Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arizona Adventures. Part 1: The Road Trip

About a week ago we loaded up a few vans, piled in some high school students, and headed east to the land of deserts, and heat and Steve Nash. That’s right, we went to the AZ. It had been a while since I’d driven for so long and I was reminded of the many reasons why I like road trips. You get to deal with back pain, people getting car sick, high way patrol officers, and… did I mention people getting car sick? Yep, road trips are awesome. One thing is for certain, though: no matter what happens, a road trip is always an adventure.

I think one of the simplest things a road trip does is remind you of all the analogies you can make between traveling and life. There are some great songs that tie in this idea too. For starters, there are country songs like, Life is a Highway. Or classic rock ballads like Journey’s hit, Wheel in the Sky. And then there are Lady Gaga songs…well, I don’t really learn anything from her songs; they just end up creeping me out like clowns and trips to the dentist. Anyways, I think at the core, a road trip reminds us of something we already know to be true: where we started is not where we will end up. Our road trip began in Downey, and a few hours later we ended up in Blythe (gross) and then finally found beautiful Prescott. A road trip reminds us that the same is true for life. We are constantly on the move, preparing for the next part of our journey. Where we started is far behind us, and the future is closing in on us. Our lives are filled with the memories of the roads we’ve traveled, and the pit stops we’ve made.

Interestingly, our youth group’s summer theme this year is “Join the Journey.” We’ve been talking about how every person is on a spiritual journey and how God is revealing himself to creation. (And, coincidentally, we went on a mini journey to Arizona, and listened to a lot of Journey music to help us truly realize this theme. Everyone loves Journey, right!?) I believe Scripture teaches us that every person, no matter what, is on this spiritual journey and is being made aware of His presence. We, then, have a choice to make: How will we respond to Him? We’ve asked our kids some tough questions this summer like, “Where are you really at in this journey with God?” Do you feel you are trying to follow God’s path, or are you following your own? And, will you follow God even when things don’t go the way you’ve planned?” Needless to say, it has produced some very honest and candid conversations. Out on the open road, I was reminded of this truth over and over again. As I sat in this driver’s seat and watched the miles add up, I couldn’t help but wonder “where is my life heading? What kind of adventure am I writing with the miles I travel?’

In his book, Western Theology, Wes Seeliger says that there are two types of people who give rise to two types of theology. You are either a “pioneer” or a “settler.” You either view life as a possession to be guarded, or a gift to be explored. A settler is someone who desires security. They build fortresses, establish towns complete with court rooms and law offices, and construct forts. A settler is a person who establishes themselves, and dares not to move. They protect themselves from danger and make sure they uphold the rules. A pioneer on the other hand, is someone who blazes trails. They aren’t content with building monuments, but would rather explore the unknown. They don’t spend time building systems to protect themselves from outside forces; rather, they are out in the wilderness, confronting and facing danger head on. Think about it: are you a settler or a pioneer? Is your life an adventure to be lived and experienced or something to be guarded and kept tame? Truthfully, I probably act more like a settler at times, but in the deepest parts of my soul I desire to be a pioneer. I don’t want to accept something just because someone says it’s so. Likewise, I don’t want to secure my life just because it’s easier. I want to be in the wilderness. I want to face the open road. I want my journey to be marked by reckless abandon, and ruthless trust in God’s leading, not my own.

I guess it comes down to a choice on how I want to view my life. Comfort is a nice thing to have in your lazy boy chair, but a lousy thing to settle for as a follower of Christ. I have to remind myself that Jesus didn’t come to make my life comfortable. He came to invite me on a journey. He tells me that sometimes this journey will be unsafe and dangerous. And he invites me to live like a pioneer, a traveler who is not afraid to face the open road. A road trip reminds us that we are travelers, apart of an epic journey. We are not the same people we were when our journey began, and we won’t be the same when our journey ends. We already know the beginning and end of our story (you know the whole creation and heaven thing). The middle, though, is left up to us. And I for one want to go on more road trips.

