The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.

The Nakedness of Feet

ImageThis weekend, I was privileged to be the speaker for Crossroads Church of Walton County’s Hero Weekend, a two-day discipleship extravaganza complete with muddy obstacle course and hyper teens.

It was awesome.

Of course, it’s natural for me to feel that way – I love working with students. They’re exhilarating. They’re exhausting. They’re full of questions. They’re full of awkward silences. But it was also awesome for another reason: the theme lent itself to the perfect intersection of my nerd tendencies and my Christian faith. I simply cannot remember the last time I enjoyed developing sermons more. There was something so wonderfully fulfilling about writing messages that combined themes from superhero comic books and the life-changing truths of the Gospel.

I’ll post my first two messages tomorrow and Wednesday (I think they’ll translate just fine), but I wanted to take second tonight to write about something that happened at the closing service on Saturday night. The topic was serving people, and I took the kids to John 13. In that passage, the Lord of all the universe, the God who spoke man into existence, knelt down on his knees and gently washed the dirt from the toes of his creations.

I read that passage to them, and spoke only briefly. Then, I told them what the real sermon was going to be: the students would take off their socks and shoes, sit awkwardly in their chairs, and let their small group leaders wash their feet.

You’d have thought I asked them to naked mambo in the parking lot.

Some kids immediately grabbed their shoes. Others looked nervously around. Still others silently mouthed “I can’t do this” to me from across the room. I gently but firmly told them they had no choice: as Jesus says in that passage, “If you don’t do this, you have no part with me.”

Soon enough, there were naked feet everywhere.

Now, I know what a lot of people say about this age group being an over-sexed, over-exposed generation. I routinely shake my head at the stories about sexting, SnapChat, Omegle, and other horrible ways that teenagers put their private parts into the public domain. It certainly seems that they aren’t shy.

But when the rest of you is clothed, you’d be surprised at how vulnerable naked feet can make you feel.

Now personally, I’m not a feet man. I have a strong dislike for my own simian-inspired toes, so I rarely ever go anywhere sans closed toe shoes. So the notion of pulling my puppies out in public is stomach churning. It’s also not surprising.

But if this generation really is as sexual as we are led to believe, then the genuine modesty and shyness I saw on Saturday night was a sign of hope. Maybe it’s because of the group setting; maybe it’s because they’d just gone through a massive mud-covered obstacle course; or maybe it’s because this group in particular is more modest in all things, and so the showing of skin in any form is unusual.

Maybe it’s all of those things. But all I could think was this: when so much of you is exposed on a regular basis, it’s easy for your flaws to be hidden. People tend to focus on those parts that only interest them and you can hide in their selfishness.

Uncover only a certain part ourselves, especially a part that many of us think is ugly to begin with, and those flaws can’t hide. They are brought into focus. Magnified. Highlighted.

We are shown to be what we really are: imperfect.

That was the lesson I wanted the students to understand. We cannot hide in the sight of God. We cannot mask our imperfections. When the Holy Eyes of the Lord fall on our hearts and souls and lives, He sees everything. Each thought. Each desire. Each sin. We are unmasked.

And yet the beauty of this passage is that same God still bent his knees and washed the feet of undeserving sinners; he cleansed the nastiest places of their physical bodies as surely as he intended to cleanse the nastiest parts of their souls.

I think they got it. In complete and utter silence, fifty teenagers sat as adults – some much older than them, some near their own age – slowly made their way around to each one, cascading water over feet. One young person was so overwhelmed, it seemed like a breakdown; turns out, it was – the student had committed their life to Christ.

Sometimes, it’s the littlest things that get to us; sometimes, it’s the tiniest detail that brings our facade of pride and perfection crashing to the ground.

And sometimes, that’s a very good thing.

Is Something Wrong in Grayson?

Last night, my family went to eat at Zaxby’s with a couple of the students from my church. We were enjoying our food when the restaurant inexplicably began to fill up with teenagers – some of whom I was familiar with. In fact, I got up and hugged one of the kids because I taught her last semester at the Grayson Christian Learning Center. We chatted briefly about our respective summers, and then separated, but I remember walking out of Zaxby’s and looking at all those kids and thinking:

“Man, I hope none of them go do anything stupid.”

So imagine the sinking feeling in my stomach when I woke up and saw the Patch headline, “Teenager Dies in Grayson Crash.” I quickly read the article, and realizing that the names of the students involved had not yet been released, I hit Twitter and Facebook to see if I could find anything out.

Within five minutes, I had three different responders. The names they provided were the same. Within twenty minutes, I had seven responses.

