Pain.

I’m writing these words from the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. For over two weeks now I’ve been in pain in the lower half of my back. I don’t walk normally, sit for long, or lay down without a fair amount of pain. A little while ago I was awakened by pain. It’s pain that got me to the floor where I am and have been. I’ve been doing stretches and exercises, trying to relieve the pain.

[Several minutes spent rolling, moving, laying face down….]

Yesterday I did what I thought I would never do. Out of sheer desperation I went to a chiropractor. I’ll spare you the awkward details, but left there in much the same condition as I went in. Except with less money in my account.

For the two previous nights before tonight, I’ve slept on the floor very near to where I am right now, trying to find some comfort. I’ve blamed my mattress, my shoes, my office chair, my diet, dehydration, and even my bowels as culprits for this pain. I hereby absolve and apologize to all of those things because all evidence of their alleged wrongdoing is circumstantial  and inconclusive. 

But….still….the….pain……persists.

Pain. There are few words in our language so abhorred as this one. To say it is to wince, isn’t it? 

And man am I in it. 

But here’s the thing. Listen now. I’m not a victim. I’m a student. Pain is what I’m in, it’s not who I am. My experience doesn’t equal my identity. And call me crazy, but as I was writhing a while ago (still in the dead of night), I thought, “What am I learning?” Because if I’m going through this, I’m not going to be foolish enough to waste the experience on self pity and complaining. Yes sir, pain is a great teacher. And I’m all ears.

That Failing Feeling

This is not a cautionary tale. This is not some subversive or subconscious plea for affirmation or consolation. This is just me being gut-level honest. The kind of honest that I hope I always am, but this time with maybe a little more edge simply due to the visceral nature of my admission.

I’ve been in fulltime student ministry for nearly 22 years. And yet more often than not, I feel more like I’m failing than progressing.

There are a couple things that lean me toward that failing feeling. The first is outward. Its the sheer lack of visible evidence that ground is being gained. Most of what I see around me in students today is ambivalence and addiction in a myriad of distractions.

I know, I know. There’s nothing new under the Sun. I get it. But don’t write me off as some aged belly-acher just yet.

As a student ministry pastor, my fuel comes from the conviction that I’m called to be in student ministry. On days where I struggle to see light splitting through the fog, I rest on that conviction. You have to. Otherwise, its no wonder why student ministry has the revolving door it has. You step in, you’re used up, you crawl out. And round and round we go.

Another outward evidence I wrestle internally with is the fact that I can’t compete with the latest app.  What I mean is I can’t breakthrough the grip modern technology has on young people. And before you start with your tutorial on leveraging social platforms for Kingdom growth, I gotta say that I understand “how”, I just struggle with the “if”.  This is probably going to come across as double-speak, but I actually do use social media to a degree in the student ministry I lead. So, don’t think I’m over here sitting in my Cracker Barrel rocker next to my flannelgraph, shaking my fist at all you hipsters. Not at all.

And I also can’t compete with other ministries who are far more with-it than I. Those snappy filters, those high energy promos, those snapshots of your midweek with packed rooms, crazy cool lighting, polished flow, and apparent perfection in every direction. Of course I know we’re not in competition. I get that. I know you’re over there being you and I’m over here being me. But in the brutally comparative part of my gray matter, I wonder things that quietly chip away at my sense of certainty that I’m good enough. Or slick enough. Or organized enough. Or visionary enough. Or ______ enough.

These thoughts, and thoughts like them seem to inevitably lead me to a cerebral fence I seem to be standing inside of. And I wonder to myself: “Can I get there from here? Should I? Where is ‘there’, actually? What is it I’m pining for that I don’t sense I currently have?”

The answers don’t come easy, but those that do come straight from the gifts of experience God has given me over the many years I’ve been in student ministry. So, when I feel I’m failing, these are my go-to thoughts and truths that I fall into, stand on, and shout out. And typing them right now is likely going to be more therapeutic for me than you reading them will be for you.

First, I remember that I’m called.  By God, I’m called. I’ve given my entire “career” lifetime to meeting, leading, connecting with, relating to, influencing, welcoming, pushing, teaching, discipling, growing, equipping, listening to, laughing with, serving, praying for, encouraging, correcting, challenging, walking with, and loving students and their families. And for no other reason than that I believe with all I am that God told me to and He hasn’t yet told me not to.

The eternal is invisible. By definition, I can’t see most of the good God is doing. Because of my humanness, I’m tempted to forget what I can’t see. What I do see is teenagers absolutely drowning in information, completely addicted to a 3×5 screen; their window to fantasy, to hyper-connectedness, and an effective escape from their present surrounding, which often includes me.  Only history will be able to eventually show us the damage (or benefit) to how we currently live. But when that’s nearly all I can see, I’m prone to think that’s all there is. It isn’t.

