choose and WHAT we choose that makes the difference. Promised Land people choose to trust God’s promises. They choose to believe that God has plans for good…even when the world around them seems to be so full of bad.

Faith is a choice. It is. And Promised Land people risk the choice. When forced to stand at the crossroads of belief and unbelief, they choose belief. They continue to put one foot in front of the other. Their forward progress isn’t always a hop, skip and jump- sometimes a limp is the best they can muster. But regardless, they make a conscious decision to lean on Jesus. Joshua’s story encourages us to make that choice.

And to say that there is a lot of pain in this country right now over choices that have been made is to say that the sky is blue or the ocean is deep- it’s painfully obvious. There are lots of people hurting for a wide variety of nuanced reasons- but MANY of those nuanced reasons stem directly from the results of the presidential election.

I have had more conversations with more people over the past few days about the outcome of this election that I have EVER had after any other presidential election. And frankly, most of the conversations haven’t been angry and hate-filled variety. Instead, they came from people simply trying to make some sense out of a difficult-to-understand situation.

Is there an easy answer to our current circumstance? No. But yesterday morning, I read a quote that helped me put some personal perspective on what’s going on. And it came from, of all people…goofy late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien! I know- “You get your ethical advice from a talk show host, Pastor?” If it’s good, I do! And here’s part of what he said,

     “We have had bitter angry elections for 200 years- whether it was Jefferson vs. Burr, Adams vs. Jackson or Lincoln vs. Douglas. In America, we get to pick who is going to ruin our country. It’s a privilege. Everybody should feel grateful that we get to vote.” He ended his monologue with a quote from Winston Churchill, ‘Democracy is the WORST form of government…except for all those other forms that have been tried.’”

Is our system perfect? Clearly not. Does it always turn out the way we want? See the previous answer. Have we survived bitter, angry elections before? Yep. Is the sun still going to rise tomorrow morning? But the SECOND that we are willing to turn away from each other, to reject each other, to HATE each other because of who we may or may not have voted for…the devil wins. Division among believers is exactly what he wants. And he seems to be gaining a LOT of traction over the past few days.

If you are sitting there this morning thinking, “I can’t even be around that person…that person who I have called my Christian brother or sister, that person who I sat next to at dinner a few days ago…because they voted for so-and-so…I would respectfully ask you to think that through. Is that the kind of person you want your kids and grandkids to be? Is that the kind of person you want the world to see you as? More importantly, is that the kind of person you REALLY think God is calling you to believe? I use the term “family” a lot to describe this church…and I use it because I believe it with all my heart. You ARE my family. But if we are willing to let something like this election drive a wedge between us as a people…then none of this matters. Our mission- to connect people to Jesus Christ- doesn’t matter. But it DOES matter.

The bottom line is this- 4 years from now, we will all be talking about the NEXT election…and God will still be on His throne. You may or may not like the person sitting in the Oval Office. But I would encourage you to find some comfort and solace in the fact that this is NOT our home. We are NOT physical beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a TEMPORARY physical journey. Even in the midst of such divisiveness and strife, I firmly believe with all my heart that God IS good, ALL the time. And that fact is what makes me want to continue to show the love of God instead of the hatred of the world. Just sayin’!

For decades, Abraham’s sons and grandsons looked to Heaven and asked, “God, are You REALLY going to keep your promise? And the answer to that question is found in the pages of the Book of Joshua. God promised to bless Abraham and his people…and He did exactly that! His promise was partially fulfilled through Joshua….and completely fulfilled through Jesus.

Nothing will ever sustain you like God’s promises. To those who sorrow, He says that, while the sorrow may last for the night, the joy comes in the morning. To those under attack, He says that, while we may experience many troubles, He will deliver us from them. To the lonely, He says that, when you are wading through the water, He will be with you. To the sinner, He says that His grace is sufficient. And to the dying, He says that He has prepared a place for them in His house.
God has given us great promises- promises that help us to be IN this world…but not OF this world. Promises that remind us that we are NOT physical beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a physical journey. This is NOT our home- and God’s promises tell us that our eventual…and final…home is better than anything we can possibly imagine, and to quote that great theologian Han Solo, “I can imagine quite a bit!”

What crossroads are you facing right now? How well do you experience God’s trustworthiness in the middle of a difficult season? Does your trust in God increase…or decrease…in times of struggle? In a world of broken promises, how does it feel to know that God always keeps His word? How is your life impacted when you live with absolute confidence that God really does keep His promises? How do those promises strengthen your faith and help you live in peace? In every circumstance, we have a choice- trust in God’s promises or let our circumstances fill us with fear.

When everybody and everything around you are telling you to panic, choose peace. In a world FULL of falling words and broken promises, do the only thing you CAN do- hold fast to God’s promises. In a world where promises are broken and trust is an endangered species, it’s easy to become cynical and jaded. Pessimism bubbles to the surface. Is there ANYBODY we can trust to keep their promises? In the midst of anger, uncertainty, fear and dread, faith is a choice. And I choose faith.

