Learning 8 Important Lessons in 2014

  1. A strong finish can makeup for a weak start.
  2. Parenting is a choice you make everyday.
  3. Food blogs revolutionize you’re family’s culinary experience.
  4. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate.
  5. Kids need spontaneous dance parties with mom and dad.
  6. Dads must tell daughters what truly makes them beautiful.
  7. Improvement comes with desire.
  8. Reconciliation seeks to mend broken relationships, not finish them.

Learning 4 Christmas Books to Balance Your Teenager’s Holiday Movie Watching

I loved watching Christmas movies as a child.  Rudolph.  Frosty the Snow Man.  The Grinch.  A Christmas Story.  Home Alone 1 & 2.  Mickey’s Christmas Carol.  Charlie Brown Christmas.  National Lampoons Christmas Vacation.  Admittedly, I still love watching all of them.

Recently, I’ve grown to love reading Christmas books.  Each year, I do my best to read a new (new to me, anyway) book with a Christmas story.  I look forward to it sort of like I used to look forward to sitting in front of a TV for those holiday specials.

Today’s the last day of school before Christmas break for most of your kids, so I thought I would offer 4 books to occupy their time.  If you’re a parent like me, you will be fine with your kids laying all over the family room watching the Christmas classics.  That’s what break is all about, right?  Like me, I also imagine some of you would love for your kids to exercise some brain power, too.  A little balance is needed.

Here you go.  4 books approved by me for your teenager’s enjoyment:

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  A classic every person should be familiar with by the time the age of 13.  Your kids will probably claim to know the story, but do they really know the original story.
  2. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.  Another classic your kids probably don’t know, but should.  For those of you hoping to really exercise those brain muscles and moral compasses, this is the book.
  3. The Stupidest Angel by Christopher.    Before you worry, this book is not sacrilegious.  It is the funniest Christmas story in print that I’ve read.  It is the National Lampoon’s Christmas for books.  Definitely recommended for Middle School and older.
  4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.  This one is for all the church people.  Anyone with any experience with church Christmas plays or pageants will connect with this story.  It is funny, but also challenging.  It is a good read for all ages, including moms and dads reading to their little ones.


Learning from Christmas: Law Can Be Trumped by Love

What’s the right choice:  Law or Love?

Joseph, the fiancee of Mary, was facing a difficult decision.  Law or Love.  His choice could be influenced by legal right.  Or, it could be shaped by his faith in God.

It had to completely catch him off-guard.  Mary was found to be with child” (Matthew 1:18).  This isn’t the 21st Century.  The news wasn’t broken to Joseph by way of a plus sign appearing on a home pregnancy test.  No ultrasound or sonogram showed proof.  This discovery was purely old-fashioned.  Mary was showing, or as some like to say it, she had a “baby bump.”

If I’m Joseph, I am freaking out at this point.  He knows it can’t be him.  They haven’t laid together.  He’s sure he isn’t providing enough food to compensate for natural weight gain. She’s pregnant.  SHE’S pregnant.  She’s PREGNANT!

If I’m Joseph, I am sure my mind would immediately go to the law.  What does the law say about situations like this?  As a son born in the lineage of David and Abraham, it is his duty to uphold the purity of their people.  He must have recalled Deuteronomy 22:20-21.

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house.  So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”  (NRSV)

Thus saith the law.  Due punishment for proof of infidelity is death by stoning.  It’s the legal right of every husband, or in this case, fiancee.

The gravity of Joseph’s situation is highlighted by Matthew’s intentional use of one word.  Found.  The law in Deuteronomy 22 is written, “if…the young woman’s virginity was not found.”  Then, in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story in 1:18, he writes, “she was found to be with child.”  Poignant parallel.

All the law requires is proof to be found.  Evidence was indeed found with Mary.  Now what should Joseph do?  Uphold the law?  Or trump the law with love?

What would you do?  It’s not a fair question because you know the rest of the story.  Joseph initially chooses partial love by planning to “dismiss her quietly.”  Before he gets a chance to follow through, an Angel convinces him to believe she’s conceived a child by the Holy Spirit.  By faith, he believes what he hears and takes Mary to be his wife.  Love trumps law.