Fruit is measured in seasons, not seconds.  I find that when I get that failing feeling I have lost sight of the long haul dividends of staying in one direction for the benefit of others. I can get a sinking feeling of non-progress when I forget to maintain an eternal perspective.

Drawing crowds doesn’t make disciples.  Now don’t think I’m against big crowds. The ministry I’m helping serve and lead is a larger-than-average student ministry. But I can’t convey to you how much I don’t care about that. Despite my tendency to gaze longingly at other student ministries that draw in crazy numbers, at the heart of it I don’t care.*  Jesus drew crowds, but never gave any indication that crowds were the point. I came to my current church nearly 13 years ago from a far smaller church. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought “Oooo, large church student ministry! It’s the big leagues now.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Do you want to know what I care about more than anything else in student ministry? That one teen. And that one. And that other one. And the one over there. The one in the middle of the sea of other teens, and the one who’s alone over in the corner. And that one that won’t ever even show up. My heart beats and breaks for students. All students. Especially that ONE.

(*I’ll save all my thoughts on why churches SHOULD be growing for another time.)

There’s one hand-crafted me.  Like many youth leaders who move about in the youth ministry stratosphere, I am tempted to compare myself with student ministry celebrities. But I’m confident in my heart that if we ever had the opportunity to sit down and speak face to face, I’d find that the pedestal I put them on is made up of my own insecurities, not their egos.  That being said, I also think we all have different skills sets, schedules, ambitions, giftedness, and visions. So, I’ll learn all I can from those who seem to do it better, but when all is said and done, we’re all on the same field on the same team working for the same outcome. So, being reminded that I’m made by God to be where I am and do what I’m doing isn’t about pride, its about humility. Because we’re ALL hand-crafted.

So, when I feel like I’m failing as a student ministry pastor, (or as a dad, as a friend, as a husband, as a child of God) I have to remember these things. But more than that, I need to rest. God, help me rest. Help me stop compulsively critiquing. Help me do away with thoughts of failure and overwhelm me with thoughts of freedom. Walk me past the wastefulness of comparative living and let me again find my identity in Jesus. Let me experience a renewed mind that is set on who You are, what You’ve said, and where You’re leading.

And as I do, I’ll pray the same for you.

Thinking of You

I’m gonna take a risk here. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing I’m not entirely unique in what I’m about to share. I’m going to do my best to let you inside my skull and get an idea of how my brain and thought life works.

I find myself most of the time thinking about you. Not just you, but people. Specific people, but really all people I know or have ever met. You do that too? Good. I don’t feel like such a weirdo, then. What a relief.

I’ll say right off the bat that a woman named Merritt occupies my thoughts the most. In fact, when I’m thinking about you, an event, an idea, a problem, or a joy I am also entertaining a thought about Merritt. Its just how it is. I’m captivated by her. What a woman I’ve found.

But I spend so much time thinking about people. And I can honestly say if we’ve ever met, I think about you. Not in a creepy way, but in different ways depending on that individual.

I think about the people I went to elementary school with. Every time I hear Van Halen’s “Jump” on the radio (arguably one the best songs you can hear on the radio), I think about Eric Slobodjian in my 6th grade class who one day played that song on the music room piano. And not just played it….he PLAYED it. ROCKED it. OWNED it.

I think about Mr. Deane, my favorite teacher. His creativity, his love of teaching, his love for learning, and his love for children; especially those who had the honor to be in his class.

I think about Todd Bienke (even wrote an entire blog post about him here), Alison Miller, Ricky Morse, and my best buddies Ben and Dave to name just a very few. I spend a lot of mental time in memories. Not too much, I’d say. But a lot.  Enough.

I think about people so much because I care deeply for you. I know, I know, I know. You got tons of people that care about you. But I just want to confess that I’m one of them. I think about that middle schooler who just–for whatever reason–hates the idea of God. I think about that gangly high school student who–for whatever reason–can’t seem to get an onramp onto the social scene. I think about the beautiful young lady who sees herself as unlovely and unlovable. And I don’t think these thoughts generically, I’m typing about the people I know and love and am thinking about.

I drive and look at the cars around me and I think about who these people are and where they’re going and what they’re thinking.  Is that crazy?

I think about people who have–for whatever reason–left the church I serve at. I think about the people right now who are around me in this coffee shop. I wonder what perspectives they have that I could learn from. I wonder what they find important. I wonder about their story just below their skin.

