The Weapon of Kindness

ImageI don’t know how else to process what just happened. The only thing that makes sense to me is to blog about it, only I don’t want to blog in full detail because what if I’m wrong? What if the scenario I’m about to describe was real, even though every ounce of evidence I have tells me it’s not? What if, as a pastor, a minister, the shepherd of people’s souls, I made a mistake?

The solution is to not blog about the specifics – other than to say that my kindness, my innate sense of wanting to help people in need, is one of the most effective weapons against my soul. I can’t help it. I’m always willing to give people more leeway than they deserve; I could be happier, in cases like this one, if my natural instinct were defensiveness. To cut people off. To not be giving. To not trust, or at the very least, not be wiling to listen. I could avoid a lot of heartaches that way.

The thing is, though, that too many people need someone, anyone, to just listen. I don’t want to cut off that part of my ministerial self. I’ve seen too often how much it can bless the right person.

But then there are days like today when people prey on that kindness. They count on people like me being willing to err on the side of doing what’s right and good, and they construct elaborate webs designed to extract maximum empathy.

And what really sucks – the thing that I can’t get out of my head – is that I so badly want to spell out the details, put it out there for the whole world to read, and I can’t. I want people to know so they can be forewarned about stuff like this, but my brain keeps saying: but what if it’s true?

What if, despite the fictional county in Mississippi, the fictional city in Mississippi, the fictional address here in Georgia, the fictional brother here in Georgia, the dead-end phone numbers and the non-existent sheriff’s deputy, there was someone who needed my help and I let them down?

What if, God help me, the people actually show up at the church, put a finger in my face, and demand to know why I didn’t do something?

This is the price of being a pastor. It may seem like a sweet gig (and I hear enough comments from folks to know that a lot of people see it that way) but the reality is that if you are truly someone with a pastoral calling, a pastoral heart, it’s demanding in a way that few people could ever imagine. It doesn’t begin and end with the sermon, or the visitations, or the admin stuff in the office; it’s not over when the office hours on the door say the day is done; nor is it finished when you’ve done all you could for someone and they still choose to make a wreck out of their lives.

I mean, you know you have no responsibility for what any one person does, but the compassion and desire to help people choose God in order to avoid the devastation of sin is also the stuff that keeps you up at night, wondering if you could’ve done anything different.

It’s an agony that gets increasingly harder to bear. There are plenty of nights that it keeps me up, wondering, praying and wrestling with God to help me do a better job so that people might not have to suffer as much as they do.

And, to be honest, that I might be able to stand before God one day and say that I did my very best. And for God to say, “I know.” And for me to fall into His arms and say, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

As a human being, as a minister, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

Wednesdays Are a Battleground

The Cure sang a catchy little ditty about “Friday, I’m In Love”, about the mindset of the singer towards his unseen amorous partner. The lyrics can seem a bit brutal, but the idea of certain days of the week mattering/feeling more or less than others is one with which I readily identify.

Mainly because Wednesdays are a battleground for me.

It goes without fail: Wednesdays are the biggest days for many youth pastors (especially those of us in traditional churches) because Wednesdays are the days that we meet with the majority of our students and have a good chunk of time set aside to teach, interact and goof off. For those who take the teaching aspect of the job seriously, it’s the culmination of our studies and thinking; it’s the time around which much of our prayers have been focused; it’s our time to shine.

My Wednesdays start out normal: I wake up, I pray, I shower, I get dressed, I teach my CLC class, I head to the office, I check email, I finish up prep…and that’s when it starts. Anxiety. Fear. Irrational whispers and stirrings in my soul that make me feel like at any moment someone’s going to walk through the door and tell me that I suck as a youth pastor. Honestly, these moments prompted me to go back into counseling in order to get a handle on them.

Part of it is my own absurdly-high expectations. Part of it is my awareness that I don’t want to be burdened by my own absurdly-high expectations. Part of it is the struggle that comes from church work, the reality that we do battle everyday with an unseen enemy that wants us to fail and fail spectacularly. There are a lot of moving pieces at work.