Same names each time.


I don’t know the students involved; and while I grieve for their families, there was a sense of relief that it wasn’t any of the kids I’m close to. That sounds callous, I know, but it’s what I felt. I was greatly relieved to know that neither of the two students who were injured were drinking or otherwise impaired, and I hope that that the law deals with the intoxicated driver quickly and fairly. As the police issue their findings and the families and friends involved begin to pick up the pieces, that’s all that’s left.

Or is it?

I know that DUI fatalities are random things, that they are the result of poor choices and fate. I also know that car crashes period are constants in our traffic-riddled metropolis, and it is unreasonable to expect a low number of incidents involoving teenaged drivers. Sheer statistics makes such occurances highly likely.

But I also know that the closer I become to some of our younger generation, the more keenly I am aware that a pervasive and permissive culture exists. I see it in the number of kids who are smoking weed. I see it in the number of kids who are drinking. I see it in the number of kids who are casual about sex. And it concerns me.

I’m not advocating a lockdown, or calling for a return to Puritan values (that would be dumb), but I am asking if our community is turning a blind eye to a growing trend within our youth – an increasingly cavalier attitude characterized by the acronym “YOLO”: You Only Live Once. The idea being that it’s okay to do things that you know are dangerous, illegal, stupid or otherwise ill-advised, because, hey – you only live once.

Nevermind that by doing the aforementioned dangerous, illegal, stupid or otherwise ill-advised thing, you may not live that long.

I’m guilty of promoting it. Looking back now, I’m sure that some of my younger charges have heard tales of my collegaite stupidity and thought, “He turned out okay. So will I.” But the truth of the matter is I didn’t turn out okay. I came through my period of rebellion with scars, some of which still run deep. I came out okay despite my stupid behavior, not because of it.

I’ll grant that what’s going on in our schools is nothing new. Kids have been experimenting with drugs and booze and sex and who knows what else for as long as most folks can remember. But what has changed is their perception of those things: once upon a time, it was If we do this and get caught, we’re gonna be in trouble. Now, it seems to be If we do this, it’ll be fun.

Suddenly, there’s no fear of consequences. In fact, there’s no fear of much of anything.

Suddenly, I find myself at a loss as to where we even begin to change this subtle undercurrent, this riptide of laissez faire. And it leaves me asking:

Is something wrong in Grayson?

I know I’m going to take some shots over this, but I think maybe it’s time we took a long collective look in the mirror. Your thoughts are welcomed below.

Little Too Little

I love working with teenagers. They’re fun, energetic, and quite hysterical to be around. Last night, my youth group spent time hanging out together and it was just a fun evening. Getting to laugh, play games, and just talk is one of the best parts of being a youth minister. It gives them the chance to know I’m a real person, and it reminds me the same thing about them.

It also reminds me that the world of a teenager is rapidly shrinking.

I’ve read a lot lately about the prolonged “adolescence” that we provide young people here in America; a recent article in the NY Times Magazine suggests that an adolescence that runs from 10-26 years old is too long, and creates more problems than it solves. The argument is simple: we baby kids too much these days, protecting them from necessary life experiences that would do much to prepare them for the real world.

On some level, I can understand. But I also see the other side.

Yes, we are protecting our kids from some things, but not everything. There are areas of the teenage life where adults have abdicated almost all responsibility and left the kids to their own devices.

(I realize I’m making a generalization, so forgive me.)

We have more education about sex, drugs and alcohol than maybe ever before, but so little discussion of it. And when it comes to how a young person is supposed to navigate the crooked path of human relationships, moral choices, or even simple things like managing money or forming a political opinion, we talk even less.

The irony is that, in trying to protect them from the world, we’re exposing them to it at a much earlier age – and we’re leaving them to face it alone.

We’ve hashed and re-hashed some of these topics in other forums, usually connected with other issues, but looking at it first-hand, from the perspective of the average teenager (as if such a thing exists) the issues seem to take on a new life.

Keep in mind, I’m not condemning any parent out there. I’m not focusing my lens on a particular family, or a specific type; more to the point, I’m focusing on myself and my relationship with my own two kids.

I took my son outside today for a quick push on the swing. The sun was bright, the birds were singing, the air was actually cool and fresh. As I pushed him higher and higher into the air, in the comfort of his little toddler swing, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Am I failing you as a parent?

Am I teaching you how to live life well?

Am I loving you as much as I should, or am I loving you to the point of suffocating you?

What happens when you begin to make your own decisions? Will I have equipped you to make them well?

