The Rookie's Library 3/31/06

What I'm Reading:

"Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads: Dealing with the Parents, Teachers, Coaches and Counselors who can make or break your child's Future" by Rosalind Wiseman (C) 2006 Crown Publishing ISBN 1400083001 (I'm reading this book before Wiseman's previos work "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and it is a very valuable insight into adult social networks and how they affect youth ministers who work with these adults.)

"The Coffee Trader" by David Liss (C) 2004 Ballantine Books ISBN 0375760903

"Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation that's changing your World" by Hugh Hewitt (C) 2005 Nelson Books ISBN 078521187X

What I'm Watching:

"The BC" (Boston College students record and webcast their parody of Fox's "The OC")

"South Park" (especially the "Life without Chef" episode and the "Scientology" episode, both of which have caused a lot of controversy-- link to Google News search)

"American Inventor" on ABC

"Star Trek: New Voyages" webcast (a new cast remakes Star Trek: TOS to continue the original five-year mission)

What I'm Hearing:

"The Morning Show" weekly podcast from Minnesota Public Radio

"Living on the Edge" with Chip Ingram

"A New Beginning" with Greg Laurie

Best Line from Tennis:

"I can't hear you when you say nice things anymore; I have all this trash in my ear!"


Pick Brains, Not Noses!

Okay, so on the way to work this morning I was driving through the intersection at Southwest Ave., and this guy in a shiny silver Honda SUV comes through it the other way with his index finger shoved thoroughly up his nose and digging around... while it's weird to think of your car as a public place, it really is, and there are some things you just don't do in public.

On the other hand, there are several things I found this morning that I am very happy their authors chose to share.

A post on Backyard Missionary asks us two questions: Are teenagers really responding to the Gospel? and If they are, what Gospel is it, exactly? Marko has a great read on the topic-- his post is nearly as long as the original thought, and both are well worth reading, as are the comments on both.

On the Other Foot has an article that captures what we need to teach teenage boys about becoming men:

"Between the contradictory role models of "new-age sensitive man" and "clueless Tim-Taylor man," it's no wonder today's boys don't know what a man looks like. I'll give you a hint: neither one is accurate, because they're both self-centered and immature. The one is whiny, the other overblown, but both of them are completely missing what a man is and does. "

And two more worthy sites joined the Sidebar this week: The Brick Testament (the Bible story built of Legos) and Bookcrossing.com, which encourages users to tag and release good books into the wild, then track their travels with other readers through the website.


Why Social Convention = Poor Stewardship

A couple of months ago I was invited to dinner. I arrived slightly early, and the first thing my host said to me was "When the invitation says 7:00, you are supposed to arrive 10 minutes late." The first words-- before, "Hello, it's good to see you, thanks for coming."

What I wanted to respond was, "I think that's horribly superficial and completely disrespectful of my time as a guest." What I did was smile and nod.

The other day it started bothering me again. Social convention, I thought to myself, often equals poor stewardship. Jesus said, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no," in other words "say what you mean!" Thus when the invitation says 7:00, arriving at 7:00 is good stewardship of time, both the host's and guest's. Intending to be late, or expecting guests to be late, is not.

Stewardship was especially on my mind because I was at the mall. Malls in St. Louis are stuffed full of designer shops and million-dollar accessories. Shortly after moving here, I was advised to shop at Brooks Brothers, so one day when I walked past their storefront, I actually looked in the windows. Right in the front was a rack of sale items-- on sale, I could buy two shirts for $189. This cannot possibly be good stewardship of money. For one thing, it ties up money that could be spent on helping feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing the naked or giving to the church. If I were to buy shirts at that price, I would be spending the money exclusively on me, and it would only do any good for me.

Jesus once told a rich man that to reach Heaven he had to sell everything he had, so nothing would be in his way, before coming to follow Jesus. And the man went away crushed, because his money was his identity. If I dress to show off how much money I have, (or, considering how much debt people my age are racking up, to show how much money I wish I had) what does my appearance preach about my relationship with Christ?

There's a line here, of course. Some things don't seem to be good stewardship, but when I dig into the real motives, they're okay. And Jesus warned us that we imperfect people usually can't tell what people's motives are. Only God can do that. So when I talk about stewardship today, I am speaking of things I expect of myself, and not anyone else. At the same time, every minister, youth and otherwise, (including every parent and church member) needs to lose the fear of saying "how we spend (time, energy, love, money) shows how important Jesus' work is to us."

With that disclaimer in mind:
I want to be on time, as a sign of respect for my host's invitation.
I want to be dressed to show that I am willing to jump into work and service whenever I see the opportunity.
By spending carefully, I want to be generous to people in need and causes I believe in.
I want to be aware of my skills and using them freely to point to Christ who empowers them in me.


