Three Unconventional Lenten Disciplines

I've just come back from the bookstore. Most days, I know better than to spend more than ten seconds in the Canterbury Bookstore, because if I don't hand in my order for the youth ministry and leave right away, I'll end up buying something. This past Sunday, the bookstore display outside the Great Hall caught my eye and I had to go in and pick up a couple of things to try out as disciplines for Lent.

Walking a labyrinth is one of the most popular contemplative disciplines. Immanuel put one in four days before I moved to St. Louis. Cert. School week at Wartburg used a canvas labyrinth as one of our afternoon sessions. And I have used Group's Prayer Path for several years with such results that it is one of only a few Group products I will recommend.

Still, not everyone has a labyrinth handy. Enter my first purchase, a "finger labyrinth." It's a metal disk, about five inches across, with a labyrinth path molded into its surface. As you pray and ponder, you trace your finger along the path. By engaging several senses, the labyrinth helps the user to focus on the prayers and screen out distractions.

On my youthworker's wall in high school, he kept a full Catholic rosary. I didn't pay a lot of attention to it; I knew that Daren knew how to use it but he never brought the beads into our youth group activities, so it was outside my frame.

Then I discovered last week that there is another design, called the "Anglican Rosary." The booklet that goes with it refers to "A Rosary for All Christians" and explains its purpose this way:

"The ultimate goal for many who regularly pray with the rosary is prayerful silence before the presence of God, ushering in an openness to one's spirit, allowing a deeper spiritual connection with God's spirit."

The prayer forms that go with the rosary are single verses and quotes from church history. These are repeated several times in the pattern of the beads. Rather than being some dry, dragging ritual, praying the rosary reminds me of several of the relaxation techniques I've learned, designed to rest the body and open the mind.

Every youthworker's desk needs a Zen garden. It's partly for deep theological reasons and partly because you can find them for just a dollar, and thus they fit into the shoestring ethic of youth ministry. The desktop model is a small ceramic tray filled with sand, one wide and one narrow rake, and a few rocks. Mine also includes a small pewter cross that my youth group used to bury in the sand and challenge me to find the "treasure."

Originally, these gardens were used to meditate on the patterns that created the cosmic harmony of the world. As a Christian discipline, the Zen garden is for meditating on the patterns that God created in the world to show us the harmony of his plan for it.

These are three disciplines I plan to use during Lent to explore my faith and hopefully deepen it in some way.


Hey Superstar!

On Saturday night I went to see "Jesus Christ, Superstar" at MICDS. The show was well done-- the actors didn't fumble lines and the whole thing was reasonably polished. The tech side impressed me the most, as usual (being a techie it's hard to believe that anything other than the electric stuff makes any difference in the theatre!) and after the show I stayed for a few minutes to chat with the students from my congregation who were in the play. The whole gallery was packed with my fellow audience members, congratulating the young actors, saturating them with gifts and compliments and making them feel like the stars they were.

On Sunday, we pulled together with three other youth groups from the area and went into downtown St. Louis, to a ministry called Kingdom House. We had scheduled a service day, to have a tour of the place, find out what they do, and help with a few projects that needed to be done. First on the list-- sorting out a mountain (literally a pile 20 feet across and stretching up to the 8 foot ceiling in the basement) of clothing that had flooded in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of it had been damaged in a flood a few weeks before. Most of the pile was sorted out and passed along to another charity. Small children's clothing, heavy coats and a few sports supplies stayed at the center for the programs that run onsite. As students grew tired of sorting and dragging piles of clothes, we sent groups out to rake and pick up trash on the yard. At the end of the afternoon, we had filled a dumpster with damaged, mildewed and too-worn items, piled up fifteen bags of leaves and trash, and filled a full-size van to the roof with donations for the other charity. The workers were smelly and sore and tired, and I heard several times that the afternoon had been boring.

"Christianity is not glamorous," Ralph told us at the beginning of the day. "Christianity is basic service to basic people. If you can't see Jesus in other people, how do you expect to recognize him in the flesh?"

How many times have I taught a rewards-based faith? How often do I make it look like being a Christian is like putting on a production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar?"

Mark Yaconelli, at the National Youthworkers' Convention this past year, said this: "If you have twelve kids who don't get it, who question everything you do-- if you suspect one of them is trying to kill you-- then God is blessing your ministry. Everyone else should be in doubt." He pointed out that when Jesus started telling people what his purpose was, they started to leave.

For the sake of numbers, of exposing as many people to the message as I can, I'm expected to teach a cheerful discipleship. I'm pressed to talk about how God makes everything better. I understand that the more people we draw near the story, the more will grow to commit to their part in it, even when I tell them what ministry really is. But the balance I fight to strike is this: if a student won't come to Jesus for the unglamorous parts of his work, what use is that one to the kingdom?

It's not mine to decide that, of course, but this Lent what I am giving up is the sugar-coating of my faith. My students need community and recreation with their friends, but on top of that they have a deep need to know what things will make a real difference.


The Sharper Image of what the world needs

I went looking for students at the St. Louis Galleria today, and happened to see a poster in a window for a brand new "miracle food storage system." It's a set of plastic bowls that are treated or irradiated somehow to make them keep food fresh for months at a time, or something like that. It made me think.

