Thursday, July 31, 2008

Defying How Youth Ministry Has Always Been Done

Passion is generally a good thing. It enables you to do things 110%, and encourages you to actually want to change things. I am, by nature, a passionate person. In everything I do, I put 110% effort, and my heart and my soul into everything. Whether that's relationships with people, or pointless little every day things (like blogging).
The problem is, I can't turn the passion off. It isn't like there is an on off switch, thus when someone doesn't see my point of view, or try to understand why I am passionate about something, my passion turns into a completely different direction.
For example, I feel like the church over the last 20 years has done a really poor job of raising up mature Christians who actually know what the Bible is talking about, and living a life that actually listens to what Jesus says, mostly because of poor youth ministries. (I say this, because I have heard it come out of the mouth of some pretty big name youth min. people, who have apologized to me and my peers for having to undo, and then redo what they worked so hard to build). This was seen very clearly at a camp I was counseling at one summer.
I love camp. I think camp is a great opportunity for students to escape the rigors and often horrors of everyday life, to focus on their relationship with Jesus and have fun too, however, sometimes the fun can take a turn for the worse. I remember the vision clearly, we were divided into groups to compete all week to win some sort of greatness by being the "best" campers. Thus, when it came to game time, and the students in my group could care less about game time, this youth pastor started freaking out. I literally thought he was going to blow a blood vessel. Screaming and yelling at the kids about how they didn't care, and a bunch of other, quite frankly, crap, about how they should try harder, and how important it is for them to win.
Now, I'm terribly sorry, but I don't remember reading anywhere in scripture about how we as Christians are supposed to strive to win at trivial things like competitions. It does say we are to do our best, don't get my wrong, however, what are we teaching students when we look like the world as we try to push them to be number 1 in the same ways the world does? They get enough of that at home and school. Church's competing against churches, and students put up against each other, not out of fun, but out of a desire to win, seems so contrary to the last shall be first attitude Jesus so often preaches about.
Shouldn't we spend our timing fostering the desire in students to care for others? To spend our time teaching them, that it is ok to fail at things in this world. That God loves them regardless of whether they win or lose at a stupid game of dodge ball. That the last truly do go first in the kingdom, and we should put others above ourselves.
I wonder sometimes if it's not this cut throat attitude that in part has turned an entire generation of just out of high school students away from the church. If they can't just be themselves in the church, whether they are athletic or not, whether they care about embarrassing games or not, why would they want to be their? They get enough of that out in the world.
And that's where my passion comes out. My passion for students to truly become 100% radical followers of Jesus, to live how he says to live, to be who he calls us to be. Sometimes I think that's chucking big games and competitions out the window. I sometimes think that's chucking out cookie cutter youth ministry out the window. Honestly, I think it's chucking big events out the window sometime, and just doing what Jesus did. Loving students, healing their wounds, being there for them, and teach them the gospel truth. There is a time and place for everything, but I'm wondering if what we as youth pastors try to push on our kids so often (be more busy, add more things to your schedule, pay money for this event, compete, be the best, win this game) is more what we want for them, then what they need.
After all, it is a whole lot easier to plan a big event, then it is to be there week after week with a student you think may never change.
And that's when my feelings get hurt, and I quite frankly get angry... because I start to wonder if my calling to reform the church and call it back to what it should be is pointless, when my philosophy is to turn the other cheek, and so much of the message I hear is go out and get ahead, whatever it takes.
Sometimes I just wish I could turn the passion off. It would make things so much easier sometimes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Out of Darkness into Marvelous Light I'm Running

