Back in the habit.


Hello again, and welcome to a two post day!

I think this will be a quick one. I just really need your guys prayers right now. For as much as I am a youth leader, and spend a considerable amount of time preaching on and from the bible, I have a confession to make. I am absolutely horrible at keeping up with my daily bible reading. Like really bad. I would harken back to a day where I was good at it, but I don't really think that day ever existed.

This is a weird confession to make, but I would bet some pretty cold hard cash that I am not alone. I bet there are other people in ministry to speak on the bible, and probably are even pretty knowledgeable about the bible, but don't read it at all. At least not for themselves. We come up with all kinds of excuses, like "I read it all the time for work!" or "I just don't have time when I get home!" or "Have you seen how busy I am! Seriously!" But if we're honest, I don't think any of those excuses cut it. And I don't think a life without being in the word is actually all that spiritually healthy.

According to the first site that came up on google, and just about everyone else I've ever talked to, it takes about 21 days to actually form a good habit. I could get into how ridiculous it is that I've started bad habits in significantly less amounts of time, but that's not what we're here for. There are of course some tips. You should keep the habit at the same time each and every one of the 21 days. You should have clearly defined goals. You should wear a costume while doing the habit (not true).

So, because I'm all about public accountability, here are my goals for the new habit:

  • What: Read the scriptures. I would actually like to get through the Bible in about a year, but that's less important to me than actually reading a bit every day. The plan is to read three chapters every day: one in the OT, one in the NT, and one from the Psalms. For those curious, I'm in Ezekiel and Matthew at the present.
  • When: Every morning. Or at least I should say when I wake up, as today I woke up around 2. But I still did them!
  • Why: Because God does some pretty important things in your life when you open yourself up to his word. You'd be amazed at how much his light will shine through when you're dedicated to reading the scriptures!
So today was day eight. I would really appreciate all of your prayers as I dig through this. Eight days straight is pretty hard to do, I don't know what 21 days is going to look like. But I'd really like to get into some good habits!






I have no idea why this is the first image that google image search throws up when you search for catacombs, but it is and it's cool looking so deal with it!

Hello friends!
It's four o'clock in the afternoon, and I have only been up for about two hours. That's because last night we were playing everybody's favorite game, catacombs! It seriously is a pretty legit game, tons of fun for the whole family.

I think last night's event did a lot to define our ministry, or at least this year of our ministry. I'm pretty happy to say that it's going excellently. The execution of last night was flawless, from beginning to end. But we learned a lot last night, and as is customary, I think I should share what we learned with you, the good people of J-Blog.

1. Deadlines be deadlines matey.
We decided this year that we're going to take our deadlines seriously. All too often in the past, Ed and I would waffle over deadlines, let people into events who signed up late, because we (or maybe it was just me) are big softies. While on the surface, this seems like the nice thing to do, don't be fooled. More often than not, the day of the event we would be confused and disoriented about who was coming, and when they would be there, and if they paid, etc etc. It was chaos.

This year at Veritas, a deadline is a deadline. So we set the deadline for November 14th, and for well over a month and a half, told the kids that if they failed to bring us their permission form and money by October 14th, they would not be participating in Catacombs. On October 15th, there were some very unhappy people. I have fielded countless angry phone calls and e-mails, but rested comfortably in the line "I'm sorry, you missed the deadline." It was kind of weird at first, and even felt a bit like I was denying people grace. But when last night hit, and we had a really easily understood list of people, all was good.

2. Number are awesome!
Of course during the deadline, I had swine flu, so I wasn't at Veritas that night. While I was being destroyed by fever on the couch the next day, Ed sent me a photograph of BOX (our sign up delivery system). Our e-mail is down, so hopefully later on I can add the photo to this post, but the sucker was over-flowing. After the dust settled, and we counted everything, there were 74 kids planning on attending catacombs! That's a few.

Last night, only about 65 showed up. I say only, but that was the biggest single event we ever did. It was really nice. After three years of hoping we were doing well in our ministry, we got some physical proof.