One of the biggest complaints about the world today is that people have problems with impulse control. Everything has to happen now-- a new phone commercial's punch line is that with this phone, your office is everywhere. Gas stations cater, McDonald's rents movies, and anything from scheduling car care to buying a house can be handled on the Internet in the moments between all the other tasks.

Yet there's a vast, hidden interest in making things last a long time. It's not enough to see the movie-- you want to own it too. Just keeping up with the happenings on the TV show won't do-- the show comes out on DVD shortly after the season ends. When you buy a new car, a long warranty is a huge selling point, right up there with the number of seats and cylinders. And in the window of the Sharper Image store is a miracle of plasticware.

I think it's unfair to say that we no longer know how to delay gratification. I think the better assessment is that we have simply lost a great deal of memory about what things are worth delaying for.


Toes that should be stepped on

Some of the first advice I was given on how to be a youth minister was "In your first two years, pick a big project that the church won't want to do and push it through. If you wait longer than that, you'll never get it done."

Later, taking a pastoral care class, a part of the Lutheran Lay School for Mission, the minister teaching the class told us that young pastors often make that mistake. They walk in to a new congregation, full of new ideas from seminary, and instantly start trying to make big changes. Worship style, office routines, church council meeting structure, youth program; suddenly nothing is off limits to this dynamo of new pastoral energy.

The congregation is startled and sometimes begins to resent the newcomer. What was so wrong about what they were doing before? Why were the traditions begun by the previous minister so un-Christian that they needed instant change?

I think it's vital, especially when youth ministers are outsiders in the congregation, to take some time to sit back and observe before beginning to make plans or changes. There are strengths in each congregation that are unique and powerful. There are currents of the Gospel already running that a new staffer will need to be aware of; these are strong enough that trying to change their direction suddenly will damage the congregation.

At the same time, there are toes that must be stepped on. There are some attitudes that must be challenged. There are areas in any ministry that must be exposed to light and healed.

1. A congregation or youth group needs a sense of connection to the work of the larger Church. Any faith group that believes it is an island will often fail to follow Christ.
2. A youth minister/parent/pastor needs to know and celebrate that he is not the only person who can help students grow in faith. These are not "my" students. They are God's children. And I may not even be in God's plan for some of them.
3. Culture does change. And when culture changes, the way ministry engages culture needs to evolve. Ministry has been done the same way since before Jesus' time, through caring personal relationships. But we've learned a lot about culture and technology and the way people learn, and we need to embrace these facts so we can connect in the way today's people work.
4. No one group in a congregation is the most important or deserving of the most time and resources.
5. To be a healthy Christian, worship with other believers and service in Christ's name is a priority. This is my top peeve. Christianity isn't passive. Ever.

Stepping on these five toes, and the others that go along with them, isn't safe and doesn't lead to long prosperous careers in the same place. But the body of Christ needs these bruises on its toes.


The Rookie's Library February 23, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"The Roaring Boy" by Edward Marston (Elizabethan theatre mystery featuring Nicholas Bracewell) (C) 1995 St. Martin's Press ISBN 0312131550

"Suddenly They're 13" (or the art of hugging a cactus) by David and Claudia Arp (Parenting manual for adolescents) (C) 1999 Zondervan ISBN 0310227887

What I'm Watching:

"Date Movie" on the big screen

"Final Destination 1 and 2"

"The Parent Trap" with Dennis Quaid and Lindsay Lohan

What I'm Hearing:

Jonathan Rundman's "Public Library" and "Sound Theology" albums

Bruce Rundman's "True Worth" album

The Mark Kramer Jazz Trio, "Harry Potter Jazz: The Sorcerer's Stone"

How many couches are being thrown away at my complex this week:



Schedule: Last Resort of the Uncommitted

Before the last hymn finished playing, I turned to the student next to me to start my sales pitch. "You know, we've got this awesome service project coming up next week. We're going to be playing video games with the homeless, and I know you're the world champion of "Super-X Carnage Moto-Trail III" so I wanted to ask if you could come along."
"Um, I don't know. When is it again?"
"It's next Sunday afternoon. The Super Bowl was weeks ago, I went to your last hockey game of the season, and you have Monday off of school, so you have a whole extra day to get your homework done." I have him cornered. All his regular weekend bases are covered. This is one service event he cannot get himself out of.
"Well, normally I'd love to come along, but Sunday afternoons are supposed to be family time." This is a low blow.
"We'd love to have your whole family come along!" Maybe it's not what he just told me. But I might still get away with it.
"I'd have to check with my mom." She is sitting right next to him. Not a problem. I switch spots.
"Mrs. Smith, the youth group is going down to the homeless shelter for a service project next Sunday afternoon. I'm really glad Billy is a part of our youth group and I think he'd love to go along. He mentioned that Sunday afternoon is your family time, so I said you could all come along."
"This is on Sunday?"
"Next Sunday, yes."
"Well, I'd have to check our schedule. I think we're having a dinner for my great-aunt's anniversary that night, so we'd be really short on time in the afternoon."
I pull out my genealogy program on my PDA, and check Billy's mom's family tree. It's February, and her great-aunt's birthday is in July. I'm not buying this one.
"Our group is really going to grow together on this project, and since Billy is going on the mission trip this summer to to beach ministry in Cancun, I'd love for him to experience some local service beforehand."
"It does sound like a lot of fun, but the anniversary party is really important to our family."
Her great-aunt isn't married either.
"The anniversary is actually for the great-aunt's cat. She's had him for a thousand years and he's being put to sleep on Monday, so we're all getting together for a party to celebrate his life the night before. Maybe Billy and his father could go along; they're not really related to my aunt."
I climb over Billy's mom and shake hands with his dad. A good handshake has a strong grip, a full up-to-the-wrist contact and a piercing look into the eyes. I really show off my skills in this one. If he respects my handshake, he will respect my project.
"Your wife suggested that you might be able to bring Billy and come to the homeless shelter for our service project next Sunday. You're a businessman, I'm sure we could use your expertise to help the residents create graduate school applications. It's next Sunday afternoon, and we're meeting here at the church..."
"I heard about that project, but I just don't think it sounds right for our family. Now when I was in the youth group here at this congregation..."
"You sat down with the other kids to discuss the sermon after the service, yes. Bringing that one back is on my list. This is just a one-day project- we're going out to practice the Gospel that Jesus taught us about seeing the poor and serving them. I'm sure you know how important that is."
"I have a very important business meeting the next day, and I was counting on having Sunday afternoon to look over my notes. Let me check my calendar and I'll give you a call."
"You must have your calendar with you. I know you wouldn't want to travel without it."
"It's, uh, in my car."
"Great! Let's go check it."
"Well, the car is in the far parking lot. You wouldn't want to walk all that way out while the kids are all still here."
"I have plenty of volunteers to greet our students this morning. I'd be glad to walk with you and talk some more about the project."
We walk out to his car. The calendar is suddenly not there.
"I think I may have left it in Switzerland this last week while I was there-- you know, in Switzerland. Where my office is."
His office is not in Switzerland. "This service project will be a great chance for you to bond with the students. They really need good role models like you."
"Yeah, about that. Last week I thought seriously about knocking down a little old lady and stealing her purse. I'm sure I'm not the role model you need."
"Temptation to sin is not sin by itself, sir. Congratulations on resisting! What a testimony."
"Hey, didn't Jesus say the poor will always be with us?"
"Yes, and that's why we always have to be doing something about them."
"Billy and I would love to help, but I know we have something to do that day. Why don't you call us for the next one?"
"Okay. What's the best number for me to call?"
He writes one down and hands it to me on a Post-It note.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but this number looks like it's from out of state. And it has too many digits in it. No phone number has sixteen."
He sped off. While I was reading the number he'd gotten into his car and revved up. Waving his calendar, he screeched across the parking lot and away.


When They're Connected

Two nights ago I needed ice cream. I had to have some. And it had to come from Cold Stone Creamery. Driving a couple of nights before that, I'd spotted one, and remembered the envelope of gift certificates I've been slowly working through since I arrived here in St. Louis. So with my stomach rumbling and plenty of time to get back before Fox's Sunday night lineup began, I got in the car and drove to where I thought it was. There's a Starbucks there, and a whole pack of fast food places, and two strip malls, but no Cold Stone. Okay, I thought, maybe it's farther on. Three miles later I had passed seven tire places and a comic book shop, but still no ice cream store. I took the ramp onto the freeway that would loop me back to my neighborhood and tried again. A second time, I couldn't find it. Maybe it was on another street after all. I started branching out, checking other streets I'd driven over the night before.

Still nothing. No Cold Stone. No ice cream. I made one last trip down the original street and spotted the sign just off the street. Cold Stone was attached to Starbucks, and I'd seen it, but once I'd classed the building as a Starbucks, I hadn't looked at it again. I missed a connection that made all the difference.

The concept of "systems thinking" and the psychological theory that grew out of it, "Bowen Family Systems Theory" is a useful idea for youth ministers to know. In one sentence, looking at a youth group from a systems point of view means understanding that any condition within the group is not caused purely by any one person, but by the behavior every member contributes to the system. Rather than individual faults, it's the condition of the connections between people that matter.

Two of your students want to date a third one, and are fighting. The third person is going to be dragged into it and played against both of the others, trying to give one or the other an advantage. You know from the setup that no one is going to win if the three of them operate that way. It's a systems theory situation called "triangling." In a triangle, one person refuses to take a conflict directly to the person he/she has the conflict with, but brings in a third person to vent to or build a relationship with to hurt the first person.

People are connected to each other through their relationships. The connections vary in strength and usefulness depending on how people use them and their emotions toward the other people in the connection. Often, people manipulate those relationships. The completely healthy person, in a systems model, is one who has learned to be in relationships but not controlled by them, and not using them to control. This healthy person has also learned to see how his/her behavior affects the whole system and contributes to its health or dysfunction.

Probably the most useful insight of a systems perspective to youth ministers is the idea that if one member of the system changes, in healthy or unhealthy ways, the rest of the system will slowly change to respond to that first person. This has implications for changing group behavior, for motivation, and for reaching uncommitted families through the lives of their children.

Systems theory, because it focuses on the whole picture, is a long-view concept. I have to put that disclaimer in here now because even I sometimes expect things to happen overnight. Any idea that tries to see the overlapping behavior, relationships and thinking of every member in a system as wide as a congregation will take a long time to understand, much less influence. Creating a healthy community is often about cultural change within that community, and thus is measured in generations rather than days.

In my own ministry, I find systems theory to be a very natural way to think about my congregation. I think it's worth checking out, and can recommend two books to help explain it. One is written as a general overview and the second more specific to youth workers.