There are moments when I wonder if what I am going to say will have any impact. I get these crazy ideas sometimes, and often it is hard to know if they are from Christ or from some warped section of my brain. Thus, when I plan a youth worship service, I always wrestle with things when I have a "good" idea. Knowing teenagers the way I do, "good" ideas can usually go one of two ways, they can go extremely well, or they can crash and burn.
Tonight I wasn't sure what to expect. We were down numerically. Some of the students were ill, and many families are squeezing in their last minute vacations before school starts, so it's been sort of hit or miss. I try not to get caught up in the numbers, not let them hinder me from the work Christ has for me. Yet, being human, the self esteem bug comes in, and you really want people to like you, to want to be there. To send you long explanations of why they couldn't come, like their dog ate their homework type excuses are even better then nothing.
Whether or not I liked it, there was a smaller group tonight, with no excuses at all. I went forward with my plan, how could I not? I spent all day Wednesday working on it.
I gave the announcements and left the students with a volunteer. They were led up the stairs a few moments later. It was dark. No lights, just a few candles I had lit on the ground. My goal was to transition them into reverence, which is never easy with teenagers, especially in the summer.
The youth room was pitch black, but in the middle of the room was a candle. One single candle. It cast a soft glow on their faces as they sat down around it.
I was behind the sound booth, they couldn't see me, and as the room began to get quiet I began to read....
"There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, who was a pharisee..."
The room was silent. No one shuffled. No one talked. They just listened, looking at the light. I continued to read through John 3, about Nicodemus coming at night, approaching Jesus with questions, and Jesus responding. Jesus talks to Nicodemus about light and darkness. About how Christ wants to bring us into the light, but we love our sin too much to jump into it.
I asked the students to think about light and darkness. What it would be like to live in darkness, then see the light for the first time. How amazing it would be to see colors, and faces! Then I asked them if they were ready to come into the light. That it wasn't about having all the answers, it's about coming to Christ with our questions still there. That we don't have to know everything about Jesus to have a relationship with him, we just have to come to him. We have to enter into the light.
I ended with the song "To Know You" by Nichole Nordeman. I asked them to ask themselves, if they really wanted to Know Jesus, that despite their doubts and fears they really just wanted to say, "Hey! I'm here! I don't know how, I don't know why, but I trust you, and I really do want to know you!"
I prayed. I told them they could stay. They could pray as long as they wanted, or they could leave. They all just sat there. Silently. Reverently, staring at the light.
After a while all but 3 got up.
Then there were 2. We sat there for a while, when the questions started to come. "I want to be different, but how?" "How can I follow, if I can't even see the path?" "I just don't know how to be different... I feel like I'm in some sort of pathless location, with no direction... where do I go? What happens now?"
It's odd how in those moments I shift from the cool, fun, youth pastor, to the serious confidant. I didn't have all the answers, but I prayed with them. I sat with them as they cried and prayed. I told them about experiences in my life the best I could, of how God has changed my life.
That's when the light broke through. The marvelous light that showed me again, that it isn't about me... it's about Him. It's not about big youth groups, or great statistics, it's about lives being changed. It's about allowing God to use us to be his hands, his feet, and sometimes his voice. And, when we do that, sometimes when we least expect it, he shows up and does exactly what he promised he would do... he rescues us and them out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No More Night, No More Pain, No More tears, Never Crying Again

I remember very clearly the first time I held someone in my arms who had lost the love of their life. It was my freshman year of college, and a good friend of mine had died in a car accident. They were going to get married.
As heart broken as I felt, I knew that he had to feel a million times worse. My tears were one thing, his were another.
Grief is such an odd thing. Sometimes I hate the culture of America, because we don't know how to grieve. I don't know how many times I have heard justification for sadness or the age old response "I'm ok".
Only, I know what losing a friend is like. I've been there more times than I wish to recall, and I know that they aren't "ok". I know they are far from it.
I myself, remember the cliche things people say to you when someone you love dies. "It'll get better over time." or "they are in a better place". Those things are meaningless when everything within you feels like a deep, dark pit, and the more you think about it, the more you wonder if you will ever stop crying again. I've been there.
In the place where you feel like you are falling, and nobody notices, and even if they did, you know that no one would have any idea how to catch you.
That's why I had to go. I drove the 2 hours to spend a short amount of time with friends I knew were feeling things that I had felt before. The conversations about headaches from crying, about wanting to throw up, about how "I just saw him last night. He was fine. I just saw him." I remember.
At times like these, there are moments where I despise being a pastor. For better or for worse, I like having answers, and to some things, there are none. However, as I made the long drive, talking on my phone, trying to arrange plans for my friends to fly here for the funeral, I thought about the class I took on the study of the end.
We talked about death in that class. About whether or not death was a consequence of sin. We all acknowledged that it was. That it seems too unnatural, wrong, and unfair, to be something that God originally wanted to occur.
She was in that class. His girlfriend. I wonder what she is thinking now as she flies from thousands of miles away? Does she remember that class?
I hope so. I hope she remembers how much we talked about life. That God is a God of the resurrection, and if Christ raised from the dead, so will we. I hope she remembers that Christ will return, and her beloved will be raised, just as Christ was raised. I hope she knows that God is a God of life, and that even when things seem beyond repair, He can breathe life into her. Help her to love again. Help her to speak the truth that Christ is risen, and so shall we rise, if we follow him.
For the end, we know, is far from the end. There is always one more word to be spoken, one more voice to ring out, one more power to be defeated. "then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying "now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Revelation 21:1,3-4

