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Monday, July 25, 2016

Spiritual Disciplines: Celebration!

Last article being re-posted today. Hope these have been encouraging and helpful. Scroll through this blog and find the other ones. I started re-posting them at the end of Sept 2015.

The original for this one was first posted here. Enjoy!

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.

As I write this I am preparing to head out to the birthday celebration of my favorite one year old in the world, Bryn, who is the daughter of dear friends of mine. She was born on 11/1/11, and we all giggle at that because she is definitely number one in our hearts.

At the same time, I know I will sit back at some point during the day and chuckle at how many adults are there, celebrating an event that Bryn will most certainly not remember! In some ways it is tempting to ask, “What is even the point of having a birthday party for a one year old?!”

I can tell you the answer: Because everyone loves a party! Personally, I can never have enough cupcakes. How about you? We are wired to celebrate with those we love, whether it is a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, and even a life well-lived as we grieve the loss of a loved one.

Even as I type the word “celebrate” I have many fun memories popping into my head: lighting fireworks with students during service trips to Guatemala; a surprise birthday for me put on by friends; hearty laughter, to the point of tears, when hearing a really funny story…These are foretastes of heaven, where we will be free of suffering because God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

In anticipation of such a blessed eternity, as believers we are called to practice for heaven now. The spiritual discipline for this practice is called celebration. Richard Foster, who has guided our discussion for these last twelve months, defines its crucial role:
Celebration is central to all the Spiritual Disciplines. Without a joyful spirit of festivity the Disciplines become dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees. Every Discipline should be characterized by carefree gaiety and a sense of thanksgiving.
He goes on to say that celebration is an expression of the fruits of the Spirit, especially that of joy. But as we well know, joy is not the same as happiness. Joy comes from living a life of obedience, conforming to the call of God on our lives, seeking to be fulfilled by service to Him and selflessness to others.

What does this look like for us who serve in youth ministry? Sadly, I believe we have erred in thinking our primary job is to show our students that being a Christian can be fun, and proceed to fill our meetings with gross and wacky games and little else. While I have used my share of shaving cream over the years for a pie or two in the face, I know that silly games are going too far when that is what students are talking about at the end of the night, rather than whatever discussion was a part of the evening. I believe that is setting the bar far too low when it comes to serving the young people we know.

Instead, see the spiritual discipline of celebration as an opportunity for us as youthworkers to really make a difference in the lives of the young people we work with. As you already know, “partying” is highly valued by youth culture–they think they already know how to “celebrate.” Rather than letting them settle for shallow expressions of fun, I believe the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians give us an outline of how to do this:


I will be the first to admit that it is so tempting to trivialize the concerns of teens, whose drama every week can tend to focus on the ups and downs of friendships or who’s dating who. Nevertheless, these are the immediate concerns of our young people, and to dismiss them is to ignore what swirls around them. Instead, respect their young and limited perspective, coaching them into sharing their concerns, though seemingly trivial at times, with God. As it says in 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” As young people sense they are known and heard, they feel loved.


Verses 4:8-9 are straightforward: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Time and again I have had students thank me for remembering their birthday, attending their performance, or noting one of their achievements in front of the entire group. I had a parent tell me the other day how her children noted the difference between two different youth leaders in the community: one of them only saw their daughter if she attended his activities; the other leader made it a point to go to as many of her games as possible. Not surprisingly, she felt most connected to the latter. Active attendance at students’ events becomes a real challenge as your group grows, but it becomes all the more crucial for us to equip our volunteers to understand how much this means to the teens we know.


We are being dishonest if we pretend that life is always puppies and rainbows with our students. I never fail to be stunned at the gravity of issues that I have experienced with young people over the years: suicide, cancer, deathly car accidents, addiction, eating disorders, abuse, pregnancy, gang violence, sexual affairs with adults…the list goes on and on. To teach our students to celebrate, we also have to show them how willing we are to be with them in the depths. Paul teaches me so much in these few verses (4:10-13): “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

As we walk through all of life with our students, we then “earn the right to be heard” and can teach them how to truly “rejoice in the Lord” (4:4), opening themselves up to true and eternal celebration. What a privilege!

This concludes the year-long series on spiritual disciplines. The goal from here is to seek after deeper intimacy with Christ on your own and in community, teaching the youth around you to do the same.