The Rookie Reviews: "V for Vendetta"

Please Note: This review deals mostly with the wider themes and Christian response to the movie "V for Vendetta." In writing it I will try my best to avoid plot spoilers for those readers who haven't yet seen it.

"I am not questioning your powers of observation; I only point out the paradox of asking a masked man who he is."

In the future, England is controlled, 1984-style, by a zealous dictator who rules in the name of morality, faith and the ploughman's lunch, or something equally traditional. Unfortunately, his drive for "unity" (aka sameness) has brought about a world where speech, movement and curiosity carry huge price tags with them.

Enter a hero, code-named V, who begins a campaign, backed by the 1812 Overture, to force change in the English government. His costume and motive are based on Guy Fawkes, who attempted to destroy Parliament with barrels of gunpowder; and parallel to the Count of Monte Cristo, the Matrix and, maybe, just maybe, "Ocean's Eleven."

As in all the revenge movies, the bad guys are thoroughly corrupt, the police are basically incompetent, a beautiful woman both helps and falls in love with our hero, and the whole thing is televised.

Is it truly a spoiler with this kind of movie to hint that the hero has some degree of success?

It's worth seeing. "V for Vendetta" is a smart movie; while it uses them to fill in spots where they advance the plot, the whole story doesn't rest on gore and fight effects. While the background of the story is often murky, even toward the end when things should be wrapping up, there are a lot of good questions on the surface.
What would you have to go through before you really could die for your beliefs? for example.

What struck me while I watched "V for Vendetta" was that every character had a secret. More than anything else, these secrets were what brought the characters and the whole system down. The government was afraid of the secrets kept by its people, so constantly worked to root them out. The leaders all had their own secrets, though, and the vengeance wrought by V was aimed at punishing them for those secrets, and for the effect the secrets had on the way those characters lived.

I would love to say this movie has strong Christian overtones and could be used to talk about things like redemption and accountability, but without a lot of digging, it doesn't work. Jesus told us that he came into the world to bring to the light all the things people did in darkness, to show people as they really are. While I'd like to use that verse as a parallel, V's mission didn't bring anyone's secrets into light for the people in the movie, just the audience and a few select characters who knew them anyway. Evil was challenged, but no one was really redeemed.

The movie serves most as a call for transparency; it shows, the way "watch out for your government" movies always have, the danger of not revealing one's true motives, using our words to make evil look like the best interest of the people, and hints that often it's hard to know what we are truly capable of until we're tested.

Going into the film, it will help to have a fairly high vocabulary. The R rating is deserved; what gore there is becomes extremely graphic. There's no sex, only mild language, and the thing most likely to cause bad dreams is the oversize screen the high chancellor uses to talk to his security council. My dad would say of the character, "He can't help that he's ugly, but he could stay home!"

"V for Vendetta" opened March 17th and is currently playing. My apologies for the lateness of this review; for some reason it was extremely difficult to write.


Day Off

Two kids crouch behind cars next to Building Five, looking sneaky. Around the corner, a third little guy leans up against a tree, his lips moving furiously while he tries to count to 100 in less than ten seconds.

I roll down my window and slow beside the building. "Hey kid! They're hiding in the parking lot!" The two boys behind the cars pop up looking startled, and the counting one has to start all over, since my shout made him lose his place.

It's my day off, and on my day off I don't have to be nice to kids. Isn't that right?

Late in the afternoon, when schools are out for the day, I run to the mall. Before any kids get there to play with them, I carefully take the batteries out of all the singing and talking toys and leave them, silent and lame, on the shelves.

On my way home, when I pass the high school, I wonder if I could hack into the programming for the digital message board that's outside and make it display the bottom ten students' names and GPAs. This is probably a little advanced for one day off.

There's a tree in the park that grows over the most popular picnic spot for families with small children, and sure enough, there is a man selling balloons there today. When he walks away to take a phone call, I shimmy up the tree and wait in the lower branches with a sharp stick, hidden by the leaves. Every time a child points to a balloon, I reach carefully out with the stick and pop it.

As the police are leading me toward their car to have a little talk, I protest "But it's my day off!" They nod understandingly and let me go. That's how days off work, of course.

The main difference between a job and a calling is, I think, that I am willing to keep on being called even when I'm not working.


The Rookie's Library March 23, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood" by Koren Zailckas, (C) 2005 Viking Penguin ISBN 0670033766 (This is a lyrical, eerily well-written story of a young woman's alcohol abuse, what made it possible, and how she was finally able to bring her life back under control.)

"Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young" by Anya Kamenetz (C) 2006 Riverhead Books ISBN 1594489076 (reviewed here by the Rookie)

"Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" by John Shelby Spong, (C) 1991 HarperSanFrancisco ISBN 0060675098 (I disagree with this guy on many counts, but as I wrote here, it takes serious challenges to our faith and honest debates about it to clarify what we believe and how we defend it.)

