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This Sunday, I'm preaching about opportunity - praying for it and making the most of it.  We're finishing up a series of sermons on the newly adopted vision of Mt. Bethel: "to be a spiritually alive church, sharing Christ's love through service to the community.

Paul, in concluding his letter to the Colossian church, gives his usual instruction to pray for him and his associates, but he includes some additional instructions specific to this church:  "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5).  Note that he doesn't say to take advantage of the opportunities that fall into your lap or the ones that are convenient - Paul says to take advantage of every opportunity. 

Wouldn't it be great if opportunity presented itself like this?

The truth is that many of us hope and pray for a better world, but rarely pray for opportunity (outside of selfish opportunity) and sometimes we avoid opportunity for the stress or work involved. 

There's a story about a potato farmer that had a shed that needed to be torn down.  Lightning struck the shed and it fell apart and burned up, saving him the work.  At the same time, the rain came down and washed his car and watered his fields.  When asked what he was going to do next, he replied, "I'm waiting for an earthquake to shake the potatoes out of the ground."

Sadly, this is how many of us live our spirital lives.  We'll do what is convenient or what doesn't risk too much of ourselves.  Sadly, for many churches, this is why vision never makes it past the paper stage.  The document looks great and it seems inspiring, but then it collects dust and in a couple of years, people forget it.  Pastors expect laypeople to be inspired and motivated and laypeople expect the pastor they pay to make everything happen.  And so time keeps moving and nothing else does.

God wants to do amazing things through each of us and each of our churches.  Are you praying for opportunity like Nehemiah did?  Are you expectant that God will part seas like he did for Moses? Or that he will present and Ethiopian Eunich reading Isaiah like he did for Phillip? 

Basic wisdom says that we see what we're looking for and miss what we aren't paying attention to.  Do your prayers and plans put you in position to catch the opportunity thrown your way? 

I think we can all look back and name several missed opportunities.  We all had the opportunity to purchase stock in Microsoft or Home Depot before they made it big, but only few did.  We all have the opportunity to make a difference in the Kingdom of God, but few of us do.  The question is, when you look back a year from now, will there still be just as many missed opportunities in your wake, or will you have lived on the edge and taken some risks?

"The reason some people don't recognize opportunity is because it often comes disguised as hard work." -Anonymous


(Brief) Encounter With the Klan

I'm coming to realize that when something big is happening at the church on a given Sunday, something out of left field is going to happen.  Call it coincidence, call it Murphy's Law, call it what you will - but SOMETHING is going to happen.

Yesterday was Charge Conference.  I was nervous enough simply because my District Superintendent was in the building.  Running around to make sure I had everything in order, I encountered a young man in the hallway just before Sunday School.  I shook his hand and welcomed him in.

In his early to mid-twenties, this man seemed a little timid and reluctant to come in, but said he was looking for somewhere to worship.  He qualified his statement by informing me that he was a member of the Christian Identity Church, which was a church I was unaware of until yesterday.

He was working on becoming a pastor and had visited other churches in the area, only to disagree with what was taught and preached and to leave.  I asked him to tell me a little about what he believed and the church he was a part of, so he pulled me aside, out of earshot of some of the others, and laid it on me.  He is a member of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Identity is the church of choice for white supremacists. 

Didn't see that one coming...

I did the pastoral thing and welcomed him in anyway.  After all, what has the greatest chance of helping him to see the light, kicking him out or welcoming him in?  So I welcomed him in and immediately went into prayer mode.  This was a volatile situation - Mt. Bethel has members that are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian.  What would happen?  Would I give this man a chance, just to have to kick him out when he said or did something unacceptable? 

After about 5 minutes, he stood up, indicated some displeasure to me, and left...and I started breathing again.

I've done some research since then and Wikipedia has an article on Christian Identity as a movement and as a church.  Read more HERE.  Basically, they believe that only white people have souls and everyone else cannot be redeemed by God.  There's also the belief that Jewish people decended from Cain and that Europeans were the true Israelite nation because there were ten lost tribes of Israel expelled to Europe by the Assyrians.  As far as I can tell, there isn't a logical thread that can be found in their theology and, if placed on water, it would have so many holes in it that it would sink to the bottom in record time. 