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Eyes of the Blind opening the Eyes of the Seeing

After a while vision gets taken for granted. Among other things, it just becomes a pretty normal way of life, you wake up every morning with the ability to see and don't really think much about it. Textures, colors, shapes, all seem commonplace.
When something happens and that sight can be taken away, things start to look much different. A couple summers ago I went to the eye doctor to get contacts. I went through the routine exam. I'm not a huge eye exam fan, especially when they give you that glaucoma test, you all know what I am talking about. When they tell you to hold your eye open as they shoot highly pressured air into it. Only this time I had to take the glaucoma test twice. I didn't think anything of it, I probably just blinked (how can you not blink when air is shot into your eye at 120 mph?) The doctor told me, however, that things seemed out of whack. Unusual. Unusual isn't really what anyone likes to hear going to any doctor.
He was concerned. He told me he was worried that I had a congenital type of glaucoma, and that I could potentially go blind within 10-15 years. Wonderful! That would be about the time I'm ready to get married and have kids, so the blindness couldn't come at a better time. I had to come back for more testing.
I sobbed. I don't think I've ever been so saddened about anything having to do with my health before. There would be no more point in backpacking, if you can't enjoy the views. I could forget playing tennis, or riding bike. Of all the things I worried about, I worried about never being able to see words again. I began to plan all the books I had to read. I would just spend the next 10 years reading as much as possible. There was so little time. Everything looked different to me. New. Colors were more beautiful, shapes were more profound, and I noticed every beautiful line in every person's smile.
Obviously I went in for some more testing, and nothing was wrong. I just have weird eyes, or something, but I shouldn't worry about going blind.
I wish I could say that from that point forward, I appreciated my ability to see a lot more, however within a few weeks I got back into my usual routine. The fear of blindness behind me.
Tonight I had another glaucoma type moment. It had nothing to do with my health, and in fact I wasn't even afraid, it was just that I for a few moments remembered not to take my sight for granted.
A new student started coming to youth group. Odd to say since I myself am new. However, this student asked me the most beautiful questions about Jesus. They may seem funny or odd, but I think they were beautiful. The student asked if Jesus could fly, followed by how could Mary be Jesus' mother if she was a virgin (if you remember, a question the virgin herself asked). I was caught off guard. All night I had been talking about mustard seeds and the kingdom of God, obviously deeply spiritual and profound... he wanted to know about how Jesus came into this world and what he was like. Simply. No crazy theologies attached.
I told him how Jesus wanted to experience in its entirety what it means to be human, even the experience of being born and raised. I asked him if it made sense, and he told me that it was just so hard to understand why he would do that.
That's when my eyes were opened, for a few moments, to what it means to see. He hasn't experienced sight yet, true sight. The kind where you see God move in every day things, or hear his voice in the wind, because he isn't there yet, he just wants to know, out of his naive curiosity who Jesus is. Yet, it was he who taught me something tonight. I can read as many books as I want, get a million degrees, and nothing will be as awe instilling as the fact that Christ willingly chose to leave heaven to lay in the womb of a young girl, to entail everything that it means to be human.
I guess in a way, the pastor was taught by the student tonight. The non-believer opening the eyes of the believer, because truly it is an amazing thing to see, even in a small way, and even for a moment, the amazing love of Christ for us.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not all who wander are lost, but generally I am... lost that is