Let me ask it a different way, What do you do?  When law and love collides in your life, what do you choose?

Christmas is a time to remember that law can be trumped by love.  Oftentimes, it should.  Acting according to your rights shouldn’t take precedence over loving a person.  Jesus’ life was made possible by such a decision.  Then, Jesus spent the majority of his life making the same decision for others.




Learning from Christmas: Your Wisdom Can Fail You

Wise men from the East recognized a star.  In the darkness of night, in the canopy of millions of stars, they recognized one particular dot of light.  Realizing its significance, they set out on a journey to find it’s treasure.

They are astrologers.  Their faith is in the stars.  Every twinkle in night’s sky is a map of reality; past, present, and future.  In the constellations and movements of the universe, they search for all truth.

The wisdom of these wise men interpret this one star as the sign of a newborn king.  A “king of the Jews” to be exact.  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  Chalk up one in the wisdom column for these wise men.

Realizing themselves to be the first and possibly only ones capable of interpreting this light, they quickly begin a search for the king.  This is their hall of fame moment.  It’s monumental, a chance for their names to be recorded in history:  “First men to pay homage to the king of the Jews.”

Where would a wise person expect to find a king of the Jews?  In Jerusalem, the capital city.  Duh.  Conventional wisdom could tell you that.  It only makes sense for a king of the Jews to be born in a city venerated by the Jewish people for hundreds of years.  Right?  The wise men think so.  It’s the first place they went, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2 NRSV)

FAIL.  There was no king of the Jews in Jerusalem.  Wisdom turned to blunder.  Following their own intelligence led them to look the fool.  Where is he?  Where is he?  He’s not here?  Isn’t this the capital city?  Are you sure he’s not here?  If not here, then where?  Wise men stifled by their own wisdom.

It wasn’t until they abandoned what was thought wise that they found the newborn king.  Their eyes refocused on the star seen at its rising, and it led them.  It escorted them to an insignificant, lowly shelter reeking of poverty and powerlessness. No opulence and grandeur displayed.  Wise men would never think to find a king born here.  Wisdom thrown aside, these wise men fall to their knees and pay homage to this newborn king.

I’m learning, your wisdom can fail you.  What you have worked so hard to know to be true, can lead you astray.

  • Following your own wisdom isn’t  a sure path to God.
  • Jesus will be found in places unbecoming to your culture’s conventional wisdom.

From the Christmas story we learn, God will gain your attention with what you know.  Then, God will lead you to a place that defies what you’ve always thought.  It is here that you will discover the gift of God’s Son.

Learning Christmas Places Your Focus on the Future

The comment slipped out of my mouth, “We should be focusing 90% of our time on the future, and 10% of our time in the past.”

Where did I hear that?  I’m not sure.  I was using hyperbole.  It had a point to make.

The verbal reaction from others in the room was, “That sounds about right.  Let me write that down.”  The room came to agreement.  Not that we were disagreeing previous to this moment.  Conversations were already positive.  Something was sparked by the bite in this statement.  A sense of realization swept over all of us.

Too often, we focus on the past.  By focusing on the past, I mean being hyper-critical of mistakes and miscues.  I did that wrong.  You did that wrong.  We made that mistake.  She could have done that better.  He didn’t do that for me.  You focus on everything done wrong, and everything else that could have been done right.

When this happens, you remain stuck in the past always trying to catch up to the present.  Most of your energy is spent on “what was” rather than on “what could be.”  By the time you’ve dealt with the past, you’ve got nothing left.  You end up hanging out there.  Then the cycle starts over again, never quite letting you live up to the present.  Rarely, if ever, do you look toward the future.

Taking a critical look into the past isn’t the problem.  Highly successful professionals will vouch for it.  It’s essential to be self-aware of ways you can improve.  The problem is the amount of stock we put into such focus.  Vision is out of balance.  The past far outweighs the future, which keeps you at least two steps behind.

I’m learning a focus on the future can change everything.  It changes how I think.  It changes what I do.  It changes how I feel.  It changes my direction.  It sets me free to chase the unknown with hope for new realities.

