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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.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

"City of Gold" - The Future is Now

I have just come home from one of those all-too-rare experiences: I went to the movies by myself. I barely go to the movies as it is, so what got me to do that?

I had read some truly glowing reviews of this documentary, City of Gold, but unlike most movie reviews, something clicked for me and I thought to myself, I want to see this if it comes out here. It is about Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times. Admittedly, that doesn't sound super compelling, right? But something piqued my attention and I went with it. I noticed that it was showing in one of our smaller theaters this weekend, where movies screen for about 5 days before they disappear, so I jumped on the opportunity.

I'm glad I went with my gut. Simply put, I absolutely loved this film. I chuckled at multiple points, and caught myself just smiling at several other vignettes and scenes. I cannot think of one thing that could be improved. Certainly, it is understated in pace and cinematography -- for one thing, it's a documentary, so no special effects here! But it tells a marvelous story, not really just of a portly food critic, but of the city of Los Angeles for the last few decades. This film captures the wonder and complexity of Southern CA in a way I have never seen.

At multiple points you will want to reach out and grab the food he is eating... We get a mouth-watering feast (forgive the pun) of sights and sounds as he eats Persian, Thai, Mexican, Salvadoran, Korean and Ethiopian cuisine.. His affection for the food and for those who prepare it is palpable. As one chef said, there is no food reviewer with greater empathy.

One of my favorite quotes from Gold: "The idea of celebrating the glorious mosaic of the city on somebody else's dime... I kept feeling like I was getting away with something."

I think this begins to capture why this film was so enjoyable for me. Los Angeles (and so much of California) IS a glorious mosaic, and the mind reels at the many peoples and languages living there on top of one another. But in the midst of seeing the beautiful meals that Gold eats, we also hear stories of how people's lives are changed by making good food and by Gold then reviewing them positively. Steadily, the film moved from enjoyable to moving as we went through the various neighborhoods, many of which I recognized. Gold is described by many as having been an advocate for them, speaking up for their food before anyone else did. And as a result, ushering so many people into new worlds and cultures.

One of the reviews stated that City of Gold "provides a telling insight into multicultural society..." That was what was so profound for me as I watched. This is much of what I am devoting my life to these days, wading through the various struggles and small victories that come with trying to bridge cultural and social divides. Some days it seems like there is nothing I would rather do, and other days it feels so complex.

Recently I heard Soong Chan Rah, an esteemed sociologist, pastor and theologian, define a profound shift in Christendom: in 1900, 83% of Christians were in Europe or North America (Caucasian) and thus 17% were non-white; in 2005... get this: 40% of Christians were Caucasian, and 60%were non-white! The projections for 2050 are that Christians will be 29% white and 71% other races. And these statistics are not just descriptive of the church. This is what is unfolding in the world, as the Global South is explodes in population and commerce, and the West declines in population and power. As we are seeing every day in the news, these shifts are tumultuous and terrifying for many.

So what I saw in City of Gold was not just a lovely film about the diversity of crazy ol' Los Angeles; what I saw was a picture of our future. And it thrilled me!

How I pray that the church will not just embrace, but lead the way in bridging the divides among us. This new reality is not something to fear! So many times in church and at conferences I have heard Revelation 7:9 held up as a vision of promise:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 

Yet we do not talk enough about the blood, sweat and tears, day after day, year after year, that it will take to usher in this eternal hope. I do not want to give too much away, but there is an especially dear scene at the end of the film that captures the divides that still exist. One can tell that Gold wants to do his small part to bring neighbors together. I pray we will each do the same.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Submission

I have posted 8 of these articles here, originally written in 2012 for the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and have 4 left. Re-reading each one of these is a humbling reminder of how much I still have to learn about "living into the depths," as Richard Foster calls it.

Just a reminder that these were originally targeted toward youthworkers in the church. But all of us need to grow in spiritual disciplines.... right?

Lastly: in the midst of this year's election insanity, I love reading again about the transformative power of submission. As Trump keeps declaring that we need to "win again," I will think of the downward mobility and call of the true Christian life.