To say I am directionally challenged would probably be a grand understatement. I honestly think that the term "so and so could get lost in a paper sack" describes me to a t (just replace so and so with Robbie). This has caused me some pretty severe problems in the past.
For example, last summer I got lost in the city I was living in. I was talking to a friend on my phone (another reason why cell phones and driving are a bad idea), and missed a turn or something. This wouldn't be all bad, except for it was dark, I had no idea where I was going, and my emergency gas light came on. It was a bit scary. I had to put the 2 dollars worth of change I scrounged up into my gas tank to finally make my way back.
Today... well... let's just say, today has not been my day. To start off, I rode my bike around the community. Knowing that I am directionally challenged, I made sure to make note of where I was going. I didn't get lost, however something almost as horrifying occurred. I stopped into a store for a few minutes to pick something up, and just as I clicked the lock down on my bike lock the thought occurred to me.... I forgot the key to my bike lock. Luckily I was only a couple blocks away, and also luckily I have a sense of humor about myself enough to laugh at how ridiculous the whole thing was. I just laughed and thought "there has got to be a sermon illustration somewhere in this".
Little did I know as I was laughing about the key incident that a far greater storm was brewing. I took some students out for coffee. It was awesome! A great place, the sort of place I would love to hang out in. I brought them home, said goodbye.
In my arrogance I thought, I don't need to check the map quest directions, I made it here fine, surely I can find my way out. This was my first mistake.
The second problem arose when it got dark. You see, everyone tells me it is hard to get lost because the mountains are to the west and the city to the east.... which is totally awesome, IF you can see the mountains and the city. When you go the wrong way and are in some small suburb with too many buildings to see any direction, in the dark, well... let's just say it is a lot easier to get turned around.
The third problem is, I have a tendency to continue to get more lost, because I always think "the next street will be a street I recognize". The problem with that statement is, I moved here 1 week ago and don't recognize any of the streets. I just end up wandering. Thinking I am going west, when I'm really going east, etc.
Since I get lost quite frequently, you might even call it a hobby of mine, I just sort of rode it out. Drove around, thinking this was a great opportunity to learn the neighborhood and such. I was thinking that it could be far worse, like the time I got lost on the east side of Detroit. (For those of you who don't know, getting lost on the east side of the most dangerous city in the US, is not a great place to be lost). That's when I started to see the bars on the windows of the gas stations and convenience stores.
I still wasn't nervous. I have this disorder, it's extremely low blood pressure. Few things stress me out, and probably if I got any more relaxed about things, I'd be dead. However, I decided I would like to get home tonight instead of arriving to youth group tomorrow night at 6pm, if I could ever find the church even.
So I called my sister, who had the map and directed me home.
Now there are several obvious illustrations that come to mind. Cliche really. My sister was like Jesus and I couldn't get unlost until I asked her for help, or trying to fix things on my own was doing no good, or my personal favorite pride comes before a fall. And though all of these statements are true, and though they may be applied to my situation, I don't really feel like any of those things are the lesson I learned.
I did learn, 1) it might not be a bad idea to invest in a GPS system, 2) that in the midst of confusion and lack of direction, you can still have peace.
Maybe that is still somewhat cliche, but I really never worried the whole time I was out, because eventually the sun would come up (I might have to drive for a long time, and get gas a time or two) and I would see where the mountains are, and I would be able to orient myself. It may not have been for hours, but it would come, and I would find my way again.
I didn't give up hope, because I knew that the sun was faithful, that the mountains were faithful as well, and without fail, they would be right where I left them.
So, maybe you took from my story that Jesus intervenes with the map when we are lost, or consult the map (God's word) before making decisions, which I think are also valuable lessons, but what I learned is that even when it seems like there is no map, when there are parts of life that seem gray, dark, hopeless. When it seems like there is no way out of whatever situation we are in, whether we have put ourselves there or not, the sun will eventually rise, and the mountains will still be where they were, and we can have peace, because even when we can't see Him, He's there. He's always there.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Little Things In life... are often the most annoying

Few people would probably disagree that moving is stressful. Obviously there is the packing, the renting of a truck, the driving, the unpacking, the buying things you didn't think you needed and now you do. However, those are the big things. The obvious. Most of that, after a week, is done and over with, however, it is the little things that are annoying.
For example, I move to the area, and naive me, I just assume that my bank NationalCity, would be, well National, but don't believe the lies, it just isn't. With bills due in a few days, there is no access to a bank. So, I had to wait for a check to come in the mail in order to open up a new account at a new bank.
Now that you are all on the edge of your seats, when you move, you also have to change your address. Which I did a week ago. However, it takes a while to change over.
For the last few days I have checked my mailbox without fail. I get on my bike and ride it up to the front of the complex, I pull out the little gold key, and I look inside. Empty... well... except for the few pieces of mail the person who lived here before me doesn't have, because he probably got sucked into the little things of moving and forgot to change his address.
However, today, it finally came! Along with an exciting card, complete with pictures, from a good friend in Illinois. This of course made me forget my aforementioned annoyances, and enjoy the rest of the day.
I wonder though, if life isn't like that in general. We often mark time by big events. Weddings, funerals, graduations, even moving, yet, I tend to agree with Dr. Q when he says that those big events are just compilations of the little things we do everyday. I posted my resume, seemingly small, someone responded, and on the relationship went, until I actually moved, but the move didn't happen overnight. Furthermore, I wonder if more often than not, God moves in the same way. If all of our time spent waiting for God to do something humongous and life transforming, is a life missing out on all that God has in store for us, in the small things.
We get so used to the small things though. Though I've only been here a week, I have already gotten used to seeing the foothills each day on my commute to work. I've already gotten used to the sun in the morning shining in my room. I at times even respond nonchalantly to the words of encouragement or smiles that people give me. Aren't all of those things the movement of God?
It's not the large things that make you a resident of an area, it's the small tedious address changes, and maybe it isn't the large things that make us a resident of the kingdom of God either. Maybe it is in our every day, small living that identifies us with the creator. Maybe if we could live more in the small things, we won't miss the big things when they happen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Love of God is greater still...

