Retreat Debrief

I thought it only appropriate to double back and review our fall retreat for high schoolers that happened this past weekend. Warning: Full disclosure/honesty ahead.

First of all, I really do love fall retreat more than anything else we do throughout the year. I can’t say specifically why that is, but it is. I think it has a lot to do with the overall tone/purpose of the weekend. We build it as highly relational, restful, spiritual, and communal. Because of that, there are prime opportunities to simply sit on a bench swing by a fire while sipping hot chocolate and talking life with a high schooler. You can’t not be refreshed after fall retreat.

When we purposefully enter into a time (even as brief as a weekend) where we are focused on God’s voice and others’ stories in an intentional way, we come away from that with a much stronger sense of who we are based on who God is rather than who we try to be based on who others say we should be. If I can put it this way, students who get away like this come back with a deeper, clearer sense of self as well as the imperative of spiritual community. And by contrast, those who don’t…don’t. At least not in the same way.  I’ve heard it said that a church’s weekly prayer gathering is a good barometer of a church’s spiritual health. And for better or for worse, I think there’s a similar metric with our fall retreat. I gauge much of what I consider spiritual hunger/growth on who and how many I see coming away for a time like this. And just being transparent here…this year’s group was our smallest one in recent history at 28.

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We spent the weekend gathering around a few different truths. We had 4 “sessions” together and there were 4 statements that encapsulate each of those sessions:

Session 1: “Come Away”: Mark 6:31…. “The investment of conversation you place in a relationship is a very accurate measure of the importance you place on that relationship as well as the consequential health of that relationship.”

Session 2: “For the Mems”: 1 Cor. 9:19-23… “If you want your life to mean something, do something that actually has meaning.”

Session 3: “Unrivaled Love Deserves an Undivided Heart”: John 17:20-21 & Psalm 86:11… “When we are willing to take up our cross, we agree with Jesus that our mission is to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to share as he shared, and to be willing to die before we would turn our back on our Savior. This is revolutionary. This is the most revolutionary life you can live.”

Session 4: “You Share What You Love”: Psalm 96:2-4 & 1 Peter 3:15-16… “It is such a powerful thing to realize that your story interacts and intersects with my story and his story and her story; that God can use your life as an eternal impact on the lives of those around you if you’ll let Him.”

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Every indication is that fall retreat absolutely nailed its purpose. Students came away refreshed, connected, challenged, and encouraged. I’m doing all I can to help students see and take next steps, but much/most of that is the Holy Spirit’s work in each individual. All in all, fantastic weekend retreat. To those who prayed, I can’t simply thank you enough!

Anytime I post to this blog, I always wonder what readers think. And maybe you didn’t go on this retreat–maybe you’ve never been away like that. But what are the most restful, recharging activities you engage in; what is it that is spiritually rejuvenating to you? What more than anything else draws you close to Christ and re-calibrates your heart to His?

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“Pretreat”

hammock heavenNext weekend I’ll be heading to our annual fall retreat with some of our high school students. It promises to be an amazing weekend. Despite the fact that our numbers are less-than-stellar at the moment, and that I don’t think they’ve ever been at this point within 2 weeks of launch, I’m still thrilled to get away. Or as the invitation has gone out: “Come away.”

But in the pace of the average high school student who seldom thinks past the next half hour, even an annual retreat can sneak up–on all of us. But not this time. I can see it coming and I’m looking it dead in eye. And honestly, I couldn’t be more filled with anticipation. Our group needs this time. Friendships need this time. Our leaders need this time. I need this time.