Jesus focused on the future.  During his most well-known sermon, he says, “You have heard that it was said (past)…but I say to you (future).”  At the beginning of his ministry, he proclaims the in-breaking of the future, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15 NRSV).  He teaches the absurdity of putting new wine into old wineskins.  No one does that.  New wine would eat through and burst open the old wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:33-39).  Jesus didn’t come to earth to focus on the old, or try to force the old into the new.  He came to bring a focus on the new, the future.

Pharisees and religious fundamentalists focus on the past.  What did they do with the past?  They tried to trap Jesus in it.  Eventually, they used it to write and sign his death certificate.

A focus on the future can change everything.  In your relationship(s).  In your ministry.  At your job.  In your family.  In your church.  In your faith.  In our world.

Christmas reminds us of the four hundred years the people of God waited for a Messiah.  They looked to the future, and waited.  The ones who missed recognizing the Messiah were the ones whose focus was still in the past.

Christmas gives us reason today to focus on the hope of God’s promised future for tomorrow.  It changes everything.

Learning Who This One’s For: SEU Men’s Basketball Fight Against Cancer

Fill in the blank:  This One’s for __________________ .

Difficult, isn’t it?  If you don’t know what “this” is, then how could you know who it’s for?

Now, imagine a loved one is suddenly diagnosed with cancer.  Life seemed normal, then out of nowhere the news hits your family.  Can’t be true.  She is too young.  The signs weren’t noticeable.

What do you do?  How do you react?  What is your response?

SEU Men’s Basketball recently faced this very circumstance.  One of their beloved leaders shared the news of his dear loved one’s diagnosis of cancer.  Devastating.  Shocking.  Disheartening.

I can’t say for sure, but I imagine tears have been shed.  Questions have been asked.  Fear has set in.  Laments have been raised.  Emotions any normal human being would feel and express.

SEU Men’s Basketball may have felt the sting of cancer, but they are fighting back.  An athletic program that knows how to win will not lose to this disease.  Despite the size of their foe, they are rising up together.  They are taking a stand against a strong opponent.

Here’s how.

By giving new purpose to their holiday tournament.  What was originally planned to showcase some of the nations NAIA premier talent, has become much more.  Instead of focusing solely on adding a win to the record column, SEU Men’s Basketball are playing for a greater purpose.  The tournament is now a collective fight against cancer.

It is called, “This One’s for ____________ Fire Classic.”  This holiday basketball tournament is for all friends and family battling with cancer.  Knowing the struggle themselves, SEU Men’s Basketball wants to join others in their fight.  On a campus this large, they realize fellow students have loved one’s with cancer.  This tournament is dedicated to those friends.

This tournament will raise money for families facing high costs of treatments.  This tournament will offer emotional support for families who need to know they are not alone.  This tournament will give hope for families feeling hopeless.

You are invited.  If you live in proximity to Lakeland, FL, you are invited to a game free of charge.  You can help pack the gym with love and support for each family.  It’s four games on two nights on December 18 & 19 on campus at SEU.

This One’s for ____________ .  



Learning Your Ministry Needs Volunteers Like Frank

LOL-Volunteer-Button30,000 people visit our church campus every December for a walk-thru Christmas lights event.  I am not exactly sure how many cars that accounts for?  Let’s just say an average of 4 people per car, which makes roughly about 7,500 cars.

Every car is parked by a Highland Park Church volunteer.  Frank is one of our volunteers.  Fo eight consecutive years, he has given four hours a night for six nights. That’s 24 hours in 9 days, in addition to his normal work week.  Every minute (1,440 to be exact) is spent standing.

Each night, here’s what I can expect from Frank, he will:

  • Arrive 15-30 minutes early.
  • Assess the parking lot for any problems or needs.
  • Checkin at parking headquarters.
  • Request 12 parking attendants for his team.
  • Assign each volunteer a task.
  • Manage the parking flow.
  • Communicate volunteer needs back to parking headquarters.
  • Ensure volunteers are safe, happy, and doing their job.
  • Stay until closing time.

If you’re a pastor, youth pastor, staff pastor, lay leader, ministry director, ministry coordinator, or anyone else involved with leading a ministry, you need volunteers like Frank.  You need to have someone (many someones) who will share the load with you.  One who will own the ministry.  One you can trust to complete an assignment, and do it with excellence.  One who will use their own ability and creativity to find solutions to problems.  One who cares about the ministry and wants it to succeed.  One who believes in you and what you are doing.