But the vast majority of the anxiety comes from the fact that, instead of just rolling along with what’s tried and true, instead of just doing what’s comfortable and historically efficient, I’ve opted to do youth ministry based on a larger premise: do what matters. And what matters is making sure that the students under my care not only hear the message of the Gospel, but they learn to live it out in real time.

This means that I am constantly doing things that are uncomfortable because they are not (recently, anyway) traditional. They’re not particularly efficient. They are, in fact, intensely personal, brutally honest, and exceptionally challenging. It may not seem that way on Wednesday nights, but we’ve all heard the old adage about the duck’s appearance on top of the water and the duck’s appearance beneath.

I don’t crave significance in the sense that millions of people know my name and want to pay to hear me babble. I don’t crave acknowledgment or fame or a reputation for being a guru of any kind. (Not that I’d say no to those things; they’re just not primary motivations for me. Might as well be honest.) I’m driven more by the desire for the kids in my care to know how to think critically about the great questions of life; to know that the faith being transmitted to them isn’t a nifty collection of “carefully crafted fables”, but a robust worldview that considers all of the evidence, all of the facts, and still walks away saying, “Yes, belief in an unseen, eternal, all-powerful God not only makes sense, but makes the most sense compared to the alternatives.”

I’m driven by Truth. Yeah – I capitalized it. Because I think it exists.

I know there are people out there who think that my ministry is liberal, or even worse, anti-biblical. They base their positions on the fact that I don’t just blithely teach the kids to accept what I say without investigation. They are bothered by the fact that I encourage students to question and examine the evidence that life offers alongside the teaching and the history and beauty and mystery of the church and it’s revealed Truth. If that makes me a hippie, so be it.

Especially if it produces students who own their faith, instead of merely borrowing it from a previous generation.

I’ve been down that road. It’s not pleasant.

This could go off into a thousand different diatribes, but I guess what I’ve learned by simply typing it out is that my Wednesdays are challenging because I care. Because i want them to matter to me and to my students. Because I think things of eternal significance happen when we sit down to discuss in-depth not just the doctrines of the faith but how those doctrines are meant to challenge and change the way we live.

I care about teaching my students the Truth. Just like a whole lot of other youth pastors for whom Wednesdays are a private struggle. We care, therefore the enemy attacks. In fact, in keeping with what I’m teaching my CLC class this week, a simple logic structure will close out this post:

P —> Q: If you care about teaching God’s Truth, the enemy will attack you.

P: I care about teaching God’s Truth.

Q: The enemy will attack me.

Such is the life of the committed youth pastor. Welcome to the battleground. Welcome to Wednesday.

The good news is, we win. Always.

Why Youth Need Apologetics

apologetics2Questions. Everyone from the smartest minds in the largest universities to the simplest minds in the smallest towns have them. But there may be no other group as predisposed to asking them than teenagers. It’s actually a great paradox how an age group generally regarded as self-conscious and peer-pressured can suddenly become animated askers of even the most embarrassing questions—if the answers they are getting and person they are asking seem to connect.

Particularly questions about God. Because while you may or may not believe it, they’re talking and thinking about God stuff an awful lot.

Perhaps one of the most thorough testaments to that truth is Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. It’s a couple of years old now, but it’s still full of insight into the youth of our nation, and in particular, the youth or our churches. Based on the most intensive study to date on the religious positions of American teenagers, Dean’s book highlights the simple truth about teens and belief: they’re not against it. In fact, most teenagers have nothing against religion at all, and seem to actively embrace it as something good for their life.

But, as Dean points out, it’s what they’re embracing that is so startling. She writes that religious kids embrace a something that could best be defined as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith that teaches God’s will for your life is to feel good about yourself and do good to others. Beyond that, God is not too concerned about who you are or what you do.

Here are the five basic tenets of MTD, as outlined by Dean:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

This is bittersweet information. On the one hand, it shows that kids are not resistant to the idea of faith or religion. On the other, it shows that what they are being exposed to is a deviant mish-mash of concepts from Christianity, culture, psychology, and other religions. With so many contributing factors to their definitions of what is right/wrong/good/bad, it’s no wonder so many of them have questions.

