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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Service

When I first read Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, I was surprised to find out that the work of service is considered a classic spiritual discipline. This helped me to reframe the whole concept of service: if I approach service the way I approach prayer, then I see how service is not only an act to care for others, but also something that will cause me to know God better.

Remember, these articles were initially written to guide vocational youth ministry leaders in how to pursue their jobs over time. Nevertheless, my hope is that the thoughts given here apply to each of us. The original article was posted here.

Thanks for reading. Hope it's a blessing to you.

This is the eighth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
One of the most challenging moments in my career came at my 10 year high school reunion. At that point I was working for Young Life as an Area Director. I had become a Christian through the ministry of Young Life in Northern California, and was well known by my peers in high school as an active member. I moved down to Santa Barbara for college, and started serving as a Young Life volunteer leader during my senior year. After graduating as an English major and getting a job as an editor, I continued as a volunteer for another year and was then asked to come on Young Life staff. Since I was supervising other staff, running six clubs and overseeing fifty volunteers, I considered this a “real job” and a fulfilling one at that! But imagine my horror when we were standing around at my reunion, catching up on each other’s lives, and when I was asked what I was doing now, was greeted with, “Wait, you’re STILL in Young Life?? Isn’t that just for high school kids?!” I felt demeaned and disrespected, but had no quick comeback to defend myself.
Unfortunately, it did not get much better when I first became a youth pastor. When asked where I worked and I said, “the church,” people would pause and slowly say, “Um, like you’re…a nun?” Laughter would ensue, and I would explain that, no, I was not a nun, but a youth pastor. I’m sad to say that the confusion didn’t stop there. More questions like, “OK, so that’s on Sundays, but what do you do the rest of the week?” would follow. Initially I was shocked and even hurt by such questions that seemed to imply that I had some sort of pseudo-job and needed to grow up and get a real one.
Despite these somewhat scarring experiences, once I grew up a bit and stopped being so defensive, and realized that times like these were great opportunities to change people’s understanding of the role and calling of the youth pastor, I started having some fun with it. I would joke about being “professionaly holy,” and then help people understand that my workweek was actually very similar to that of many other people. I had to return a lot of phone calls, send zillions of emails, manage budgets, meet with “clients” (parents, students, leaders), go to staff meetings, travel for work (AKA camp!), plan events, keep office hours…you get the picture. It was fun to help people see that in many ways pastors are normal people.
However, while there are many “normal” and “typical” aspects to our jobs, there is one part that I think is a truly humbling and sometimes difficult challenge. Since our job—the way we make our living—is to serve, I have found that it can be far too easy to approach that service without a sacrificial spirit. Even worse, I have often fallen into the habit of relying more on my expertise and routines than on God!
Let me give an example. As a young and earnest youth ministry volunteer, before I left for camp I would diligently invite my friends at Bible study to pray for my students as we headed off. Personally, I would spend time thinking about what I wanted to talk to each student about during the week. Significantly, I would also have to give up a precious week of vacation to go to camp, and happily choose to make that sacrifice.
Years later, as the one who was paid to run the camp, it became far less of a ministry moment and much more of a giant project to manage with many moving parts. Rather than delighting in the joy and privilege of serving my Lord and Savior, sometimes I would just go through the motions to get a giant to-do list completed.
It saddens me to see those words in print. If I have learned anything in these decades of youth ministry, it is that service to Christ is a stunning and remarkable privilege. I am amazed that He allows us to participate—He could get so much more done without our bumbling efforts! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1, Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. Powerful stuff! The second I think I am doing God a favor by serving Him, I have completely lost perspective. I am the one who benefits most by serving, regardless of how many times I am asked to complete the task, because everything done in His name helps to shape me for eternity.
Richard Foster, in his devotional classic The Celebration of Discipline, says this about service:
If true service is to be understood and practiced, it must be distinguished clearly from “self-righteous service.” Self-righteous service comes through human effort… True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside. We serve out of whispered promptings, divine urgings. 
He goes on further to say that "self-righteous service" requires external rewards, is highly concerned with results, is affected by moods and emotions, is insensitive and fractures community. Yikes! How can we avoid that?? Foster makes a masterful delineation between “choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.” To choose to serve is to remain in charge, whereas choosing to be a servant gives up the right to be in charge. This teaches me that service is not an action, but a way of life. Consider these words:
Devotion is not a passing emotion—it is a fixed, enduring habit of mind, permeating the whole life, and shaping every action. It rests upon a conviction that God is the Sole Source of Holiness, and that our part is to lean upon Him and be absolutely guided and governed by Him; and it necessitates an abiding hold on Him, a perpetual habit of listening for His Voice within the heart, as of readiness to obey the dictates of that Voice. —Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803)
This quote says it all. All of my service, regardless of whether it is done “voluntarily” or as part of my employment, needs to flow from a deep-seated reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, Grou’s words sum up the entire reason for these 12 articles on spiritual disciplines for youthworkers. All of our work—one-on-one times with students, car wash fundraisers, weeks at camp, Bible studies, wacky events, seminars for parents, meetings to plan events, staff meetings, crises — MUST flow from what Grou describes perfectly as “a conviction that God is the Sole Source of Holiness,” and that we can do nothing out of our own power. Unfortunately, the longer we keep at youth ministry and the more experience we gain can lead us into the temptation of self-reliance. But if we see each day as a new way to depend on Jesus, and that he will reliably supply enough “manna” for each day, we can grow in ways we never dreamed possible, becoming more and more like Him through the transforming power of His love and salvation.
Thus our main “job” is that of knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Out of this intimacy, our humble, Spirit-filled service can flow. Ironically, I have found that the best ways to sustain this is by doing the very things I did in my earliest, most na├»ve years of youth ministry that I described earlier:

Invite others to pray for you.

Do not take yourself too seriously. Let others whom you know and trust to walk with you in your work. Over the years I have sat with so many youthworkers who suffer deeply from isolation. Much of this is a difficult by-product of our work, but we can deal with it if we take the time to pursue colleagues and friends who “get it.”

Be diligent in setting aside time to engage in what you are doing.

Never allow yourself to “phone it in” or take a “been there, done that” attitude. I reflect on those early years, where I would set aside a few hours to pray and think through what each of my students needed from their week at camp. Why would I ever stop doing that? Yet going to camp year after year had a tendency to make me complacent. So I have worked hard to spend time preparing for camp with my newest leaders. Their excitement is contagious and always reminds me of the privilege of working with young people.

Sacrifice. Stretch.

Though I still spend the bulk of my service working with students, I have sought out ways to serve that are not connected to my role as a youth pastor. Currently, once a month I go with my weekly Bible study (an amazing group of adults whom I love living life with) to do laundry with the homeless. We call it “Laundry Love,” and over the past several months have built some lovely friendships with these folks as we bring rolls of quarters and detergent to a Laundromat and visit with them as they then wash their sleeping bags, blankets and clothing. This ministry is a challenge for me because it is outside of my “expertise” as a youthworker. But it is also reveals to me that I still have a lot to learn.
I pray that each of us will seek, for the rest of our days, to pursue this spiritual discipline of service, paying attention to the Other deep inside.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/service-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.zJ045ATI.dpuf

Monday, December 7, 2015

Stuff You Might Use 12-7-15

If you're anything like me, I am constantly trying to stay on top a never-ending pile of emails, plus a lot of saved bookmarks related to resources and articles that might pertain to things I am working on. They all pile up, and sometimes I just erase everything, with some regrets.

As an early Christmas present, here's a shortcut for you to save a little time, with no regrets. These are 4 quick resources that might serve you and your work in some way...

Families and Digital Media - A Live Panel. Led by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), here is an hour-long conversation about managing the screens of your family. Honest in their struggles and questions, I found this useful in that it just acknowledged the fuzzy boundaries we all face.

Schools Can't Stop Kids from Sexting - New York Times. This came out in November after there was a large group of students at a Colorado high school who apparently participated in some sort of photo sexting group. Both of these links put words to our struggles as we work with and/or parent young people, and perhaps give a few useful guidelines.

Gallup's Theme Thursdays. If you've spent any time with me, I will drop a comment or ten about Strengths Finder. While it's not a sacred text, I have found Strengths Finder to be a useful tool for building self-awareness, team dynamics and recruiting. This little gem of a link gives you access to podcasts related to the 34 Strengths. I have listened to each one from my Top Five, and have listened to a bunch of others in order to understand how to best encourage and give direction to those I am working with.

New Research on the State of Discipleship - The Barna Group. I will be the first to admit that sometimes I find Barna research on the church to be less than useful. But occasionally they provide some feedback on topics and issues that shed some light on things I am working on and praying about. I recommend you spend some time on this one -- it made me think about the vocabulary of spiritual formation these days, and also how we tend to pursue this on our own rather than with others. This one was helpful to me, and perhaps a little sobering.

In the midst of stunningly bad news from around the world, I found encouragement and hope in these verses from Hosea today. Do not give up. Press on:

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth. 
(Hosea 6:3)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Fasting

I've posted half of the twelve articles here that were first released in 2013 on cymt.org. The original for this post is found here.

