unconditional love

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As Brennan Manning points out in The Ragamuffin Gospel, grace always precedes repentance. Jesus accepts the unworthy where they presently stand, and after that gift of unconditional love God begins to change their lives.

How do we live that out in our relationships? It seems that we are constantly trying to change people. We want to straighten out gay people, sober up alcoholics, and have everyone live in harmonious peace.

Have you ever entered into a dating relationship with the goal to change something about that person? Have you ever denied someone your friendship because of his bad habits?

I'm a perfectionist, so I always notice things that need improvement. That definitely keeps me busy in my own life. Plenty of things to improve on! :) However, I realized a couple years back that I have extended this perfectionism onto others in my life: friends, wife, co-workers, students, etc. This was not good! Never should we expect perfection from anyone, even ourselves. It will often leave us frustrated and incapable.

So, learning the true meaning of God's grace and realizing the negative effects of my perfectionism brought me to an evaluation of how I relate to students in youth ministry. So often, I have tried to fix a teenager's problem, addiction, or sin by myself and even subconsciously before extending grace and acceptance. I wanted to punch myself in the face with that conclusion.

This new approach is scary because you really have to cede all control to God. Well, if we truly follow Christ, we should be ceding all control to God anyway, right? We are all a work-in-progress, and God is the master craftsman (Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:21). Let us stop trying to mold and shape one another and let God do what only He can do!

So, the next time you feel like trying to clean up someone's act, try following this maxim:

I'm going to love and accept you just the way you are, offer you my friendship, and encourage you to pursue God. 

Then you can pray for that person, continue to be example of unconditional love and grace, and witness the Holy Spirit work in his or her life!

*important note: Jesus & Paul both make it clear that we are to confront in a loving way our fellow Christians who are blatantly living in sin. We must hold each other accountable. But the only way we can truly help each other is to encourage the deepening of our relationship with God. That always comes first.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love, "...you have to stop loving and pursuing Christ in order to sin"

Carpe Diem

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In my short 27 years of life, I have noticed a major theme of my generation in America. We are wasteful. I cannot begin to fathom how many years of my life have been wasted away: the countless hours spent in front of a television or computer, the days in which I vigorously watched the second hand click on a clock, longing for the day to be over, and the months that I might as well have been dead, feeling sorry for myself and walking around like a zombie who had lost his appetite.

How many days have you approached with a fervor for what lay ahead? How many mornings have you looked at the day ahead with a world-changing attitude? Have you ever asked the Spirit of God to work in and through you today?

It is easy to get lost in the monotony of life. Get up, get ready, go to work, come home, relax, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. But what if we viewed each day as an opportunity instead of an obligation? Would this not change our approach?

We all have some sort of long-term goals, they just differ depending on our current stage of life. You may even have short-term goals, say for this year, resolutions made on New Year's Day. But what about goals for today?

Today, I will enjoy the gift of life and seize the opportunities presented me.

Today, I pray that the Spirit of God will work in and through me.

Today, I will show love to a stranger.

Today, I will be joyous in every circumstance.

Today, I will bring peace instead of conflict.

Today, I will be patient with my family, my co-workers, and other drivers.

Today, I will be kind to the unkind.

Today, I will check my motives, and seek to be pure in my heart.

Today, I will be gentle in my interactions with all types of people.

Today, I will be faithful that God is in control, especially when it gets hard to achieve these goals!

Today, I will be Spirit-controlled.

Matt 6:34 (The Message): Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Beat of the Week:




Baller of the Week: Greivis Vasquez

I am not a Maryland fan, at all. But I always enjoyed watching this guy play. He brings intensity every night, and during the 2010 NBA Draft he was no different. On a night when college basketball's best players are in attendance, excited to see how high in the draft they will be selected, Vasquez was there, sitting in the stands with his family instead of on the floor with the lottery picks. When his name was called as the 28th pick, he was all excitement. Sadly, a lot of players would have been disappointed to be picked at the end of the 1st round, but Vasquez is just excited for his opportunity. And I am excited to see what he brings to the NBA. With college stats similar to Evan Turner (2nd pick overall), and the maturity of a graduated senior, I think he will surprise a lot of people if/when he is given the playing time.