So I want to make the most of a weekend; what amounts to less than 48 hours. In order to do that, here are the thoughts I’m focusing on…

  1. Expectation. What we expect is usually what we experience. I can’t lead students into a sense of wonder and expectation unless I’m already swimming in it. Am I even paying attention to God right now? What He’s doing? What He’s saying? Where He’s leading? Who He is calling me to see and to serve? God, don’t let my expectation be anything but representative of the fact that my heart knows You, needs You, and will be refreshed beyond measure as I meet you for a specially divined appointment.
  2. De-cluttering. Assessing in ministry and assessing in life can be tackled by wrestling with one question: What am I doing that isn’t making a difference? Routine can help us in building stability, but it can also create blinders that stop us from seeing where we’re spinning our wheels. This isn’t just about schedule or calendar, this goes for our minds and hearts too. What has taken up residence in my mind that has become a drain on my energy without contributing, like a tenant that isn’t paying rent? God, show me what I’ve allowed to take root in my mind and heart that isn’t growing me closer to you.
  3. Gratefulness. I’ve found that little else does what genuine gratefulness does. Gratefulness is our message to God to that see what He’s done (no matter if you directly benefit or not) and it also puts you in a place of receptiveness and awareness for seeing more of what God is doing. And the beat goes on. God, bring my heart back to a place of sheer thankfulness for all You are and all You’ve done. 

2017-hs-fall-retreat-group.jpgIf retreat really is a respite from routine, an oasis in an overstimulated desert, and an appointment with the Almighty, then I don’t want to do anything but drink in every ounce. Even as I seek to minister to students and leaders, I get recharged and refreshed in the process.

So as we gear up for a weekend of laughter, friendships, activities, outdoors, worship, listening, teaching, sharing, eating, and resting, we’re ready for all that’s in store.

An Incomplete Thesis on Love, Its Impact, & Identity

The most impact-full relationship in your life is the one in which you have received the most love, and is likely the one in which you have given the most love. Likewise, the most damaging relationship in your life is the one in which love should have been given and either wasn’t or you were given some damaging counterfeit. I’ll venture a guess that you’re carrying scars from that even today.

Since the beginning of history; the creation of time and space–we can look back and see that love is the one thing we crave, the thing we are fascinated by, the thing we are shaped by, the thing that motivates us, its what directs our decisions, the thing we can’t seem to get enough of, and the thing science alone can’t explain. When its absent, it doesn’t matter what else we have and when its present, it doesn’t matter what else we don’t have. We write poetry seeking to convey its ferocity, we pen music seeking to herald its message. Name 5 songs right now that have to do with love. I bet its easy to do. The Beatles told us its all we need. Lenny Kravitz exhorted us to let it rule. And the Captain and Tennille claim its what will keep us together.

Imagine a world where every single person were motivated first by love for those around them. Can you even fathom what grocery stores would look like, what traffic would look like, or what Black Friday would look like? You’d never see another homeless person. Just imagine your life motivated by a love for humans. All humans. (If you claim to follow Jesus, you’d better view that as your marching orders. Because it is.)

I was recently reminded that there is nothing–absolutely nothing–stronger than love. I’m not being romantic here. I’m being logical and factual. You simply cannot come up with any scenario in which love does not have the ability to win the day. No matter what evil may befall or what struggles come against us, any move love makes equates to automatic victory. And while many people have a personal definition of love that by default has a slanted personal agenda, let me remind us of what love actually is:

“Love is patient. Love is kind. Its does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

While many humans choose to create their own definition of love, there is an actual definition of love that we would all do well to see, receive, and embrace. Otherwise, we are like actors in the same play reading from a different script or players on a field using a variety of playbooks. We as humans can’t hope to move forward until we embrace what love actually is.

12547692_VAI’ve spent the past week in Clendenin, WV seeking to help and bless a community ravaged (and I do mean ravaged) by the flood of 2016. It was called the “Thousand Year Flood”.  All the media trucks and news reporters have long gone home, but this town remains decimated by what these flood waters did. I marveled as I listened to story after story of the townspeople explaining to me the devastation of the flood waters. I saw firsthand the absolute obliteration of a once thriving neighborhood. I saw a completely empty lot as the words “A church once stood there.” fell on my ears. I sat on a bench listening to a man named Stanley retell the story of the flood, pointing to a 12 foot tall lamppost on the corner down the road with a clock on top of it, telling me the water was just up to the clock. I stood in a church sanctuary while a member of the church pointed up to the balcony 15 over our heads and said people were trapped in that balcony for days because the water was that high.