Numbers can absolutely be tricky. Some youth leaders focus only on numbers, which is incredibly unhealthy. Others go the other way, and completely ignore their numbers. This is not healthy either. There's a middle path, that includes listening to some of what your numbers might be telling you:

  • Your program is healthy. This is a tough one to say, because there are healthy programs out there that just don't have the numbers that we do. Don't compare yourself to us, or to anyone else for that matter. Are the numbers healthy for your church or your area? If you work in a small church, smaller numbers might indicate a victory for you.
  • Kids are comfortable. There's always people who say "I'm glad the kids are at least coming into the church and seeing that it's not all that scary. This doesn't really jive for me (if for no other reason than with the lights out our church actually IS pretty scary). What I saw last night was that our regular students are comfortable enough with the program that they are willing to invite their friends. That's huge! When we go to do some teachings on evangelism and outreach, events like this get kids comfortable talking to their friends about church and it's related subjects.
  • Your ego should be tied directly to your numbers. If you have a small youth group, you should be ashamed of yourself. Obviously God doesn't love you anymore. (Note: None of this is true. I am being sarcastic, and three bullet points looked better than two. Please step down from the ledge.)
3. Get Help!
Obviously as soon as we heard we would have 74 kids roaming around in our church, we got to thinking about what kind of volunteer help we were going to need. This is another one of those situations where I am absolutely spoiled beyond belief at Westminster. We have a terrific group of adults who help out with almost all of our events. We have a commission of adults who help guide and direct me and Ed, and pray for us regularly. They even bring us food!

As soon as our commission heard the number of kids we could expect last night, they sprang to action. No detail was left un-turned! We were up to speed on food, volunteers, volunteer scheduling, the whole works. The timing was perfect! As soon as we would get tired, a fresh round of troops would arrive, which ultimately gave us a little boost in our energy levels. So much so that in fact, this was the first all nighter of my youth ministry carreer where I didn't take a power nap around 4 or so. I was up all night!

(Incidentally, while our e-mail system is broken, if any of our volunteers from last night are reading this blog, you absolutely have my heartfelt thanks and appreciation. Last night was one of our biggest in ministry, and it would not have happened if it weren't for you guys. You've out done yourselves again!)

Coming soon to the J-Blog, a post about how to assemble, work with, and thank a group of parent volunteers. I think I have enough knowledge from when I was terrible at it to now when we've got a good handle on things. Much will be learned.

4. Caffine.
Of course, like any good youth leader, last night was coffee filled. My personal stats:

6 cups of Pike Place Coffee
2 cups of Golden Mountain (maybe? it was just lying around and I didn't take the name down) Extra Dark (that I know for sure!) Coffee
2 Amp Energy Drinks

That last one has caused me to think a little bit. We did not allow the students to bring energy drinks, and yet I drank them. Hypocritical or Brilliant? You be the judge.

All in all it was one of the best executed events we've ever done. Time will tell if I'm ready to label this a success. For me, if we're going to do these huge outreach events, there needs to be a few of those new kids at Veritas (or even better, in church tomorrow!). Outreach brings kids back into the church later. Otherwise, it was just a really fun game.

That said, it was a really fun game!



The Art of the Sermon Part Two: Marinade


Always looking for a gimmick for the blog, and constantly being asked about it, I've decided to work on a two-week series called "The Art of the Sermon." I'm going to

walk through step by step everything I do for a sermon, from two weeks out until Sunday morning at the Bridge. I will then post a youtube video of the sermon, just in case you can't make the Bridge. If we do it right, this will be fun and educational! Come along!

This is the hardest part of writing a sermon, because there's not a whole lot of "doing" involved. This is difficult for me! Right about now I'm freaking out because the sermon is still a blank sheet of paper. I fear that Sunday will arrive and I will still have nothing. It's kind of like that dream you used to have where you went to school in your underwear or something.

But right now, what has to happen is the process of marinading the sermon. Those of you who consider yourselves carnivores with me probably get this. Of course, you could take the steak or chicken directly out of the fridge, throw it on the grill, and a few moments later have a meal. But would that meal satisfy you? I doubt it heavily.

No, if you want a really good meal, you take your meat of choice, mix together some spices and sauces (or if you're a wimp you buy pre-made marinade. Did I mention you were a wimp?) and you place the mixture on top of your meat. You then take the meat and place it in the fridge for a length of time. This length of time differs from recipe to recipe, but some can last over night. You have to think ahead to have this meal!

But you will be rewarded good and faithful servant! When you grill that finely marinated meat to perfection, and you take your first bite, your taste buds will all but explode! You will begin weeping at the beauty of the fine meal before you. You will thank the Lord for providing choicest meats and delicious ingredients for marinade. And then after all that you'll take your second bite.

I think this analogy applies to sermon writing in a big way. It's completely possible to write a sermon that was never marinaded, and the people will be fed. You could write a sermon the night before the preaching of said sermon, but it may or may not be flavorful! It might be completely lame!