I think about those I’ve served with in the past. I think about my first intern, Wade. Did he stick with student ministry? Or in those first 2 years of fulltime ministry where he saw my first summer as a full time youth pastor, did he turn tail and run for a completely different direction in life? Or another intern, Chris Coakley. A youth pastor, husband, father, and now founder and director of “Grain of Hope“, an incredible organization that’s feeding hungry children and so much more.  I can’t believe he started off shadowing me in ministry, and where he is now and what he’s doing. I think about Tony Raker, the guy who picked me up from the train station in 1995, when I first arrived to interview for my first ministry position. I think he worked in the news industry and was somehow connected to the White House, so he was instantly impressive. He’d go on to prove to me that he’s a good friend. I think about Jerry Mounts and Scott Lowdermilk, my very first two volunteer youth leaders. Jerry owned his own refrigeration company and had a heart of solid gold and Scott was a diesel beast of a man who was in the Army Corps of Engineers. The definition of cool.  I remember one time he pulled up to a youth event at a local park on a Ducati.  In my youthful naiveté,  I didn’t use either one of those incredible guys and the amazing giftedness they brought to the team.

I think about the people in my future and my family’s future. I think about my daughters’ husbands. If you’re reading this, you might find it interesting that I anticipate that you’re currently loving Jesus and the thing that’s going to make your marriage to my daughter not just work, but blow your mind is that you continue to love Jesus. If you don’t, you can’t possibly love her like you love Him, as the Bible commands you to do.  But you already know that. That’s one of the things I like about you, actually. I think about my sons’ wives. If I may be so bold, ladies: You’re in for a treat.

I think future ministry opportunities. I suppose that the ministry I currently serve in could be the last one I ever serve in. I could drop dead doing what I’m currently doing. But if I don’t and there’s some other place God has for me, I think about who I’ll meet and what I’ll face and how I’ll handle it and what I’ll learn through it.

I think about people because I care so deeply about people. I care deeply about you. If we’ve ever met, you return to my thoughts on a regular basis. You can doubt it, but its true.

I think about if anyone is currently at odds with me and I don’t know it. I think about ways I have perhaps set someone off and they’re somewhere right now with that burr in the back of their mind. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider myself important enough to be preoccupied by, but I do believe I am a human that has impact. Hopefully good, positive impact. But I’m not an idiot and I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.

As I drove to this coffee shop today, it just struck me take time to write this blog post. I have no idea why and maybe its the worst one I’ve ever done. But maybe for someone out there who is or has been connected to my life–maybe they needed a reminder today that they’re thought of and because they’re thought of, they’re loved.  You’re loved.

Half. Full.

567269_starbucksThis past Christmas my wife suprised me with one of those Starbucks travel mugs that entitles me to go to Starbucks every day in January and get it filled up with a brewed coffee or hot tea.  To put it plainly, its a glorious gift to give someone who loves coffee.

So, naturally I typically haven’t let a day go by this month without stopping in, slamming that mug down on the counter and getting my fill. Needless to say, I’ll be sad to see January end.

I went in this morning and as I walked up to the counter, I thought to myself that the past two times I had gotten it filled up, I didn’t finish it. That’s horrifying, I know but I’m the king of setting coffee down and getting distracted by life only to return to a tepid coffee later.  So, I thought to myself I would only ask to have the mug only filled half way this time.

You should’ve seen the look on that barista’s face. His brain locked up. He literally froze for a couple seconds and finally uttered, “Are you sure?” The idea that someone would enter a Starbucks, have full rights to a full (rather large) travel mug brimming of that dark elixir, and yet ask for only half a cup had left him dumbfounded. I could see it in his eyes: “Why in the name of all that is good and caffeinated would you ever turn down this liquid crack?!? Why??? WHHHYYY????”  That’s what his eyes said. Word for word.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing.”  [Eph. 1:3]

We are lavished with spiritual blessings because of Jesus. We are overwhelmed with the goodness of God on a day to day—no—moment to moment basis. But often I only take a portion of God. I do this through small praying, weak faith, worry in the face of trials, and praise that far too attached to my mood. I take a mere sliver of God when I am entitled through Christ to “every spiritual blessing”!

So, God invites me to live hysterically free. And I choose to hold onto a few chains.

God invites me to cast my cares on Him. And I choose to question His strength.

God invites me to experience fully-engulfing peace. And I choose to worry.

God invites me to live forgiven. And I choose to quietly drag shame around.

Through that silly cup of coffee I had this morning, half full as it was, God reminded me that there is always so much more of Him than I am choosing to take. So much more to learn, so much more to know, so much more to enjoy.