Unbelievable.  This movement claims to have between 2,000 and 50,000 adherents in the US alone (yes, the gap in guesses is that wide).  A lot of these wackos are easy to spot with swastika tattoos and hate paraphernalia.  The groups are growing too, according to researchers and the Department of Homeland Security.

I don't understand anyone who would want their life to be defined by hatred.  I don't understand anyone who can claim to know Christ and not grasp the concepts of grace and love. 

Here's the kicker, I see a lot of it in mainline Christians.  Anybody want to venture a guess as to how many anti-Obama emails I've received from "Christians" in the last two years?  I've asked several people to keep those beliefs to themselves.  How many of you saw the YouTube video about Barack Obama being the Anti-Christ?  Watch it HERE, but be sure to follow up with this ARTICLE from Christian Post.

Do I believe that Barack Obama is perfect?  No.  Do I believe he's the best president in the history of the US?  Probably not.  Did I vote for him?  Do you really think I'm going to answer that question - it's none of your business.

But does any political decision or stance deserve hatred?  ABSOLUTELY NOT. 

Is it limited to our President?  Definitely not.  The shock of a few people when our new African American church member turned out to be better educated and more articulate than most other church members was almost palpable a year and a half ago.  Thank God for the strides we're making in becoming more diverse as a local church - I think it makes us look more like God's family.

In a world where we strive for racial, gender, age, and other equalities and groups like the KKK operate deep within the shadows, many of our regular folk still don't get it.

Do the world a favor, study your Bible more than you study your email.  Stop letting people tell you what to believe and when you are told something, study to see if it's valid.  Stop reading just the parts of your Bible that make you feel good - read the whole thing.  When you read the words of Christ and the stories of what he did, ask yourself why he did them. 

The Jesus I know came to the Jewish community, God's chosen people, as a fellow Jew.  He worked hard to teach, heal, and offer salvation to many Jews.  He also went out of his way to include Samaritans, Roman citizens, and others outside the fold.  Inclusive, not exclusive.  He loved, he offered grace, he sacrificed, and he gave very specific instructions for us to do the same.  Yet we still build our churches and pay our pastors so that we can be served, instead of building and paying to be able to serve others.

I think many of us can look at the young man that came to church yesterday and say, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as that guy."  (See Luke 18: 9-14) I get the feeling that God sometimes watches us with his head in his hands saying, "They still don't get it."  Guard your words and your actions.  More importantly, guard your minds and hearts.  The world will have you believe that it knows the mind of God.  You really don't have to go far to find someone that will pervert the Gospel for their own profit or benefit.  Paul spent time writing to many of the churches to guard against this same thing. 

Thank God for the grace that he's shown you, even when you weren't deserving - then GET TO WORK!


A Fix to a Big Problem

I'm in my office this afternoon.  I'm working on finishing up paperwork for Charge Conference, which will be this Sunday morning.  Honestly, I'm fighting a nap and I'm not sure if its the paperwork or the big lunch I had with our senior adults, but I'm sure that I'm in no state to operate heavy machinery.

Taking a break from the filling out of forms, I just read an article from the United Methodist News service about possible restructuring and all sorts of new teams and committees that have been formed for the purpose of turning around some negative trends in the UMC (read it HERE).  First, our declining numbers of members (most west of the Mississippi) and our increasing average age.

The two seem to go hand in hand.  We're not bringing in younger members at the same rate that we're losing older ones.  The Baby Boomer generation is getting older as well, so the average age of people in our country is on the rise.

Age concerns have been a recurring theme at Annual Conferences over the last few years and at General Conference in 2008.  I can understand.  I'm one of less than 20 "young clergy" (under 35) in our Annual Conference that has around 1,000 total clergy.  I think the stat is something in the neighborhood of there is one young clergy person for every 48,000 young adults in the U.S. right now (don't quote me).  That's going to be a very heavy load in the years to come.

While I'm reading all of this, I'm listening to Robbie Seay and other Christian worship artists.  I miss contemporary worship - I mean truly contemporary.  I grew up in traditional worship and I know the hymns, the liturgies, and everything else that comes with.  I have an appreciation for it, but it doesn't feed my soul the way that some of the newer worship songs do.  I want to be able to sing loud and without the trouble of stumbling over thys and thous.  I haven't had the opportunity to worship in a truly contemporary worship setting on a regular basis since I was in college.  The two churches prior to Mt. Bethel had what they called contemporary worship, but it was watered down and still 10 years (or more) behind the times.