My challenge to you

Set aside some time soon to review all twelve of the classic spiritual disciplines. Even better, pick up a copy of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and learn more for yourself. As you read, listen for the promptings of the Spirit as to which discipline(s) you need to grow in next.
Remember, for us as followers of Christ, the church year begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving with Advent, which is coming soon. What if a new goal included the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines? Take some time to pray over this question and make covenant with God.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Tunes, Tragedy, Teaching

Part of me wants to run away and find a big hole to hide from all the agony around... Alton Sterling,
Philando Castile, 5 Dallas police officers, a coup in Turkey, utter devastation in Nice, and now 3 officers murdered in Baton Rouge. Reading Psalm 14 this morning captured much of my malaise:

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
    who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
    there is no one who does good,
    no, not one.
(Psalm 14:2-3)

Yet if I stay in this empty, hurting place, I am paralyzed. There is so much more to say here, but for now, these lyrics from a new Avett Brothers song wake me up and pull me back in:

I cannot go on with this evil inside me
I step out my front door and I feel it surround me
Just know the kingdom of God is within you
Even though the battle is bound to continue

So I move forward, one day at a time... Here are a few resources I've used in the past couple of weeks. May we prayerfully and persistently press on through these dark days. 

True Sadness by the Avett Brothers. Here is the full song on YouTube. I want to be the kind of friend described in this song. It's also got some deeply scriptural lyrics. Allow them to dig deep into your soul.

Spiritual by Jay-Z. So much of what we each need to do is to listen to the stories of people's lives. We must seek after understanding, and not build fences around our own experiences and demand that they are the "right" and "normal" way. The lines, "I am not poison / No I am not poison / Just a boy from the hood that / Got my hands in the air in despair / Don't shoot / I just wanna do good" are haunting, and grieve my spirit. 

5 Ways to Process Tragedy with Teenagers. In 2005, a student from our youth group took his own life. Despite having over 25 years of youth ministry experience at that point, I had NO idea what to do, and fumbled through that first week (monthly?) blindly. While one article cannot solve it all, this one is a good start.

Revisionist History ~ a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. A lifetime of working with students makes me continuously fascinated by all aspects of education: how are the best ways to teach and engage, what resources are available, what are others doing, etc. There is a current series on education in America in this podcast that is spell-binding. It starts with the episode titled, "Carlos Doesn't Remember." I nearly missed a turnoff on the freeway last week because I was so riveted by it. The entire series is excellent.

What I'm Reading I just started The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard. With all the bad news rolling out this summer, I needed something to help me take a step back to breathe and reflect. As an ever-recovering English major, good writing just slays me. You have to concentrate when reading Dillard -- she is incredibly precise in her language, and miniscule in her observations. But it is lyrical, amazing writing.

I will end with this simple thought from Dillard. In the midst of our huge struggles and pain, we need to pace ourselves for a long journey. We must keep Sabbath, and seek after refreshment from the Lord. Dillard instructs us with a simple reminder:

Opening up a summer cottage is like being born in this way: 
at the moment you enter, you have all the time you are ever going to have.

May we each get to "open up a summer cottage" and receive deep, restorative rest this summer. We desperately need it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Screens, Skills, Spaces - a resource guide

As usual, I let myself get buried in the day-to-day, and neglect this dear blog. All 21 of my fans are disappointed yet again!

I also took 5 days to see my nephew graduate from high school, so there's that! Finally, after 30+ years of attending graduation ceremonies, I get to be a proud relative and not just a loving fan! Like the rest of my family, he is much taller than I am. Sigh...

Meanwhile, regardless of where I am or what I'm doing, I never stop gathering pertinent links and resources. Lucky you. Enjoy!

Screen Usage and Productivity. My mouth hangs agape... this is a thoughtful article from a productivity app (one of my favorites - Trello) on how to slow down and embrace mono-tasking. What?! Take a few moments to consider how to regulate your (OUR) addiction to checking your phone and notifications. This is a good one.

Our Schools Should Teach Basic Life Skills Again. OK, this captures my reality a bit too much. My work life is focused a lot on millennials, and this humorous video hits a little close to home. Have a good laugh. Or cry.