Trees

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We are trees
Firmly rooted in the earth
In the world

Our branches
Extend toward the heavens
But fall short

Mighty Wind
Uproot us, turn us around
Upside down

Firmly plant
Our roots in heaven, reaching
To this world

May Your love
Flow unconditionally
Through these trees

The Gospel as told by Pauline Carmody

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My grandmother entered into the Lord's presence on April 19th of this year. She lived for Him and to spread His love in this world. I was blessed with the chance to speak at her memorial service, and here is (a brief account of) her story.

Phillipians 1:21 "For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain."

My grandfather, Frank Carmody, was a preacher and would often travel to churches to preach for revivals or special occasions. God had brought together a great team, because wherever Frank preached, Pauline would sing. I was not lucky enough to hear her sing in her prime, but those who did say that her beautiful soprano voice would give you goosebumps. Her version of "Were you there," was second only to Johnny Cash's, in my father's opinion.



While Frank preached the Good News, she sang about it, and God changed lives through them. She would touch your heart and soul with her voice. In fact, it was partly because of her singing that my grandfather became a follower of Christ. She and her siblings would always gather around the piano and sing hymns together. Once she had a group of daughters, they would do the same, and that's what I remember as a child. My first experience with a piano was at her house, and now music is a huge part of my life. Through the years, her voice became less powerful; but we can rejoice today because she is most definitely joining with a chorus of angels singing praises to God with a voice as beautiful as it once was.

 Matt 25:34-36 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'"

We've all heard the old maxim, "eyes are the windows to the soul." This does not mean that the more beautiful someone's eyes are, so is their soul. What it means is that the way someone views the world will show you what their soul is like. Pauline saw the world through the lens of compassion. She saw all people as equal, and in the 50's and 60's that was rare. She showed love to all of God's children, no matter their race, status, appearance, cleanliness, health, etc.

I hope to write a book with the help of my father, about "The Mission" where my grandfather served as a preacher. There once was a place outside of Beulahville, NC called "Purgatory," where everything illegal was happening: prostitution, drugs, gambling, you name it! There wasn't a church in site. Frank was driving through there one day and picked up a man who was in need of a ride. Frank talked to him about church, and the man said that no church would come near Purgatory, so Frank said that Sunday he was coming to this man's house and they would have a church service right there. Well 2 became 10, and that became 20, and before the year ended, 100 people were baptized at this new church in Purgatory, which was aptly named "New Hope Baptist Mission."

Pauline partnered with her husband and showed love to "the least of these," not only during their time at the mission, but her whole life. The folks at New Hope called her Miss Pauline. She hugged everyone, no matter their smell, sickness, skin color, or social standing. She was the arms of Christ and the love of God to people who were "unlovable" to most.

Matt 5:14-16 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

Whenever I stayed the night with my grandparents, I wondered whether my grandmother was a little crazy. Before going to bed, she would always set up all these booby traps around the windows and doors (i.e. an ironing board, aluminum cake pans). Yeah, a little like this:



I never understood the reasoning (except what I thought was paranoia about a burglar), until recently. My grandfather shared that she always left all the lights on outside the house at night. This was in case anyone had car trouble and needed assistance. They lived at a fairly busy intersection, so that made sense. So it turns out, a few people were in need. One night Frank awoke to an empty bed and found Pauline in the living room chatting with a stranger who'd had some car trouble and was waiting for her help to arrive. Another night a man knocked on the door asking if he could sleep on the porch. She admitted to Frank that she was a little nervous about this one, but next thing he knew, she was taking him a glass of milk, food, and some blankets.

She never let her light stop shining. In the middle of the night, you could see the light of Jesus Christ shining at the Carmody home, and there you would find whatever it is you needed.

