Into The Deep Blue

deep blueYesterday afternoon, I considered that my opening line for a talk to some at-risk students at Project LIFT might just be throwing up on the lovely blue carpet. It was a deep blue, like the far-out part of the ocean that people always warn you to avoid unless you’re an expert swimmer or have a boat. I’ve always been one to get nervous before speaking – and it’s probably more akin to anxious excitement than nervous dread – but I was especially amped up yesterday because it was a new experience for me. Sure, I’ve spoken to hundreds of youth over the past 15 years, but it was almost always within a church context, almost always on a passage of Scripture. This was different. This was me speaking to a theme, trying to inspire kids with tough backgrounds and even tougher realities to overcome the hardships before them and aspire for something more.

Sure, we were meeting in a church, but I was doing something new. And I knew I would either nail it or fail miserably.

I decided that nailing it was the preferable option. So I pushed my anxiety aside, kept my Whatchamacallit candy bar in my stomach where it belonged, and I started telling a simple story about a boy, his kinship with a pencil, and the journey of discovery they made together. (If you’re interested, here’s the PDF: Project LIFT – The Boy)

If you’ve ever spoken to teenagers before, you know they can be a tough sell. They’re smart, they’re savvy, and if they think for a second that you’re flim-flamming them, they’ll shut you out and move on. The students I spoke to yesterday were no exception. But as I went along with the story, trying my best to weave in humor and add in improvisational moments based on their responses to me, the most amazing thing happened.

They stayed with me.

Now, here’s where years of youth work comes in handy. To the average person, a teenager who is “staying with me” might seem a lot like a distracted, disinterested person. They rarely keep eye contact, they tend to shift in their seats, and every so often they’ll look up or down or around the room to see if maybe a magic fairy has flown in to grant wishes. It can take some getting used to. In fact, you really have to simultaneously speak to them and look for the cues that they’re with you: a smile, a subtle nod of agreement, leaning forward in their chair at a crucial point, tapping their neighbor on the shoulder and gesturing for them to pay closer attention. All of those signs were present yesterday afternoon, even as my talk soared past the fifteen minute mark.

I wrapped it up after 25 minutes, and the best thing in the world happened.

They wanted to ask me questions. Which means they had listened and heard something that piqued their interest. I even got asked two of my favorite questions: Have you ever thought about being a teacher? and Have you ever thought about doing stand up comedy?

(In case you’re wondering: yes to the first and no to the second.)

Afterwards, the folks who invited me to speak (without ever hearing me, might I add – brave folks) told me that it was the first time they could remember that the kids had ever sat through a presentation without having to be redirected.

“That never happens,” one worker said. “They actually listened to you.”

Yesterday, I took step beyond the familiar boundaries I’ve always known, and the ground beneath my feet was just as firm. I’ve always been told – and believed – that I was a good preacher; yesterday was the first time I’ve been told I was a good speaker. There may not seem to be much difference, but for me, there is. And since you might be asking yourself, “Self, what is the difference?”, I’ll tell you:

A preacher comes with a built in audience. A speaker has to earn one. God has always been gracious to me because He’s always provided me with a platform to speak from and people to speak to. I’ve never taken it for granted, but it’s always been built in for me because of my involvement with a church. Yesterday He showed me that he could open doors beyond a church (never mind that I was physically inside a church) and that I could earn the right to be heard. He showed me that He could do more with me than I’d imagined.

The best part of the day, however, the part that just made me fresh-from-the-oven-chocolate-chip cookie gooey inside, was when I got into the care with Rachel to leave. She silently grabbed my hand and said, “Good job.” I kissed her hand and said thanks. But then she added this, and I knew things were going to be okay:

“I loved hearing you speak like that. You really seemed to be in your element. It was awesome, and the kids really enjoyed it.”

One journey ending, another beginning. Into the deep blue we go.

Do What You Do

ImageI had coffee this past Sunday with a friend of mine who happens to help writers/creative people transition into new careers. We met at a local coffee shop and chatted briefly about the changes going on in my life, and I asked her for advice.

She gave it to me. Straight, no chaser.

“You don’t need to change fields,” she said. “You need to do what you’re good at, which is write about and talk about God in a way that young people, and people who maybe aren’t so into God, feel like they have a friend.”

Well dang, then.

What does this mean moving forward? I don’t know. I have suddenly surged upwards with the number of folks subscribed to this blog (I’m almost to 400, 225 of which have come within the last month or so) and my freelance career is coming along nicely. Not enough to make a boatload of cash, but enough to give me hope that more work is out there if I’m willing to hustle for it (and I am). And I know that people have been interested lately in having me out to speak to their church’s youth group or weekend retreat (and I would love to do even more of those).