"Extraordinary Relationships" by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. (C) 1992 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 047134690X

"Connecting with our Children" by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. (C) John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0471347868


"I can't wear a pink shirt to work-- everyone else wears white shirts. I'm not popular enough to be different!" --Homer Simpson

The world teaches us that there are some skills it's okay to brag about, and others that are better kept quiet. Sports heoroes can talk all they want about their game and their skills and their behavior off the field, but a kid who can sort out a Rubik's cube in under ten seconds will probably not have a place in the school's trophy case. Race car drivers and professional gamblers and successful business owners are almost expected to be in the public eye. People with normal lives, though, should probably stick to the shadows.

One of my top three peeves is that this even happens in the Christian world. We respect and honor the superstars of ministry, but often forget that untelevised stories are just as faithful and just as important.

One of the powers of the Internet is connecting people with sideline interests to other people who think those things are interesting and cool. With video cameras in so many hands, it's been only a matter of time until the Internet adapted to make everyone a video star.

I'm talking about YouTube, a free site where users can upload and watch videos from all around the world. Everything from homemade music videos to video diaries to, yes, even the kid with the Rubik's cube is hosted on YouTube, and it's an important resource for youth ministers to know about, in the same way it's important for us to be aware of and competent at MySpace.

I first found out about YouTube when reading other youth workers' blogs. The authors would often post videos, usually humorous ones, to their sites and link back to the source. After seeing several clips, I followed the links and found the original site.

The main benefit of YouTube is that it gives the people who post the chance to share their lives and their talents freely. They're not fighting celebrities or trying to live up to whatever image is set by the influencers in school and at home. The site also gives the people who watch a chance to find out what real life is like for some real people. Surfing through YouTube, I've found videos of skateboarding tricks, cheerleading routines, dancing, adorable infants, and tributes to favorite movies, shows, musicians and celebrities.

There are a few dark sides to the site. While many users (probably unconsciously) follow fair use guidelines, there is an awful lot of copyrighted material included in these videos. Often, the clips are used in remixes or as a backdrop to the main subject of the video, but I've also frequently found videos that are just lifted from TV or the computer and reposted whole. Like MySpace, the site is filtered by a combination of staff and reader feedback, and a fair amount of explicit material slips through the cracks. Because the Internet seems to promise anonymity, posters sometimes include videos that show vandalism, underage drinking, and hint at drug use. YouTube may be a potent source of affirmation, but it is also not a completely healthy place.

With these few notes, my recommendation is that we as youth ministers be aware of the site and its attraction for our students, and then look for ways we can, within the safety of our own communities, offer some of the same exposure and praise for the unique talents that live in our groups.

And now a few videos.

"This is my _______ face" (little boy making funny faces)
Rubik's Cube in 25 secs.
And once more, but with one hand.
A song, a guitar, a personal revelation.
Guy jumping into a snowbank


The Rookie Reviews: Date Movie

PLEASE NOTE: This review will contain plot spoilers to not only the movie reviewed but also every movie referenced, even slightly, in the new film "Date Movie." If you haven't yet seen "Sleepless in Seattle," "The Runaway Bride," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Scary Movie 1,2,and 3," "Hitch," "Pretty Woman," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Meet the Parents," "Meet the Fockers," "Wedding Crashers," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "What Women Want," "Bridget Jones' Diary," "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days," or "King Kong," you may want to call in sick and buy a 5-pound pail of popcorn with butter flavor before you read the review.

In Greek plays, the comic character is usually scripted to carefully point out how the main character has been taking him/herself too seriously, in ways the character will miss but the audience will understand (and laugh at.) It's fortunate for us that with all the other changes we've made to our society since those days, the comic character's job remains mostly the same.

In my never-ending quest to "be Isaac" (full of laughter, in Hebrew) in the world, I went out tonight to see "Date Movie." You need the disclaimer right away: Do not see this movie with students. Do not tell your senior pastor you went to see this movie. If possible, go and see this movie in another town. (I did that, but only because my movie gift card was for a theatre out in Crestwood.) Do not expect this movie to have theological implications. Do not expect it to change lives for Jesus no matter how many Bible verses you connect it to. But go and see it.

Julia, an overweight but optimistic woman, decides her love life has been on hold too long, that "my knight in shining armor is out there somewhere, and I'm going to find him!" In the family restaurant where she works, she meets a customer, has an electric-eye-contact moment with him and distractedly knocks him off his chair with a coffeepot. Never let anyone say first impressions matter. Desperate to improve her image, she visits a date doctor, Hitch, who takes her to a body shop (think "American Chopper" or "Pimp My Ride") for a makeover, then sets her up on a reality dating show where the eligible bachelor is the man from the diner, Grant (although it's "Grahnt" with his practically required English accent.) After choosing Julia on the show, the two of them meet each other's families, including an oddly talented cat, and begin to plan their wedding. Enter Grant's former fiancee from "ages ago" and the man Julia's father would rather have her marry, and stick them all in one small restaurant for a very revealing rehearsal dinner. The couple wants to find out all about each other, the old fiancee wants to break the whole thing up, the parents wouldn't mind helping, and there is indeed one magical ingredient that will cure anything. Put in the videotapes of "Meet the Parents" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" side by side, watch one with each eye, and you'll have the story and save money too. There are certain things you know will happen in a movie like this: the two characters will fall in love in a ridiculously short time; a crisis will tear them apart; a new solution will be thought of and abandoned, and in the end the wedding will go on. If you go in expecting the formula, you will find it.