2 Timothy 4:6-7  For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

She undoubtedly poured out her life for us, for everyone. Whether we knew her as Mom, Grandma, Memaw, Miss Pauline, Aunt Pauline, or just as Pauline, we knew that she loved us. The Good News of Jesus Christ for her became good news to everyone around her. She received His love and grace, and poured it out with her own life. We mourn for the loss of a saintly woman. We mourn because she was a blessing to those around her, and the world will miss her. But let us not mourn too long, because I know that she wants us to continue her story. She lived a great story, but what made it so great is that she was not the author. She allowed God to write it, and she willingly followed His lead. Let us remember everything she did, but not only with our words; let us also live out the Gospel just as she did. Spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, love everyone, and let your light shine.

Beard of the Week: My friend Jimmy McAfee's (because sadly, he shaved it). It was pretty swell, though. Here it is as a young beard, as we attempt a great feat. 


Beat of the Week: Classic Metallica, because GH: Metallica has restored my love for them! :)


Baller of the Week: It was going to be Brandon Roy for coming back to play only 8 days after surgery, but he was awful tonight and the Blazers got killed, so it's my man D Wade for not giving up or giving in. Even thought they were down 3-0 in the series, he took over in the 4th quarter on Sunday and exploded for 46 points.

Playoffs, Players, & Stranger Prayers

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Say hello to your 2010 NCAA Basketball Champions:





Congrats Duke! I was so glad to see Zoubek, Scheyer, and Thomas get this one. After four years of constant criticism, they've worked hard to improve each of their individual games, and become a better team overall during each year of their enrollment.


But, college is over, and now my 2nd favorite time of the year has begun: The NBA Playoffs. There are a lot of things I don't like about the NBA, but when it's all said and done, it's still basketball, and truly the greatest players in the world. These playoffs looked to be exciting coming into it; and through the first game of each series, they have not disappointed! Look at these 1st round matchups:



Durantula vs. The Black Mamba





 















Flash vs. Grimace Glen Davis and the Diva Celtics














Birdman vs. Mormons








 Texas Showdown: Mavs and Spurs




Superboy vs. Laser Cats Bobcats









A Rose for the King










Old fast guys vs. Blazers' bench


















and Hawks vs. Bucks Rogers


I'm a little worried for the Heat, but I think they'll pull through after a tough loss in Game 1. I enjoyed watching it for the most part. Wade looked great, but struggled to even get a shot off during the last 15 minutes of the game. The scuffle brought some excitement, and the series should be a physical one with plenty of tempers flaring. I was glad to get home in time to watch the 2nd half, after a long couple days!


We had a community teen event called Love Your City this past weekend at the local YMCA. 11 church youth groups united in service and worship on Friday night and Saturday. Our group spread mulch at the YMCA, which also happens to be where our church meets on Sundays, so that was nice. I'm glad we could help out the Y, but I really wish our students could have experienced serving someone who was really in need. But they'll get plenty of chances to do that this Summer and in the future.

I chose to come home after tearing down following the closing service on Saturday night so that I could watch my Heat! So, that meant going to the church office and Wal-Mart around 11:30pm, which I don't really mind. After making some copies at the office, I headed to Wally World for my Quaker Oatmeal Squares because I was tired of eating peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. On my way there, I saw a young girl with a backpack, rolling a suitcase through the dark across the McDonald's parking lot. I drove by, but broke my neck trying to see what was going on because this was definitely out of the ordinary. I did one of my famous U-turns and parked at McDonald's to see that she had found a seat in the lighted area in the front of the building. She seemed to be having a heated discussion on her cell phone, because she was holding it in front of her mouth instead of the more traditional form; so I stalled for a minute and led by the Holy Spirit or insanity got out of my car and approached her.