If you’re wondering how to gain a “Frank-esque” volunteer, here’s what I have learned:

  • Ask.  Ask people to volunteer.
  • Invest over time.  Don’t expect everything to be perfect at first.  Relational trust takes time.
  • Seek advice and listen.  The volunteers doing the work are normally the ones with the best suggestions.
  • Give them a niche.  Do your best to provide consistency in what they do.  It’s better to build on what they are already doing and have experienced.
  • Don’t micromanage.  Once you’ve witnessed a strong commitment and positive track record, trust your volunteer(s) to get it done well.  Be flexible with how you imagine things getting done.
  • Surround volunteers with other great volunteers.  
  • Say, “Thank you.”
  • Repeat.

Frank is one of many exceptional volunteers at Highland Park Church.  Many more deserve credit and a HUGE Thank you.  It’s just that last weekend we completed our first weekend of Lights of Lakeland in 2014.  Frank was there all three nights.  I didn’t have a single worry about an enormous section of parking because of him.

You need volunteers like Frank. I need volunteers like Frank.  If ministry is a three-legged stool, then “Franks” make up the third leg.  Churches will struggle to stand without them.

THANK YOU, FRANK!  Thank you everyone who helped with parking over the weekend!  You are Lights of Lakeland.

Learning One Imperfection Jesus Shares with Humanity

I am not saying Jesus was imperfect.  Conception by the Holy Spirit eliminates any possibility of imperfection in him.  Jesus is God.

Jesus is also human.  Born of the virgin Mary.  I guess you could say he is mixed.  Part God, part human (or more accurately stated, fully God and fully human).  God is his father.  Mary is his mother.

With a human mother comes a human heritage.  Or should I say genealogy?  Like you and I, Jesus has a family tree.  I didn’t come up with the idea.  The Bible did.  Read Matthew 1 and Luke 3.  Matthew starts with Father Abraham and delineates fatherhood all the way forward to Jesus.  Luke begins with Jesus as son and traces sonship all the way back to Adam.

A close look at either genealogy exposes the one imperfection Jesus shares with humanity.  Jesus’ ancestry is laden with blemishes.  His family history isn’t perfect.

Not sure what I am referring to?  Let me provide 2 examples.

  • Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Matthew 1:3.  Read Genesis 38.  First of all, he married outside the people of Israel.  Not too crazy, but not recommended.  Then, he fails to fulfill a promise to his widowed daughter-in-law.  Serious offense.  To make matters worse, he solicits what he thinks is a prostitute.  It’s not a prostitute.  It’s his widowed daughter-in-law in disguise.  His one night stand leaves her pregnant.  Awful right.  Worst of all, he orders his servants to “burn” his “whore” daughter-in-law.
  •  David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, Matthew 1:6.  Read 2 Samuel 11.  David is king of Israel.  The supreme ruler.  The Big Boss.  Everyone is subject to his rule.  It’s spring, the time when kings normally join their soldiers on the battlefield.  He stays.  No an abominable decision, but not admirable either.  One afternoon while getting a breadth of fresh air on his roof, his notices a beautiful woman bathing.  A king gets what he wants, right?  He likes what he sees, so he sends for her.  She’s married.  Doesn’t stop King David.  Can you say one night stand?  Pregnancy test comes back positive.  How does he deal with it?  He tries to cover it up by calling her husband home from war, so he will sleep with his wife and think the baby is his.  Didn’t work.  Plan B is worse. He orders his generals to send the husband to the front lines to be killed.  David actually instructs them to “draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15).  “Father” David was both adulterer and murderer.     

Jesus is perfect despite his imperfect genealogy.  So what’s the point?  That’s exactly the point.  God’s story of redemption continues in spite of humanity’s imperfections.  God’s working out of salvation in our world isn’t dependent upon a perfect resume.  God’s power works in weakness.  From a less than desirable family past, God gives us the Savior of the World.

