No, not the tv show (which I am shamelessly addicted to).  REAL heroes.

Have you ever heard of the Carnegie Hero Fund?  I hadn't until yesterday.

Founded in 1904 after two men fatefully rushed into a mine collapse in Pennsylvania to try to save others, this award is issued to about 100 people (civilians only) each year for heroic deeds.  About 20% of them are given posthumously.

The prize is a 3" coin with Andrew Carnegie's bust on one side and John 15:13 inscribed on the other with the recipient's name.  The winner is eligible for scholarship money, or if they have passed, their family is eligible for grant and ongoing support funds.

I've been sitting, reading the stories of many of the people who have won the award in the last 10 years.  You can read them online: CLICK HERE .  All I can say is that I'm awestruck.  The numbers of people who have risked or given their own lives for others without hesitation is amazing.  All I can hope is that I would be so bold, given the same opportunity.

Know what the best part is?  These were ordinary people - not like the "heroes" on the tv show by the same title.  Their stories read like newspaper articles.  When they are mentioned, it reads "John Smith, 27, cabinet maker".  There are property managers, stone cutters, real estate agents, students (some as young as 10), youth pastors, and retirees.  Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Got a minute or two?  Read some of these stories.  It will warm your heart and make you thankful for the heroes in your own midst - the ones without Carnegie Awards too.


My DISCernment Profile

Do you know your personality type? If you're like me, you've taken SEVERAL personality inventories over the years. My Myers-Briggs is an ENTJ. The Kiersey Sorter declared me to have a "Rational Temperament" and, more specifically, a "Field Marshall." Today, I took a new test, the Personal DISCernment Inventory, also known as the DISC Profile System.

My predominant behavioral style is a D, which stands for Dominant. At this point in life, that's no news flash to me and probably not to anyone who knows me. My secondary is Influential, but it's not a close race between the two.

I think D is the official personality of the Barbarian. Active and self-oriented, we are self starters who get going when things get tough. We thrive on competition and pressure. We're clutch, or at least try to be. Never content with the status quo, we will work hard for change, question authority, and work fast.

We're also dangerous people when everything is going well. We're outgoing and likable, but don't always know how to best care for others or when the right time is to back off. Just ask my wife.

At this season in my life, this personality has served me well. I do a great impersonation of a bull in a china shop when the church becomes complacent and needs a shake-up. At a district breakfast with other pastors and the superintendent this week, we had conversation about change in churches and my own innate ability to be a "button pusher." I think I may have earned a nickname with my boss.

My challenge as a Dominant is going to be in not pushing so hard or changing things so fast that I alienate others and when things get rolling and the church is growing and meeting challenges, I've got to learn to live within that and become more of an influencer than a driver.

Another thing I found interesting in this inventory was that it described D's as prone to frequent job changes, especially early in a career, until they find the challenge that they seek. I have never thought of that, but it makes sense. I tend to be a restless person and when I get to October of next year, I will set a new record for the longest I've served a single church (2 1/2 years). I'm one of the pastors that actually embrace and almost enjoy itineracy - that group is certainly a minority.


Self-Evaluations and the Future

I must confess, I HATE doing self-evaluations. Evaluating something in particular, such as a ministry event, is good and needs to be done, but self-evaluations are just painful. This is one of the downsides of ministry in the UMC.

Every fall, every UM minister completes a self-evaluation for "effectiveness in ministry." That's followed up with an evaluation by the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and another with the District Superintendent.

I'm down with the goal setting and follow-up on last year's goals, but there's a couple of things I struggle with.

First, how you define "effectiveness in ministry" determines how you'll evaluate yourself. I'm not always sure how to begin that one. For decades, we have tried to find that perfect equation of new members vs. new Christians vs. financial giving that will give us a quotient to determine if we are truly being effective in ministry. It's been about as successful as the BCS has been with determining who should play for the national championship. I think for some appointments, there is a "difficulty of schedule" that has to be factored in because of geographical location, existing practices fo churches, and effective (or ineffective) lay leadership. A mediocre minister who doesn't apply him or herself to their work that is in a suburban or downtown setting with great resources and tremendous leadership will almost always show bigger numbers than a great, hard-working minister in a poor, rural community or in a church frought with conflict. All we can do as pastors is trust that our District Superintendent knows our situation and can relate to where we are.

For those of you who think that numbers don't really matter, all I have to say is "read Acts 2:47b". When the church is doing what it's supposed to, it will grow. According to Natural Church Development, it actually multiplies rather than just adding to its numbers.

My second issue is with self-esteem and self-perception. Remember in school when you'd do a project and the teacher or professor would tell you to grade yourself? I had one high school teacher that would do that regularly with papers we had written and she would average our grade with hers for a final, official grade. I confess that I've never hesitated in that situation. Even when I may not have applied myself or may have turned in something that was thrown together, I immediately gave myself an A+ (some of you are smiling, knowing that you did the same). I watched friends who were either more honest, or just thought less of their own work give themselves B's and C's. Why on earth would you do that?

When it comes to these self-evals, how can we truly engage ourselves in them? To evaluate yourself poorly is to intentionally, in my view, bring down your self-esteem. To give yourself high marks is to avoid reality and not face your own growing edges. Is this really the best way?

This year, I was pretty tough on myself. We've accomplished alot in the last year but it's almost all been below the surface. It's been changes in practice, leadership, and hopefully attitude, but nothing that will show numbers as results. I was critical of the low numbers of professions of faith and the decrease in church membership this year (we cleaned up the rolls) - but the criticism got good results. The SPRC's evaluation took most of those comments and put them on the shoulders of the church as goals for 2009. The CHURCH will strive for better outreach, evangelism, and missions.

All in all, the evals went well. My new superintendent affirmed my work and the work of the church - that's always good to hear when you have a first year DS. Before I left his office, he told me to plan to stick around at least another year. That's good news - hopefully it means that I'll get to see the church grow in faith and in numbers in 2009 and 2010.


Everyday Advent

What does Advent mean for you? For many of us, it's the time for shopping, Christmas music, parties, and wrapping up the year. The Chrismon trees and garlands come out in our sanctuaries and the tone of worship changes (so does the attendance).

I've learned that many people don't know that the Christian year actually BEGINS with Advent. The Christian New Year began on November 30th this year with the lighting of the first candle, the candle of Hope.

Again, we lose some of our focus as Christians - in two major ways:

First, we lose sight of the purpose of Advent. We put up the purple paraments and listen to sermons about the coming of Christ to remind us to "make straight the path of the Lord." Purple is the color for royalty, but its also the color for repentance, or turning away from sin and toward Christ. In the act of preparing for Christ, we strive to reorient our lives around honoring God with who we are and what we do.

So how far do we stray from the meaning of Advent with the way we behave during this season? Do we honor God when we put ourselves into debt to purchase material things for ourselves and others or are we simply selling our freedom to a credit card company? Do we honor God when we become consumed with what we can get or giving that perfect gift and turn away from loving our neighbors? I don't know about you, but when store employees are trampled to death on Black Friday and TV commercials show people betraying friendships to get that "perfect gift", I lose a little bit of the hope I have in the season.

You've heard it before, and you'll hear it here too, think about what you're doing this Christmas. Yes, my family and I will exchange gifts, but the really great part of the holiday for me is the time off and the time with family and friends. I couldn't even tell you what I got for Christmas last year, but I can tell you who was there and what we did and what we ate. What changes can you make to your December habits to refocus yourself on the coming of Christ and the fact that this season is NOT ABOUT YOU? Advent is a time to repent, to remember the promised coming of Christ, and to prepare to receive Christ.

Second, we think Advent is the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas - the time that we shop, party, give gifts, and light candles. Wrong again. Advent is EVERY DAY. Christ is coming - it will happen. Everyday should have an air of expectancy. Expect that Christ is not only coming in final judgement and realization of his Kingdom, but that he will work in your life this day. The Kingdom of God is here now and made known by the way we love God and love our neighbors.

Are you keeping focus on why we observe a season of Advent? Is your family? Your community? Your church? Are you learning to discipline your life to prepare for the coming of Christ?


More Lessons from the Sea Shepherd

In my last post, I told you about my newest guilty pleasure: Watching the "Whale Wars" show on Friday nights to make fun of the crew and leadership of the Sea Shepherd. These people are the ones that even Greenpeace doesn't want around - literally.

On last week's episode, the crew tracked down a Japanese whaling vessel and started the harrasment. The captain, Paul Watson, asked for two volunteers to board the moving ship in order to provoke a diplomatic emergency.