"Thud" by Terry Pratchett, (C) 2005 HarperCollins ISBN 0060815221 (This is as close as Pratchett comes to including current technology by name. The book deals with war, specifically racially-motivated war, with his accustomed acidly light humor. Probably the most profound point is the discussion of the game called Thud, seemingly based on a Nordic game called hnefa-tafl "King's Table," in which to be a truly expert player you must learn to play both sides.)

What I'm Watching:

"Hello, Dolly" produced by the Wydown Theatre Company

"Kiss Me, Kate" by Ladue HS

"Jesus Christ, Superstar" by MICDS Upper School

What I'm Hearing:

Insyderz "Skalleluia" album

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" soundtrack

"All Star Smash Hits" album by SmashMouth

"The Green Sweater Collection" mix by L.W.

3 Things that have been in my refrigerator the longest:

Jar of Pesto-- since November
Applesauce-- since Christmas
Chopped Romaine lettuce-- going on 3rd week


Welcome to the Sidebar for 3/22/06

Three new blogs are linked in my sidebar this week, and I'd like to tell you a little bit about them.

Ragamuffin Diva is a blog from a Christian author in Ann Arbor, MI. I found this site through YSMarko, where there's a link and an endorsement of her new book.

Wittingshire comes courtesy of the Paragraph Farmer, and it's a family/parenting/storytelling blog with a Middle Earth feel; I linked it a few days ago for this article.

Living Between The Trees is one I predict will be a great place to put some meat on the bones of our faith. It's not being updated super-regularly, but there's some good stuff in the archives about the roots of Christianity.

If all your friends jumped off a library...

A couple of weeks ago I was in a training workshop (theCORE, in my sidebar) and the speaker talked about wanting to stop using the term "elderly" because it implies weakness, and move to the word "elder" instead, to show that the experience our grand- and great- parents have lived (and often suffered) through are valuable for showing us how to live today.

Our elders have had time to think about things before, during and after doing them. That's why their advice matters. We younger folk simply haven't had that fully-rounded experience yet. And so it saddens me deeply that we separate our young people (those with questions) from our older ones (those with answers.)

I noticed this most acutely surfing through the MySpace forums last week. In the Religion/Philosophy forum, there's a pattern to how a discussion will go. Someone will ask a serious question (Convince an atheist that there is a God.) Three people will get caught up in the right way to spell "atheist." One will post a personal testimony and two others will post examples from the Bible of how people came to faith. They will be flamed and laughed at. Two adults will chime in with over-wordy posts trying to overwhelm the objections. And one profound question will be asked, and lost in the shuffle.

There's no direction to the discussion in the forums, and so there's never a consensus, a convincing. There's only distrust, pat arguments, and the instruction to "stop drinking bathroom cleaning chemicals." The same thing happened in the Careers forum. A resume expert posted offering to help anyone, for free, by checking over his or her resume and pointing out where it could be improved. The guy ran a business writing resumes, but didn't charge anything to look one over. He offered a lot of valid tips that answered honest questions, but also took a lot of damage from people who wondered what he was up to, slammed him for calling himself an expert, and worse, even though by taking the advice he offered in the forum, the complainers' resumes would have been three or four times better.

Somebody bring our elders back! Let's bring them into our youth groups, as small-group leaders, special guests, storytellers; anything that will expose our age-segregated youth to people who truly have been there.

To prepare youth to hear their elders' words, three suggestions:
  1. Use small groups and discussion times to discover what youth value about the elders in their own lives; grandparents, teachers, family friends, and others.
  2. Ask "Which adults in our congregation do you most respect and admire?" Once we've asked, we find those adults and bring them in.
  3. Help youth clarify the questions they really want to ask about life; write them down, journal on them, Bible study about them. The framework will help make discussion easier to start.

To prepare elders to share effectively with the youth, three more:

  1. Remind them to say "I don't know" when they don't; then find out together.
  2. Find out what they admire and would like to learn from the younger generation.
  3. Prep them to share stories students will relate to; how much did X cost when you were a teenager; what did your parents think of your music; did you ever cut school or sneak out of the house? It's all about finding common ground.

It takes time to reach out and connect across generations; make sure youth and elders both know and are willing to keep on trying. At first, it may feel forced and artificial. After a little while of insecurity, they will grow together and sharpen each other. Paul warned that "there will come a time when people aren't satisfied with sound teaching, but tell themselves what they want to hear." One part of the solution is to never let students be cut off from sound teaching and the example of those who live by it.


The Rookie Reviews: "Generation Debt"

Last week I logged into the St. Louis library system to run a search for some books I'd heard about in an online radio program (through OnePlace, a Christian radio broadcasting site). I have a whole list of books on request, most of which aren't supposed to be available until May or June. That is a good thing, because it gives me time to catch up on my current bookshelf. But one was available, and I skipped right over after work to pick up Anya Kamenetz's book "Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young"

The book talks about the trend toward a lifestyle of debt that a large percentage of young people (18-30s, the "2nd third of life" folks) have been putting themselves in. The author cites rising college cost, more pressure to attend graduate school after college, stagnating income levels, and the ease of gaining credit as pressure points that push young people onto a treadmill of desiring, spending, panicking, defaulting, quitting and finally living under a never-shrinking burden of debt.