Spiritual Disciplines Series: FASTING

I have set many goals in my life—here are a few: learn biblical Greek, visit all the national parks with snow-capped mountains (I like alpine peaks), read everything written by C.S. Lewis, learn to cook well…some were easier to realize than others. But one goal I have never set for myself is this one: learn the spiritual discipline of fasting. I mean, really. Sure, it sounds godly to grow in prayer, or service, or worship. But fasting just sounded miserable to me!
Enough of true confessions. I’m here to tell you that I was flat out wrong. While there is nothing easy about fasting, it can reap profound benefits. Nevertheless, I will also admit to you that of the twelve classic disciplines examined by Richard Foster in his devotional classic Celebration of Discipline, fasting is by far the one with which I have the least experience. In fact, I am humbled to be writing about how to do it as a youthworker, because I still have so much to learn about it myself.
That being said, I still want to share a few things I have come to realize so far. First of all, it is something referred to with great frequency throughout scripture, but with surprisingly little explanation. It just seems to be a given that people yearning to know God better would practice fasting. As Foster says,
The list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Many of the the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnesses to its value; among them were Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney and Pastor Hsi of China. 
Importantly, let’s not forget that fasting is not exclusively a Christian discipline. As Foster reminds us, “all the major religions of the world recognize its merit.”
OK, this sounds persuasive, you may be saying. But in the next breath you might be mumbling, “But what exactly is fasting?” We can start by defining what it is not. It is not a hunger strike, which is done to gain political power or attract attention. It is also not dieting, which is done for health purposes. Biblical fasting centers on spiritual purposes.
Let’s get more specific; Foster again is very helpful: “In Scripture the normal means of fasting involves abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water.” However, there is also seen in scripture what could be called a “partial fast,” which is a restriction of diet (a good example described in Daniel 10).
Unlike the hunger strike and a typical health-related diet, spiritual fasting is usually a private matter between the individual and God; then again, there are great examples in Scripture of group fasting (Joel 2:152 Chronicles 20:1-15Ezra 8:21-23) usually done in case of emergency or to gain spiritual focus for a serious problem. Fasting has also been practiced consistently by monastics, and even by John Wesley, who urged Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, per the instructions of the Didache, an ancient Christian text from the first century.
While all of these examples might be convicting to your soul, it is worth noting that “there are simply no biblical laws that command regular fasting.” (Foster) Nevertheless, I want to commend fasting to you as a youthworker. To do so, I must share what I have so far found to be the most significant (and humbling) lesson gained from fasting, again from Richard Foster: “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” While I have fasted from food here and there over the years, usually in a group situation to focus in prayer over an important decision or crisis, I have mostly practiced fasting in other ways. I have found fasting from certain things to be crucial to my own spiritual growth at many junctures in my journey, and it has helped me to persevere in a career in which so many burn out.
To illustrate, here are three examples:

Fasting from words

Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, author and scholar who died in 1996, has taught me the most about this (find his slim classic The Way of the Heart if you would like to learn more). To fast from words is also to practice the profound spiritual discipline of silence. Arsenius, an early desert father, says it best:
I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent. 
In other words, we have become a noisy culture, and in many ways words have lost their creative, uplifting power. Instead, words have become so cheap and overused, and more often used as forces of destruction and sin. As it says in Psalm 39:1, “I said, ‘I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.’” To fast for a day, or perhaps even longer, from speaking, can have profound effect. After a fast of silence, I am always reminded not only of how casual and sloppy I can be in my speech, but worse, of how little I truly seek to listen, both to God and to others.
Working with teenagers can be a noisy business. They are often so talkative, they love their music loud, and have grown up in a world of 24/7 news, music, internet, and cable. As youthworkers we are sucked into that cacophony of overstimulation. To pursue a fast from words (and this usually means being alone, too!) is to cultivate the soil of your heart and mind in some powerful ways. In silence I have learned so much about the “still, small voice of God” and about my own fear of being quiet. Yet in those times of spirit-filled calm, I have learned how to face those things I have been running from, and find that He is right there with me.

Fasting from technology

In some ways this could be considered part two of what I just described. If fasting from words brings us into silence, we must then consider fasting from the source of much of our noise, which is technology. During one season of Lent in years past, I fasted from all technology after dinner. As mentioned earlier, fasting itself reveals the things that control us, and while I had a sense that I flirted with addiction to email, I had no idea how deep the compulsion ran until I gave it up each day. While the first days were challenging, within the first week I discovered the beauty of reading again, of a full night’s sleep, and get this… the power of boredom! While I do not want to get bored every day, an occasional evening or even a day of aimlessness, in a life that is absolutely chock full of people, activities, and to-do lists, can be amazingly liberating to my spirit. Try it for yourself.

Fasting from spending

How did I come to practice this discipline? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment—movies, books, music, eating out, and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry, friends). This took a third out of my budget!
Let’s be clear—I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I was now recognizing how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already.
Needless to say, I had more free time since I wasn’t busying myself as I had previously. I enjoyed quality time in conversation (rather than consumption) with friends and students. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity—they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! The only way we can really address the materialism we see in most of our students is to wean ourselves from it first.
I have not done a very good job of exploring the actual practice of fasting from food for spiritual purposes. If you would like to learn more about that, I commend Foster’s book to you. Regardless, I will end with his thoughts on the benefits of the spiritual discipline of fasting:
Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/fasting-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.GKLJsExi.dpuf