As I write this I am finding myself sucked in, day by day, to the Summer Olympics of 2012. If I’m not careful, I find myself watching sports I have never cared about (or even heard of!), simply because I LOVE the heat of competition. Don’t we all? How many times have we been with students and jumped right in as they create bloodsport out of seemingly harmless games like Slug Bug or Foursquare? The human propensity for competition at all costs is evident in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel (further immortalized by Steinbeck in his magnum opus East of Eden), seen in classic films like Gladiator, and glorified in countless other myths, fables and stories.

My morning devotions often include some time reading through Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, written by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Shane Claiborne, and Enuma Okoro. A recent reading touches on a remarkable example of competition:
Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was born to a noble Spanish family. As a young man, he joined the military, but a war injury ended his military career. While recuperating, Ignatius became bored and asked for novels about knights and battles. But all that could be found in the castle where he stayed were books on the life of Christ and the saints of the church. Legend has it that Ignatius read these stories in a competitive manner, imagining how he could beat the various saints at practicing the spiritual disciplines. He soon found that his thoughts on the saints left him with more peaceful and satisfied feelings than his daydreams about the noble life he had known before his injury. After his illness, Ignatius began practicing his competitive notions of rivaling the saints, and wrote about his experiences of Christian disciplines. His scribblings became the spiritual classic The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, used by Christians for centuries in the practice of discernment. 
I smiled as I tried to picture competing with the ancient saints in the practice of spiritual disciplines, imagining what a strenuous and crazy endeavor that would be! Nevertheless, as I write this ninth in a series of twelve articles on spiritual disciplines for youthworkers, I want to use this opportunity to remind you (and myself) that the pursuit of spiritual disciplines is not yet another burden to add to the pile of so many other “to-dos” in your life. Spiritual disciplines are not something to “excel” or compete in, but instead are great gifts learned from the faithful throughout church history as ways to grow in our eternal intimacy with Christ. As Richard Foster reminds us in The Celebration of Discipline,
The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm… We must not be led to believe that the Discipline are only for spiritual giants and hence beyond our reach… far from it. God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings.
I bring up competition because I find myself most confronted in my tendency to jockey for position in this month’s spiritual discipline, that of submission. While every single one of the disciplines provides its own challenges, Foster tells us “of all the Spiritual Disciplines none has been more abused than the Discipline of submission. Somehow the human species has an extraordinary knack for taking the best teaching and turning it to the worst ends.” He goes on to point out that we can err in making a discipline an end in and of itself, rather than understanding that it is simply a tool to gain more freedom in Christ: “They are not the answer; they only lead us to the Answer.”

Submission is such a great challenge because it addresses my deep need to get my own way, because for me, getting my own way means that I “win.” Yet I am continually humbled by the realization that most of life is not about “success” or “winning” or “being the best.” In Christ, we are called to something entirely different:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
Don’t forget that self-denial does not permit loss of identity, self-contempt, or abuse, and that is where Foster has some harsh words for “a mutilated form of biblical submission.” Instead, he reminds us that in God’s gracious economy, self-denial actually leads to self-fulfillment, as described in the next verse of Mark 8:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35)
This is where I believe the gospel has the most impact, in addressing head-on the American notions of greatness and power. Foster states it succinctly: counter-intuitively, as followers of Jesus Christ, “Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all.” This has been the greatest challenge for me, yet also the deepest joy, in being a youthworker. We can only persevere in this calling as we learn to delight in the success of others. That requires ongoing pursuit of the spiritual discipline of submission.

In my early years I got “hooked” on youth ministry by seeing how much fun it was to directly touch the lives of students, be the “star” up front as I spoke at a camp, and lead singing in front of a crowd of hundreds. Such ego builders! Thankfully, a mentor named Stan Beard transformed my life when he taught me that true joy actually comes when I get to the point of investing in volunteers and younger staff, then feeling the satisfaction of seeing them excel. In fact, he said I should physically feel it in my gut as my soul wells up in love and spirit-filled pride to witness their development.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that my flesh would fight against this. Sure, as the years went on I pushed for my interns to take the reins of various projects and programs, but found myself inwardly envying the attention they received. Rather than want the success of others to exceed our own, I discovered I would still rather have the limelight. It is only in pursuing Jesus and his calling to mutual submission that I started to be set free to pour into others most fully.