All Gave Some- Some Gave All

veterans-day-2

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. (“Boy- NOTHING gets past YOU, Pastor!”) Some holidays are observed on the whatevereth Monday of whatever (How’s THAT for specific?!) because Mondays are convenient. Other holidays are observed on a specific date…regardless. Veteran’s Day is one such observance. It is ALWAYS November 11th– regardless. Do you know why? It was on November 11, 1918 that the arm9istice was signed, ending World War 1.

It dawns on me that, for many of us, there is not much of a gear to truly appreciate Veteran’s Day. Many of us have never, and will never, serve in the Armed Forces. And every year that passes, fewer and fewer World War 2 veterans are still around. It is those two facts that have me thinking about my dad.

My dad was just a kid when he enlisted in the Navy and went off to be a part of WW2. He had to have his parent’s permission. It meant dropping out of school, which his principal/mother was none too happy about! But after he promised to finish his high school education after he returned (which, by the way, he did), she agreed.

He headed off to basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base. He then was assigned to the USS Kula Gulf- an escort carrier. He was a gunner’s mate. He saw things and did things that I couldn’t even imagine during his relatively short time in the service. He was honorably discharged, having been awarded a Victory Medal, and headed back to “regular life”.

My experience was that he didn’t talk much about his time in the service. I have a few stories here and there, a few pictures and the Navy knife he was issued. (To this day, I wonder if he was supposed to have brought it home or not!) In fact, my experience is that many veterans who saw combat and/or dangerous deployment don’t talk much about it.

I am eternally grateful to my dad’s service to his country. I am eternally grateful for my nephew’s service as a Marine. I am eternally grateful for all the men and women who have, throughout the history of this nation, sacrificed- some paid the ultimate sacrifice- to protect the freedoms that we enjoy.

It seems fitting, in the midst of such national turmoil over the recent election, that we would observe Veteran’s Day yesterday. It helped me maintain some perspective. And tomorrow, when we honor veterans at all three morning worship services, we will focus on that very same perspective- they gave sacrificially so that we could have the freedom to vote our conscience. All paid some- some paid all. Let us never forget that!

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

The Aftermath

aftermath

To say that there is a lot of pain in this country right now is to say that the sky is blue or the ocean is deep- painfully obvious. There are lots of people hurting for a wide variety of nuanced reasons- but MANY of those nuanced reasons stem directly from the results of the presidential election.

An awful lot of people went to bed Tuesday evening positive that Hillary Clinton would be the president-elect when they woke up. Some were really excited about that fact, some were really upset about it…and some were resigned to it.

Then, Wednesday morning dawned. And all HECK broke loose! Those who had been excited the night before were devastated. Those who had been upset were ecstatic and there were…are…still people who are resigned to the current reality.

I have had more conversations with more people over the past 36+ hours about the outcome of the election that I have EVER had after a presidential election. And frankly, most of them have NOT been of the vitriolic, hate-laced variety that have been so prevalent…EVERYWHERE recently. Instead, they are simply trying to make some sense out of a difficult-to-understand situation.

Is there an easy answer to our current circumstance? No. But yesterday morning, I read a quote that helped me put some personal perspective on what’s going on. And it came from, of all people…Conan O’Brien! I know- “You get your ethical advice from a talk show host, Pastor?” If it’s good, I do! And here is the article, as it appeared in Time Magazine,

“In the wake of a divisive presidential election, Conan O’Brien is trying to get in touch with his inner optimist. Luckily, as a history buff, he has managed to find a silver lining, which he shared with Conan viewers on Wednesday’s show. His message, in short, was that the nation has been in a similar place before. ‘We have had bitter angry elections for 200 years,’ said O’Brien. ‘Whether it was Jefferson vs. Burr, Adams vs. Jackson, Lincoln vs. Douglas, Alien vs. Predator.’ O’Brien cited his recent travels, including visits to countries in the Middle East and Armenia. When he took his show to Cuba, he noted that citizens there would give anything to have our political system and a choice in who governs them. ‘In America we get to pick who is going to ruin our country. It’s a privilege,’ he said. ‘Everybody should feel grateful that we get to vote.’ He ended his monologue with a quote from Winston Churchill, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.’”

Is our system perfect? Clearly not. Does it always turn out the way we want it to? See the previous answer. Have we survived bitter, angry elections before? Yep. Is the sun still going to rise in the morning? Uh huh. The bottom line is this- 4 years from now, we will all be talking about the NEXT election…and God will still be on His throne. You may or may not like the personal sitting in the Oval Office. But I would encourage you to find some comfort and solace in the fact that this is NOT our home. We are NOT physical beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a TEMPORARY physical journey. Even in the midst of such divisiveness and strife, I firmly believe with all my heart that God IS good, ALL the time. And that fact is what makes me want to continue to show the love of God instead of the hatred of the world. Just sayin’!

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