I asked if she needed anything, or any kind of help, and she said her mom was on her way to pick her up, but she could use a cigarette if I had any. She seemed young but looked older from some weathering of a hard life. I didn't have a cigarette, but she didn't seem too disappointed. I told her that it seemed like she was having a rough night and I just thought I would stop to see if she could use any help. She said that she and her girlfriend had gotten into a big fight and she left. Then she said, "God bless you," for stopping to help I guess, so I thought maybe she believes in God . . . or just listens to a lot of country music. I introduced myself and she said her name is Daphne. I warned her that what I was about to say may sound weird to her, and then I asked her if there was anything I could pray about for her. Understandably she had a surprised look on her face, and said just that her mom gets there safely. I warned her again that this might be weird, and then I asked if I could pray with her right there at McDonald's.


This is just the 3rd time in my life that I've asked a stranger if I could pray with them, and all three have been in the past few months. It took me some baby steps to get to this point. The first step was offering help to someone, but God has done a number on my heart this past year, and just helping someone's physical needs would leave me feeling that something was missing. So, I tried asking if there was anything I could pray about for them, which was hard to do the first time! Still feeling that God wanted more from me, I tried asking if I could pray with them right then and there, and I haven't been turned down yet!

Daphne was flabbergasted. I like that word. She was teary-eyed and grateful. We prayed, and she thanked me and said, "God bless you," again. She didn't know that He was blessing me right then. She offered me a friendly hug and was on her way, saying that she was going to go back (to her girlfriend, I presume). God planted a seed that night in her heart, and I pray that it grows. I am a sinner. I'm pretty sure I was cursing the TV while watching the Heat game by myself, feeling silly hatred for Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and the Celtics, but God still used me that night. It's humbling, and I am thankful for His grace, every day.


Because of that encounter, I wasn't even too upset when Wal-Mart was all out of my Quaker Oatmeal Squares! I was flabbergasted, though.

Beard of the Week:
Ball Don't Lie: Lakers' Playoff Beards

















Beat of the Week:
 




























Baller of the Week:
The King is the reason the Cavs are up 2-0 against the Bulls. 40-8-8 tonight!

Possessed by Possessions

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"Mine!" is such a common word among children. How early in life do we begin protecting things that are ours? Do we carry that attitude into our adulthood unnoticed like Ricky Martin's homosexuality?
Yep!
We most certainly do. Why wouldn't we? We are given toys, games, and money as children and told that they are ours as soon as we can comprehend what that means. Not a minute later we're reprimanded for not sharing them with our siblings or playmates. How confusing! If it's mine, then why should anyone else get to enjoy it? We learned to share, and did it reluctantly, and possibly still do with that same unwilling attitude. Our toys have become houses, our games cars, and our allowance has turned into a big fat six-figure income! Okay, maybe not. But there is a lot more than five bucks a week coming in! 

It seems that there are three levels of generosity that are important to consider. The first and easiest is with our money. Anyone would loan her friend a few bucks if she's in need. There isn't much risk involved in dropping some change or a dollar bill in a homeless man's cup or a dirty santa's salvation army tin. Most Christians will give 10% of their income as a "tithe" to the church (and that'll help your tax refund!) I hear that California is really nice to the homeless! 



It is important to be generous with our money, but if we stop there we haven't even begun to open our hearts. It's a small sacrifice, and sometimes we'll use it as an easy way out. "Here's a couple bucks, just leave me alone."

The next level is with our possessions. This can be as small as clothes, CDs, movies, books, and as big as a car. I've struggled with this in my life. I love music, and was always hesitant to loan out a CD (you know, before iPods?). If I found a scratch on my "Kids of Widney High" CD, it would totally shatter my universe. In order to become more generous, we must completely change our understanding of our possessions. Everything we have has been given us by God. Above all else, it's His.

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 "Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. 'For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.' And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,

'They share freely and give generously to the poor.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.'

For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you.

Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God.
Giving freely our possessions calls us to a higher level of selflessness, but there is one even higher. 

