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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.