I don’t want to make any kind of declarations, but I’m satisfied that God is showing things to me, if only I’ll have eyes to see. And it’s all new territory. New sights. New sounds. New smells.

It’s scary stuff. But as someone wise once said, “The trick is to figure out what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and get someone to pay you for doing both.”

Do what you do, bruh. Do what you do, and trust Him to do what He does.


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.

My Struggle Against Grace

ImageThe students at my church, whom I love dearly, whom I would gladly do just about anything for (except for the typical stupid-youth-pastor stuff), have organized multiple benefit events to help my family with medical expenses. No one in my family is deathly ill, as one might think whenever the terms “benefit” and “medical expenses” are used. Rather, we’re just like a lot of American families who are besieged by medical costs in the 21st century: we make it, but just barely.

I’ve not talked about this much at all with anyone other than my wife and couple of close friends, mainly because I am ashamed that the kids believe my family is worthy of such lavish love.

Hello, my name is Jason, and I am a Christian who absolutely struggles with grace.

I am much more comfortable sacrificing. I don’t believe in a salvation that comes from works, but when it comes down to practical things, I’m quicker to work and suffer than I am to bask in unearned favor. Up until a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that truth; but now, thanks to the extravagant and beautiful love of a few teenagers, I’m forced to admit that I have a problem with the essential truth of the Gospel.

I’m not good enough, and yet God saved me anyway. And not just saved me, but fills me, indwells me, uses me, and loves me as His own.

To be honest, I like suffering and sacrifice because it makes a good shield against those people who aren’t gracious at all. That sounds stupid, I suppose, but there are people who constantly remind you that they don’t think you’re special, that they don’t see any reason why you should be treated better than they. In reality, their attitude has more to do with their own inherent selfishness than with my undeservedness, but the subtle slings and barbs sting all the same.

Often, people on the road to hell want nothing more than to take you with them. And so I like being able to point to my life and use my works as a defense against those who would want to remind me of my unworthiness.

But when people come alongside you and overwhelm you with love that simply cannot be justified by your life…well, that strips away those defenses. It lays you bare before God and everyone else, and it exposes you for what you are: unworthy. Imperfect. Flawed.

The human response is to either recoil from such love, or to lamely attempt to justify it. I know that’s certainly been the case for me. Before my students put their plan into motion, one of their parents came to me and asked for my permission, told me that if I didn’t offer my blessing, the kids probably wouldn’t go through with it.

I hesitated. The large part of me, the part that knows my flaws and sins and unworthiness, wanted to put and end to it right then. A simple no, and I could go on living my life comfortably uncomfortable. The justifications were plentiful: it’s a down economy; we’re not that bad off; I don’t want the kids getting hurt if people don’t respond the way they might imagine; I don’t want them to feel like they have to do this.

But at my core, in my soul, I felt a conviction that told me I couldn’t say no. That I was going to have to, as my friend Polly Sage put it, suffer in a different way: receiving a love I could never earn or repay. So I gave my blessing. And thus began one of the most powerful struggles of my soul, a statement I don’t make lightly. The only other time I have felt this conflicted was after my daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn.

In death, most people retreat from you. There is an instinctive notion within the human heart that a person who is grieving needs space, and so people withdraw, leave you alone; they don’t look at your life or question what you do. You are anonymous in grief, and even though your soul and mind might be melting from the white-hot pain and confusion, you learn to find a desirable peace in the solitude. Your foibles and internal flaws remain yours and yours alone.

Life – love – is the opposite. It doesn’t leave you alone, it drags you onstage, warts and all, and proclaims from the top of its lungs that you are special, beloved, worthy. And it’s there, in the spotlight, that you as the object realize fully just how flawed and ugly and worthless you really are. And you feel acutely that the audience can see – if not all, at least some of – those same flaws. You can feel the eyes of judgment on you, even if those eyes are far fewer than your mind tells you. You know the truth, and yet you’re spoken of with such loving terms that you want to believe and run away all at the same time.

Folks, that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. And I’m struggling with it.

I am so blessed to have students who have listened to my incessant cries for the church to be more compassionate, less judgmental, more others-focused, more willing to help the poor and unfortunate. Not just because they are a beautiful picture of the ability of the youth of our world to shine brightly the Light of Christ, but because they are showing me that God’s love is greater, deeper, truer “than tongue or pen could ever tell; it goes beyond the farthest star and reaches to the lowest hell.” I just never expected that they would then turn that love on me.

But no one does. That’s why the persistent cry from the lips of Christ was that “God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not die, but gain everlasting life.”

Today, I understand in an entirely different way, not just that God loves me, but that inside of that love are things I cannot comprehend, much less make my peace with. I am stripped naked, shown undone, and yet He still says, “Beloved.” Not because of me, but because that’s just who He is.

The same is true for you.

May you be so blessed as to discover the terror and wonder of that love so deep.