And to be honest, I wonder the same thing every morning as I put my daughter on the school bus.

I know I can’t be there for every little thing that happens to them, and honestly, Rachel and I have tried to parent in such a way that our kids get to experience more than they are sheltered from. We want them to discover the world. We want them to ask questions (even when they ask them at a rate of 10,000,000 per minute). We want them to think for themselves.

But at the same time we want to protect them.

So the question becomes how much is too much? How little, too little? And perhaps most frightening of all, can we ever really know?

You don’t really consider these questions when you think about parenthood. You tend to think (at least I did) in terms of money or time or loss of sleep; you may have the vague notion that at some point your child will no longer be your child, and you will have to let them go, but you don’t fully understand the terror inherent in that notion until you have them, warm and pink and sweet-smelling, in your hands. Until you hold them and realize that love, unconditional love, exists.

And when you do understand it, you’re already in process. The trick becomes not letting the terror overwhelm you.

These kids of ours are little too little. It’s best to love them with all our might while we can, and then love them enough to let them go, trusting that between what we’ve taught and modeled for them, and their own innate intelligence, they’ll choose a better life than we could ever imagine. It is the dilemma and blessing of parenthood.

Now excuse me while I go hug my kids.

The Struggle With Why

A child struggles to find enough to eat in an under-developed African village.

A mother stands over the graves of children lost to disease.

A devout religious person is arrested, beaten and jailed by a hostile government.

A teenager is insulted, assaulted and made to feel like trash as she heads into the clinic.

A man wrestles with whether or not to take his beloved wife off of life support.

The scenarios could go on and on. But the same question reverberates through each: why?

Why evil? Why suffering? Why pain?

Why me?

Last night, hundreds of people gathered at Grayson High School to try and make sense of the deaths of Hope McKenzie and Austin Rogers. Braving crappy weather, the weight of grief, and the crushing presense of confusion, those people banded together to find common strength.

Perhaps it was unspoken, but they gathered together to ask: why?

The philosophically flip (and one might argue, hugely insensitive) amongst us might counter, why not? And indeed, regardless of your particular worldview, there’s some weight to that retort. If the universe is blind and indifferent, then we shouldn’t be suprised to find it indifferent towards us. If there’s a wrathful, demanding god disgusted by our failures, then we shouldn’t be taken aback when that god deigns to punish us for said failures. If this world is merely and illusion of suffering to be overcome through denial of self, then we shouldn’t even ask the question, but instead choose to look beyond it.

The struggle with why only comes into play if there is believed to be a good, benevolent god who is supposed to love humanity and want what’s best for us.

This will probably stir things up, but why is really only an issue for Christians.

We’re the ones who are supposed to have the eternal, perfect, holy, good God. We’re the ones who run around telling people that God loves and wants what’s best for them. We’re the ones telling folks that if they’ll just believe and accept Jesus, God’s one and only Son (whom God sent to die for our sins because He loved us so much) that, in the words of Bob Marley, “everything’s gonna be alright.”

Are we wrong about God?

Or are we wrong with what we believe about Him?

And maybe most damaging of all: are we wrong to believe we can ever really understand why?

My question is: what if the why? is bigger than us? What if there is a good answer, only it doesn’t involve us, involve me, at all?

What if why? is something beyond personal and speaks to a larger, much fuller truth about life than I am capable of understanding?

I know for me, the struggle with why? has been the struggle with the universe not being built around me. Heck, my own life isn’t built around me. This is my personal conviction, and I welcome your comments and perspectives, but the world doesn’t start and end at my nose. It contains more than just what’s inside my personal bubble. And so when events come along that shatter that conceit – when my child dies before she’s born or my neighbor’s child dies in a car accident – why? becomes a question about much more than just the events at hand. It becomes an exploration into our very understanding of life, of the universe, of things that are far beyond ourselves.

Why? takes us into spaces that we usually avoid, because it shows us our own seeming insignificance.

Which is why the question is uniquely problematic for the Christian, who’s spent years believing in his or her significance in the sight of God: after all, He sent His Son to die for me, right?

Maybe not.

This post is going to frustrate a lot of people, some because of the questions I’ve raised and some because I’m not going to pose a neat and tidy answer to the questions I’ve raised. I expect (though I may not get) a flame war in the comments on this post, and that’s okay. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.

But for all of you struggling today, with death, with health, with money or relationships or theology or fear or adoption, for those who are grappling with the why?, take comfort in the knowledge that you do not do so alone.

And maybe that’s the point.