3 Ways to Stay Calm When Conversations Get Intense. I recently went off-site for a project where many of those with whom I worked wanted some help with addressing the elephant in the room. I include this article because it is both concise but also truly substantive. Whenever I see "6 best ways" or "7 successful tips" articles I usually flip right past them, but somehow this one caught my attention and I bookmarked it. Read it. Conflict is a normal part of LIFE (both at home and work) and most of us are conflict-averse. Let's bring safety and sustainability to wherever we are by offering honest conversation and a willingness to stay at the table and work things through.

We Reclaim Abandoned Spaces - an interview with Shane Claiborne. Only 10 minutes, this little gem still packs a lot of punch. Give yourself the time and attention to listen closely, and  you will be refreshed. And while you're at it, subscribe to the weekly episodes where it's contained -- "Becoming Wise" by Krista Tippett.

Current favorite read... Discovering the Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey by Richard Rohr. I'm not entirely sure how I picked this book up, but it's been really interesting and thought-provoking. It was written in 1990, and some of his cultural references feel a bit outdated, but the spiritual formation insights are A+.

Wise Words....

I sent this quote by Frederick Buechner to a dear friend this past weekend for her birthday. Listen for the Spirit as these words pour over you. May your soul be fed!

Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Reading, Listening, Adjusting

It's been about a month since I posted some of the resources I've used recently... as school years end and summer approaches, my calendar has been packed with events and celebrations and planning.

Nevertheless, as life plows along, I have used the long Memorial Day weekend for the last several years to step back and take stock in how the first half of the year has gone so far. I reflect on what has happened, look at my goals and schedule, and revisit some of my plans before the second half gets going. What's working? What isn't? Do I need to shift and change some things? Do I need to reboot and start over in some ways?

I have found some of these resources valuable in kick-starting this process for my 2016 Memorial Day weekend... hope yours goes well!

Listening is an Overlooked Leadership Tool. I just read this one today, but am kicking off my post with it. I've already forwarded it to two friends who are managing teams. I liked it for multiple reasons, the main one being that for many years I have found that one of the greatest gifts I can give someone is to just shut up and truly listen. As this article says, "Listening is an overlooked tool that creates an environment of safety when done well." In a world where distractions proliferate more than ever, and many of us only offer "continuous partial attention," it can be significant to put away our phones, close our laptops, and be truly present. What a concept.

Westmont Chapel Message, March 14, 2016. Shameless self-promotion here. My chapel message at Westmont this spring. 

The Growing Allure of the Gap Year. Much of my calendar in May has been occupied with kicking off the sixth year of our Free Methodist intern program. I continue to love working with young adults, and will confirm that after some 30+ years of doing so, I find that the landscape is continuously shifting and changing. I hung onto every word of this podcast. The options for young people when they graduate from high school and college are really going in some fascinating directions. We cannot layer our own template of experience on top of theirs. Open your eyes and ears and give a listen.

Whoever Loses His Network: Beyond Fear and Anxiety in Networked Individualism. Yep, weird title, I know. But well worth the time to read it. There is some major Chicken Little fear-mongering going on in regard to the effects of technology on "kids these days." This article delves far deeper, past the superficial sound bytes, and examines bigger issues. This link is an excerpt from Dr. Andrew Zirschky's book on screen usage and teens. Zirschky is generally known as "the" expert on this topic in the field of youth ministry. It seems long, but in part it is because it has extensive (and helpful) footnotes. Read and discuss with parents and volunteer leaders: this article explains how students in 2016 create their networks of friends... Back in the day I measured that by how many people could sign my yearbook! Learn more here about how youth work on having as many "followers" as possible on Instagram or Snapchat. "Youth ages 12 to 17 lead the way as creators of content on the Internet with nearly all of them sharing content in some form, whether pictures, videos, blog posts, tweets, or status updates."

Helpful link for board and committee work and strategic planning. I wear many hats, and one of them is serving as a consultant to churches, non-profits and businesses on how to guide staff and key leaders through strategic planning, implementation and evaluation. Currently I'm working with eight different organizations, and repeatedly I've used some good stuff from Board Source. Getting their newsletter is free, and they offer occasional articles, graphics and slide shows that are useful. I just downloaded clear and compelling slides on the 9 characteristics of a mission statement and the definition of a vision statement that I'll be using in the future, I'm sure.