 

As You Protest

Our nation is built on revolt. I don’t mind at all when people protest in order to communicate a collective conviction.

Lots of news swirling in the infosphere as we are a mere two days away from the inauguration of our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. And from what I can tell, there’s a fair amount of people who are ticked. And  I do mean ticked.

Election Protests WashingtonIn the past couple of weeks, reports have rolled in of celebrities dropping out of their invites to attend/perform as a part of the inauguration. Okay, fine. That’s their prerogative, even if they do needlessly add on a layer of venom as they make that choice and voice their reasons.

And just this morning I was reading an article about supposed organizations–several of them, in fact–that are allegedly planning on not merely protesting at the inauguration, not only disrupting the inauguration proceedings, but their stated goal is to destroy the event itself. To whatever degree they can “ruin” the progress of this time-honored tradition, they consider a victory in their favor.

This of course all remains to be seen. In 48 hours from now, we’ll all see if they were successful in their endeavors or not. One thing is nearly certain: we’ll have a new president.

I try my best to avoid comments posted in comment sections online (besides the one below this post, of course!); be it in social media or under articles from blogs or news source(s). I won’t go into why that is because you probably already know. You’ve read them  yourself and have probably felt the need to shower afterwards.

But it’s not protesting that I’m speaking against. Not at all. In fact, protest is one of the great rights of American citizens. Just as surely as people have a right to gather and celebrate our newly elected President, other people have just as much a right to stand at or near that event and make their displeasure known. The laws that protect the celebrators are the laws that protect the detractors, plain and simple.

So, let me speak to those planning to protest either now, in the next 48 hours, or 48 years from now.  I don’t suspect you’ll ever read these words, but on the off chance you do…

  1. Respect yourself.  When I see protestors being disrespectful to others or to property, their message vaporizes. There is ZERO respect for whatever message you are meaning to convey. Somehow, somewhere along the way we have equated disagreement with disrespect. This is in my opinion, one of the most devastating civil interaction mistakes we can make. So please respect yourself enough to practice restraint. As the old adage goes, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”
  2. Confrontation, but only for Conversation.  What is the Step 2 of the protest? Do you just gather to make noise and flip cars and then go home? Cowards. The work of protest truly begins in the conversations of opposing views. Conversation that is absent of dissent and full of honor for the other.
  3. Don’t drag me in, and don’t speak for me. To stay on topic, I’m appalled at some of the ugly, unkind things our president-elect has said. I have no argument there. But if I choose not to hang him in effigy alongside you, please don’t think I endorse all he says and does. Likewise, if I do not adorn my lawn with Pro-Trump signs, please don’t think I am ignorantly disengaged from your fight.
  4. Disagree with dignity. Ours is a society of pluralism. And it seems that every time the sun rises, new views are born. There is no shortage and there will be no end to the potential conflicts among us. But what if I kept your dignity and mine intact as I interact with you, and you with me? What if as protestors gather, for whatever their quam or cause, they viewed all humans–especially those of opposing views–with dignity and treated them accordingly?

Well, I’ll let you get back to your sign painting and Molotov cocktail pouring. I just wanted to pop in and share a couple of my views on what I fear is about to go down.

Love and peace. All to Jesus.

How To Jesus

Okay. Day 3 of 2017. By now you’re probably feeling pretty dang good about the momentum you can serulernse is about to develop behind the 3 days of successfully keeping that New Year’s Resolution. Good for you! Here’s to Day 4. And if you want to keep that ball rollin’ you’re probably looking for some help, amirite?

Lucky for you, there’s Google. And probably a vast array of people on planet Earth trying to do what you’re doing. Oh, and Wikipedia. There’s that, too. Yep, you’re all set.

All this talk of forward motion makes me wonder about something I started thinking months ago. Let me set the table for us.

Several months ago, I was sitting in a staff planning meeting with a consultant, listening to principles of growth. While I took copious notes (okay, I mostly doodled), I thought about spiritual growth. And then I thought about how growth happens. And then most importantly, I thought about what Jesus said about it. You know what? It’s surprisingly little.

But before we talk about that, let’s talk about the concept of systematizing spiritual growth. Because as I absorbed that information in that meeting, I reflected on if systematizing spiritual growth is even a good idea. And just to be clear: I think it is. And I think it isn’t. And I think I’d like to know what you think about it. (Comment below.)

Cutting to the chase a bit, I felt that the perceived message being communicated by this consultant was something like this: “If you have the right system, and if you do that system just right, you will grow. And growth is what you want.” Now, let me say that I absolutely believe that growth is good and even expected when it comes to our spiritual understanding and maturity. There’s plenty of scripture that shouts that truth.