Friday, July 9, 2010

To Stay or Leave: what I learned from Bron Bron.

It was the most highly anticipated free agency ever. Where would “King” James choose to go next season? It was funny because all I had to do last Thursday was say, “is it 6:00pm yet?” and everyone knew what I was talking about—even people who don’t watch basketball were tuned into the news. It was that big a deal.

Here's the truth: I am biased. I am a Lebron James fan (this doesn't mean I will ever sport a Heat jersey). I believe he was the undisputed MVP this past year. Yes, his team didn’t make it the finals; and yes, he had a rough series against the Celtics, but he was and still is incredible. I am biased because I love watching Bron Bron. We are the same age (even though he looks like he is like he’s in his late thirties; not the youthful twenty-five that he is). I remember the first time I saw Lebron. I was an eighteen year old preparing myself for four years of college; Lerbron was entering into the NBA. The first time I saw him play was at the McDonald’s All American Game. There were tons of people there, and a myriad of good players that year, but no one cared. All eyes were on Lebron. Truth be told, they still are.

I guess that’s why he shook the nation Thursday, declaring where he’d play next season. The gauntlet was dropped that evening when he announced he would no longer play for his home state’s team, the Cavs, but would instead, sign with the Miami Heat. In Cleveland mayhem ensued. Grown men cried in the streets, the GM of the Cavs reacted like a jealous girlfriend who just got dumped via Facebook and reamed Lebron with hate speech, and let’s not forget the biggest crush: a city’s heart was broken. Who knew the departure of a professional athlete could cause such despondency? Seriously, there was more crying Thursday than the night of the season finale of Friends. There was sadness in Ohio, but move a few miles to the south (South Beach to be exact) and people were dancing in the streets. And everywhere else in the country, well, the reaction seems to be mixed. A superstar joining a trio of great players is not as sweet a story as a local kid making his hometown great. I think there was a part in all of us that wanted him to stay. But what did we really expect from Lebron? It brings up an interesting point, and perhaps even a theological one: when is it right to stay, and when is it right to go?

I know what it’s like to have someone you respect and care about leave. Undoubtedly, we’ve all experienced the sting when someone leaves us whether it’s a teacher, coach, pastor, or loved one. Let’s be honest. There is pain involved. We may feel betrayed, abandoned, and not important. We question the individual’s loyalty and motives, and usually, we respond to their exodus with anger. I remember suffering a stint of fleeing youth pastors in middle school and high school, many of whom only stayed for a short while. After about a year they scattered quickly, like a dog when he hears the sound of the evil vacuum cleaner. It was rough for me personally and also for my church and youth group. Certainly, you communicate a lot to an organization and the people in your life with the amount of time you give them. The quantity of time truly communicates the care you have for them. But like in Lebron’s situation, does there come a time when it is right to leave? It’s difficult to answer this question when you’ve been “left” but if the situation is reversed, you may understand the importance of moving on.

Seven years ago when Lebron was signing with the Cavaliers, I was signing loan documents to attend college. While Lebron put on a Cav’s jersey and signed his multi-million dollar contract, I moved away from family and friends to start a new life in California. Even as an eighteen year old fresh out of high school, I knew wasn’t going back. I knew I had to leave. It was on my heart, and it was the direction God was calling me to go. Leaving the people you love and the security of what you’ve known is an arduous task to say the least. It is not a pain-free path to go down. However, in hindsight, I know it was the only option that I could live with. Henri Nouwen explains in his book Here and Now, that following Jesus is really an adventure in leaving. He asks the question:

“Are we able and willing to unhook ourselves from the restraining emotional bonds that prevent us from following our deepest vocation? Jesus wants to set us free, free from everything that prevents us from fully following our vocation…to come to that freedom we have to keep leaving our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and dare to follow him…”

Do we dare to follow Him even if it means we have to leave? Even if that means the people around us will be upset, and feel betrayed? Can we live with the disapproval of our peers and the ambivalence of our emotions (wanting to stay and knowing we need to go) in order to pursue what is best? Jesus challenges us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and the necessity of “leaving” in order to attain the life he came to give us (Luke 18:29-30). That is a tough pill to swallow. But even in the difficulty of knowing when to stay and when to leave, there is hope. At the end of the day, we have to live with our decisions. Lebron said Cleveland will always have his soul. He gave them seven years of his life. He is not betraying a city, he is following his heart. That is something no one can judge him for.