Two such idiots were found and the harpoon ship was boarded (I still think this was an act of piracy and these guys deserved to be shot or thrown overboard). Once on board, Watson began making calls to the Australian government declaring that two of his crew members were being held hostage on the Japanese ship in Australian waters. Unbelievable! You can't fake that kind of irrational stupidity!

It always catches my attention when people start shirking their own responsibility and think that it makes everything alright to point the finger at someone else. The Sea Shepherd crew actually wanted the world to believe that these men were being held captive (again, another good reason to throw them overboard).

For the last month, I've been preaching about stewardship, and particularly how our finances play a role in that stewardship. We live in a world full of people that are hurting financially. Debt is at a significant high, foreclosures are on the rise, and the courts are riddled with bankruptcy hearings. What's everybody's response? To blame the other guy.

I'll make no bones about it - lenders deserve some of the credit for the situation that we're all in. BUT: Nobody ever made someone else take out those loans. Nobody forced anyone to buy a two million dollar home when all they could afford was a $300K one. Nobody required you to use the 18 credit cards that Chase and American Express so kindly sent you.

Whose bad decision was it? Think about it...

We have allowed our belongings and our wealth define us and give us security rather than relying on the abundance of God. Remember Adam and Eve? God GAVE them everything in the garden to use as they wished. They decided that it wasn't enough and struck out to gain for themselves.

We will not learn from our mistakes if we don't admit that they're our mistakes. Blaming others simply shifts (optimistically) the responsibility and destines us for repitition.

Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent - they all faced consequences. Whether we're making poor decisions now and blaming them on others or we're boarding other people's boats and blaming it on the Japanese, none of that changes what the facts are.

Confess your sin, repent of wrongdoing, be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The pain of self-realization is fleeting, but the agony and consequences of denial are hard to rid yourself of.


My Newest Guilty Pleasure

Before I tell you about my newest guilty pleasure, let me give you the disclaimer. I believe that God created all things and sat back and admired his work. He declared it good, and it, therefore, has great value to me.

I support conservation and I believe its sinful when we harm the environment. That said, let me tell you about the TV show that's caught my attention...

On Friday nights, Animal Planet has started broadcasting a show entitled "Whale Wars." It's highly entertaining and if you're not doing anything tonight, pop some popcorn and sit down for some quality entertainment.
Whale Wars is about an organization known as Sea Shepherd. It's headed by Paul Watson (who is quite possibly the only overweight vegan I know). Watson is one of the 12 founders of Greenpeace and the one that happened to be voted off the organization's island for being too radical.
They've been well funded by some other crazies and thanks to Animal Planet, we learn that there are whole levels of stupid that most of us never knew existed. The crew, most of which have no experience at sea, steam around the Antarctic Circle in their ship, the Steve Irwin (you guessed it, the ship is named after the Crocodile Hunter). While on their cruise, they search for Japanese whaling operations. Once found, they make threats over the radio, hurl stink bombs and other various chemical grenades at these ships, and even pull off a couple of really stupid stunts.
Last week, Watson had the brilliant idea to have two volunteers from the Steve Irwin come alongside and board the Japanese ship. Once on board, Watson would call the Australian government and start a political fight, declaring his own crew members to be held captive. I always thought boarding someone else's boat without permission while at sea was an act of piracy, but I guess I'm just too reasonable as a person to see it Watson's way.
I'm not sure which part was the most enjoyable, that they threw the stink bombs on board and THEN jumped on, or when the Japanese crew members actually tried to throw one of them overboard into the icy ocean.
All of this is an attempt to deter people from killing whales for research and profit. I found myself asking one question over and over again: Is this really the best and most effective way to get your point across and change people's minds? I really doubt it.
As Christians, we could be accused of some of the same tactics. How we relate to non-Christians is often disgraceful. We forget that Jesus mentored and loved his twelve disciples (even Judas). We forget that Philip made a friend out of the Ethiopian eunuch. We forget that Paul was cared for by Ananias. Coercion and nasty behavior is never a substitute for love, mercy, kindness, and genuine care.
I have more to say about the Sea Shepherd crew, but I'll save that for later.


Couldn't Have Said It Better

I found a new blog today. Check out the video...

That one's funny AND painful. We really do expect people to check their common sense and/or the last 40 years of social change when they come to church.

I had a conversation with some members about our facility and the impression we make to newcomers just a few weeks ago. These were members who, mostly, have been a part of Mt. Bethel for most of their lives, and those who haven't, have been part of other churches that are very similar.

We talked about how we could best be attractive and convenient to visitors and that the first part of that impression is knowing who you're targeting. I used Publix as an example:

Which grocery store would most housewives shop at - Publix, Kroger, Wal-Mart, or Piggly Wiggly? Almost all would tell you Publix. Why?

The aisles are wide, the items are in the right places, well labeled, and pulled to the front of the shelves. The floors are clean. The employees are almost always friendly and there is the expectation that there will be someone there to carry out your groceries TIP FREE! I remember when Publix first opened in Valdosta and they were the only store that didn't have cart returns in the parking lot.

Publix is the place that a woman can go for stress-free grocery shopping (no, they're not paying me anything to say this). Whether you've dropped the kids off and have a couple of free hours or they're tagging along, this is the environment that you don't feel cramped, lost, or unsure about what you're buying.

Anybody ever had a cart with a bad wheel at Publix? I haven't. Nobody else I've talked to ever has either. Ever had one at Wal-Mart? Almost every time you say? Me too. Hmmmm.

What about our churches? It starts with the parking lot. If I'm a mom with two kids (easy for me to imagine, because this is Erin's experience most weeks), can I find a spot? Is it easy to find and get to the door that I should enter by? When I get in, am I greeted and guided by someone who knows their way around. If I'm looking for the bathroom and the nursery, can I find it (are there signs or is it hidden a floor below the gym where you have no hope of finding it?

Do I feel comfortable leaving my kids in the nursery?

If I'm running late and come up from the bathroom/nursery and see a door labeled "sanctuary" will it be that door that every church has that will open up right next to the pulpit, allowing every person with a pulse to train their attention on the visitor that has the audacity to not make it to worship on time? Or will it be the door that allows me to slip in unnoticed?

What about worship? Am I sitting by myself for a reason? Am I stealing someone's pew and will I be accosted by a 90 year old woman with a pointy umbrella? Or am I welcomed by a friendly face that will ask to come and sit with me and answer any questions I might have?

Does the worship leader make clear how I should participate in worship? There's nothing like being familiar with the characteristics of pentecostal worship and visiting an episcopal church - oh, the looks you get the first time your hands go in the air. Personally, I enjoy going to a Catholic mass occasionally and trying to anticipate when to sit, stand, and kneel.

Church leaders and servants: Try to see your church with fresh eyes the next time you walk into the building. Pay attention when you go to places like Starbucks, Publix, and other businesses you frequent. When you leave are you satisfied or did you go because you didn't have much option and no real choice? What little things do they do that make the difference? How can you make that impression on people at church?

Now hear this: DON'T WAIT FOR A COMMITTEE TO DECIDE WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE! Somebody will show up to your church on Sunday and you'll never get a second chance to make that first impression. That person could end up being a difference maker for your church or your own life. EACH church member is responsible for hospitality. See someone, greet them. Sit with a stranger.


Hug a Vet

Have you thanked a veteran lately?

Yesterday was a major holiday and unfortunately, one that often times gets overlooked (unless you work at a bank or hold a government job). There's alot of significance to Veterans Day and alot of Veterans that go unnoticed.

The picture that I've posted is from yesterday's dedication of the Veterans Wall of Honor here in McDonough. As you can see, I was standing in the midst of my motorcycle gang when I took this picture. (For those of you who can't tell, I'm being facetious about the gang) In the picture, what you can't tell, is that there are several distinguished leaders on the platform to offer words of gratitude. Speaking is the Lt. Governor of Georgia, Casey Cagle.

The monument far surpasses what most local governments have for their vets. In fact, it's large enough and beautiful enough to probably be deserving of a place on the Mall in D.C. At the bottom of the hill is a POW/MIA monument. From there, you walk up some steps and follow a walkway lined with the flags of the five branches of the armed forces and made up of bricks with the names of veterans inscribed. The walkway leads to a plaza with some larger monuments and a very large wall, covered in images and quotes from the Revolutionary War to the wars we are fighting now. In the center of the plaza stands a flagpole for the nation's flag (which, by the way, is one that was flown over the Capitol Building in D.C.) and behind the wall are the 50 flags of the states. It's an incredible experience just to be in the presence of such greatness.