And it was during this week that I was reminded that love is the strongest and will always win the day. We can’t make the jump to say that love makes problems disappear, but we can say with all confidence that love helps us put problems in a proper perspective. Knowing I’m loved by my kids is jet fuel to my passion for living. Knowing I’m loved by my wife is like the oxygen my blood needs to flow. And knowing I’m loved by God is the very reason I exist.

As powerful and transformational as love is in our lives, love was not and cannot be created. We know this because 1 John 4:7-8 tells us what (who really) love is:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE.” 

I’d encourage you to read that entire chapter, but those two verses right there speak to us about the identity of love and thus the origin of the love we experience. Any act of love is a reflection of God who IS love. And no matter what I may face in my life; even to the point of facing martyrdom for Christ, I can die victoriously in love knowing that no amount of evil or darkness can overcome love. Not because of what it can do, but because of Who it is.

“If only…”

If OnlyWe’re a backwards facing people. The average person lives their life walking backwards. We pay far more attention to the past than we do to the present or the future. Let’s just admit it. We’re backwards.

At this point in my life, I’m keenly aware that I am prone to be fixated with the rear view mirror. I very often catch myself thinking about what happened a half hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, several years ago. And I admit that when I do, I think “If only…” thoughts. “If I had only said that.” “If I had only done that.” “If I had only planned better.” “If I had only kept my mouth shut.”  Can you relate?

There’s a well known story in the bible of a man named Lazarus who was sick. His sisters Mary and Martha were there with him, but Jesus wasn’t. We know however that Jesus “loved Lazarus” so they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick (and presumably near death) and eventually Jesus made his way to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. (You can read the whole story in John 11.)

But Jesus was too late. In fact, when he got word that Lazarus was sick, He even said, “This sickness will not end in death.”  And Jesus was wrong.  Lazarus died soon after.

Jesus stayed where he was for a couple more days before heading to Bethany where Lazarus had lived. On his way, He told His disciples that Lazarus had in fact died.

So many things in this story are baffling to me, but something was said in the context of this story that I think epitomizes how I live and maybe…just maybe…how you live too.

Okay, so let’s picture Jesus and His entourage entering the town of Bethany. Lazarus had died and mourners had gathered. We soon find out that Lazarus had died 4 days prior to Jesus’ arrival. And as he arrives, Martha goes out to meet him and says the words I want to focus on:

“Lord, if only you had been here my brother would not have died.”

That statement speaks so loudly of two of Martha’s convictions: 1) that Jesus had the power to heal her brother, and 2) that Jesus let her down by not being there.

“If only” is how a lot of us live our lives. We continually evaluate what was and all too often allow it to tell us what will be. “If only” keeps us imprisoned in past events, past mistakes, past missed opportunities.

I look back a lot and wonder about when I took that right instead of that left. When I had that chance and I didn’t take it. When it seemed like a door stood in front of me and I just stared at it.

Satan will use “If only…” if you let him. Given his way, he’d prefer that you aren’t ever a forward-facing person again. As long as you’re facing backwards and making “If only” statements, you’re not facing forward and being led by God in what IS and into what will be.

So, how do we turn around? How do we live a life that gives the past its due, but not more than it deserves? A few things come to mind…

  1. Recognize that you’re powerless to change what was. And I know that stinks.
  2. Make any and all amends and reconciliations that you can with whoever lives in those “If only” thoughts with you. If you wronged someone, speak to them. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or polished, but it does have to happen.
  3. Stand on the power of Jesus’ forgiveness; it wipes away the “If onlys” of our past. Nothing else can, so until you know you’re forgiven, you won’t be able to face forward.

I know there’s a lot more to this story (Martha’s next words are so powerful), so read it sometime. And as you do, recognize that the same Jesus who’s with you in this moment sees your past and yet desires most to lead you forward.