What am I reading?
I've rededicated myself to daily reading for at least 30 minutes a day. I want to avoid getting easily Fixer Upper or Chopped (though I absolutely love both of these shows!) Here is what I'm currently reading:
sucked in to Facebook and Twitter, or yet another episode of

Liberating the Church: The Ecology of Church and Kingdom by Howard Snyder. I'm a Howard Snyder groupie. His book The Radical Wesley changed my life. This one is proving to be equally challenging, all the more because it was written 20 years ago (1996) yet proves to be remarkably prophetic in regard to what I see on America's church landscape today.

Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes by Justo González. A short book by not a shallow read. Also written in 1996, but utterly relevant. It is opening my mind and heart in powerful ways.

The Gospel of John. This one never gets old, and just this morning I noticed something brand new, despite having read through this gospel multiple times. Several commentators quote this about John's Gospel, and I find it true: It is “a pool in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim."

I finish with Psalm 119:57-58,

The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep your words;
I implore your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Learning, Risking, Listening

Though it takes a bit more effort, I find it is helpful to maintain fresh awareness of current resources that help me do my job(s). So I keep a running list of articles I hear about, books that get recommended, links I want to explore, and try to chip away at the list each day for about 30 minutes.

I know, I know, that might sound crazy-making to you, but I have found it immensely valuable to keep "stirring the pot," even after three decades of vocational ministry work. I want to keep learning
(without papers and grades!), keep taking risks (though thoughtfully and carefully), and keep listening to the voices of culture and conversation (even when I do not agree).

So here are some of the latest things I've read or listened to...

This American Life: Middle School. First aired in 2011, it was rebroadcast earlier this month. As someone who worked directly with this age for so many years, I found this entire podcast so spot on. It starts with an outstanding first act describing the physical and developmental changes going on during these years, which are the most formative other than the toddler years. If you have children this age, or work with them, or successfully survived them yourself, take a listen. Then pass along to others you know -- it's a fantastic training/preparation tool and conversation starter.

How People Learn to Become Resilient. "Grit" and "perseverance" and "resilience" are buzzwords in education right now. I have found the research of Dr. Angela Duckworth valuable in this regard. In an age of easy Google and Wikipedia searches and an environment where everything from music to coffee to your sandwich order can be completely personalized, I am finding it more challenging to get young people to stick with something over time and not get bored. Skills of problem-solving and "outside-the-box" thinking develop when focus is sustained, and I find the concept of resilience important to consider. But of course, the conversation has already become overwrought and simplistic. This article even quotes New York Times Magazine, which stated recently that "the word [resilience] is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning and link it to vague concepts like 'character.'” Nevertheless, the article holds out hope for the study of resilience, and adds some solid insights.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Whoa Nelly. This one is an engaging read, though I had to put it down at times too. Some of the stories are devastating. But ultimately it is a must-read. I recently saw Bryan Stevenson speak, and I believe I was in the presence of true greatness. This is a leader of stunning compassion and justice. I thought I was aware of many of the world's injustices, but this book called me out.

Coupled with this book, listen to this 50 minute interview of Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I was deeply moved that both Stevenson and Alexander talk about the recognition of their own brokenness, especially in light of being people of faith.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Dr. Soong Chan Rah. Yes, you might be seeing a theme here. This year I decided to really go after reading by authors of color, realizing I needed to work hard to keep my vision broad and well beyond my own areas of experience and training. This book is an excellent commentary on the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, and then takes us into current applications of its themes. If you care deeply about the future of the Kingdom of God, I recommend this one highly.

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman. This one is a re-read and truly, it is breathtaking. I read and listen to many, many discussions on the current spiritual malaise in America, but this book has some unique things to say, expressed in words heavy with meaning and imagery. Quoting it does not do the book justice, but I will give one little taste:

Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory.

Do not be in a hurry if you pick up this book. But it is well worth the space and energy to read.

Somewhere recently I came along this quote by Wendell Berry, and I will end with this. In the flurry of never-ending pressure, anxiety and "must-do's," I pray these words settle in your soul:

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Confession

I just read this, and it seems an appropriate way to start this post:

"Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and together serve God." 
(Henri Nouwen)

A great reminder: spiritual disciplines are not some magic bullet to make us super holy. Rather, they are critical tools that can help us stay focused on Christ more than on the many distractions around us. In other words, we cannot grow in holiness and intimacy with God without daily "exercises" to keep our souls responsive and hungry for more.