I'm not a veteran. I come from several and I'm related to several (3 grandparents, an uncle, a father-in-law, and two brothers-in-law), but I'm not one. I grew up in a town with an Air Force Base and I've been around military personnel all my life. I've had friends who, when I went off to college, enlisted to jump out of planes and carry rifles. I even considered, very seriously, serving as a Chaplain in the USMC. I have a great appreciation for all they do and the sacrifices that they make.

When I was in seminary, I got to meet several veterans and got to know them on levels that many of us never do. I was assigned to chaplaincy work at the Atlanta VA Hospital for a year and worked most of that time with the support groups for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I've heard stories that I would like to forget the details of. I've seen hulking men break down over the memories of nightmarish days many decades before. It made my understand why my grandfather never talked about Europe in World War II and why my father-in-law never talks about Vietnam.

Our men and women, then and now, have signed up to serve without any guarantees what they will face and what they will have to live with. They've done it because they believe in the principles that make up America. Many carry scars that we can't see.

Pray for the vets. Thank them when you see them. The ones I thank always tell me how rare it is that someone thanks them or even acknowledges them as vets. It's easy to see the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. and never read any of the names. It's another thing entirely to realize that there is a human being etched in stone forever because of their sacrifice. It's another thing entirely to think of the families that each of those names represent. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters...

"Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)


New Starts

New things are brewing in my midst. I wish each of you could see them from where I'm sitting. God is at work in powerful ways and he has been faithful to provide the people and the resources necessary for fulfilling his vision at Mt. Bethel.

We are in a period of great transition. As I type, the members of the Lay Leadership Committee of the church are praying for, planning with, and contacting various servants that will comprise our leadership team for 2009 - some of which will serve in these positions through 2011. In addition, we are sending off our beloved choir director, Rachel Nichols. Rachel will be missed by the people of Mt. Bethel and the choir will definitely be affected by the loss of her gifts. I'll miss the opportunity to prepare for worship with her and bounce ideas off of her. Despite her departure, we move forward and look ahead to what God has planned next.

2009 will bring with it a core leadership team that is committing to meet regularly outside of doing business to pray together, study the word together, and support one another in the challenges that we will face. We will also find ourselves with a new choir director to bring a new set of gifts to our worship experiences and "potentially" an additional staff person to help us reach younger families.

Charge Conference is scheduled for early next month and once the new leadership has been affirmed by the congregation and all things are final, we look forward to beginning these next steps. I can hardly wait.

In many of my monthly pastors meetings, the standard practice before getting down to business is to have one pastor share a devotion/word of encouragement. In my meeting today, which I gleaned alot of good information from, the most poignant influence came from the devotion that wasn't an official part of the business.

The scripture shared came from Exodus 16. The Israelites, following God's vision and the leadership of Moses found themselves in the wilderness with no means for sustenance. They began to turn on Moses in their desperation, but after hearing from God, Moses told them of how God would provide - HE RAINED BREAD FROM HEAVEN!

How true is this in following the Spirit of God? God calls us out to the wilderness where all seems lost by our efforts and success seems bleak and then, miraculously, what and who we need is made available. That's why we rely on FAITH in God and not just understanding of God.

My prayer is that we continue to follow God into the wilderness of Henry County - that we faithfully and obediently do what he calls us to do and without hesitation. If we stick to the plan, God will provide.

What is God calling you to do? Where is he sending you? Don't think you've got to have all the answers before proceeding - you'll never get moving. Answer the call, count on God, celebrate what God is doing for us and through us.


Lesson To Pastors

For all the pastors out there that read my blog, here's a lesson for you from a colleague:

When things seem to be rolling in ministry, when you can see progress on the vision God has given you, and everybody's happy, be prepared. In addition, don't preach on unity in the church and brag to your spouse about how great things are and how optimistic you feel unless you're ready for what will be coming your way. Satan likes those moments most to try to derail you.

That's basically what's happened over the last two days. First, I preached on unity. I believe it was a timely message and I'm praying hard for the unity that Jesus prayed for after his last supper with his disciples. That evening, after the regular meetings and spending some time with some of my staff, I went home and told my wife how excited I was that things seemed to be coming together and how I could see the vision God has given me unfold in the midst of this church. I went to bed with a smile on my face, looking forward to what I thought would come next.

Then came Monday morning...

Sunday night, one of my leaders (who was present for the whole sermon on unity) decided to make some phone calls to individuals in order to create disunity. I know this because that leader managed to call the wrong person, who in turn left me a message about what was going on. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time, but I thought we were past this in this church.

It's been said that I don't care and I'm going to screw things up just like every other pastor that's come through the church. It's been said that "they'll" put up with me for a couple more years until I get moved and then "they" can fix things back to the way "they" want them. I find myself praying for this leader and for my patience. Fortunately, many of the people that have been exposed to this behavior recognize that I'm very rarely full of crap and my heart is in my work. God is going to win this battle for unity - of that I'm sure.

Monday got even better (facetiously) though...

Yesterday afternoon, another leader of mine resigned his position with less than four months to go. My heart breaks for him - he has immense amounts of issues to deal with in his family and he's been mercilessly drug into the aforementioned struggle against unity in the church. I've watched one of our young, up and coming leaders become jaded by a group within the church that will intentionally and carelessly use someone else to create that disunity.

I didn't post this yesterday for one simple reason - the barbarian in me was on full alert. What I wanted to write yesterday was not defined by my love for the offenders or would have, in any way, reflected grace.

As pastors, we walk a tightrope in ministry. We are called to love and to act out of grace, but even Christ got angry enough at one point to overturn some tables in the temple and even had to tell Peter to get out of his way after calling him Satan. What is the defining line, that when crossed, justifies us, as ministers, to go into a holy rage? At what point do we take the gloves off and begin telling people to either fall in line or find another church? It's ridiculous and uncalled for when people, especially those who are supposed to be setting the example, behave so immaturely and without any concern for the welfare of others.

Tuesday is here. It's 9am and I've already been to the hospital and the elementary school. Today is a new day and a new opportunity to adapt, overcome, and move forward - with or without those around us, but certainly and absolutely with God.



I hope you've been following the speeches on TV from our political candidates over the last few weeks. Now that the candidates have officially been nominated, attention turns to the first Tuesday of November.

I haven't decided who I'll vote for yet (and I won't post it when I do decide - that's my prerogative). I'm registered Republican, simply for the fact that the state of Georgia won't let you register independent. I'm a firm believer in voting on issues and NOT on a party line. You've got a brain, USE IT!

I've been frustrated with the people who have publicly announced that they would or would not vote for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Sarah Palin simply on account of gender, race, or lineage. C'mon people, we're better than that! Are you really not going to vote for Obama because he's part black? Are you really going to vote for Clinton or Palin because they're women? Are you really not going to vote for McCain because he's older than the rest?

Listen to the things they all have to say. Please.

Look beyond their professions of faith, beyond their "God bless America"'s, beyond their tear-jerking stories. Stop being concerned with what they wear or don't wear and how they travel and how perfect their families are. Both sides are claiming to have God on their side and to be the best for America - go figure. I would encourage you to look for them to set the example.

I've been harping on church leadership for weeks and months now. It's important to realize that problems in the church almost always stem from problems in leadership. It's important to realize that the same is true with our nation.

Rudy Giuliani spoke before Sarah Palin last night. He started down a road of wise advice before steering the speech into a political ditch. He asked that his listeners look at the impending elections as if we were an employer looking at hiring a new employee. Smart. What qualities would you look for in hiring the person to do the best work for you? Would it be race, gender, age, or some other superficial characteristic? Or would you look at experience, optimism, the ability to play well with others, the vision for leadership, and the ability to inspire?

Would you hire someone with big dreams that can't tell you how they'll accomplish it?
Would you hire someone that sat in your office and bashed your other applicants?
Would you hire someone that was arrogant enough to tell you they could solve all the world's problems?
Would you hire someone that wanted to eliminate violence through violence?
Would you hire someone that professed to be godly and spoke as if he or she had never met Christ or read anything Jesus taught?

I'm not happy with our candidates right now, even though the ones nominated are likely the best in their primaries. My concerns fall on both sides of the aisle and also amongst those of us who will vote without using our brains. Maybe McCain can change that for me tonight - I'm not holding my breath though.


Answered Prayers

I know it's been a little while since I posted last. I've come to the conclusion that I'll probably never be that pastor that posts every day. I admire those guys for several reasons - mainly because they can find the time to post every day, but also because they can find something worth posting about every day (in most cases). Today I have something worth writing about: answered prayer.