But what if, after you have read your scriptures and you have picked your topic, you just let it marinade? Say for instance you were to pick the Holy Spirit as your topic, what if you paid attention to everyday ordinary life to see where the Holy Spirit might rear it's head? What if you watched the news looking for the Holy Spirit, trying to see how people might be talking about it outside the church (believe it or not, they are!)?

So when you preach, take some time to let the sermon marinade. I understand this takes a certain level of planning ahead, which youth leaders are not often known for. But try it out! Let there be choice meats in our church services this week!!!



The Art of the Sermon Part One: Two weeks out.


Always looking for a gimmick for the blog, and constantly being asked about it, I've decided to work on a two-week series called "The Art of the Sermon." I'm going to
walk through step by step everything I do for a sermon, from two weeks out until Sunday morning at the Bridge. I will then post a youtube video of the sermon, just in case you can't make the Bridge. If we do it right, this will be fun and educational! Come along!

I think it starts a bit sooner than two weeks out, when I first gaze upon the spreadsheet. We have this spreadsheet that we pass around every week, displaying who's preaching, leading worship, and what texts have already been used at the Bridge. It's our schedule, but it's also a tool to make sure we're not preaching on the same topics again and again and again.
At first it wasn't a big deal, but now that the spreadsheet covers almost an entire year, it's starting to be a little disconcerting to pick your topic when you have weeks and weeks of old topics that are meant to be avoided. So naturally, when you gaze upon the spreadsheet and see that you are scheduled to preach on November 8th, panic sets in.

The panic gets worse when you realize that you've stolen every Rob Bell sermon that there is to steal, and that your congregation is on to you. When I first started out in ministry, I was pretty much the Rob Bell clone. I spent all my time listening to Mars Hill sermons, jotting down endless notes in my journals. I would then take certain elements of the sermon and cut them down to size (Rob preaches for 45 minutes on average, the amount of time I would like to preach. However, most Presbyterians only have the stomach for about 15-20 minutes,
so each Rob Bell sermon was good for a two week series). I even picked up his fashion sense for glasses.

So I've really tried to lay off the Rob Bell in recent months. At first, it was like a junkie giving up his drug. My first sermons were sloppy and not well organized and I think I even had the jitters. But as I kept going, I began to find my own voice. I began to come up with a process for sermon writing that really helped me be my own person. I'm even to the point where I'm way behind in Mars Hill sermons, because I have my own to write!

It's also helped that with the addition of Mandi and Tammy to the staff, I don't preach nearly as much as I used to. I think between the fall kickoff and Christmas last year I was good for about 8 sermons. This year, I only have 3. The extra time in between is invaluable. There's time to study, to learn, to digest, and to pray about what God wants me to share with the congregation. Someday, I am sure I will find myself in a primary teaching role, where I have to come up with something new every single week. But until then, I am going to enjoy the pace that comes with being a backup goalie.

So here we are. Two weeks out. I would love to tell you that I have my sermon already outlined and that I'm just looking for a cute story or a creative illustration, but I would be misleading you. I have nothing. I have a blank piece of paper. I have a blinking cursor. I have absolutely no idea what the sermon is going to be like or about. Remember that panic I mentioned?

But actually, it's important to think of your sermon starting here, in the vast void of space. Some preachers don't think the sermon process starts until they start writing something down on paper or reaching for their favorite commentary. But for me, this emptiness is important. What you really have to remember at this point in the process is that it's God's sermon, not yours. Even if you think it's yours, even if you plan it to be yours, write it like it's yours, and even try your best to make it all about you, it's still ultimately God's sermon. There's a reason that commentary is your favorite. It's because God has placed it on your heart.

So in these vast blank moments, I find it super important to listen to what God wants his sermon to be about. This morning, I spent some time in God's word, in both the Old and New Testaments, just kind of feeling out where he's leading me (while this isn't essential to the writing process, I think it's critical that this step be performed with a cup of coffee in hand). I read through my devotions (currently in Ezekiel and Matthew), and tried really hard to notice a common theme. I'm also reading a book by Francis Chan called "Forgotten God". Books are super helpful in sermon writing, if only because they help tie some things together.

This is the hard part at this point: you have to listen. I have become a huge fan of the practice of lectio divina, or praying through the scriptures. It's the difference between reading the scriptures and allowing the scriptures to read you. All too often I think people read the scriptures when preparing for a sermon with an academic mindset. That's all well and good, but that part comes later. Right now you want to spend your time listening to what God has to say to you. If you pray through the scriptures properly, certain words or phrases will start to pop out at you. Right now, it seems as though God really wants me to focus on the Holy Spirit (which, when you think about it, the Holy Spirit is how God speaks to us, so the Holy Spirit really wants this one to be all about her) (my use of the word "her" there may be it's own blog post soon enough. Stay tuned...). That may change a couple of days from now, but that's where my heart is being led at the moment.