Kamenetz also points out that in the past, by the time the newest generation was ready for full-time work, the older generation had moved out of the work force and left room for them. Today, she notes, workers stay in their positions longer. The service industry (fast food and retail) is growing and the manufacturing industry (formerly a huge percentage of the entry-level job market) isn't. I can see that happening here in St. Louis, where both Ford and Boeing are planning plant or division closings. Those jobs aren't going to other places or countries, they're just gone.

Older workers stay at their posts longer; students with degrees wind up in fields that don't use them. School status means taking on larger loans; confusion (or hopelessness) when goals meet realities lead to dropping out, or taking longer to finish school. "Generation Debt" has harsh words for all parties, and only a few solutions.

But the one group that doesn't rate a place in the book is the church. Since it's not in there at all, I think that's an even stronger call to action for children's, youth and adult ministries. Ministers need to lose our fear of talking about stewardship. This means time, talents, physical and mental resources, and money. We need to boldly preach discipline-- one of the things I noted in the book was the number of people in case studies who had given up and left school without plans, certificates or lesser degrees that might have given them even a small leg up. And church teaching needs to challenge the way we make choices.

Jesus said "If someone is going to build a tower, first he sits down and figures out the cost, because nothing's worse than starting a project and not being able to finish it." For children and youth, to keep them out of Generation Debt's next chapter, these words should be stressed. For a glimpse into why they're so important, read "Generation Debt."


Jack Bauer's Life in Jesus Christ's Name

I've been thinking a lot about rest lately; for the past few days I've been fighting a virus and so my body needed a lot of rest. But my resting during my illness felt a lot like my regular home routine the rest of the time, and that worried me. I think I rest too much. I think I hide behind a perceived need for more rest rather than engaging my non-student time to work on the other ministries I feel called to.

"I'm working on..." I started to say on the phone a week ago. "No, wait; that's not true. I say I'm working on..." And I laughed. Is it funny, though, to admit I'm brushing aside work I do believe God wants done?

I used to have a real problem with series. How, I asked myself while reading the 17th book of so-and-so's life, could that many things happen to one person? "24" is one of my all-time favorite television shows, and I'm having the same problem with it.

But the Bible shows me that when the apostles, and the prophets, and Jesus himself were awake, they were working. Jesus knew when to rest, and when to pray, and when to sit back and let people figure out what they wanted to ask him. But even those things were purposeful. Even Jesus' rest time took him in the direction God called him to go.

Maybe I should pray for Jack Bauer's life. Not so much the shouting and killing people parts, but the active, pursuing, driven, single-minded-purpose part. What if I were to ask God to direct my rest, and my prayer, and my sitting back, so my passive time readied me to serve Him, and my active time always carried out the work I'm called to, in parish ministry, writing, speaking, caring for friends and family?

In other words, do the cushions of my couch keep God's insistent voice from reaching my ears? Do I dare admit that truly, I get too much rest? And, since an admission is only good with a new decision, am I willing to put aside the rest I don't need and start working?


Reading by Association

And for further reading today, I offer this article, linked from the Paragraph Farmer. One of the vital goals of youth ministry, in my mind, is to find and cultivate more parents who can do what this article describes.

A couple of quotes to set the scene:

"What we didn't know was that the older sister and the neighbor girl, who are in the same class at school, are not exactly on excellent terms. One is tall and strong, an athlete; the other is willowy and brainy, complete with smart-girl glasses. I suppose I should have thought; I should have remembered the awful self-consciousness of middle school girls, the cliques and the hurt feelings and the jockeying for position in the mysterious adolescent social order. But living with my blessedly oblivious daughter, who likes everyone and assumes everyone likes her, lulled me into forgetfulness."

"Jonathan can make two walls talk happily to each other. I have seen him put university deans at ease, and former drug addicts. But can he get two middle school girls to both feel comfortable?Jonathan goes out back. "Soccer time!" he announces, and divides them into teams. The smart girl is on the porch swing. "I'm not sure I want to play," she says.
"Have you ever played soccer?"
"Well... yes."
"On a real team?"
"Then you're one of the experts here. Come on, we need you.""

It takes a special kind of caring to know when the best way to reach a child is to play soccer, or eat a leaf, or on hearing "I can't shake hands, I have doughnut goo on mine" to respond "That's okay, I have germs on mine!" But these little things, when we mean them, and by them show we aren't trying to squish anyone into one specific mold, can tip the scale between two guys playing basketball outside the church and worshipping with me in the sanctuary.