With that in mind, here is the eleventh article in a series first released in 2012. As always, I remind you that these were initially written for those working in youth ministry, but they apply to all of us.


I came to Christ at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. That first year of faith was a whirlwind…I was blown away by the New Testament and could not read it fast enough. I was discovering the relief and power of prayer. I was talking to many friends about what I was learning, and some were coming to faith. It was an exciting time, and I still smile as I think about it.
Within a year or so I was encouraged by my Young Life leaders to try out for the “work crew” summer program, where students who have already been to camp are invited to contribute a month of their time to working at one of the summer camps, learning about service and discipleship at the same time. Part of the application process included attendance at several training meetings and scripture memorization. This is the verse I remember the most clearly, some 35 years later:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  (1 John 1:9, NRSV)
While there were several other verses, some of which I remember in bits and pieces, this one is burned into my memory verbatim. Why is that?

In a brief article like this one it will be impossible to take on gargantuan topics like sin, forgiveness, resentment, redemption and confession. We are close to finishing up a year-long series of articles (we only have one more month) on the classic spiritual disciplines of church history (as listed by Richard Foster in The Celebration of Discipline). Nevertheless, even in the limited space here I can tell you that my own understanding and experience of sin, confession, and forgiveness is still a work in progress all these years after “praying the prayer” and becoming a Christian. As Foster wisely says, “The Bible views salvation as both an event and a process.” I do not write here as an expert on confession, but simply as a person like you, in desperate need of God’s grace, healing and transforming power every day.

In 2004, a man named Frank Warren had an idea for a community art project. He began handing out postcards to strangers and leaving them in public places—asking people to write down a secret they had never told anyone and mail it to him, anonymously. Since then he has received more than 150,000 anonymous postcards, and millions have viewed his website, PostSecret.com. Apart from revealing our strange, “National Enquirer” tendencies to enjoy reading about someone else’s problems (after all, it distracts attention away from our own, right?), this project also exposes a unique dynamic related to confession: we often do not feel released from our sins until we unburden ourselves to another person. (Though I would argue that doing so anonymously does not accomplish that release.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes our need well:
A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. (Life Together)
While Protestant Christians believe that a priest is no longer needed to mediate our confessions, it is acceptable to recognize that it is often through the words and support of trusted friends and colleagues that God’s forgiveness can truly take hold in our lives.

So what does this look like for us as youthworkers? To begin with, this conversation goes in two opposite directions. On the one hand, we need to be followers of Christ who confess our sins, willing to have our lives regularly examined by those who know us best. On the other hand, we also need to be ready to know what to do with the many confessions we will receive as well.


Giving Confession

In last month’s post on the spiritual discipline of Guidance, I suggested that in order to know how to make wise decisions that one needs to “understand the power of accountable relationships.” Every Christian, and especially every Christian leader, needs to surround him or herself with people who both know and love them well AND who will level with them honestly, regardless of the issue. When I need an opinion on something, I am still amazed at how easy it is to find someone who will tell me what I want to hear! But no matter how tempting that is (and I have given in to that temptation more than a time or two), I have come to realize that I have to be willing to work closely with wise counselors who know where I need to be challenged. Just today, a few hours before I wrote this, I had such a person remind me of an area of life where I can tend to fall short of what God would want of me. At the same time, keep in mind that it is not the sole job of these others in our lives to hold us accountable; part of why my trusted mentor was able to call me out was because I have laid my life and frailties open before him.