The PG-13 rating on "Date Movie" is something to take seriously. I noted (and the official notes on IMDB back me up) pretty much nonstop sexual humor, a fairly high level of crude language, and some random violence.

Whenever a movie genre spends too much time on screen, some clever hacks (in this case, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Selzter) rush a script into production that reminds audiences that life is funny, and so are the things we do to cope with it or add flavor to it. Reality TV, any commercial starring Jessica Simpson, family relationships and even weddings themselves take a lot of predictable and cliched hits in this film. Of course they do. The whole point of a movie like this is to show us what's become stereotyped and dare us to use our imaginations again.

The reviews I've read so far have been scathing and laced with saw blades, but I think there's some value in "Date Movie." Forgetting to laugh at ourselves is a killer in the field of youth ministry, and I think we could all use an evening to sit back and poke at the world looking for places we might need to see with fresh eyes.

"Date Movie" opened in theatres Friday, February 17th.


Celebrate Today

Today here in the US it is Random Acts of Kindness Day.

And of course, by the time I found out, the day is nearly over.

Here are four quick ways to help every day:

The Hunger Site

The Literacy Site

The Breast Cancer Site

The Child Health Site

These also make good challenges for youth groups, especially ones who are as immersed online as our students seem to be.



"No matter how bad a job your predecessor did, he/she will always be remembered as just a little bit better at youth ministry than you. The previous youth worker could have set the sanctuary on fire and years later be remembered for "creative worship ideas." Do not get upset by this. Eventually you'll be a previous youth worker too." --Steve Case, "A to Z Guide to Youth Ministry"

"For when one says, 'I belong to Paul,' and another 'I belong to Apollos,' are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who planted or the one who watered is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building." --1 Corinthians 3:4-9

Three posters with frames, a basket of old photographs, two filled scrapbooks, several sections of a flagpole and a set of shelf brackets were left in my office last week. They all date from a previous youth worker. The posters are tacky, the shelf brackets useless and the flagpole makes me wonder-- did so much underwear get hung up on his retreats that he started carrying the pole with the group to make it more convenient?

I was ready to throw them all away. I didn't have time for this, or the interest to try and figure out who was in all these bent, unlabeled, faded photos. For good measure, and because I rarely clean my office, I left them in place for a week.

On Saturday I met a woman and her husband who had been involved in our youth program with the previous staffer. They told me a few stories and offered to help again. I went back to the basket of photos and sure enough, there was now a face I recognized.

The previous youth worker took groups to the same place we're going in two weeks for a service projects. He led them in worship, and in discussions around the altar in the sanctuary. They ate pizza together and wore out secondhand furniture and went to Ted Drewe's for frozen custard. They learned to be disciples. They learned about traditions of faith. They learned to tell the story.

It is a mistake to ignore the contributions of the previous youth worker. Even if none of the students from that program still attend, even still live in this city, they were touched somehow. However hard it is for me to build credibility with parents today, the task is just slightly easier because someone else broke ground for me. If I dig into the previous youth minister's story, I will discover mistakes he made that I can avoid; first steps that I can continue; and traditions unique to this place that will bind students together.

One thing we should leave behind as youth ministers is gifted, disciplined disciples who have been touched by the Gospel through us. Another aspect that is often overlooked is leaving ground that will be easy for another minister to work.

I received a letter early this month from the secretary of my last parish. That congregation still works on the same struggles they had when I served there. The number of students on this year's mission trip is down again. And they are not yet looking for a new staffer. But three people are involved in youth ministries that they care deeply about, and have even shed other responsibilities to take on these new ones. I did not work miracles in that place, but as a previous youth worker there, I am proud to have left a field that volunteers felt able to step into and continue God's work.

"So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God." --1 Corinthians 21-23


A short rant on a long peeve

Attention radio preachers:

"Administrate" is not a word. I checked.

If we are to be guardians and stewards of the Word, can we please also be careful users of the words?

The Rookie's Library February 14th, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" by Mary Pipher, PhD. (C) 1994 Ballantine Books ISBN 0345392825

"Real Boys' Voices" by William S. Pollack, PhD. (C) 2000 Random House ISBN 0679462996

"Buyers, Renters and Freeloaders: Turning Revolving-door Romance into Lasting Love" by Willard F. Harley, Jr. (C) 2002 Baker Book House ISBN 0800758552

"Bold Love" by Dr. Dan B. Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III (C) 1992 NavPress ISBN 0891097031 (Cover notes: "Know the difference between loving an evil person, a fool, and a normal sinner.")

What I'm Watching:

"Firewall" on the big screen

"UFO Files" on the History Channel

What I'm Hearing:

"20 Famous Pieces for Classical Guitar"

Coldplay "XandY" album

U2 "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" album

What's been left in my office:

A basket full of photos of old youth groups

The "Kramer" portrait from Seinfeld

A can of sunburn spray


The Mailbox Minefield

"What do you mean when you say you're an 'unordained professional?'" I was asked the other day.
"It means I serve in youth ministry, but I haven't been to seminary (except for a certification school) and can't do some of the things pastors do, like serving the Sacraments."
"But someday you'll be ordained? I mean, you're on your way there, right?"

I'm losing control of my grimace at this point. Youth ministry is my real job. Working in parishes, and teaching and speaking about youth ministry is where I believe my career is going to be. That's been the understanding so far between me and God and the Scriptures. I am not on a ministry stairway just trying to make the "next step" toward being a "real minister."