I miss it.

Earlier today I had lunch with our senior adults.  People I love dearly - men and women who have fantastic stories to tell and wisdom to share.  I enjoy my time with them.  I did get a chuckle out of the gathering when more than one person talked about how they wished they would see more young people in our church.  They segued from that topic to all of their aches and pains and all sorts of age-related ailments.  (You have to learn to filter a lot of the conversation or you'll hear way too much information sometimes.)

Meanwhile, our Council of Bishops and other various task forces are studying why younger people are choosing other churches, or no church at all.  There's not a Bishop on the Council under 50 and each task force has the requisite, solitary young adult.  Last time I tried to work with a group of older adults on reaching young men and women, the best suggestion they could come up with was to hold a dance at the church with punch and cookies.  No offense, but if I want to know how the church needs to be transformed to reach young adults, I'm probably going to put young adults in charge of the transformation and get out of their way. 

I'm a young adult - at least for another 5 1/2 years.  My friends are young adults.  I hang around young adults (when I'm not eating at a thanksgiving luncheon at the church). 

Do you want your church to grow?  Do you want the average age of your congregation or your denomination to get younger?  Perhaps instead of having another task force take a look at it you should boost your young adults to a level of higher authority (instead of making them earn their stripes first) and get out of their way.  If you want younger families, give people like them the freedom to make changes to worship, to Sunday school or Bible study, to the way their children are ministered to, to the way everything else gets done. 

I'm tired of being acknowledged in meetings and conferences for my age and never getting asked my perspective on such a big issue.  Its not just me, its the majority of young ministers and young laypeople (and there aren't many of us!  Don't worry, God is still the same yesterday, today, and forever - even if you have drums in worship and stop having so many committee meetings.

In the words of a young Will Smith, "Parents just don't understand."


Salute to the Vets

I came close to joining the military. I don't know how many people know that, but thanks to my brother-in-law, I really considered becoming a Navy Chaplain (to work with Marines).

I was in seminary at the time and Bryan was giving me his best recruiting speeches. I think I would have considered it, except for two things. First, I'm not really crazy about walking into a combat zone unarmed (Geneva Convention rules - I'd be a non-combatant). Second, my father-in-law took me aside and told me that his son and other son-in-law were military and I would not be doing the same. Pop's a retired Marine and a Vietnam vet, so I thought I'd heed his "advice."

Next Wednesday is Veteran's Day. We're recognizing those men and women at church this Sunday. I think about the vets that I know and I'm ashamed that this holiday seems to be nothing more than a sale day at their favorite department store.

When we graduated from high school, one of my best friends and I went separate directions for the first time. I went to college, he joined the Army. Todd became a paratrooper and saw action in eastern Europe, Africa, and Iraq before getting out a couple of years ago. Now he's a drastically different person. Like so many other vets, he has to deal with physical side effects of jumping out of planes and enduring combat and, even tougher than that, he has to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My heart breaks for the men and women who put themselves in harm's way, only to return to families and friends as a shell of their former selves. In many regards, these warriors never get to leave the battlefield and while they wage that war in their minds, the people back home don't understand or appreciate their dedication and sacrifice. Their sacrifice is just as great as those who never come home. "Greater love has no man than this," says Jesus. I believe it.

Because of the people like the many in my family and countless others who have served in the military, I haven't had to. Thank you.

If you're reading this, pray for my brother-in-law. He was deployed on an 7-month tour this past Monday. OOHRAH!

Vets in my family:
Rex Davis - Army & USAF
Rosemarie Davis - USAF
Reece Stroud - Army
Otis Ward - Navy
Clarence Frietag - Army (1st person to be drafted into WWII from the state of Missouri)
Miguel Nolla - USAF
Joseph Nolla - USAF, active duty
Chris Sexstone - USMC
Bryan Sexstone - USMC, active duty
Josh Nicoson - Army
Todd Hurley - Army

Want to recognize a veteran? Leave a comment.


Sexy Ministry

Matthew Paul Turner over at "Jesus Needs New PR" had a very interesting post last week.  Read it HERE.  He asks the question, "Is your ministry sexy?"