In my prayer time over the last several days I've begun to see God answer prayers begun months ago. I want to share them with you so you can celebrate with me. (Romans 12:15)

Charge Conference is coming up 35 days from now (but who's counting?). For those of you who haven't been a part of a United Methodist Church, this is our annual meeting of the congregation for officially approving the leadership for the next year, the pastor's salary, any candidates we have for ministry, and our lay speakers. That means that in the next 35 days, Mt. Bethel's Lay Leadership Committee will assemble and coordinate the list of 2009 leaders.

Now, you may remember that earlier this year, I posted about the vision I have for Mt. Bethel and that it all begins with leadership. You can read that post -->here<--. Basically, we need to unload the bus and reseat everybody with a new arrangement. Some of our past leadership has been non-edifying and in some cases a hindrance to ministry. In some areas, the leadership has been altogether ineffective and inadequate. Now, that's not the whole picture of Mt. Bethel's leadership - some areas of administration have been under superior, immaculate leadership.

My prayer since last October has been for God to place the right people into leadership. Last year, being my first year at this appointment, was not the most opportune time to shake up the leadership, hence my being here a second year. Now that we are into that second year, having heard God speak time and time again, it's time to do what needs to be done. Honestly, this task has been a little daunting for me and I've been no less than intimidated by some of the conversations I've had. I knew going in that some people wouldn't be happy with the changes that had to be made and some might actually be angry about them, but they still had to be done.

Well, I have completed each one of those conversations and haven't had the first bad encounter. Even the long-time leaders that I've asked to take a less-authoritative, more-developmental role have accepted those changes with grace. Praise God!

(I am aware, however, that some of those folks that are stepping aside will be watching me closely for mistakes, ready to point out that I'm too inexperienced to know better - they've done these things with other pastors prior to my arrival).

I'm just as excited about WHO God has called to these leadership positions. We have one prominent leader that will be taking a front-seat position next year that may be the best the United Methodist Church has ever seen. In conversation, his hopes for 2009 are the same that I've prayed over and written about in this blog. He and I are very much on the same wavelength and we should be able to make some large strides toward achieving the current vision of the church.

The two biggest things I'm excited about, he's excited about. The first is the establishment of what I'd call a core team. We will work to get our top 8-10 leaders involved in a group to study, pray, and talk together. My prayer is that this will be a prelude to establishing a church-wide shared vision and a sure way to establish unity, beginning with top leadership.

The second opportunity I see on the horizon has to do with the establishing of collective vision that is also a part of the vision I posted about several months ago. I began the process of establishing this vision last year, but quickly learned that there wasn't enough support in the leadership to work toward this collective vision. Not only is the support there now, but the leaders that will take place in January are insisting on it.

I go back to Jeremiah 1:17-19. This is where I hear what God has called me to do in the early stages of my appointment to Mt. Bethel. I have to admit that there have been times that I've wanted to give up, step aside, or accept things for they way they were, but I haven't given in to those feelings yet - and God has been sufficient because I counted on him being there.

If you're in the midst of facing a challenge and you know God has called you to face it, take these words to heart. Keep praying, keep working, and keep getting up when the world knocks you down - God will be faithful if you are.

In your prayer time this week, pray especially for these people and how they will be a blessing to Mt. Bethel: Bill, Beverly, Helen, Jason, Janice, and Bobby. You don't know them, but add them and Mt. Bethel to your prayer list.


Standing in Two Boats

One of our church's leaders has been out and will be out over the next several weeks due to the quintuple bypass surgery that followed the mild heart attack he had three weeks ago. Richard is also one of the teachers of our largest Sunday school class, so in his absence I offered to share teaching duties with the other two teachers.

This may surprise some of you, but yesterday was the first time I have EVER taught Sunday school. It was fun and an excellent opportunity to talk about some tuff topics (for those who don't know, "tuff" is actually more difficult than "tough" with a little bit of fun mixed in).

I didn't pick the Sunday and thus, I didn't pick the topic, but it was very fortuitous. We studied James 4:1-12, which is James' scolding of Jewish Christians for their fighting and quarrelling. Now, for those of you who know me, you know that I'm rarely one who backs down from a good skirmish - I've been in my fair share of conflicts and I've worked hard to resolve many of them.

Have you ever seen a good church fight? If you've ever played church league softball, you probably have, either between the Methodists and the Baptists or you may have seen your own team implode. When we think about church fights, we immediately think about the time that old man Jones started a screaming match with Council Chair Sally. We don't so much think about the other conflicts that take place behind the scenes. What about when we don't get along, start gossip, and create alliances. Survivor doesn't just take place on TV, Christians have mastered this technique of getting our way and voting others off the island. Then there's my favorite, the passive-agressive technique: the way we can praise someone publicly and to their face and then find secretive ways of unraveling that person's hard work or misquoting their gracious words. It's a great credibility killer and the hardest of conflicts to flush out into the light. As a pastor, this is by far my favorite kind of conflict - as a United Methodist, I know that these are the attacks that cause the most negative pastoral moves in the church.

All in all, we're just plain good at fighting. James scolds his readers for this attitude and asks, "Do you really think this is the attitude that God intended for you? Some conflict is healthy, but these approaches to "dealing" with conflict are not of God, they're of the world.

This is dangerous for those of us who profess to be Christian. Have you ever seen what happens when a person tries to stand in two boats? If you're lucky, you can make it last for a few seconds, but eventually we all know what will happen. The boats will drift and the daredevil will eventually get really wet.

Imagine faith as a boat. Christ has invited all of us to get into his boat, but sometimes we forget (or refuse) to take our other foot out of the world's boat. When it comes to conflict, we love God, but we don't love others. We stand with a foot in God's boat and a foot in the world's. James even wrote about how this affects our prayer life. God doesn't answer our prayers because we don't have the heart of God and we pray selfishly. See also 1 John 3:21-22. Pay close attention to the phrase, "if our hearts do not condemn us..."

So what's the answer? It's not just knowing the heart of God, but HAVING the heart of God. We have to repent, or turn away from our selfishness and the way we don't love each other. We have to decide to change our attitudes and our actions. And we have to humble ourselves to God. If we humble ourselves, God will take care of our needs, our wants, our reputation, our influence, and our future.

Here's a prime example for you: We all, in our churches, jobs, and homes, carry a certain level of authority and a certain level of influence. Think about the people in your church that possess a certain level of authority. Some will always cling to their authority like a life raft and that position and power has to be pried out of their cold dead hands (often literally). Others recognize that they won't always be there and they were never intended to be the permanent solution to the problem and they disciple others, they share their authority with others, and they plan for the future.

Now what happens to the influence of the person who unflinchingly clings to their power? It takes a big hit. People lose respect for these leaders and don't want to follow them. These leaders wind up in endless conflict with others.

What about those who share their authority with others and are responsible in their leadership, what happens to their influence? It grows. These men and women gain the respect of others and even when their term in leadership comes to an end, they still serve as admired leaders in their community.

Here's the point: we've got to stop trying to stand in both boats. If we are going to follow Christ, we have to make the decision to get in his boat completely - in attitude and action. When we learn to love first, we will still disagree with each other over some things and not everything will always be rosy, but at least we will come more often to resolution, especially resolution that doesn't hurt or take from somebody.



A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was down from Lawrenceville on business and I had the chance to spend an hour with him over a cup of coffee. Joel is one of those people that I think every pastor needs around. In the middle of a busy, stressful week, he's a guy that genuinely encourages me whether he knows it or not. In the same encouraging conversation, he can push me to be a little bit better.

Since we met that day, one question of his has echoed in my mind over and over and over. He asked me, "Is your preaching as bold as your blogging?" My reply, "I try to preach boldly most of the time."

And I do. I firmly believe that sermons aren't meant to be feel good moments and have to have realistic opportunities to respond. If you're listening to a preacher, it means that either you don't know Christ and need to take those first steps or you have a relationship with Christ and should be striving toward perfection, working out your faith with "fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

Am I bold or perfect every time I stand up on a Sunday morning? Unfortunately no. Am I bold every day I get up and live publicly? I wish.

Two weeks ago I preached on Peter walking on water. Last Sunday I preached on the Canaanite woman who pleaded with Jesus for her daughter's healing along with Jacob's wrestling with God at Jabbok. Both sermons dealt with our boldness as Christians, whether it was making the decision to follow through with what God has called you to or simply struggling with God and your faith. Boldness is one of those essential ingredients to living an effective (or fruitful) faith.

I hope that when people hear me preach, they feel urged to grow in faith and become barbarians in their own sense. I hope that my sermons are bold enough to make the grade. Most importantly, I hope that I am at my boldest when I am out of the pulpit.