Two Scripture passages have challenged me most in this regard:

Be like Jesus. As it says in Philippians 2:5, Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” who knew that being God himself was not a privilege he could cling to. Instead, he knew that he needed to leave the comfort of his world and enter the world of others. As we are told in the verses immediately preceding, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (verses 3-4) What I love most about these words are their authenticity; we are not to utterly ignore our own needs, but rather “take an interest in others, too.” In other words, don’t be a selfish pig! The Holy Spirit will teach us how to put others first and actually enjoy it. This is utterly crucial to our own spiritual formation as the years go on.

Seek after submission in every relationship. I find the most comprehensive description of submission to be in Ephesians 5, where Paul gives this thesis statement: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (vs. 21),” then going on to describe the implications of this mutual submission for wives, husbands, parents, children, employers and employees. In my own journey, once I started submitting to the needs of my volunteer leaders and the parents of my students, I was humbled to realize that I still fought for my own way with my family, my colleagues, and even my friends! Yikes. In the last few years I have also grown in understanding the importance of submission to the poor and oppressed. Instead of feeling sorry for the homeless and the panhandler, I pray to have the eyes of Christ and see them as he does. Like me, they are created in the imago dei, the image of God, and they are my neighbors. I cannot be selective in whom I submit to, only deferring to or serving those I respect and like. Invite the Spirit to open your eyes to opportunities to submit in ways that will continue to bring you to the knees of the Lord.

One last thought: the act of submission becomes tricky in understanding its limits. Foster does a great job expanding on this, and I recommend you to his book for a fuller explanation. I will only mention that when it comes to situations where authority is abusive or destructive, we must act with wisdom and discernment. Our highest calling is to submit to the authority of God; beyond that, we must be prayerful and seek wise counsel in how and to whom we submit. (I've learned this lesson the hard way...)

Like all spiritual disciplines, that of submission is the practice of a lifetime. None of us will ever master it. As it says in Hebrews 10:24, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…” Surround yourself with others who desire to take up the cross of Christ and live a submissive life, and enjoy the incredible fruits of intimacy with Christ in new ways.

Article originally posted here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Spring has Sprung and a New Recipe Must Come!

Perhaps not the most poetic of blog post titles, but it makes my point... I had a few lovely vegetables sitting in my crisper and a bit of "hmmm... what to do, what to do..." buzzing through my head around 5pm. Then I looked through my saved recipes from Vegetarian Times and VOILA! This one popped out at me. I made a few small adjustments and I will brag share that dinner was mighty delicious!

Admittedly, I put leeks in the category of "grown-up" vegetables, as in, I did not willingly eat a leek (or, fill in the blank.... cauliflower, bok choy, fennel, turnip, beet, brussels sprouts...) until I was well into my 30's. But NOW I glory in such vegetables! Call me crazy, call me boring, but I prefer to call myself HEALTHY. Yessiree!

Decide for yourself, but I believe this recipe to be a keeper. And I have enough leftovers for lunch tomorrow. #ftw


Serves 4

30 minutes or fewer to prepare
Though taken from Vegetarian Times, I imagine this would also be delicioso with a bit of chorizo or bacon. Just sayin'...

1 Tbs. olive oil
3 medium leeks, trimmed, halved, and chopped (6 cups) I used 2 leeks and 3 stalks of celery
1 shallot (my addition)
1 yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced (1 cup)
2 Tbs. minced fresh thyme, divided
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes I used chipotle pepper powder
½ cup low-sodium vegetable broth
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
1 16-oz. tube prepared polenta, cut into 12 slices (or prepared from a box of polenta)
2 oz. crumbled aged chèvre (½ cup) I chose to use fresh mozzarella. Good choice.

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat oil in ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks, bell pepper, 1 Tbs. thyme, and red pepper flakes; sauté 10 minutes. Stir in broth and garlic.

2. Arrange polenta slices over leek mixture in skillet; top with crumbled chèvre and remaining 1 Tbs. thyme. 
Bake 10 minutes, or until chèvre (cheese) softens.