Dean’s insight into the culture of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is particularly of interest to me: of the many questions the students at my church ask, I would guess that a full 80% are weighted towards issues that collide with MTD theology. Indeed, if God really wants us to be good and do good, then why does He allow evil? Why didn’t He just make us love him? Why doesn’t He just show Himself and get everyone to fall in line?

Or, in my particular case, if God is so good why did He allow your daughter to die?

These are questions that most Christians either can’t or won’t answer, and as I’ve interacted with people in my Sunday school class, my neighborhood, even my former seminary buddies, I’m starting to lean more towards can’t. Part of it has to do with the fact that these questions on evil and suffering, on death and dying, on the human condition and existence, are deeper than many people feel comfortable going. To meditate on those types of things would be depressing, if not outright hurtful.

It also has to do with the fact that many adults are afraid of admitting that what answers they do have aren’t satisfying to them, much less to anyone else. There’s a cycle of silent desperation within some of our churches, where the sins and insecurities of the fathers are being passed on to the sons. And that is actually the issue writ large: most Christian adults practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism themselves. The kids are, as Dean argues so convincingly in her book, just following the lead of their elders.

The answer to all of this seems easy enough: just get the adults trained and interested in the Christian answers to these questions and the kids will follow. The reality is that most adults seem resistant to changing their thinking habits, so getting them to consider a completely different (even if more historic) theology isn’t likely. Heck, if adults struggle to break destructive thought patterns for habits they know are deadly (smoking, drinking, drug use, gambling, sex) how in the world can we expect them to utterly revise the belief system that currently allows them to cope with said patterns?

I fully appreciate that there are adults who change their behaviors, beliefs, and ultimately their lives, on a regular basis. I’m not saying it can’t be done. What I am suggesting is that such changes are difficult. Are they worth pursuing? Without question. Will they necessarily bring about the kind of sea-change we’re looking for in the lives of students? Not so much.

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in taking apologetics and Christian training straight to the kids themselves. There are certainly several talented speakers and organizations out there that are aiming to meet this need—Alex McFarland, Sean McDowell, the folks at Stand To Reason—but the gap is so significant that more must be done. The question becomes: what?

Perhaps the question should become: who?

And if that is the question, then the answer is simple: you.

Apologetics is, at its heart, a discussion on why Christianity is true. It can be deep and philosophical; it can be academic and evidentiary; it can even be relational and experiential. But apologetics is always, at its core, a personal dialog between interested parties. Sometimes that communication is between the believer and God, sometimes between a believer and friends. Why not, as a believer, bring that conversation to the students at your church? Why not sit down and talk about who God is, why that matters and how it impacts a person’s life.

If we don’t have these conversations because we’re fearful—of giving wrong answers, of accidentally turning someone off to the Gospel, of being perceived as a religious fanatic—then perhaps we should re-examine our own faith. In all honesty a faith that can’t be discussed or even scrutinized, a faith that has all the virility and strength of a hot-house flower, isn’t much of a faith at all. It’s a weak philosophy.

My experience has taught me that I don’t have all of the answers—there are things in my theology and understanding of God that require more study, more prayer, more thought—but I do have something even more important: an integrity in answering questions that speaks as loudly to the students as my words do. Or, as one student said, “You don’t shout at us because we don’t think the way you do. You’re actually kind of respectful, and that means a lot. And it makes me curious about what you believe.”

I’m not a Norm Geisler or Ravi Zacharias or William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel, but that doesn’t matter to the kids I teach. They don’t necessarily want an authority figure teaching them; they just want someone real. It takes courage to stand in front of forty teenagers and say, “Let ‘er rip.” It’s as draining as running a marathon and feels like it takes twice as long. And sometimes, you can’t get the answers out the way you want; sometimes words fail or you don’t really understand what a kid is driving at with a particular question.

But for a generation that is rapidly dissolving into a lukewarm pseudo-faith, there is no more important mission than to stand with humility and conviction and discuss the faith that you have based your life upon. There will be bumps and bruises, like when a kid scowls at your response or a few completely ignore you, but they are worth it.

Because, as Jesus said in Scripture, the kids are worth it. Let’s not hold them back.