God can do the same in your life.  Like Jesus, you have a family tree blotted with imperfections.  Doesn’t matter.  God is able to use you to continue the story of redemption in our world.

As you reflect on the Christmas story this season, take a moment to consider Jesus’ genealogy.  It’s imperfect, like yours.  It can be redeemed, like Jesus’.

Learning Where Youth Pastors (& Volunteers) Can Find Answers to Their Questions

ANSWERS-from-SYCUSometimes in youth ministry (volunteer or paid staff), you feel like the kid at the back room whose question never gets answered.  You have a legitimate question, but nobody notices.  Your hand is raised, but you aren’t given permission to ask.

Maybe the leader is too busy.  Maybe others’ questions trump your own.  Maybe your position is so far removed you can’t be noticed.  Maybe you’re sitting in the wrong place.  Maybe your leader doesn’t have an answer.  Maybe your network is too small.  Maybe you need a mentor.  Maybe you are swamped with a million other to-do’s.

Whatever the reason you struggle to find an answer, you still have a question.  Where do you go?  Who can you ask?

Stuff You Can Use created a new tool specifically for this purpose.  Yesterday, Dec. 1, was the official launch date of Youth Ministry Answers.  It’s a place where you get to ask the youth ministry question, and they will find the answer.  It’s amazingly simple.

On the website, ymanswers.com, you will find a their own version of the “Help” button.  You can find it on the top right corner of their homepage.  It says, Record Your Question.  Click it, leave your message, and Kenny and Elle will begin their search for an answer.

 The answer will return in the form of a Podcast.  Not only do you receive an answer, but so does everyone else with the same question.  Which means, you also get to listen in on their answers to questions you haven’t even thought of yet.  

Two podcasts a week.  You ask.  They search for answers.  Finally, you can raise your hand and be noticed.

An innovative resource for you:  Youth pastors,  Ministry Directors.  Youth Worker Volunteers, Small Group Leaders, Parents, and Lead Pastors.

Check it out:  Youth Ministry Answers

Learning To Be Thankful for My (Thanksgiving) Food

Thanksgiving2014Brooklyn and I decided to prepare all the food for Thanksgiving this year.  First time ever.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

We thought we were doing everything possible to make it simple.  Two weeks in advance, we planned the menu.  Not an easy task, by the way.  We didn’t know when to cut it off.  We would say, “This is the last thing,” then would think of one more.  Then one more.  Then one more.  A week in advance, we bought all the food, except anything that needed to be fresh.  A day in advance, we started cooking/preparing the food.

Our plan for Thanksgiving Eve seemed perfect.  (1)  Wake-up early.  (2)  Take Kirra and Mya to the mall to see Santa and shop for Christmas.  (3)  Eat lunch at one of Tampa’s best Cuban bakeries.  (4) Spend the afternoon prepping/cooking food for Thursday.  (5)  Relax with a Christmas movie while we wait for Grandma and Grandpa’s flight to arrive.

Our plan was foiled.  We woke up late.  Didn’t see Santa because the line was two hours long.  Got stuck in traffic on the way home.  Wasn’t able to start cooking until late evening.  We were still cooking when grandma and grandpa arrived around midnight.

“I’m not sure I will ever do this again,”  I said to Brooklyn midway through Thanksgiving morning.  My back hurt.  My feet were tired of standing in the same spot.  I might have washed the same mixing bowl 5 times.  Dishes kept piling higher and higher, and we hadn’t even eaten yet.  I looked like an 8 year boy who just woke up from sleepover.

I didn’t keep the exact number.  We must have worked for at least 7 hours.  Whew!  What was I thinking?

All of sudden, the previous 35 years of Thanksgiving dinners came into clear view.  I became keenly aware of something I needed to do.  I called my mom and said, “Thank you for making Thanksgiving dinner for so many years.  I can’t believe how many consecutive years you have done it.  To even think about doing it all over again in five weeks at Christmas is completely exhausting.”

Thanksgiving 2014 taught me to be thankful for my food.  It’s work.  My mom and grandma and the other women of in my family deserve a HUGE “Thank you!”

If you haven’t already, tell the person who prepared your Thanksgiving dinner “Thank you.”  Men (with a few exceptions), I’m talking mostly to you.