This is only the beginning of the process. There's a lot more to come on this adventure. Stay tuned, because I promise to blog after every step of the way. If I even think about my sermon, there will be a blog post. And of course, I would welcome comments and suggestions along the way!

See you all soon!



Good morning friends!
I'm playing around with iPhone blogging apps. We're having a pretty awesome Saturday. The morning was dedicated to being sleepy and watching tv with the dogs. I also discovered today! I'm such a techno geek, if you can put something in digital form, I'm certain to do better with it.
This afternoon we're busy. We're going to see my parents in Murrysville, then going to shrams farm to pick out a pumpkin, then having dinner with Sarahs dad, the newest member of the Westminster staff!
Sabbaths are good. Make sure you're taking one this week!


-- Posted from my iPhone


I've been reading some interesting things from Christians the last few days. Well, I would argue the Christians are always good for some interesting reading, but the last few months it's been kind of a bit of a circus. With the health care debate, the religious right seems to have found a few problems with our President, and have even begun to use the Bible to justify defying the government we find ourselves under.
Some of these arguments might carry some weight. Some wise people are weighing in with some ideas that perhaps we haven't completely thought through. I don't mind that. I don't mind a well meaning person challenging the ideas being suggested by our leaders. They absolutely must be kept in check. I have even found a few areas that I disagree with Mr. Obama.
What bugs me to no end is that some of the people who are so very against Mr. Obama and his agenda tend to attack not him, but the entire federal government and it's role in our lives. They would try to convince you that the federal government is trying to completely control our lives, based on the fact that they want to give us flu shots. Again, that doesn't bother me. Some people think that a larger government means less freedom for them. I disagree, but I understand their view point. What bugs me to no end is the fact that a lot of the people who are upset with our government are the same people who were singing it's praises when President Bush was in office. They're the same people who suggested that opposing a war in Iraq (again, I would remind you I'm equally as not happy with President Obama for the war in Afghanistan) were unpatriotic or anti-American. The fact is, it would seem to me that some folks oppose the government not for legitimate ideological issues, but simply because their guy didn't win, and fear is easy to sell.
As someone who (in spite of my hate of labels) finds himself lining up on the liberal side of the isle, I know this looks like someone just lining up to defend his President. While I would remind you that I have some pretty big disagreements with our President, I would also tell you that my real beef is that when we as Christians use all of our influence for politics, we are selling ourselves entirely too short. Jesus Christ has called us to be an influence in the world, to speak up for those who are oppressed and neglected. I don't know that the current political culture allows us to do that, or at least not through the arguments we're making.
Because I've been in trouble before brining up political debates, I wanted to make sure I threw in some scriptures that have been buzzing in my brain. The biggest one is Romans 13:1:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

So for those who would say that this government is not ordained by God, how does that square with this passage? God wouldn't let this happen if he didn't have a plan for it. But more than that, if I had to summarize this passage, I would say that Paul wants us to know that there are bigger things to occupy our time than getting tangled up with politicians. Jesus would seem to hammer home that same message in Matthew 22:21.
Now, of course there are some issues in the political sphere that we need to involve ourselves in. Anytime we hear the cry of the oppressed, or worse we discover the oppression is happening at the hands of our own government, we are obligated to act. And to those who do so, I applaud your efforts. But again, I feel like there's a healthy amount of anger and fear mongering that has nothing to do with anyone who's oppressed. It has to do with a particular political party who lost, and needs to take it out on someone. By itself that's no problem, but when we use Jesus to justify such actions, it makes a mockery out of the savior.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave some comments below!


New Mascot


Good morning bloggers.
For as long as this blog has existed (what, about a year I think...we should really celebrate stuff like that!) we have had but one mascot.
Tiger has given us thumbs up when ridiculous events transpire. Sometimes, he was completely serious, celebrating a victory in the Veritas youth ministry career. Other times, his thumbs were seriously sarcastic, like when the sound system would fail. But I was informed this morning that he suffered an injury to his left thumb, and will now be placed on injured reserve. We had a morning meeting here at J-Blog (if you follow that one all the way through, yes, I'm bored enough this morning to have meetings with myself) and decided it was time for a new mascot. Someone who would strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. Someone who would cause less
er opponents to forfeit before the game even started. So we scoured the internet and found our man:
Holy cow. I'm terrified!
Do not under any circumstances stare into his eyes for longer than 2 seconds. It's like that scene in Indiana Jones, you will perish instantly.