Some good questions to ask:

  • When it comes to spiritual growth, what should the (your/our) plan be?
  • Are there dangers hiding within the concept of systematizing spiritual growth?
  • What are the benefits of progressing in spiritual maturity with a plan, as opposed to no plan? Does growth typically happen apart from intentionality?

We’re a people who like to know what to do. We like steps and we like to follow steps. We feel empowered by “How To’s” and practicality trumps principle almost without exception. Countless start-ups become behemoth companies on the concept of simple steps. But what role does that play in spiritual growth? What are the “steps”?

What did Jesus tell His followers to do before He peaced out? He said, “Make disciples.” And HOW did Jesus tell His followers to do that?

*cricket*…………*cricketcricket*…….

This, my friends, presents us with a gloriously spacious perspective on “How To” do what Jesus told us to do. As I’ve heard it said before, the message is non-negotiable while the method is almost always up for grabs.

So, are we right to create “tracks” for growth? Are we in the clear to create “steps” toward Jesus-likeness? You know what? I think we are. Just as long as we understand that what beats at the heart of people growing toward Jesus is the heartbeat of the Father. The Father who gave the Son to expand the family to include you. The level of growth God wants for you is exactly equal to the level of affection that would cause you to speak to Him intimately and speak of Him passionately. Is growth the point? Well, kind of. But I think growth for its own sake is like going to the gym to get bigger muscles with no need for bigger muscles.

The call on our lives is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  AND to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Do that for the rest of your days and you’ll never stop growing.

“Self Marriage.” Nope, not kidding.

My wife was reading an article to me yesterday about a woman wbridewithsigncaketoppersho married herself.

“Wait a minute. What?” is what I think I thought.

My bride (you know, that one that’s not myself) continued to read the details of the elaborate pre-ceremony practices, guests lists, a formal ceremony, a reception, and yes a cake. What was on top of that cake? I have no idea. What was the first dance like? Who knows. How did the honeymoon go? I can guess.

Now, I know its only January 2nd but I just can’t let this pass by without pointing out the obvious. So if you’ll forgive me just going right for the deep end (and the jugular), we gotta unpack this at least a little bit. There are some serious dots here just screaming to be connected.

After my spouse (you know, the one that’s not me) finished reading the short article I think I said something to the effect of: “That [self marriage] is the epitome of self-absorption.”

Let me be quick to say that I don’t think marriage is for everyone. But let me be quicker to say that I also don’t think self marriage is for anyone. I’ll skip the obvious “Have-we-lost-our-silly-minds?” argument and get to something a bit more substantial. You ready?

While I do believe we need to understand our worth and that YOU need to understand YOUR worth, I do not believe that any of us have within ourselves the ability to ascribe that intrinsic value for ourselves. Here’s the logic: If I am the authority on my own worth, then I am by definition susceptible to the opposite. In other words, if I can on one day walk the aisle to meet myself at the altar, then I can the next day also be vulnerable to the such views of myself which would end in an acrimonious self divorce. Then what?!?

Here’s the problem that’s cleverly disguised as not a problem: we have become so good at affirming ourselves that we’ve become infatuated with us. We are so proficient at extoling our own virtues that we seek and need no other source of validation, acceptance, or care outside of ourselves. And if that’s our view, then we are light years away from any acknowledgement or confession that would hint at a brokenness that goes far beyond and far deeper than any human can remedy. In other words…Savior? What Savior? Why would we need a savior?

Here’s the freeing truth: Your worth isn’t your worth because of your declaration of your worth. Remember thbankruptcyat episode of “The Office” where Michael Scott was in such financial strain that when he learned about bankruptcy, he walked out into the office and shouted “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!!!!” only to be told by Oscar Martinez that simply saying “bankruptcy” doesn’t do anything.  His response: “I didn’t say it, I declared it.”

No, your worth isn’t real because you declare it. Your worth is real and unchangeable because of the One who is head over heels in love with you. And I’m NOT talking about the one in the mirror. Your worth is real and untouchable by circumstance or consensus because it goes far beyond your or anyone’s reach. You are adored…you…the one reading these words…by the One who created you in your mother’s womb. The One who–even before anything else you see existed–had you on His mind. And you know what you can do about this kind of love? Not a darn thing. It’s not fickle and flimsy, prone to the waves of your own opinion. Its rock solid and immovable. It doesn’t give a rat’s rear where you are, what you’ve been into, what you’ve done, what you think of you or what you think of Him. Your worth has already been declared.

 

 

*For those looking for the tax breaks that come with self marriage, there are none. It is not a legal transaction or process.