Coming Up This Week

I have several ideas in advance for blog posts this week, and that's unusual all by itself! To give myself a way to remember them, and you the reader a chance to chime in on details you'd like to see or questions I should look into on these topics, I'll post several possible topics today. Jump in with possible angles, sources or advance comments!

  • Why ever Christian's life should be like an action/adventure series. Marko has a Foxtrot cartoon on his blog that got this one started in my mind.
  • "Cheerleader Nation" on Lifetime gets reviewed and poked at as full of examples of bad parenting, consumerism, unhealthiness and other things that are actively wrong with God's world today.
  • The dangers of learning exclusively, even mostly, from peers (another Myspace-inspired topic)
  • I will also review, in the near future, the movie "V for Vendetta" and the book "Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young"

Who's reading good stuff that should wind up in the Rookie's Library?


Outward Signs

One of my favorite places to shop is at the Goodwill store. Not only can I find things super cheap, but frequently I don't end up buying anything, but go home completely amused at the things I found there. Who knew how many different kinds of picture frames and ice cube trays and hair dryers there really are?

On the racks of clothing, I will usually find t-shirts with company logos-- everything from the casino down the road to the radio station to the country club and the grocery store. Many of them are part of uniforms for staff members.

One of the purposes of uniforms, although it's not always mentioned, is to mark the wearers as part of a community. The members of a staff are working together toward a goal that will bring a better life for its members, to idealize just a little bit. Uniforms, properly done, should carry with them a sense of pride for being part of the team.

In the same way, I think it's important for youth ministers to lead the way in using outward signs. We should be proudly wearing cross jewelry and W.W.J.D bracelets and shirts with Scripture on them. In training, I worked with a guy who had a Christian t-shirt for nearly every day of the year, and in his job (assistant to a bishop) he wore one every day. His reason for it was that he was not going to show by his appearance that he valued expensive clothing or a certain way to look, but instead would show his focus on faith.

The signs we take on need not to show our pride in individual faith, though. I think we've swung too far that direction. Instead, we need to show through those marks-- the jewelry, shirts, hats and bumper stickers-- that we are part of Christ's community. This carries with it a whole new responsibility. Right now, so many of our Christian symbols are sometimes just worn for fun. Before we put them on, we need to make sure we're advertising a connection to Jesus and his whole church, not just our own salvation.

The world has a great need for the message we carry in our lives, just as it always has. The signs we wear will give the world clues of who to ask for directions, and remind us when the believers see them on each other that we are not alone in this work.


Attitude: It's a killer, boss!

My youth minister in high school used to quote Bartok the bat from the movie "Anastasia," who said, "Stress-- it's a killer, boss!" Today, I'm borrowing the phrase to talk about attitude, which has the same, and greater, power as a ministry-killer.

I met a new parent yesterday, who has a son in sixth grade who hasn't really connected with our group. She saw our program about the youth ministry, sensed our excitement and passion for it, and had a lot of questions for me about how her family might get involved.

I was thrilled, and brought my report back to our regular youth staff meeting as a potential triumph. When the response I heard was, "We'll believe it when we see it," my optimism took a little bit of a downer. I didn't lose any excitement over the chance to meet a new family; that's still going to happen. What caught me off-guard was the attitude in our meeting.

I used to attend a music festival in lower Michigan; one year, in a class there, we were learning a particularly tough piece of music, and my part seemed to be the hardest of all. I really didn't like the piece, and even though I was improving at it, every time our teacher told us to take it out, I made the most horrible face. It was awful. If I had a picture of that face, I would have to censor it so none of my readers would get sick all over their keyboards.

My very wise teacher told me not to make that face even in practice. "If you start making it now, even to be funny," she explained, "you'll make it a habit, and then when we go to perform it, you'll make it on stage. The audience will know you don't like the piece." When the audience knows a performer doesn't like the part he or she is playing, they react differently to it-- usually not good-differently.

I don't like it when people hide behind busy schedules and don't commit to being part of a ministry, but I owe everyone I talk to the benefit of the doubt. When a person tells me that our ministry sounds exciting and they want to be part of it, it does not matter how long it takes for them to get involved. I will simply keep talking with them and reaching out and eventually, when God nudges them, they will be here.

Next time our youth staff sits down together, this is my first concern; to eliminate phrases like "we'll believe it when we see it" from our minds. If we start saying those things among ourselves, the people we serve with will start to notice that attitude in us. And that doubtful attitude has no place in the Kingdom.


How I missed this I will never know

We spoke today for a small group of older ladies who meet once a month for lunch and to enjoy each other's company. Marty and I were there to explain our program and tell some stories about what we're planning for the next year. The end of our program was an invitation (and in some ways a challenge) for these members to get involved with us somehow, through things like prayer support and caring for the staff team, all the way up to teaching small groups and chaperoning events.