I've heard arguments on both sides of the ordained/unordained debate-- my old youth minister told me that being a layperson in youth ministry is better because when problem situations begin, there's a pastor above me to kick the problem to. A seminarian I met in Green Bay, WI, explained that she wanted to be ordained so that her youth program could run the way she wanted it to, without extra authority up above her to step on the plans.

Just the other day, I did discover a reason to become a pastor-- so I can comfortably say no when other ordained people ask me to add things to my calendar. And seminaries must be keeping an eye on people like me, because not two days after I said that, the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia sent me a letter that began "We want to thank you for your interest..."

The rule in my family is that if you get a mailing or a phone call announcing you've won something, go along with it. My grandfather loves to enter contests, and frequently our names will end up in the drawings as well. I do hope a trip to seminary isn't one of those.

But my grandmother always said I would end up a pastor, and now that she's enjoying eternal rest in Heaven, maybe she's also discovered that up there, she has a little more power to make her predictions come true.


The Rookie Reviews: Firewall

PLEASE NOTE: This review contains plot spoilers. You won't be surprised by anything in my synopsis, but if you have not yet seen the movie you will be made aware of some of the details of the story.

When you are powerless-- when every decision you make on your own will lead to your death or that of others-- what valid choices do you have? How can you still have free will when you are a victim? This is the question posed by Harrison Ford's new movie, "Firewall."

Jack Stanfield, a computer security expert for a bank, has designed one of the best antitheft systems to protect his bank's customers. In the midst of a merger of his bank and another, high-tech thieves kidnap Stanfield and his family, trapping them in their own home, and force him to steal $100 million from the bank. At the end of the caper, the thieves plan to kill Jack and his family to erase their trail. When Stanfield realizes this is the plan, he strikes back at the man who is told to kill him; hacks into the ringleader's offshore bank accounts to steal back the money; then goes to rescue his family.

"Firewall" is a very typical action/thriller movie. There aren't any twists. No government officials with evil motives walk in to complicate things. It is simply a movie about a bank robbery. The story grabs on with the shock value of a family being systematically stalked, kidnapped, threatened and maimed by dedicated agents in pursuit of a goal. As the lead thief says "I don't hate you. I just don't care about you."

Unfortunately, "Firewall" doesn't spend a lot of time in character development. The main character, Jack Stanfield, is the center of the whole picture, so we know enough about him to feel a great deal of sympathy for him, but we aren't given enough information or screen time with his family to really care about them. The enemies are straightforward, evil and well-prepared.

"Firewall" is easy to watch. A viewer can track the story without any problem; one event logically follows the next, with enough detail to answer background questions that might come up.

The movie deserves its PG-13 rating for a few examples of harsh language and an overall theme of violence. It would be best to see with older high school students, college students and adults.

Beneath its story, "Firewall" lets youth ministers explore persecution and our Christian response to it. All over the world, believers are still insulted, jailed, injured and killed for their faith, and evangelism is illegal in some places. For Christians living in such places, life must feel like being trapped in one's own home, surrounded by people who are looking for every opportunity to do them harm.

To discuss the movie, bring along information about the situation of Christians in Sudan, China and the Middle East. Expect a visceral reaction to the film and challenge students to think about how they can stay aware of and care for Christians who seem to have no option to practice their faith in public.

"Firewall" starring Harrison Ford. Opened in theatres February 10th, 2006.


I'd like to invite the children...

The children's message is a completely theological invention, and if you look at it just right it tells the story of the Gospel all by itself. Of course the content of the message will share the story; that's what it's for. Most of the time, the adults in the congregation will get a lot out of the children's message to.

Even more than that, the way the children walk up to hear it encapsulates the Gospel. When the minister calls for them, the children don't just suddenly appear at the front of the church to listen. First, one brave child stands up and walks away from his parens, looking back every few feet to see if his friends are following. It's hard to be the only one who comes up for the message; it means you have to answer all the questions by yourself.

Once the kids see someone walking, a few more start to drift up, and then the momentum begins. Young children toddle up, holding their parents' hands tightly, unafraid as long as Mom or Dad is there. Older ones run, (even though you're not supposed to run in church) because they don't want to be late.

Soon the whole crowd is there, and they know something exciting is about to happen. Their pastor has a story for them.

In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus walked by himself, stopping now and then to ask if others were going to come along. He didn't draw everyone, just like the children's message doesn't pull every child out of the pews (someone is always too cool for this) but slowly a few started to follow and listen. And they told their friends. And the momentum grew greater and greater, and suddenly no one wanted to miss the message.


"Spot the Church Van" on I-55

First Baptist Church from Streator, Illinois-- you were prayed for today on the highway. God bless your trip and your youth group, wherever you were going.


Two Perspectives on Inactive Christianity

Part One:

I just bought a new toothbrush. It is an Oral-B Pulsar, the kind with the little battery-powered motor in it that makes the bristles shake around and dig in between my teeth. It's a very strange feeling, but it's a clever idea and is reported to dig out plaque and other nastiness just as well as floss. It may also be a way to legally charge five dollars for a toothbrush.

The new toothbrush has only one shortcoming. It will absolutely not work if I don't use it.