Coming later today: A new look for the J-Blog



What if it's not there...

Hello friends!
I'm really trying to dig back into being diligent with writing and blogging. I have a bunch of ideas floating through my head, and I think it's best to get them out on paper (or in this case, the interwebs). So here's the thought of the day:
I was thinking through Matthew 25:14-31, otherwise known as the parable of the talents. Pastor Jim will be on vacation next week (though, he will be home for catacombs, and will be joining us for the entire evening, which will either be epic and awesome or utter disaster. keep your eyes peeled) and has asked me to fill in for him at his Wednesday bible study. This is awesome! The crowd at Jim's bible study is significantly older than most of my clientele, which allows me to have a bit of fun with them. I think it's good for us to step out of our normal routines every now and again. It keeps us fresh for whatever ministry comes next. But I digress...
As I was thinking about Matthew, I was working through how I typically interpret the scriptures. I was thinking through how I feel like God has given us all talents, and that it's our duty to actually invest our talents. If you're a talented singer, you should sing. If you're an artist, you should make beautiful art. If you have a warm smile, you should share it with others. We seem to have a pretty go handle on this idea in our current economy, but obviously investment comes with a certain amount of risk. You might not make back everything you put into the market.
For years, I have taught on this passage (it's actually the first passage I've ever preached on), and I have told people that these guys were just as likely to come back to their master with absolutely nothing as they were to come back with what they did. As I was thinking about that point last night, I kind of wished that Jesus had included that in his parable. What would it have looked like for the King if someone had tried to invest his talents, but failed to make anything, or in fact lost some of it? All of it? What would the King's reaction have been?
As I was criticizing the author of life for not being a good storyteller in my own living room, a thought (or perhaps something else...) popped into my head and said "yeah, but if it's not there that's part of story too, right?" So often, we spend time focusing on what the Bible says, which of course is a good thing. But sometimes, I think we look past the things the Bible doesn't say. We call Jesus the "author and perfecter of our faith", so why is it so unreasonable to imagine that the stuff that isn't in the story is every bit as important as the stuff that is? I mean, one of my favorite examples of this is the homosexual question. Of course the Bible brings it up, and has some pretty harsh things to be said about it, and we need to take that seriously. However, Jesus in all of his teachings doesn't bring it up. Not once in three years or four gospels does Jesus talk about homosexuals. Nope. Never. Doesn't that give us some insight to how highly this issue was ranked on Jesus' priority list? If it's not there, does that give it as much if not more weight than if it was?
Some thoughts to ponder of course. Under no circumstances do I think I have all the answers about faith or the Bible. But I would encourage some lively discussion here at the J-Blog about the parts of the Bible that aren't there.
Your thoughts?



I blame the technology


Hello friends.
Can you believe I fried my laptop again? I can. And so can just about everyone else around me. I don't know what I'm going to do to protect this sucker once I get it back from the repair shop, but rest assured it's going to be left alone with the cockroaches when the nuclear fallout happens. I am THAT untrustworthy...
Also in the recent past, I had swine flu. That makes me happy. I survived one of those diseases that the news made way too big a deal about! Now when I'm 70 years old and my grand kids are saying "what's swine flu?", I will look them in the face and say "You know, your grandfather had swine flu once." I will exaggerate the details, tell them I spent the whole month (it lasted a week) in the hospital (I went to the doctors once) one life support (Sarah brought me lots of Gatoraid). And these young whipper snappers will look at me with faces that say "wow, you are a grizzled old man, worthy of our respect!" A guy can dream.
The whole thing has taught me a bunch, so long as I'm willing to absorb it and actually retain the lessons. The other day, I went to the Starbucks in Pittsburgh and wrote a talk. Get this: I used paper and pen! Did you know they still made such tools? Actually, I wrote in a genuine Moleskine, which made me feel all kinds of artsy-fartsy lying next to my triple pumpkin spice latte and my bottle of fancy water. I kind of liked it. Maybe (and here's the lesson) I rely a bit too much on my precious technology. Maybe I don't need a super cool fancy laptop to be able to tap my creative potential. Maybe I just need a good notebook and one of those pens that feels extra good in your hands. The kind where the paper just soaks up the ink because it's so heavy and so good. Yes, there is something to this.
So for now, I'm laptopless, and I'm going to try to live a bit of a simpler life. There are ways to be creative that don't involve the Apple logo (gasp), and I intend to explore them a little bit.
But don't worry. I still have twitter.