Human Too

I’ve written a lot about what it means to be human. It’s one of my favorite subjects, because it’s endlessly fascinating; the idea that we, the human race, so varied and multifaceted in our makeup, still share so much in common – well, it’s a writer’s dream. Usually, my observations come from reading things people write – magazine articles, books, blogs, comments on blogs – but this past Saturday, I took a group of people into Atlanta to work with Seven Bridges to Recovery, a Christian group that works with the homeless.

We went all over the city, into places that the average person would never dare go, not for any reason. Under bridges. Into abandoned apartment complexes. Down streets with nothing but abandoned houses. Everywhere we went, the result was the same: people, beaten down by life, coming out of the woodwork for a simple grocery sack and a hug.

The cynic might read this and say, “Well, they are where they are because of the choices they’ve made.”

The cynic is right. Several of the people we met on Saturday have made excruciatingly bad choices. In some instances, appallingly bad choices. Some even confessed to their dysfunctional lives with candor.

Said one man, formerly a professional boxer, “This isn’t what I wanted for my life. But I didn’t choose very well. It’s all on me.”

But the cynic also needs to stand, shoulder to shoulder, with them and know that not everyone gets the same kind of choices. The cynic needs to hug someone who has HIV, and hear that person say, “You’re the first person without gloves on to touch me in three years.” The cynic needs to look into the eyes of a young woman who, along with her 18 month old daughter, takes a meager sack of food with great shame, not because she’s made bad choices but because she doesn’t feel like she’s worthy of making good ones. The cynic needs to see a book, well-worn and marked with notes, lying beside a flimsy cardboard bed, held open by a pair of discarded women’s reading glasses, reminding anyone with eyes enough to see that even the most destitute still have minds and souls that need nourishment.

The cynic, as is often the case, needs to get out more.

I stood underneath bridges and smelled the overwhelming stench of human desperation. I watched as men, drunk by midday, sheepishly took a bag with a juice bottle, bag of Funyuns, and a tiny sandwich as if it were a five-star meal. I prayed over a woman named Missy who was so high on crack that she couldn’t speak a coherent sentence; whose body was so ravaged by her addictions that she only had half her top teeth and half her bottom teeth, neither on the same side. Her face was contorted hideously just to line up one top and one bottom tooth in order to take a bite.

What we did was stare into the face of a problem that we can’t possibly begin to fix. Some people can’t be saved – I know that. But some people can be. And if handing out sack lunches, hugs, and a reminder that the homeless are human, too, might bring one person off the streets, then it’s well worth it.

It was for our guide on Saturday, a young man named Jay who’d previously been homeless for over a decade. He was once an addict too. He’s been clean, sober, and off the streets for almost six months, thanks to Seven Bridges. He told the group on Saturday, “Today is my 170th day off them streets, tomorrow is 180, and that’s huge.”

He also told us, “Them people, they need love too, y’all. A little love can do a lot, if you’ll show it.”

He was right – a little love goes a long way.

We’ll go back in October, and on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, re-issuing humanity one sack lunch and hug at a time. We meet on the last Saturday of the month at 10:30 at my church, if you’d be interested in going.

It’s amazing, but true: in making other people feel human, you feel human, too.

Dear Graduate: Here’s Your Chance to Make a Movie

Usually, I use this forum as a way of expressing myself. Today, though brief, this post is to help out other people.

I formerly worked for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries as a writer and project manager, and one of the major projects in development during my time there was the ASK Curriculum, an apologetics curriculum for students. We were mainly in the preliminary stages of the project, so I didn’t have that much to do with it, but (as you can well imagine) it was a project about which I was extremely passionate.

Well, fast forward a year and change, and RZIM is on the verge of finishing this curriculum up and bringing it to the masses. Only, in order to get it completed, they need some help.

Tomorrow, RZIM will be filming the final video for the ASK material, and they need extras from the Atlanta area. All of the details can be found here, but for clarity’s sake, I’ll let you know they are looking for people, ages 18-30, who can be at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center tomorrow morning at 9:00. Filming will go until around lunchtime, though some extras might need to stay as late as 2:00. The ministry will provide breakfast, a box lunch, and a $20 Starbucks gift card to those who register online and show up for the filming.

For more information, or to register as an extra simply click on this link.

I’ll be there. Will you?