Part Two:

I always thought this line from "The Star-Spangled Banner" sounded trite: "The bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there." Yes, it rhymes. No, it doesn't say anything really about the state of the fighting men inside the fort. They could all be ready to give up, and no one had the energy to take the flag down. Just seeing the thing doesn't really mean anything.

On the other hand, in days before telephone and radio, hauling down a flag was one very sure way to show surrender. If the flag was still flying, it didn't matter how many people were still around to fight or how little energy they had left; the flag showed that something was happening, no matter how bad it looked.

As I've grown, I've moved from looking at inactive Christians, both adults and students, through the first lens, (of the unused toothbrush) to the second. If the flag is still flying; if they're in the pews, no matter how rarely-- if they're mumbling the prayers and perusing the bulletin through the sermon-- then something is still happening. And it is not mine to judge the value of that faith, even if I can't see it. It is my job to encourage and to remember that what God planted, God will harvest.


Five secular books that have helped grow my faith

1. William James, “Talks to Teachers on Psychology” © 1962 Dover Publications ISBN 0486419649
“In teaching, you must simply work your pupil into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach him that every other object of attention is banished from his mind; then reveal it to him so impressively that he will remember the occasion to his dying day; and finally fill him with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with the subject are.”

This book was part of my Educational Psychology class at Hillsdale and, although the original edition was published in 1899, it speaks truth to teachers and youth ministers today. The thing that helped me grow most in this book was James' stress on the responsibility teachers have to practice their profession intent on being excellent at it, echoing Paul's warning that "not many of you should desire to be teachers" because of the high standard that must be exercised in passing on the knowledge from one person to another.

2. "Everyone's A Coach" by Don Shula and Ken Blanchard, (C) 1995 Zondervan and HarperBusiness ISBN 0310208157

This book gave me a model to apply to adult leaders in a church where most members were heavily involved in at least one sport, and usually more. In a "sports church" people understand coaches, and understanding myself and my leaders as coaches helped me get the message across more clearly to them.

3. "The Wind In the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, edition (C) 2000 The Templar Company, ISBN 1840110198

"The Willow-Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o'clock at night, the day still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night."

This book reminds me that the English language is a beautiful thing and a responsive tool. When my writing or storytelling seems dry I jump back into Grahame's tales. The book also helps me keep a discipline against swearing.

4. "Peterman Rides Again" by John Peterman, (C) 2000 Prentice Hall Press, ISBN 0735201994

"It's strange to think of a major part of your life's journey pivoting on a coat, but I suppose that's OK if the coat opens the door to an existence you've only dreamed about."

This book tells a story about a man who took a huge, impractical risk and how it enriched his life.

5. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare, edition (C) 1967 Penguin Books, ISBN 0140707026

In a humorous way, both reading and acting in this play helps me remember two things: that the power behind the universe is always in control, even when I can only see chaos, and that sometimes it pays to remember that when God says "It's fixed because I said so" is in fact a good enough reason.


The Value of the Ancient Language

"Almighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son Jesus Christ's sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

So reads the confession from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Rite One. The language is awkward and cumbersome, but with a dignified poetry to it. The value of the ancient language is that it is hard to read without thinking about the words.

If confession-- if worship-- is easy to recite, soon it's just flowing out of our mouths straight from our habit, and not from our minds. The point of confession is that we honestly remember the things we've done wrong and honestly ask for forgiveness of them. This is such a special task that it requires special words.

What we owe to our students is to teach them what the words mean, and what they are asking when they say them. The answer to the question of how to engage people in worship is not to simplify it to the point that anyone can mumble it, but to educate people so they know the power of their request to God.

Almighty: nothing is more powerful.
Acknowledge and bewail: when I realize what my sins are, I can't even describe them with words. I want to start sobbing because they are so hurtful.
Manifold: I have done every kind of sin, even ones I don't think I'm capable of.
Grievously: I have done these things on purpose, even though I know they hurt God and damage myself.
Indignation: I have tried to take away God's dignity, to make him look stupid, to make him see he was wrong about giving me anything.
Remembrance: Even though I try to forget them, the terrible things I've done won't leave my mind.
Intolerable: I cannot live with my sins in my life anymore.
Mercy: Don't give me what I deserve.
Hereafter: Here (as I confess) and after (when I am out in the world and tempted).
Newness: Washed and polished and shining with God's love for me.
Amen: Let this be so, and leave the door open for me when I come again!


The Practice of Careful Biblical Interpretation

(Cartoon courtesy of Reverend Fun, copyright (C) 2006 by Gospel Communications International and used with permission.)(1)

When influential Christians(2) become known for declaring that world leaders are standing in the way of God's plan, or that God has struck public figures with disease to avenge wrongs against His people, rather than for ministries of love and reconciliation, it is time to look at how we do Biblical interpretation. We hold in our hands the single most important book in the world, yes. With that knowledge comes a great responsibility: to use the book faithfully to God's intention, as best as He has revealed it to us.

There are a few important points to remember even before we approach the Bible. First, it is a book of God's power and plan, and not ours. Frequently, God marches his plan forward in spite of powerful people trying to stop it, and in spite of God's faithful people declining to follow it. Second, we need to accept that not everything will become crystal-clear when we read Scripture, and that's okay. Some things need to remain mysterious. If we can completely understand God, then He is too small to be believed. Third, we must realize that each of us brings a unique lens of understanding to the Bible. This lens is made up of our experiences, circumstances, prejudices, education and how we look at God to begin with. Thus, passages in the Bible will reach every person in a slightly different way. "Love your neighbor" as a command is pretty clear, but I have been in any number of conversations about how it should be done.