Receiving Confession

Part of the great privilege of youth ministry is that you are actively participating in some of the most dynamic years of development in a person’s entire life! For example, as human beings there is no other time where we grow more quickly (other than the toddler years) than during junior high and early high school. It is a time of explosive growth intellectually, socially, physically, and spiritually. Our students will face many intense situations for the first time, and not know how to respond. If we (and our adult volunteers) remain consistently involved, we will inevitably have students who confess significant things to us. What do we do when that happens? Syler Thomas wrote an outstanding article several years ago that I still use with youthworkers to help them understand how to manage confidentiality–make sure you read it. But apart from the delicacies of follow up, Richard Foster reminds us (in The Celebration of Discipline) of several key things to remember as you receive confession:
  • Live “beneath the Cross.” In other words, be utterly aware of the wickedness and sinfulness of humans and also the dreadfulness of your own sin. If you do this, you will know that there is nothing that anyone can say that will disturb us.
  • Convey a spirit of humility to others. They will then feel safe enough to come to us.
  • Pray regularly for the light of Christ’s Spirit within you. You will be approachable when you radiate his life and light to others.
  • Be quiet. When others open up their grief, do not be distracting or destructive. As I like to say, Job’s friends got it right for the first seven days, when they simply sat with Job in his grief. It’s when they opened their mouths that things got ugly.
  • Figuratively (and prayerfully) set the cross between you and the person who is confessing. They will then receive divine love and not just human emotion.
  • Pray for the person. Do not just counsel them. Pray for healing of wounds.

As I noted earlier, this formative verse on confession reached me early in my spiritual life:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)
We cannot lead others spiritually unless we follow the model of our Lord, who laid his life before His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 15).  As Foster says, “The discipline of confession brings an end to pretense.” May we be honest with our sins and shortcomings, and be living witnesses of confession, healing, forgiveness, transformation and wholeness. When the work of the Cross is made manifest, you are then free to truly shepherd others.


Additional resources

To get started on the journey of confession and healing for yourself, a few books I would recommend are:
Originally posted here, October 2012

Friday, April 8, 2016

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Guidance

Not too many more of these left... here's the tenth article in my series, first published in 2012. There is a reference near the end of the articles that references the upcoming presidential election. Here we are again!

These articles were targeted initially to those who work with youth, but spiritual disciplines are necessary for everyone.

Whenever I am interviewing potential volunteers for youth ministry, I tell them a story from my early years as a way to illustrate how their decision-making processes affect their involvement in youth ministry. It goes like this:

In my second year of vocational youth ministry, I was interviewing a student at a local college who had expressed interest in volunteering. I’ll call her Kristin (not her real name.) She was a pre-med student, very earnest and energetic. One of my first questions in my interviews was some form of “What prompted you to contact us?” and she launched into an enthusiastic description of how God clearly revealed to her that serving with us was His will for her life! I didn’t need to hear any more. I believed that anyone with such conviction would be an outstanding addition to our team. She agreed to the year-long commitment with no qualms whatsoever.

After I accepted Kristin as a volunteer, I gave her our schedule of training and meetings for the year. She dove right in to relationships with students, and brought a lot of fun and energy to our weekly meetings with youth. This worked great for about six months; then Kristin started missing a meeting here and there. She was still involved, but I felt her initial urgency had waned. So I scheduled an appointment with her to see how she was doing, assuming her studies were proving to be more challenging than she anticipated.

After hearing about the “amazing” things she was learning in her classes, the conversation turned to her wavering interest with us. 

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” she said, with no real hesitation. She looked me straight in the eye and went on to describe to me that God had revealed to her that His will for her had changed, and that she needed to quit volunteering with us! The look on my face said it all.
When I recovered slightly I said, “But I thought it was ‘God’s will’ for you to serve with us?” She nodded and said simply that things had changed. I asked her how she had discerned this. She said she had been praying about it, and when she asked her friends for their opinion, they all agreed with her that God had told her His will for her had changed. I replied bluntly, “Well, my God would not tell you do to that.”

I said this mostly to get her attention. What I meant was that God wants us to be covenant people who do not flippantly agree to anything without intending to follow through. I went on to ask her to not try to spiritualize her way out of this by saying she prayed about it.

Harsh, I know! But perhaps you can sympathize. My point was (and still is) not that people are not allowed to change their minds. But to throw God under the bus and blame it on Him was just too much to take! I use the story to emphasize to volunteers that this decision is a significant one and to not make it lightly.

I pray I do not sound too cynical. I would not be writing these monthly articles on the spiritual disciplines if I did not believe with my entire being that God created us for intimacy with Himself; I do not doubt that we can hear God’s leading in our lives and gain confirmation in His calling.
In Richard Foster’s study guide written to accompany The Celebration of Discipline, he writes these powerful words regarding this month’s spiritual discipline, that of Guidance:
Guidance is the most radical of the Disciplines because it goes to the heart of this matter of walking with God. Guidance means the glorious life of hearing God’s voice and obeying His word.
That brings me to huge questions that I encounter every day with students, leaders – heck, myself!
  • How can I know God’s will for my life?
  • How will I know if I am called to do this?
  • What is the “right” decision?
  • Can I ever say that God “told” me something?