After that, we asked our audience for comments. The very first one was "This group meets once a month and another group meets every Tuesday, and we always have lunch. Come to them! If you get to know us and we get to know you, we'll know how we can help you."

When I first arrived in St. Louis, our consultants told us not to worry about putting lots of program and structure into place right away. They reminded me to spend a lot of time getting to know the students and building relationships with them first. It made total sense to me. I can't just ask kids to do what I want them to without developing a level of trust with them.

At the same time, I complain a lot about adults not stepping up to the plate. They're adults, after all-- more mature, stronger in the faith, more decisive. Aren't they?

How did I miss it? To get adults onboard in the ministry, I need to spend whatever time it takes building relationships with them too!


The Rookie's Library March 12, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"Coming of Age" by David Anderson, Paul Hill and Rollie Martinson (C) 2006 Augsburg Fortress, ISBN 0806652241

"The Once And Future King" by T. H. White, (C) 1958 Putnam ISBN 399105972

"Laugh-Eteria" by Douglas Florian, (C) 2000 Penguin Books ISBN 0141309903

What I'm Watching:

"The Secret Life Of..." on Food Network

"Ham On the Street" on Food Network

"How William Shatner Changed the World" on History Channel

What I'm Hearing:

Peder Eide's "The Reason We Live" album

ConGRADulations 2006 CD from Interlinc

Where I'm Training:

Youth Specialties' theCORE event

What I Wish I'd said out loud this week:

"Well, duh!"

"If wishes were horses, I'd have a big mess to clean up."


A Billboard of the times

I went up to Springfield, IL for Youth Specialties' CORE training day (which I highly recommend for all staff and volunteers; they are just that good). On the way back, I spotted a billboard advertising the new AT&T phone book. The caption on the billboard is "Life's Most Used Book."

I thought this was a little presumptuous. The Bible, after all, is the world's best selling book. Why would it not also be the most used?

So I thought about it some more. On Day Camp a few years ago, my partner-counselor Shelly and I had a long discussion about why Lutherans don't bring their own Bibles to worship services with them. I pointed out that Lutheran churches usually have Bibles in the pews, but Shelly shot me down there by reminding me that not many Lutherans open them during services. In my current parish, we don't have pew Bibles, nor do most parishioners bring their own.

And when I was four years old, at the children's sermon time, I joyfully announced to my pastor that, "We don't have any Bibles in our house!" prompting my parents to start family devotions practically the next day to show me that yes, we did in fact have more than none.

The phone company is probably right. Their book probably wins for most uses per day. But ours is still better for eternal usefulness; the phone book has to be reissued every year, after all, and the Bible has stood for the generations. Now, I think a quest is in order; to teach Bible literacy so no matter what the billboard says, we will have a legitimate claim on the "most used" title.

Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (New International Version)

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.


Make the Argument

Last weekend I spent a day as a selection judge for a public affairs fellowship program and met a lot of bright young people who want to find careers in law, politics and international relations. In the afternoon, each applicant had two interviews with panels of judges. The judges had a list of questions the program suggested asking, and when we couldn't think of original ones, we'd turn to the list.

One of the questions we asked most often was "Please make the opposite argument to the one you just shared with us." Candidates would look at us blankly for a moment and then try to convince us of the thing they had just spoken against. It was a really interesting exercise; all of the candidates came in passionate about some issue that we knew about from their resumes, and would wow us with their experience and emotion about that issue. When we asked them to make the opposite argument, most of them fell flat.

The value of being able to make the argument both for and against an issue is that you can learn to spot the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. When you practice this regularly, your speaking becomes more flexible and you are better able to anticipate questions the audience might ask.

I think this would be a truly valuable skill for Christians to have. So many of the Christian speakers I hear are completely convinced their beliefs are right, and that's good-- I like to hear conviction because that helps to convince me too. On the other hand, in discussion, I've also heard a lot of weak replies to good questions.

I've seen this skill most clearly in a group of 12- and 13-year olds one summer when Karl and I led a debate session in the afternoon. For each question we picked, one bench of campers took a positive approach, whatever their personal opinions, and the other bench took the negative. Then they switched. We were impressed because they were able to see both sides of the issues and pick up on things that helped their own beliefs to be clearer afterward. Beyond accepting the faith like little children, there's also a lot to be said for discussing it like them too.


Mammon and change

Some days all I have to wonder about is the spiritual health of my youth group kids and their families. But occasionally I get really important questions, like "Post-Resurrection, would Jesus eat the ham?"

We're selling ham from the Honeybaked Ham Co. for a spring fundraiser to help with the cost of transportation and scholarships for this summer's mission trip, and my senior pastor's question was "Would Jesus eat this ham?"