Help Wanted

I'm looking for some help. I want to do a sermon series on healthy living and getting in good shape physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in the fall. This is a new development, but I'm going to need some help to pull it off. Here's what I need:

  • A dietician - to help give cooking/dining recommendations to the congregation
  • A trainer - to give exercise advice
  • A butt-kicker - to help me pull this off and lose some of my own weight by the end of five or six weeks (it would probably look bad if I preached on healthy living and gained weight in the process)

All of this is behind-the-scenes stuff that needs to be done. I'm not looking for someone to speak to the crowds or teach a class. I just want to pull together some information, for people age 2 through 94, that will get everybody involved in this sermon series.

This is a series that has been on my mind, but I've managed to push it to the back-burner before now. The mandate to be healthy is a scriptural one and one that we, as Christians, fail at constantly and choose not to talk about.

The Devil Made Me Do It

I'm a little late in posting about this, but when I heard it on TV, it was big enough for me to write it down.

We are, of course, in the midst of a big stir in the sports world that could have global ramifications stretching several generations from now. Still don't know what I'm talking about? Brett Favre, the greatest quarterback to ever come out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, retired from professional football in March and now wants to come back. He can, he still has time left on his contract, so the Green Bay Packers have to reactivate him at his own request until that contract runs out.

I don't really care about Brett or the Packers, but this situation has gotten to be a joke. Yesterday, the Favres landed in Green Bay and were welcomed by a few hundred fans. Today, Brett reports for Packers Camp, which is the last thing team management wanted to happen. Frankly, when I heard about Favre coming out of retirement, I said to myself, "Here we go again. It's Michael Jordan all over again. Next thing we know he'll be trying professional baseball, or curling, or acting or something."

The guy's not coming out of retirement because he's in a financial pinch - he's coming out because he can't make up his mind and hasn't been able to for several years. He's as bad as my wife shopping for dresses. (I love you Erin.)

Last week, I heard part of a press conference with the General Manager of the Packers. The GM addressed the media and said "It's not Brett's fault that he chose to retire." I thought he was being sarcastic, but HE WASN'T! He was being dead serious - the kind of serious you get when you're called to the stand in a big trial.

Now, I'm confident that each reader has enough congnitive ability to realize that this statement is absolutely ludicrous, but I'm curious about why he would say such a thing. Does he really believe that? Could he really believe that? At what point do we tell Brett Favre to "man up" and be accountable to his own public decision to retire? At what point do we tell anybody to own their own decisions?

We live in a world where the blame game is a professional sport. From childhood, we almost instinctively muster the words, "Wasn't me" or "It was an accident." From the beginning of time, men and women have been shirking responsibility. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent (read it here).

Part of my sermon yesterday had to do with our responsibility as children of God that comes in the form of a calling and purpose. That purpose is to care and provide for others so they are fed, clothed, sheltered, befriended, and welcomed and so that they come to know Christ for themselves (Matthew 25:31-46).

In the Kingdom of God, there are no ifs, ands, or buts - only truth. We may be masters of making excuses in this lifetime, but in our relationship with God, they will go over like a lead balloon.

Instead, we should be setting the example for living up to our responsibilities and being accountable to our decisions. I've learned that life is much easier when nothing is hidden and we're humble enough to know when we've screwed up.

You're entitled to your opinion, but I believe Brett Favre should have stayed retired. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer who had accumulated alot of respect and an immense reputation as a stand up guy. Now that he's reneged on his decision to retire and done it in such a deceptive way, I've lost respect for him and hope that he's not still setting the example for young aspiring athletes. I hope others can see through him. I hope others can see through the rest of us also.



I've been tagged probably a half dozen times to do one of these new "meme" things that bloggers are doing. Thanks to all who tagged me for involving me in your digital chain letter...

The rules are to share six random things about myself and tag six others who will then have to share six random things and tag six others. You get the idea. It's a vicious cycle of randomness and I'm not sure that it's very barbaric to be involved in anything that is called a "meme". Nothing I do is random, it's all strategically calculated and executed with military precision. And if you beleive that, have I got some property to sell you!

I won't tag anybody else, I think the world of the meme will somehow go on fine without me. But if you want randomness, randomness you shall have:

  1. When I first felt called to ministry I thought I would end up as a missionary in Africa or South America.
  2. I was on academic probation for my second semester of seminary. The first semester Old Testament class is the only time I've gotten lower than a C in anything.
  3. I started shaving my head when I lost a fraternity bet and Erin gave the guys permission to cut it all off. Best bet I ever lost.
  4. I love thunderstorms. It's raining hard outside right now and I'm as relaxed as I can be.
  5. I want a motorcycle. Maybe it'll happen sometime in the future. Look for me, I'll be the preacher in jeans on the bike (getting 45 miles to the gallon!).
  6. I don't like writing six random things, so as an act of rebellion, I'm only writing five.

What the Braves Need...

It's July, almost August, and baseball is in full swing. My Cardinals are only four games back in the Central Division and they're tied for the wild card chase. I got to watch them stomp Atlanta last night in a game that had some really entertaining moments.

For those of you who don't follow sports, let me give you an update. Tuesday, the Atlanta Braves traded their first baseman, Mark Teixiera, to the LA Angels for their first baseman, Casey Kochman. In the long run, that may be a beneficial move for the Braves, but for now, it's a setback as they lost one of their leading hitters and run-scorers.

The Braves are 9 games out of first place and have looked pretty flat all season. They're usually good for about 8 innings every game, but always have that one inning that they give up too many runs and reach a point of no return. It's not the Braves that we loved from the 90's for sure.

I'm in the process of establishing next year's leadership for Mt. Bethel and there are alot of considerations that must be made. At the same time, I'm watching the Braves and trying to figure out why they look so flat this year. I believe it comes down to leadership. In the 90's, you had some great leader figures on the team and the team acted like one. They worked together, they laughed and cut up, and they won games. Now, if you watch them, who would be the leader? Most people point to Chipper Jones, but he's hot and cold all the time and now plagued with injuries. What about John Smoltz or Tom Glavine? Also hurt.

I compare them to the other teams that are doing well and those teams may have some star power on the lineup, but more importantly, they've got leadership. Guys that may not be dazzling everybody, but that are rock solid and consistent that provide inspiration for their teammates. I've determined that great leadership isn't found in a person's spectacular ability, but in the way that they make everyone else better.

Great leaders give 100% and therefore can expect 100%. Great leaders pick up their teammates when they're down and help them keep perspective when great things happen or when things get too serious. Great leaders can laugh and also give vision and direction.

Our churches need this same leadership. Too often, church leaders get leadership confused with doing EVERYTHING. They forget that they haven't been called to be better than everybody else, but to make everybody else better.

It's tragic when that's lost and we have to search for that leadership wherever and whenever we can. As a pastor, I also know that if I work hard and inspire others to work hard while giving them the freedom and security to screw up every now and then, those quality leaders will rise to the top. Thank God we're seeing that take place at Mt. Bethel.

It's not always the strength of the single Barbarian, but his or her ability to pull together the strength of other Barbarians.



Do you suffer from insomnia? I don't, but I provide a great cure if you do.

My sermons are once again online. If you'd like to hear, you can either find them on iTunes by searching for "Mt. Bethel" under podcasts or you can simply go to Mt. Bethel's Sermoncloud Page and have it streamed to you or download it to your computer.

Drowsiness and dizziness may occur. Don't operate heavy machinery or drive a car while listening. Most of all, enjoy. If you hear one you like, let me know. If you don't - keep it to yourself.

Pastors, feel free to steal my material, change it, use it. If something I did helps your situation, then by all means... One request: write your own sermons - don't be one of those slack preachers that downloads or plagiarizes sermons so they can play more golf. See my previous post on laziness and spring fever.


Spring Fever

For all of you who have known me for any amount of time, you know that I have an unquenchable case of spring fever. Every year since I was in elementary school, around the end of March, I have been plagued with an uncontrollable desire to be lazy.

It's been compared to "senioritis", but I've found it to be much more serious and to show up annually, instead of during the last year at a school. It causes lack of motivation, daydreaming, forgetfulness, and low energy. In elementary, middle, and high school, it caused alot of conflict with my mother. In college, it might have caused me a couple of B's or C's when I could have had A's. Now, it causes work around the house to get backed up, sermon preparation on Fridays and sometimes Saturdays, and procrastination on blogging.

This year, my spring fever even has spring fever and it didn't kick in until June and it's lasting through July. I might not finish this post until next week.