1 Peter 4:9 "Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay."
I love Dwyane Wade. In fact, he's my favorite athlete. But he is so selfish about his "house!" :)



Tiffany and I have been blessed to be among some very generous Christians during our first few months here. While we've been waiting for our house in North Carolina to sell, we haven't been able to afford our own place in Ohio. We are so thankful for the three different families who have opened their homes to us, and made it possible for us to live here. So thank you to the Junkers, to Heather, and to the Morelands. This is the most difficult kind of giving. Opening your home requires a personal involvement, a risk of endangerment, and an extremely selfless sacrifice. But what a blessing ensues. God has surely been generous with us, in the giving of His grace, and let us be generous likewise with all that he has given us.

Remember when . . . ?

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What events in your life do you remember with the greatest ease and clarity?

For me, I think of some big events: our wedding day (right), my baptism, the day that Meow Meow died (my first pet), and of course my birth (just kidding). Also some random times: making a left-handed shot on my middle school basketball team, getting beat up by the neighborhood bullies when I was 11, accidentally walking in on my "girlfriend" using the restroom when we were in 3rd grade, and trying to impress my parents with my singing skills by lip-syncing to "Runaway" by Del Shannon when I was around 5 or 6.

But unfortunately, I remember my mistakes more clearly and more numerously than anything else. Why, why, why, why, why? I don't know. Maybe it's like this for everyone. We definitely don't enjoy remembering the negative times in our lives. If someone brings it up in conversation, we often say "I don't want to talk about it." We've tried to bury these memories, to forget them, but they just seem to keep returning to our minds.

This past weekend was great, and good memories were made. We took a group of senior high students to Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, TN for a spring retreat. This place is full of memories for Tiffany and I, since we each spent four years of our lives there. It's always nice to run into old friends from college and reminisce, but also to hear about all the new things happening in their lives. College brought back some great memories, but also reminded me of all the stupid things I did during those nine semesters. Some of the stupid things were funny, but others were just sins and mistakes. During our first few minutes there, we ran into some of the youth from the church where I worked in North Carolina. Once again, it was great to see some of my former students who were still growing in their relationships with God; but it also brought to mind my failures and shortcomings during my time there.

So, I wa wa wa wa wonder, what does God say about our memories, and our past in general. I love the words of Paul in Philippians 3:13, "But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead." I can imagine Paul's past coming to his mind often. He could probably describe in detail the day that Stephen was stoned to death (the first Christian martyr), because he was standing there giving his approval (Acts 8:1). He had a dark past, before being saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, and this was his conclusion. In the words of every mobster, "forget about it."    
So, let us aim for that. Forget those mistakes and sins, because that is what the LORD has done for us (Hebrews 8:12, 10:17, Jeremiah 31:34). 

However, he does ask us to remember a couple things . . . 

For hundreds of years the Israelites lived as slaves in the empire of Egypt. They cried out to God for deliverance, and He heard their cries. He called Moses to be the leader of their exodus from enslavement. After nine plagues over the nation of Egypt, the Pharaoh's heart was still hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, so God caused one final plague over the Egyptians. The angel of death would take the firstborn from every Egyptian home, but he would spare the Israelites. The LORD commanded them to slaughter a lamb and spread its blood over their doorway so that the angel would "pass over" their home.  After this plague, they were set free by Pharaoh. God then told them to remember this event every year, by eating a certain meal on the first night, and celebrating during the whole following week. 

This is what Jesus and his disciples were celebrating shortly before he was arrested and crucified. Luke 22:1-20 describes that evening, which has been called "The Last Supper." Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He gave it to his disciples and said, "This is body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Then he took the cup and said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." 

Jesus takes the Passover, and correlates it to what God is about to do through him. He takes the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated each year in remembrance of God delivering the Israelites from slavery, and connects it to God delivering the whole world out of slavery to sin through the perfect sacrificial lamb, himself, Jesus the Christ. And he asks his disciples to do this in remembrance of him. 

When our past rears its ugly head, and we are reminded of what we used to be, our failures and shortcomings, let us remember God's grace that has covered over ALL of that! His grace that we have so freely received through His Son dying in our place on the cross. His deliverance that has given us a new life that is free from the power of sin because of His Spirit that lives in us and gives us strength. 

Amen.