There's a certain theological question there. Living on the far side of Easter as we do, and seeing life through that lens, there are all kinds of details that Jesus told us to pay attention to ("I have come to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it," and "not one stroke will pass from the Law until the kingdom comes") but not obsess over, because Christ's grace is sufficient for the things we fail to understand and do. Peter's vision in Acts (chapter 10) of God bringing a whole pile of not-good-for-eating creatures to the hungry apostle and saying "Rise, Peter; kill and eat" first means "welcome everyone, even Gentiles, into Christ's family," but the image God chose may say something about the freedom of a believer in other areas too. Paul debates food (specifically food first offered to idols) in Romans and concludes that eating any kind of food is only not allowed when that example would weaken a fellow Christian's faith.

At the same time, Jesus never told us that following him replaced our attention to the Commandments and the God-honoring life prescribed in the Old Testament. Just because I follow Jesus doesn't mean I can stop speaking the truth from my heart, despising the wicked and refusing to take bribes. (Psalm 15)

At the heart of this issue is the line between grace and performance, between what God does for me and the work I am to do to show the transformation in my life because of that gift. I always have a hard time defining this one; I want there to be something for me to do that's important. I want to have some influence, even just a little, over my salvation. For me it's because I'm a control freak, but I believe a lot of people ask this question.

And I can't answer it convincingly. I feel like a big cheater when I call it "by grace through faith." It can't really be that easy! Saying that God meeting me on the cross is a starting point and all my work starts after that covers the question, but also seems to leave too much in my hands.

And, although it is the only solution, I have a sneaking feeling of giving up when I admit that I will be asking God how this works when I see him in person. If I could understand the mystery of salvation, God would be too small for me to believe in him; still, I wish I knew why I, as a laborer only for the last hour of the day, (Matthew 20) receive the same reward as God's children who were with him from the beginning.


All of the Above!

To prep for a gathering of youth ministers in the Diocese, I'm finally reading Chap Clark's book "Hurt: Inside the world of today's Teenagers." I do enjoy it when my job lets me catch up on the reading I've been intending to do.

Clark starts the book talking about the research project he did to get the material for the book. He shares several quotes he frequently heard from adults when he explained that he was researching teenagers. One quote in particular illustrates one of the biggest and most difficult misconceptions adults have.

"Teenagers have never had it easier-- they've got more money than we did, more freedoms, more options, and yet they are more defiant and more arrogant than we were."

I have a basic problem with this statement. Where does the speaker get the idea that more of anything equals easier?

As part of staff training at Fortune Lake, we're reminded that when you need a child, especially a young child, to do something he doesn't want to do, you simplify the choices you give-- "Do you want to do A or B?" There's a valid choice, which the child is allowed to make, but neither option is a choice of not doing.

In a class I attended last week on understanding children with ADD, the professor explained that these students need one instruction at a time, given simply enough that she can focus on it without getting lost in a list of details.

Today, when I drive from my office to my apartment, I will have the choice of five or six different routes. This is great now that I know how they all connect to the places I might need to know, but the first few days I was in St. Louis, I needed directions that took me on a few familiar roads.

More choice necessarily means more difficulty. More options mean less black and white and more gray. Any web designer knows that the fewer colors a page uses, the better it will display across computer platforms.

Where did this idea come from that youth today have easier lives because of all the extra choices they can make? How do we clear it out of this adult generation's memory? And how do we break down all the options to help youth understand which ones will keep them going in the right direction?

I'm diving back into the book now, and I hope Chap Clark will have some insights that deal with this.


Lent: Another Thought

In Escanaba, the longest-running joke among the church staff was Isaac’s Car. My senior pastor, our secretary, even the janitor knew to look out the window when I came in to see if I was driving my own car or one I had borrowed from my parents or the mechanic while mine was being fixed. I could never find myself in parking lots because I never remembered which color and model I was driving that week. On long trips, I carried a case of motor oil, a toolbox and a tow truck in the back seat. To keep my little blue car running, old parts had to be constantly taken out and new ones put in their place.

There’s a verse in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 12) about being freed of evil spirits. Jesus taught that if you take sin out of your life, but then don’t fill its place with something good, you leave room for your old sin to come back with all its friends, and you wind up in worse condition than before.

It wouldn’t have done any good for my mechanic to take a broken part out of my car and leave its place empty for forty days, then put the old part back. Just the same way, our Lenten disciplines won’t do us very much good if we give something up just to put it back again when Easter comes.

True growth comes from replacing old habits with new ones. True life in Christ comes from replacing our sinful self with his perfection. Last year, when television was my sacrifice, I replaced its time with reading and study. This year, when I’ve given up snacks between meals, I’m using the cravings left by my old habit to remind me to drink enough water every day.

As we close the season of Lent and celebrate being Easter people, my prayer for all of us is that we leave our old sins no room in our new lives to move back in.