I've heard it said, that when someone gives birth to a child they are shocked and awed by the overwhelming sense of love that they feel for someone they have just met. Not being a parent myself, I have to observe and collect what other people have told me.

Sometimes I think that being a youthpastor is the same way. The passion for youth that I have been given, also comes with this insane ability to just love teenagers. It's sort of crazy if you have never experienced it your self, but I truthfully don't know if I can say that I have ever met a teen I didn't love. There are a few I struggled to love, but when the layers were stripped away, their well being was still deep in my heart.

It is odd to love people you have met, so deeply and with abandon. Scary would probably be an understatment. There is this deep sense of vulnerability that goes along with love. I've experienced great loss with love. Loving teenagers is a heartbreaking endeaver. They do things that are akin to playing russian roulette with there lives, when they have unprotected sex, or any number of other risky behaviors, and each time I feel my heart break a little bit.

I care for them, though I have just met them, these teens here. I see them on the streets, in their cars, even in our church, and I start thinking about their lives. Who they are behind the scenes. I know there are girls that hate themselves. They starve themselves out of the need for control, the need to cope, a feeling of ugliness. There are boys that cut themselves, feeling that that is truly the only way to feel anything. I know that there are countless numbers of high schoolers that are contemplating taking their own lives. Still others feel like there isn't an adult in the world who cares for them and begin to wonder if they are even worth loving. That's when the pain of love comes in. Wanting to hold all of them and instill truth in each one, while knowing the impossiblity of that task is overwhelming sometimes.

That is when I remember... the love of God is greater. As much as I would do for those kids, as much as my heart breaks and bleeds, God's heart has done so much more. He literally bled and died to set them free. To show them that they are beautiful, that they are of value, that they have worth, that they are not an object to be used and tossed about, but that truly truly they are loved.

A few months ago I wrote a song for a student that I know. She is 14 and has had multiple sexual partners. For a little girl, which she still is in many ways, her life has taken so many dangerous turns. I wrote about how she was literally dying for truth in her life. I've spent many nights in tears with, and over this girl. Instilling in her truth is sometimes so difficult, and sometimes seems pointless, but I hold onto hope. I hope because I know that as much as I love this girl, there is a God who loves her inumerabely more.

As the old hymn says "
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints' and angels' song.
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God's love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam's race—
The saints' and angels' song.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky."

How marvelous His love for us, and for them!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Uhaul trailers and Cheap Hotel Rooms

Moving is one of the most stressful things a person could ever experience. To start off, it seems like the trailer is big enough... it's never big enough, even when you only own a tiny dorm size tv, a single bed, and a futon. Then there is the craziness of actually driving the million hours to get across the country.
And the amazing thing about moving to the rocky mountains are the innumerable fields of corn it takes until you actually see a mountain. For a while you imagine them in the distance. I think that envisioning mountains is the prairie's version of desert mirages. Eventually the corn and soy beans have to end, and eventually they do, it just takes nearly a thousand miles to get to them.
Yet, after the miles of corn, the mountains have risen, and I am finally here. Not quite in my new home, but not in a cheap hotel either. I'll be there tomorrow. Sleeping in my own bed, after it is assembled, and decorating my own walls, even though they will be oddly foreign.
Soon I'll be starting my new job, yet a job is such a poor description of what ministry is. Vocation may describe it more clearly. It's a calling, a lifestyle, a passion, a burden, a joy, and a number of other things all at once. The overwhelming amount of what the days, weeks, months, and potentially years ahead hold for me, weighs on me from time to time.
I've read the books. "Your first two years of youth ministry" sits on my book shelf. Doug Fields did a great job, I have no doubt about that, but reading about your first two years, and living your first two years, are two completely different things. Not to mention, the kids of the Rocky mountains, though very similar, are still different from the midwest version of kids I have learned on. But for as different as they are, they are still teenagers, whom I love and care for more than the very breath I breathe, and that has to outweigh a lot of insecurity.
Not to mention, beyond my love and care, there is a God who is far more capable of loving and caring for those students. The same God who called me to make the journey to come here, will have to be the same God I depend on in the days ahead, and the same God who will carry those students when I can't. That has to be enough for now.