This is also a time that I believe our churches suffer from spring fever. Most churches (at least all but the one I'm serving) have lower worship attendance during the summer and finances get tight. Right now, my church, along with several others, is looking at opportunities to reach out to families - especially families fighting the high gas prices and not traveling this summer. However, we're dealing with a lack of motivation that seems to be contagious.

Maybe you're that super person that can't relate at all to being unmotivated to follow through on daily tasks. Maybe you've never had spring fever or senioritis. Or maybe your smiling as you read these words, glad that someone else can relate to how you feel. I don't think it's just misery that loves company, laziness does too.

I could be satisfied watching baseball all summer (did anybody catch Josh Hamilton's 28 home runs in the first round?), mowing the yard every other week, playing with my kids, playing more golf, and working the minimum 40 hours each week until Labor Day, but that doesn't do justice to what God has called me, or the church, to. So how do we fight this?

What tactics do you use to keep yourself on track in seasons like these? If you're a leader in your church, how do you keep others motivated on a day perfect for cloud watching?

Procrastinate a little on whatever you have to do today and take a few minutes to let me know what you think.


Eye Candy

I know I'm writing less and bragging more, but I wanted to share some more pics of the kids. Apparently Camp Grandmom and Papa is going very well.


We Are Family

I am blessed. I have an incredible wife and two perfect (well, most of the time) kids. They're on a three week trip to "Camp Grandmom & Papa." It's too quiet in this house. I'm getting alot done, except for the fact that the house is a disaster area. Erin, if you're reading this, don't panic, you won't be able to tell by the time you come home.
It's times like these that my visits with some of our older members take on different meaning. I spent a couple of hours with Mt. Bethel's resident patriarch on Saturday. He lost his wife in December. You can read about it on my old blog here. Johnny lives by himself now with only a cat for companionship most of the time and I can't imagine how deafening the silence must be. They were married in the 1940's and have always had family in and out of the house. Now, in the twilight of life, I admire his strength to face each day. He's still an important part of the church - he's got the most of anybody else to share with those he disciples.
My energy level is down. I'm lacking motivation to do some things and all I can attribute it to is not having a wife to kiss when I come in the door and a couple of kids to make sure I'm out of bed on time in the morning. There are times that I understand why John Wesley recommended that none of his preachers marry - I hate when my family gets dragged into the gory details of church life. These are not those times.
Cling to your family. They will be the ones that give you the strength to live the barbarian life. They are the reason that I do what I do with the zest that I do it with. I want my wife and kids to have the best experience with God possible and that requires a solid church family. I want my kids and everybody else's to have excitement about pursuing the Kingdom here and now and I don't want them to have to deal with the garbage that some Christians create in the community.
I always give thanks for my family, but these days I do it with an even deeper conviction. May my children have a family that pushes them to live a life of barbaric faith.
On a side note, I've added a feature to the blog that allows you to comment on my pictures. If you're reading this in a reader, you'll have to go to the site. Give it a shot. Tell me how perfect my kids are.


Ordination & Annual Conference

I've been absent from the blogging world for the last couple of weeks. It's been a busy time.

Faith, my daughter, was baptized on Father's Day. Baptisms are always special and exciting in the church, but it's exponentially more special when it's your own child. Thanks to Stephen for driving down for this special occasion. Today was his last Sunday as Minister of Evangelism at First UMC of Lawrenceville and it means alot that he'd give up one of his last Sundays for our family.

The next day, I left for Athens (a.k.a. the New Jerusalem) for Annual Conference. I always look forward to this week. Nowhere else have I found so many Christians come together and treat strangers like lifelong friends. I get a week to hang out with friends I don't see much the rest of the year.

This year's AC was different than others for me. Tuesday night, I was ordained. I began to take steps to answer my call to ministry in 1998 and finally, on June 17, 2008, Bishop Lindsey Davis laid hands on me with a great crowd present and instructed me to "take authority as an Elder to preach and Word of God, and to faithfully administer the Holy Sacraments." What a moment! What a responsibility!

I don't think its completely set in yet. I've been pursuing this for 10 years (the minimum for a high school senior) and in a few moments on a stage in Athens, Georgia, it was final. I think it may not set in completely until the fall comes and I don't have to drive to the United Methodist Center for my monthly covenant group.

I only have one disappointment so far. Wednesday morning, I filled up my hotel bathtub with water just to see if I could walk on water yet. No good - sunk right to the bottom!

I've tried to send messages and make calls to all who have played a part in getting me to this point, but the numbers are unbelievable. Thousands of people have played some role, either major or minor, in support of my calling. Thanks to you all. You are important to me.

With that, I would say that each of us knows someone who God is calling into full-time ministry. Support them. Pray for them and push them to answer that call. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a Church to ordain a minister.

Vision of Effective Stewardship (6 of 6)

Back to work.

Finally in the vision for Mt. Bethel, we must have effective stewardship. We need to move beyond a survival mentality and into a mode of generosity and abundance. If our church finances don’t reflect a generosity to the community and if our funds aren’t given proportionately to the cause of missions and outreach, how can we expect average worshippers to be generous and effective as stewards?

In principle, this part is simple. Mt. Bethel, as with many other churches, fights a tendency to slip into survival mode. We worry about paying bills, ridding ourselves of financial debt, and funding old programs that have lost their effectiveness. We evaluate our needed offerings based on what our financial obligations are and not on what the vision of the church is and the potential lives that can be touched.

I've saved this vision for last for a specific reason. When we place our finances at the forefront of following God's plan, we run the risk of letting our bank accounts determine how far we will go. It limits our faithfulness. Instead, we should follow with all our energy and count on God to make sure that the appropriate dollars are there.

I believe that in God's plan and in the way the church is organized, our finance committee and church council should NEVER be limiting to the vision of the church. Rather, the two should be charged with finding the appropriate resources when ministry teams develop ways to do ministry effectively.

When the church leadership takes on this attitude towards stewardship, the face of stewardship changes in the whole congregation. Stewardship "campaigns" take on a different tone and are more fruitful. The ministry teams have the freedom to dream and the permission to pursue new things and new people.

When we really get down to the meaning of being good stewards of what God has given and we recognize that everything we are and everything we have is ultimately God's, we find freedom in our obedience and we see miracles performed in our presence.



Today, I preached from Luke's version of Jesus healing the woman suffering from hemorrhages and raising Jairus' daughter. Not to brag too much, but I laid it down this morning. By the time I finished preaching, I had worked up a sweat and people couldn't wait to get out and share the Good News with others (or maybe it was noon and they were ready for lunch).

I'm always amazed at how God will use these sermons to transform me. I will go home on Sunday afternoon and feel like I needed the message as much as anybody else.

To make a long story short, I preached on healing. I talked about what needs we have for healing, whether it's physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual - but that in all circumstances God heals for the eternal consequences, not simply to heal the body, which is temporary.

For almost four years, I've been carrying around a broken relationship with a very good friend. Today, that relationship was restored. That friend may be reading this tonight, and a part of me hopes that he is.

We parted ways over something stupid, but a few weeks ago, I felt prompted to try to contact him. We reconnected, and in good time too - both of us are dealing the stresses that life brings and can certainly use each others' support.

I can say that this reconciliation was ALL God. If I had to try to fix it on my own, I would have certainly screwed things up worse. What's even more incredible is that until today, I didn't realize the burden that I was carrying by not speaking to my friend. I needed healing and didn't even know it.

What about you? If we live the barbarian life that we are called to, we will be wounded - we will hurt, we will be persecuted, things will go wrong, we will fall short. Often, the most important person on the battlefield of life is the one who brings us healing - who gets us off our backs and back into the fight. What kind of healing do you need? What burden is slowing you down?

God may tell you "No, I won't fix that for you." He told Paul that and Paul tells us that in 2nd Corinthians. Sometimes, God simply tells us that his grace is sufficient and that his power is made perfect in our weakness.

But the truth is this: unless we ask God to heal us and mend our lives, we won't get an answer either way. What's slowing you down?


Vision of Meaningful Spiritual Formation (5 of 6)

I've been working on something for some time. For those out there who are Christian historians, maybe this is my "Dorothea's Wheel." It looks a little something like this:

This is how I see the life cycle of a Christian. You enter the cycle as a new convert though evangelism, possibly in worship. From your conversion, you enter into spiritual formation where you are (ideally) discipled. You are taken deeper into faith by learning more about Christ and Christ's teachings. This is where we equip one another to send out in mission.

The next step in the machine is mission. It is here that we put wheels under our faith and learn to serve one another, and others, because of what we believe and because our love of God compels us to love others. James 1:22 has something to say about this.