Newsflash: McPassion showing online through Lent

Starting with the huge publicity that surrounded "The Passion of the Christ," and contiuning with the release of "The Chronicles of Narnia " filmmaker Rik Schwartzwelder started to be concerned about the amount of pulpit time being given to films and the amount of push from pastors that their congregations "must see" certain movies because of their Christian messages. He made a short film about it, reviewed here in Christianity Today's movies section, and the film itself, "The McPassion" is streaming online through the 40 days of Lent.

Schwartzwelder's film has already received some harsh criticism in reviews and strong conversation for and against it in the website's discussion section. Some people call it sacreligious; others see it as a sharp jab in the sermon calling preachers back to Biblical teaching rather than over-reliance on "relevance" to culture.

Fruit of the New

For one year, one Confirmation season, we served dinner before class began. It was a new idea, something that class had not done before. There was a small response. Many of the families in the class that year had very full schedules; students would walk to class after sports practice, while the parents were meeting other commitments with the other children. Every week, 6-10 students would gather for dinner, and a few times a family came along too.

The next year, we stopped offering the dinner on Wednesday nights because in its first attempt, we hadn't seen the result we hoped for. I was confused by the decision that year; in the incoming confirmation class were a number of families who lived farther away from the church; when those students came to class, their parents and usually siblings would be along. We were holding youth group on Wednesday afternoon after school, before class, and I took up feeding those kids dinner because they were at the church most of the evening, and would be hungry. The second year would have been a far better field to offer a family dinner, but we had abandoned the project.

I flipped through the Group Publishing 2006 catalog and noticed a full-page ad for the new website. One promise the ad made was "An entirely new model for youth ministry!"

I worry when I see ads like that because a number of youth ministers are going to be caught up in whatever the new model is and abandon perfectly usable or growing ministries to give it a try. When the "new model" appears, it will probably not have a disclaimer on it that not every church will be able to use it, that the strengths of each congregation are so different that just taking a new approach out of a box will not be enough to change the direction of struggling programs.

A youth minister's greatest liability is his eye for the brand-new. Often, we don't give the seeds we're planting enough time to start growing before moving on. Part of this is a symptom of our flimsy job stability. It's hard to let anything grow unseen when church bodies are pushing for results. When a miracle formula comes along promising near-instant attendance, growth and spiritual development, we jump for it. Another facet is the pressure we let other ministries put on us-- "so and so's church is drawing in a hundred and fifty kids a week; why aren't we?" is a defective question. How long has that church been working to get to that level? How many staffers have they burned through until now?

The first vital step is to get back into the Gospel; let's learn to teach from the Teacher. We can take the principles we find there-- storytelling, hands-on experience, service, and time-- and use all the resources the church has to make them happen.

Second, we need to look very carefully at the natural strengths of the congregations we serve. If we use those abilities, rather than striking out in our own direction, we will keep our youth ministries centered in the life of the larger church, in harmony with the whole congregation rather than in conflict with it.

Finally, we need to move from a spending model to an investing model. In job searches, we need to carefully look for places that will keep us nourished and able to stay for more than 18 months at a time. Once we're in service, we need to put things in place (personal support networks, Sabbath time, worship outside of work) that will keep us healthy and growing. The picture in our minds should be to buy, not rent, our time in a congregation.

All these ideas need more development, and how to make this mental and vocational change is the key question I am pondering right now.


Lent: First Observations

Rick Lawrence, the managing editor of Group Magazine, has a brilliant article in this week's Youthministry.com newsletter. He's talking about attitudes toward prayer in today's Christians, and my own conscience has a sore spot from being poked so hard by every point on the page. A couple of quotes will illustrate the problem Lawrence points out.

"...the overwhelming majority of teenagers say they believe in God... most believe God is like a 'divine butler'-- someone who should be available at our beck-and-call to give us what we want, when we want it. And when we don't need him anymore, we'd like him to go away."

"To most kids, prayer is simply the 'cover charge' you pay to get into God's candy bar. They've been taught that 'the harder they pray, the higher God jumps.' And they're not alone-- researchers say most adult Christians have exactly the same view of God."

My dear friend and colleague Marty was answering questions about our mission trip this afternoon at a YM team meeting, and at one point suggested that we all pray "that all the kids who are signed up will stay signed up."

My ears perked up right then because her confidence that a big mission trip is in God's plan for us was so obvious. We'd been trying to figure out what was keeping our numbers down, and speculating on ways to fix that, but (I suddenly realized) not really listening for whether this slowdown in signups was a hint about God's will for us.

I've rarely heard anyone ready to believe that God would say no to a sincere prayer. In my own prayer life I'm often guilty of praying "Okay, God, I've gotten myself into this-- now you make it right." Or only praying about something I'm fairly sure God would want for me. Or assuming I know what it is God wants for me.

This Lent in prayer I want to be aware of how many times I speak rather than listen; how many times I pray for myself instead of interceding for others; and how many times I read "yes" into silence on God's part.