When Jesus Stands

 

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I was reading the book of Acts recently. I have read it before, but as I went along and read about the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, I noticed a detail that had escaped me before…

“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Acts 7:56

These were the words of Stephen as the religious leaders and mob around him had begun to hurl stones at him in order to kill him for the “blasphemous” words he had spoken. And just between you and me, it wasn’t blasphemous. It was true. But as it turns out, they couldn’t handle the truth.

But do you see it? Did it jump out at you like it did at me?

“I see…the Son of Man standing…”

Hold on just one ever-lovin’ minute here.  Jesus is standing.

So what? Who cares?

We learn from Hebrews 1:3 and other references that once Jesus finished His redemptive work on earth He sat down at the right hand of God.  Jesus SAT down.

As in, “have a seat.”  As in “job well done.”  As in “mission accomplished.”  As in “take a load off.” Jesus sat down because quite frankly, He earned it. He was seated comfortably on His throne.

So why would Stephen see Jesus standing? What would cause Jesus to stand up?

File this under “partially substantiated speculation”, but let me share a couple thoughts.

What if Jesus stood knowing Stephen were only moments away from entering his eternal rest; entering Jesus’ very presence? What if Jesus were standing in preparation to “receive” Stephen home with a warm embrace, knowing Stephen were just barely on the other side of the threshold of heaven? Cool thought, right?

But the explanation I like even more is that Jesus’ response to the stoning of Stephen was so strong, so pure, so powerful that He literally had to rise from his throne. Akin to a standing ovation or the type of response that communicates an incredible amount of attention, esteem, and appreciation. Can you imagine living (or dying) in such a way that Jesus rises to His feet to show His approval and love?

Again, this is speculation but I don’t think its without scriptural backing. In the book of Revelation, we see a very tender exchange between Jesus the Lamb and those who had been martyred for their testimony. He seems to have a soft spot in His heart for those who lay down their life for Him. After all, its what He did for them. And you. And me.

Whether a standing Jesus is reserved only for those who lay down their pulse for the gospel, or if we can stir the attention of the Savior by the way we live our daily surrendered lives, it challenges me to love him so fully and serve others so willingly and be prepared to sacrifice so unreservedly that our Savior takes notice.

The Cold Christmas Shoulder

Probably one of my favorite people in the Christmas story wasn’t even mentioned. They were more implied than they were identified.

Its the innkeeper. That mysteriously, almost mythical creature who gets an indirect passing glance in the Christmas story.  (Read Luke 2:7, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)

no roomThere is strong evidence that the “inn” was not an “inn” at all as we imagine it, but rather a “guest room”. Be that as it may, I like to imagine the chat that went on between Joseph and this shadowy “innkeeper”.

Joseph steps into the building, up to the counter, and rings the “ring bell for service” bell.

The innkeeper emerges from a back room with just a hint of egg salad perched on the corner of his mouth.

Innkeeper: “Can I help you?”

Joseph: “Yeah, I’d like to get a room if you have any.”

Innkeeper: “Sure thing. I got plenty of room. Thankfully I expanded in preparation for the crowds I knew the census would bring to town.”

Joseph: “Okay, great. My wife and I have been traveling all day and we’re dead on our feet. Ugh. We’re exhausted and those beds are going to feel so good. And the fact that she’s pregnant doesn’t help—”

Innkeeper (interrupting): “Wait. What?  Did you say she’s….pregnant?”

Joseph: “Yeah, so you might hear some blood-curdling screams coming from our room tonight. Don’t be alarmed. She’s just in labor and going to deliver a baby at any time. It’s fine though. I mean, the kid’s not mine but an angel told me who’s it is.”

Innkeeper: “You know what? Let me just check the computer again real quick… *clickclick-clickityclick*…. oh, you know what? I made a mistake. Turns out we DON’T have any rooms. Sorry.”

Joseph: “So, you don’t have any room for us?”

Innkeeper: “Nope. Sorry.  Next in line, please!”

Joseph: “Seriously, dude? Nothing? I got a very pregnant woman here and just like that you’re suddenly out of rooms?”

Innkeeper: “Yep. No room. You know what? There’s probably a crevice or a cave somewhere nearby. If you can shoo out the animals, you can probably make it work.”