When we open the Bible, it's very important to know the context in which each passage was written. In Psalm 93, for example, the author refers to God as "mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea." This verse not only refers to the physical waters, but also the pagan god of water, whose nickname translates to "the pounder" or "the thunderer." In the original language, it's a pun.(3) The psalm is more than a song to God; it's also a carefully crafted pep talk to God's people. During the Exile, psalms like this remind them that even though all they hear is the "pounding of the waters" (ie the praises of foreigners to false gods and pressure to serve them) God is still ultimately in charge.

After reading, stop and pray for understanding, and then apply the tools at hand to the text. There is great value in using several translations of the Bible, including paraphrases and story-based manuscripts, as well as a concordance(4) and a commentary(5) to expand your knowledge of what you've read. Take the whole text and your questions about it to other Christians, or even non-believers, and find out what they think about it. Proverbs puts it very clearly: "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers." (Prov. 11:14) Lots of views may seem to bring confusion at first, but the entire group's ideas will evolve each person's understanding. (Click here to report a Christian for saying the "e" word.)

Above all we need to lose our fear of the Bible; to jump into reading and studying it. Bring along a highlighter marker and a thick black pen for writing in the margins; when the Gospel gets to you, you'll need them both!

(1) www.reverendfun.com, Copyright GCI
(2) Google-search "Pat Robertson Comments" for a few examples
(3)Sourced from "The Anchor Bible" volume 17 (C) 1968 Doubleday ISBN 0385037597
(4)Strong's Concise Concordance of the Bible, (C) 1985 Thomas Nelson ISBN 0785211667
(5) The Matthew Henry Commentary in One Volume, (C) 1992 Zondervan ISBN 031026040X


The Rookie's Library February 2, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear: Nurturing Disciples in Home and Congregation" by Paul Hill and David Anderson, (C) 2003 Augsburg Fortress ISBN 0806646497

"You Wouldn't Like It Here" by Lon L. Emerick, (C) 2005 North Country Publishing ISBN 0965057771

"The Frog and Toad Treasury" by Arnold Lobel (C) 1970 HarperCollins ISBN 0064440206

What I'm Watching:

"Glory Road" on the big screen

"24" on Fox

What I'm Hearing:

Bix Beiderbecke and the Chicago Cornets album

Bing Crosby: The Definitive Collection

Fusebox: Lost In Worship album

What's in My Mailbox:

Half a dozen of Mom's brownies
"The Finish Line" shoe catalog


Pizza Hut, Guardian of the Family

The last time I had pizza, traffic was so complicated I couldn't eat it while I was driving between the store and my home. This gave me the whole ride back to look at the box and notice one very interesting thing about it.

(Note to Mom and anyone else who needs to know how safe a person I really am: I don't eat pizza straight from the box in my car while I'm driving. I wait until I'm back and then roll up each slice and eat it over the sink. There's just more suspense the other way.)

Printed on the pizza box were a set of questions and the instructions for parents to ask their kids, and kids ask their parents, to find out more about each other. They were things like "What kind of homework did you have when you were growing up?" and "If you could play a professional sport, what would it be?" The questions were friendly, open-ended and could easily lead into longer discussion about all the things that connect to homework and careers and such.

It caught my eye because Pizza Hut's real responsibility for my happiness ends when I take the pizza and give them my money. But some bright-eyed advertising rep at the company end has taken one giant leap into family dynamics. Pizza Hut, or at least Pizza Hut's box, understands that dinnertime together is more than fueling up. When you stop for gas, it's rare to have meaningful conversations around the gas pump. Gas stations are meant to be efficient delivery systems. Pizza Hut is set up that way as well.

Family dinnertime, apparently, is more than that. Eating a meal together offers time to talk about the day, coordinate schedules, ask questions, affirm each other, and pass on the faith.

Sharing a meal with the family is one of the few times when all the family members are in the same room focusing on the same task. It's a common ground that can be a key to finding other common ground.

Youth ministers should do two things to support families in putting family dinnertime back together. First, whenever possible, we should avoid scheduling over dinnertime. Leaving the space clear is the first step toward encouraging families to use it.

Second, take a day or two per year to host family dinners at the church, or at members' houses. Bring along a resource like "Faith Talk" cards, published by the Youth and Family Institute. Each card has a question printed on it for the people at the table to talk about. Introduce table prayers, both traditional and new forms. I suggest the book "Graces." In these "training meals" you can model what you want families to practice.

Related to this, we need to be always telling parents how important they are in building their children's faith. We're backed up by research here-- in the late '90s, Search Institute in Minneapolis did a study that showed mom and dad are the top two influences in the faith lives of students in 7th-12th grades. Grandparents were right behind them, in spots #3 and #4. Martin Luther wrote that parents were "bishops, priests and deacons" to their children. Paul Hill and David Anderson in "Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear" remind parents, and pastors, and youth ministers, that "Our children are watching and learning from us every day. All Christian adults are youth ministers, whether we want to be or not. The choice is to decide whether we are going to be good at this work or not."

Parents matter. The example the family sets with prioritizing its time matters. And, even if we have to learn it from Pizza Hut, dinnertime matters. As youth ministers, let's make sure these powerful tools are being used.