I think this might be the dream of most pastors as they leave seminary and set out in ministry.  I know it was for me.  I wanted, and to some degree I still want, a sexy ministry - the kind you read books about - the kind that boosts you to regional or even national prominence and creates a demand for the pastor at conferences.

MPT writes about a young Baptist minister in Mississippi whose ministry is far from sexy.  He's in a poor area, preaching about difficult subjects and not the trendy topics you hear about from sexy churches.  He spends hours each week preparing those sermons, visiting an aging congregation, and doing his best to connect with a younger generation that is battling with drugs and dropping out.  It's the kind of ministry that makes you old before your time.

I would venture to say that 95% or better of ministries are far from sexy.  Mine's not and I only know a few that are - most of those are recent church plants, built to be sexy.  So why is every bestselling church leadership book and highly rated conference based around this notion of sexy ministry?

Because its a dream that sells, just like all the "get rich now" books.

I had lunch yesterday with two friends - one an associate pastor and the other a youth pastor.  Both are in unsexy ministry in older congregations, have multitudes of established traditions to manuever around, and play the part of the rope in a constant tug-o-war between groups of church members.  They do ministry with small budgets, or in some cases (especially this year) NO budgets.  In many cases, their authority as ministers isn't recognized and their influence is minimized because they're ministering to people who have been a part of these churches much longer than they have and they've seen dozens of ministers come and go.

As another friend of mine put it, "It's more like selling Buicks than Ferraris." 

For everyone out there who's in the trenches, working insane hours for little pay and very little recognition, my hat is off to you.  Be assured that your ministry is making a difference.  Every one of those kids who grows up to be an active Christian owes that in part to you.  Every senior adult that finds companionship in your visits and whose family finds comfort in your presence during their last moments is different because of you.  Every church you serve and community you touch on that shoestring budget is better because of your leadership.  Keep working.  Keep serving.  Don't let anyone convince you that your work is less than godly.

Remember that your "unsexy" ministry is making a difference for the "unsexy" of God's children.


Lost in the Corn

For the last few weeks, our Youth Ministry Coordinator and I have been taking turns filling in the vacant Youth Minister position at Mt. Bethel until we can hire someone new.  I have to say that the weeks I've been there, even though I'm already tired from Sunday morning, have been fun.

I've learned that I'm still fairly nimble and I can take on most of our youth in backyard football.  I still throw a pretty mean spiral that some of the boys are a little timid in catching. 

I've also realized that there is still a part of me that misses doing youth ministry.  The 2 1/2 years I spent as a youth minister while in seminary were fun.  Who else can claim that they get paid to play and go on trips?  Would anyone dare say that senior adult ministry is more fun?  I think not.

This last Sunday, we took 8 youth up to Southern Belle Farms in McDonough.  The farm, owned by the Clark family, has pig races, hay rides, corn cannons, funnel cakes, and of course, the corn maze.  This is the fourth year of the maze and there seems to always be a crowd running around the farm. 

Last year's design in the field was Larry Munson.  This year it was the Atlanta Motor Speedway logo. 

I logged a few thousand steps on my pedometer and tried to out maneuver several teenagers for bragging rights.  Later, looking at an overhead picture of the maze, I noticed some life lessons:

Look at the pictures above.  You can clearly tell what they are.  You can even trace the three routes in and out of the maze (which I recommend doing before you go).  Do you know what this maze looks like from the ground?

Corn.  Lots of it. And it all looks the same.

Once you get into the maze, you have a lot of decisions to make.  Left, right, or straight ahead?  Sometimes you might get help - some of the crossroads have trivia questions and a correct answer will point you in the right direction (who knew that corn was used in making batteries?).  A wrong turn will send you way off course, loop you back around to where you were, or simply dead-end.

Life often looks like this from our perspective.  We stand at different crossroads throughout life, never knowing quite what might be around the next bend.  Should I go to college?  Should I get married?  Should I have kids?  Should I quit my job?  Should I take that job offer?  Should I retire now, or wait?  Truth is, we never know whether disaster or success is waiting for us. 

From above, there is a greater perspective - for the sake of the metaphor, God's perspective.  It's a beautiful design that ends where it began, with God.  It has twists and turns and sometimes when it feels like we're going the wrong direction, we're actually going the right way to our destination.  We can get direction from the signs in our lives, or we can ignore them, which will often teach us a lesson.

Just an observation.  Have fun with it and feel free to get lost in the corn.