Joseph: “That’s cold, dude.”

 

We treat Christmas like we treat a parade. We find our spot on the curb, we may even set up a chair to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, we wave at Jesus around Dec. 24th and 25th, and on the 26th we fold up our chair and head back to normal life.

And as we do, we are all innkeepers. We’re nondescript, non-committed bystanders who don’t have the time, space, energy, or interest in making room.

Now I know the whole humble stable thing was part of the plan, but each Christmas I can’t help but look at the clutteredness of my own heart and take stock of what I’ve allowed to take up time, space, and energy and in doing so crowding out the baby who’s birth is the centerpiece of time, space, and eternity.

Christmas is a good opportunity to take a look at the innkeeper and see if there are any remnants of that person lurking in my own heart.

The Launch

lift offI’ve recently been in several conversations and been swimming in my own thoughts about what I believe student ministry should be at its core. There are some differing views on this I’m sure, but after 22 years of full time student ministry (there is no other type, in fact) I’ve developed a conviction and now more than ever am committed to carrying it out.

We’re in the hiring season for our student ministry staff. Looking for that perfect fit of a new teammate that would join in what God is doing here in and through teenagers. I’ve spoken with several people and in many of those conversations have communicated my “philosophy” on effective student ministry. I’d invite you to share your thoughts–whatever they are–in the comment section below.

I grew up in Cape May New Jersey and graduated from Lower Cape May Regional High School in June of 1991. The school building was laid out with one main corridor that connected 4 separate halls, all running perpendicular to the main corridor. Think capital “E” with an extra horizontal line. But on those rare occasions when a fight would break out in any of those hallways, it would be milliseconds before news had spread to all the other hallways and if you were so inclined, you’d quickly make your way to said fight for some between-class entertainment. It always astounded me how quickly a crowd could gather. We are, by nature, spectators. We love the spectacle. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, am I right?

But simply because a crowd had formed in the hallway didn’t mean that anything good was happening. So I have long since let go of the notion that successful ministry is always equivalent to a big crowd. Should we be growing spiritually? Of course. Does that equal growing numerically? Sure it does. But when we go for the second and skip the first, we’re no different than the hallway brawl of my high school days. Over as quickly as it begins.

No, I’ve developed a different angle and if you’ll tolerate the analogy, I think that the better view of student ministry views each teen moving along toward graduation as if they were on a conveyor belt that can’t be turned off. As pastors, we have a limited amount of time for deep impact and during that time, much like a worker on an assembly line, we need to see to it that certain things are “bolted on” and that when that student reaches the end of their time in middle school and high school; at the end of that conveyor belt, we understand that they will be set on a launch pad and lift off into what God has next for them. So, I don’t view my ministry as supplying students with spectacles to look at or events to fill their calendar during their 7 year belt ride. Rather, I am convicted that God helping us, we are to do all we can through the power God gives us to see that these rockets are ready when their countdown reaches zero.

When a student walks that platform, takes that diploma and wraps up their high school career, I, along with others on my team, want to have…

  1. …shown them God’s love; without bias, without judgment, without condemnation, without condition. I would never want to have spoken what I have not lived.
  2. …given them an atmosphere of acceptance and affection. It is when we know we are loved and accepted as we are, where we are that we are no longer preoccupied with fake, shallow living. We are set free to love others as God loves us.
  3. …helped in teaching them the “hand-in-hand with Jesus” life. Not religion and its cumbersome activities that lead nowhere, but the daily life of walking with the Savior and reveling in knowing that He is for them, in them, and working through them.
  4. …equipped them to discover THAT God is, WHO God is, who THEY are in Christ, HOW God has gifted them, and WHAT God is leading them to be and do.
  5. …shown and shared with them how to pray, how to love, how to share their story, how to invite someone to Jesus, and how to hear and follow God’s leading.

(I recognize this is a minuscule thumbnail of a much larger conversation.)

What about you? What would you add to this list? What do you think is important to share/show before students reach the launch pad?