I believe that the next step is sort of a graduation. As we grow in our mission, we arrive at a point that we can begin making disciples. Now, the cycle doesn't end for someone who begins making disciples - it merely "re-cycles" for the rest of our lives.

Part of our problem as the Church is that we allow people to get hung up in stages for a lifetime. Too many of our new converts are never made into disciples, never taught to pick up their bibles, or to develop a relationship with Christ. For others, it is easy to get into the cycle of spiritual formation and be spoon-fed Biblical knowledge for years and never-ever get dirt on their hands.

Some become missions junkies. I've been there. It's a great feeling to spend a Saturday building something, but sometimes the project takes precedence over the person you're doing it for. We become pro bono construction workers.

In our reaching out to others, we keep the focus on what our primary responsibility is: making disciples. No handicap ramp or soup kitchen will last forever, but the disciples we lead into relationship with Christ will live forever. We can waste alot of time, money, and energy as Christians by not completing the loop.

I say all of this to say, if you take out one part of the cycle, the cycle is compromised and faith becomes something else. If you take out evangelism and go straight to spiritual formation, you get a lot of really smart Pharisees. If you take out spiritual formation and go from evangelism to missions, you get either resentful Christians who feel like slaves or zealots who do more damage than good. If you remove missions, people become hearers of God's word and not doers - and thus, hypocrites. See the issues?

In my vision for Mt. Bethel, developing meaningful spiritual formation is a big part of creating a healthy Christian cycle. When we become hospitable and reach out to the community, what comes next?

We have to give people something to come home to. Our spiritual formation currently is minimal and not reaching a large percentage of our people right now. If we are going to reach out to people and invite them in, we must have something worth coming to. We need to improve our spiritual formation, not just so we’re a prettier package, but so that we equip the people we’ve got now to discern the mission and vision of Christ and apply it in their own lives.

I got some challenging comments from a member the other day when we were discussing the state of Sunday school in the US currently. You can look at the studies and see that even the Baptists, whose cornerstone is Sunday School, are dealing with dwindling numbers for Sunday morning spiritual formation. However, you can also see a much faster growing trend in participation in weeknight Bible studies, home groups, gender specific groups, and short-term groups. Spiritual formation continues to grow as a need for Christians in America today.

My member's problem with that conversation recently was her remembrance of the days (in the 50's, 60's, and 70's) that Sunday school attendance exceeded worship attendance and had a tendency to mean more to the people of Mt. Bethel. In the words of another wise person I spoke to recently, the best strategy when you find that your horse is dead is to dismount.

We don't need to abandon old forms of spiritual formation that still meet a need. Our older generations, especially, find great resource in meeting weekly for an hour on Sunday. We do, however, need to begin to offer that which meets the needs of other age, social, and maturity groups.

I'm beginning to beat a dead horse, so I'll stop here. I'm interested though, in your comments about my Christian life cycle. I've been tossing it around for about 4 years now and have never shared it until now. What do you think? Is it off? Is it missing some insight? Is it so good that I should write my bestselling book on it and make my millions so I can retire early?


Ordination - At Long Last!

Friends and family, June 17th will be a milestone in my life. Yes, I've already shared the news, but my ordination will be at 7:30 the evening of Tuesday, June 17th and you are all invited.

If you're nearby, the service will be at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. If you're not, or maybe you want to watch from your living room in your underwear, you can watch it here. It will be broadcast via live streaming. (If you have trouble with the link, copy and paste this address into your browser: http://www.ngumc.org/communications/annual_conference_2008/streaming/)

It's still two weeks away, but if I didn't tell you now, I might forget later. Thank you for your prayers and support over the past several years.


Where is Your House Built?

This Sunday, I'm preaching from Matthew 7:15-29. We've all read it before and we've heard some preacher tell us not to be hypocrites. I'm getting fired up about this Sunday though. Partly because the things that have come into my wheelhouse recently, and partly because I could easily preach six weeks on this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here are my thoughts:

I remember being hung up on this text the first few times that I read it, years ago. In verses 21-23, Jesus talks about who's in and who's out and suprisingly, there are those who performed miracles who are on the outside.


OK, I get that the text was about authentic discipleship and having a real relationship with Christ, but if you don't have those things are you really going to be performing miracles? I guess so.

Jesus makes an interesting point by the way he chose his words. Could it be that he's discounting the value of miracles because God will use even the most evil to bring forth good? Could he be showing that those are things that we actually don't do ourselves and their sometimes things that can happen in spite of us?

Once I began to understand the complexity of Jesus' words, I found freedom in them. I remember, as a teen and even during my college years, I would give things the old college try, only to be disappointed that I wasn't making the difference that other Christians were making. None of that matters though. Jesus wants us to see that being his disciples doesn't make us religious superheroes - it makes us durable, solid as a rock, and able to withstand any pressure.

On the other side, I have seen friends that had the Midas touch when it came to their faith who, when the first winds blew and the flood waters rose in life, their faith was shaken. You may have seen this, or perhaps experienced it - it's heartbreaking. I'm nervous for some of the people I'm around everyday, who like to share the resume' of their faith and let people know how long they've been members of their church and what kinds of things they've accomplished. They don't realize that in many cases, they're living in a house of cards. When you ask the question, "What is God doing in your life right now?" and get a blank stare, be very concerned for this brother or sister and please, pray for them.

When someone asks you about your faith, what's the first thing you tell them? Do you present your resume' and maybe some pictures from your last mission trip? Do you tell them when your Christian birthday is (this is a pet peeve of mine by the way)? Or can you tell them what God is doing in your life right now?

When the day comes that Jesus asks you about your faith, what's the first thing you'll tell him?
Will it be your accomplishments and the length of time that you've been a Christian? Or will Jesus even need to ask? Will he know you so well that there are no questions?

I've got a song for you: Casting Crowns' "Stained Glass Masquerade." (By the way, their lead singer is a youth minister here in McDonough)


Standing Strong

Some of you know that this has not been a very uplifting week and I'm grateful for your words of encouragement and your prayers.

Last night, I began reading Jeremiah. I hadn't really concentrated on the prophet in a while and Erin pointed out some things that seemed to be relatable to my situation. I decided to begin reading the book, beginning with the first chapter.

Jeremiah was called to be a barbarian for God. Here's why:

"...I will utter my judgments against [the cities of Judah], for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands. But you (Jeremiah), gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land - against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priest, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you says the Lord, to deliver you." (Jeremiah 1:16-19)


Get ready for a fight and don't back down. I like what one version says, "Do not be afraid of them or I'll give you a reason to be afraid!" Don't mess with this God!

It's interesting that given the trials that Jeremiah did face, God continued to promise him that there was a bright future for him and the people of Judah (x).

What has God called you to stand up for? Are you backing down? I'm not.

Vision of Effective Evangelism (4 of 6)

For Mt. Bethel, effective evangelism must take place. You can call it whatever you like. I'm aware that the waters of "evangelism" have been muddied over the last several decades and has become quite profitable for the greedy and disappointing for the lost. So, whether you call it evangelism, outreach, witnessing, sharing, leading the lost, or prefer to let your actions do the talking, it needs to be done here and it needs to be done right.

That has a couple of implications for Mt. Bethel:

First, we must move our focus away from unfaithful members. They can join us in the mission if they want to, but they are not the mission and we must stop wasting energy. We have to turn our attention to the unchurched and new residents. Since my first week here, I have had several people present me with the names of members who had fallen off the church's radar that I was asked to call and invite back to church. Suprisingly, most of these names were the family members of the people that were giving me the names!

In ministry, I've learned that you can spend infinite amounts of time and energy trying to coax a wayward member to come back and never show fruits. I've also learned that a simple, gracious conversation with a total stranger, when I'm receptive to the Holy Spirit, can bear fruit too great to count. Our job cannot be to collect those who don't want to be there for whatever reason anyway - it's the ministry equivalent to herding cats.

The second implication and the tricky part will be the "how." We will need to establish "bottom shelf" methods for early and easy success for a group of people that haven't seen contemporary evangelism.

Last summer, I heard a sermon delivered by David Walters at the Lawrenceville Campmeeting. He shared with the congregation what he believed was a "bottom-shelf truth." He explained it by using his household as an illustration: Those of us who have small children who like to play with things they shouldn't, learn to place the delicate, complicated, advanced things on high shelves. Likewise, that which is left on the bottom shelf, within the grasp of a 2-year-old, is fair game and accessible to that child.