Over the years I have found many of us Christians to be far too sloppy with proclamations about what God has “told” us, or how a particular crisis was “God’s will.” Nevertheless, the appropriate response to clumsy theology is not to avoid the issues of His calling and will entirely. Rather, we can practice the spiritual disciplines I’ve written about in these past several months in order to cultivate a sense of the Spirit’s leading. Foster coaches us further in telling us that it is through collective practice with fellow believers in these disciplines that guidance proves to be the most relevant and present in our daily lives.

What does it mean to see for God’s guidance collectively? Isn’t that what Kristin did in my illustration? After all, she prayed about her decision and then consulted her friends. Foster’s book has outstanding insights on this process of discernment, and is emphatic about the corporate dimensions of this spiritual practice.

Foster references several wonderful passages from both the Old and New Testaments of believers learning to be led by God’s Spirit. He especially gives some crucial elements from Acts 13, where the early believers had been together for an extended period of time and used the disciplines of prayer, worship, and fasting to determine that Paul and Barnabas were to be sent out as missionaries. Other examples that he uses from scripture and church history are equally powerful.

My goal in these columns is to specifically address how these classic spiritual disciplines can be applied in youth ministry. Looking back, I am rather shocked at the level and amount of decisions regarding ministry that I was given at a young age. I lacked the insight and experience to discern what to do in so many situations, and I am grateful that I survived most of them rather unscathed, though not without significant impacts at times.

What I wish I had known in these early years was where to go when I needed to make some of these big decisions. Sadly, often I just told myself that I should already “know what to do,” and after a quick prayer and perhaps a scan over a few verses I found through using my concordance, I would fumble through and make a decision.

Over the years I have discovered much better ways to pursue the guidance needed to live out a soul-filled life of faith, fulfilling my calling to leadership and spiritual formation. Here are two things to think about.

My default answer has become “I don’t know” rather than “yes.”

As we are told by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount regarding our vows,  But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matthew 5:37) As I attempted to describe in my opening illustration, I have come to recognize the importance of commitments in many new ways since embarking on the path of vocational youth ministry. In other words, I must see every decision as a “vow,” and weigh my options seriously. Rather than readily say yes to everything out of enthusiasm and a desire to not “miss out” on every opportunity that comes my way, I have learned to wait as long as it takes before saying yes or no. And when I do say "yes" to something, I better have said "no" to several other things in order to fulfill my commitment.

This has been especially important as my roles have enlarged. I can tend to be overly responsible and feel I have to make a lot of decisions, often when I’m not ready. I also can measure the success of my day by how many things I have checked off my never-ending to-do lists. I have learned the hard way to not give in to my need to achieve, and be at peace about the decisions I make. I have learned how to seek the wise counsel of supervisors, pastors, spiritual directors, counselors, and experienced practitioners in youth ministry. In other words, learn how to ask for help quickly, and often.

Understand the power of accountable relationships.

In my church tradition (the Free Methodist Church) we spend a great deal of time and energy learning from John Wesley. He and his brother Charles, along with George Whitefield, gave leadership to the remarkable revivals through England in the 18th century. While they were renowned for their revolutionary open-air preaching style, many would say that true transformation came through their serious approach to accountability through small groups. There is not room to explore that fully here, but this is the context in which I believe the spiritual discipline of guidance is experienced most powerfully with others. Their small groups (known as “bands”) started with one simple question each week: “How is it with your soul?” From there, as trust grew among members, they explored other profound accountability questions. (Go here for ideas on how to build small groups like these.) It is imperative that you have this sort of support and accountability if you are to live a sustainable life of faith and service.

As we approach this presidential election, pundits are expecting the race to be close. Amazingly, the winner may emerge (as has been the case in previous years) with only a 51% majority. This should not be the case with believers when it comes to the decisions and commitments of our lives. To paraphrase Richard Foster,
Believers have dared to live on the basis of Spirit-rule; no 51% vote, no compromises, but Spirit-directed unity. It works.
May we learn to not go it alone in our service and leadership. Pray to God for direction on how to lead out of Spirit-filled guidance.

The original article was published here.