In our churches, we have to remember that not everyone has been a follower of Christ for 20 or 30 years. In fact, if we are making disciples like we should, most of the people in our churches won't have been Christians for long at all. We have to establish methods of ministry that can be effectively used by someone with a week of faith-experience, just as well as someone with a lifetime of faith-experience.

When we overcomplicate things and insist that people memorize lengthy scriptures or "rules" for accepting Christ, we limit who will do evangelism and where. Outreach doesn't have to be hard. It can be as simple as carrying someone's groceries for them or giving a bottle of water on a hot day and showing that you do these things out of your love for Christ.

One of my favorite ideals comes from St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel (be witnesses to the Good News) at ALL times - and when necessary, use words.


Collective Vision (3 of 6)

As the right leadership is put into place, it is essential to begin to share this vision for moving forward and gain the cooperation and passion of others.

This means a lot of prayer, creating buy-in and a sense of urgency within the congregation, and creating simple, logical, progressive steps for moving forward.

I talked some about vision in the first post of this series, but that vision is the vision that God has given me. It's a vision that is easy for me to take hold of, but not so easy for someone else. How willing would you be to follow someone based on word alone? Maybe someone out there is a member of a cult and might have no problem with that, but I actually expect people to approach my words and the words of any church leader with a bit of skepticism. They should expect what I say to gain creedence by producing evidence. It's called assurance.

Until it gets to that point though, I have to begin with this vision and work it into my leadership, who will (ideally) work it out to everyone else. Hint: That's why leadership came before collective vision in this series - it wasn't coincidental.

Since October, all of this has been represented in some way or another in every sermon I've preached, every Bible study I've taught, every meeting I've been in, and nearly every conversation I've had. It's slow going. Sure, some who have been looking for something or someone to follow for a while have jumped on board, but others are late adopters.

My hope this spring was to pull together a vision team to evaluate the current state of the church, determine where God wants Mt. Bethel to be, and make a plan to achieve that vision. It hasn't happened. Churches like Lawrenceville First and Dacula First and some of the others that I've been a part of are used to vision teams/committees and will fight each other to be a part. Not so here. Mt. Bethel is in a different league and of a different mindset.

It will happen though. Maybe not in the traditional way, but it is still possible.

Collective vision, though the second on the list, is just as important as the rest though. Without it, I am left to do the work myself and what good is that? Anything I do on my own stands to be wasted effort and simply futile. I will itenerate eventually. God's vision will not.


Vision of Strong and Transformative Leadership (2 of 6)

As I contemplate this vision and how to communicate it to the church, I see that there are options: the first is continued complacency and eventual death, the second is new methods and a new heart. Neither option is pretty, but God has declared that if we refuse to, he will make the rocks cry out instead. Basically, if we choose not to take on a new life as a congregation, God will make a new start without us. Our community is too ripe for harvesting for our self-centeredness to deny God's will.

So, for this vision: The first essential element in new life as a congregation will be establishing and equipping strong and transformative leadership. A protective leadership that is in survival mode will no longer do for this vision. Leadership must exhibit the hope and power that is found only in Christ.

This need for leadership is the hinge on which the entire vision is developed. Last year, we began making strides in establishing new leadership that will begin to look more objectively and optimistically at the future and current ministries of Mt. Bethel. In some cases, this has meant moving some of the old guard into new, unfamiliar leadership roles where they will use past experience to re-learn ministry. In other cases, it has meant retiring some of the old guard and bringing in new leaders who have never been considered for any leadership position.

My new Staff-Parish Relations Chair had to be convinced that he has leadership qualities and would be better than one of the six eligible veteran candidates!

Older members have asked me from the first day why there haven't been any younger leaders in the congregation since they were young and my answer to them is this: If you, as a leader, don't disciple someone and call them into those roles, they'll never have the confidence or awareness to do so. My challenge to all of my older members who want to retire from official leadership positions is to take 3 younger people, inside or outside the church - doesn't matter, and disciple them. Take some time and go for coffee or buy them lunch. Invite them into your life as you would a son or daughter and teach them what you know.

Compare the disciples early in the Gospels to the disciples as they ventured out in Acts and see the difference that discipleship makes. Read through Timothy and see what it takes to bring up the next generation of leaders.

Our strong lay-leadership is vital to setting the communal vision, and keeping focus on Christ as we move into the future. Without leadership, we are destined to wander in the wilderness and lose identity as a church. With key leadership, we fulfill the great commission and live the greatest commandments.


Vision (1 of 6)

In the fall, on my previous blog, I began to post about the vision that God has given my for Mt. Bethel. I'm not sure why I never finished the series of posts, but I've had several requests to finish it now. So, for the next week or so, I'll do my best to share it with you.

This is good timing for the church also. I will be meeting with my Staff-Parish Relations Committee next week - be praying for it now. It's a regular meeting, since the committee is supposed to meet a minimum of four times per year, but we'll be addressing some heavy subjects. I'll be sharing this vision with that group of leaders in writing. It's sort of a way to say that this is where I stand and this is what I believe and if you've pledged to support me as a pastor, this is what you are supporting.

Vision is important to any community. Biblical wisdom has something to say about it in Proverbs 29:18. I've read a lot on what vision is and how to create a shared vision for your church, but I have yet to find anywhere in scripture that God gave his vision to a committee...

What could that mean?

You see it throughout the Old Testament in particular that when God had something to say to a group or had plans to share with leaders, he always gives this vision to a single person (Moses, Elijah, Abraham, Noah) who then instills that vision in the people. This is the prophetic role of the pastor. No, I'm not saying that I've got the direct line to God, but if I am faithful as a minister, I will be the one that Christ will use.

In October, as I was praying over the leadership nominations process of the church, I had an unusual experience. God began to flood me with a vision for the next two years of my ministry here. I began scribbling on my little Black n' Red notebook as fast as I could and about a half-hour later, I put my pen down and just sat there, rather amazed by what had just occurred. Well, that weekend, I took my notes and began to type them up into something more organized and detailed since I know I don't have the best memory in the world (as my mother or my wife).

This is the start of what I wrote:

I believe the God's desire for Mt. Bethel in the next two years is to become a larger, younger congregation. By this, I mean that our reach should be farther and that we should be constantly bringing more people into relationship with Christ through their relationship with us (a.k.a. discipleship). I also believe that the congregation should become younger. This is not a discrimination against the older population, nor a selfish desire. The average age of active members at Mt. Bethel is in the range of 60-65, while the demographics of eastern Henry County indicate that the average age of residents, not including minors, is 41 years old. Our purpose is to grow under God's will in a way that correlates to the makeup of our community.

There are five primary goals that are essential for this vision. Number one is coming up next...


Homecoming, Part II

I've finally chosen a text for this Sunday's sermon. I'm used to choosing my text AT LEAST three months before preaching it, if not longer. This has been a little stressful, moving into this week, still not knowing what direction I would go on this upcoming big occasion.

I've got it now though. I'll be preaching from Matthew 20:1-16, commonly known as Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. I think this particular story speaks well to a congregation with 175 years of history and tradition. My next concern is to make the sermon strong, but not too pointed. Here's why:

If you read the parable, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard manager who hired some workers (day laborers) early in the morning, more at lunch time, more in the mid afternoon, and again more close to the end of the day. When the day was done, each worker, regardless of time put in was paid the same. This is the parable that brings us the tagline, "the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Mt. Bethel has some issues, as does every church I believe, with entitlement. Just like those vineyard workers, some of our most long-term members like to remind others of just how long they've been around - how many years they've sat in THEIR pew or how many times they've stayed out overnight to tend to the men's BBQ.

I've got a problem with this, especially when it makes some perfectly good Christians with tons to offer feel like outsiders. God has given us each an equal opportunity and when you're in, you're in. There's no waiting period, no neophyte year, just acceptance.

I'm finding that this is generally the problem with dying churches. When you find a church full of older people who have been attending since infancy and you notice that their children and grandchildren are nowhere to be found, you might have an issue. When it goes a step further and people in the twilight of life are still holding all of the key leadership positions and not passing that power off to the younger generation, you've got a church in the throws of death.

Likewise, you've also got those members that are never considered insiders because they might have a shadow on their past. Maybe they did something that they're not proud of. Maybe they were the Prodigal who took a little longer to return home. Those things never seem to be forgotten.

So what's with the hierarchy that we place on church? Jesus says pretty clearly that he's not down with that kind of treatment and it's really none of our business if God wants to treat each of us the same, whether we receive Christ early in life or in our last moments on our deathbed.

Have you left somebody out? Do you still treat someone as new or unworthy simply because they don't live up to your standards or they haven't been around as long as you?

What can we do to get past this?