We may never fully understand the reasons people need to leave in our lives. Likewise, we may also not fully comprehend those reasons when we’re the ones to leave! The truth is, however, that there is a time to stay and a time to go. It sounds cliché, and is probably worded more poetically and eloquently in that series about love and vampires and werewolves, but there is a time to listen to your heart. God gave us the ability to do so for a reason. We can’t fault Bron Bron for making the choice to leave. In life, there is a time to stay and a time to leave. We all have to make that choice eventually.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fields of Gold

Every once in a while you hear a song that speaks to a deeper part of you. Words aren’t enough to describe the feelings; you just know something is happening in your soul. One of these songs for me is Fields of God. This song is a little old school, so I will attach a link for you to check it out--Fields of God. The song was written by a creative, English gent named Sting. I like Sting. He has one of those unique voices that you couldn’t copy, even if you moved to England to develop an accent, and owned a karaoke machine. He is one the few artists that can take me to another world when he is singing. Regardless of what I am doing, I get lost in his music. Besides his incredible voice, his songs tell stories.

A couple years ago I was heading to Arizona with my wife and family, driving across the desert to her aunt’s house in Prescott. Not to bash on the AZ, but I’d visited several times before and left unimpressed. I even wrote a poem below:


It was hot

There was sand

There were cacti

And Steve Nash


We’d been driving for what seemed like forever in road trip time, and I was cramped in the back of a mini van… and my legs were restless. (I’m pretty sure I have some mild form of restless leg syndrome.) To say the least, I was ready to be done with the road trip thing. I decided to get lost in some tunes. I put my headphones on, closed my eyes and let the i-pod do its magic. After some time, the song Fields of Gold started to play. Around the same time, our minivan traveled around a canyon of some sorts, and to the right side I saw fields of yellow grass, gracefully bowing to the wind. The cinematography was impeccable, almost like it was a movie. I had a moment in the back of the mini van, listening to Sting, watching this field of gold sway to the rhythm of the music. Arizona was beautiful when Sting was singing to me.

This memory stuck with me for some time. I was reminded of it recently when I went to Barnes and Noble. Inside the everything-is-only-$5-section, I found a book written by Sting, explaining the meaning of many of his songs. Immediately, I turned to the index and found Fields of Gold. I turned to the page to read the lyrics, and Sting’s brief commentary. He said he used to watch tall, golden barley stocks sway in the wind in his countryside home in England. He said it was poetic, like the sky was telling a story to the golden barley field that it would never forget: earth and sky participating in a great love affair, touched by the heavens. I believe the song is about more than Sting’s affinity for agriculture; it’s a tale of love.

The mystery of love is that the heart has the capacity to give it and receive it in great quantities. Moreover, love has the capacity to change people. One of the peculiarities of love is the propensity of it to come and go. In this journey of life we love and lose, and give and take. Heart-break occurs and futures change. It’s almost like the inevitable pain of young romance, prepares us to love more deeply and more truly one day. It makes you wonder, though, if there could be a love affair so pure and so strong that it gets trapped somewhere between heaven and earth.

At my wedding, I watched my beautiful bride walk down the aisle—our eyes, fixated on one another. We danced at our reception, swaying to the music, caught up in the story of us. I had a great uncle and aunt who attended the wedding. They’d been married for over 50 years. The entire guest list cheered wildly when they were announced as the longest married couple in the room. Everyone loves a good love story because it points us to something deeper than the temporary. Great love stories never go to the grave; they live on in our world, reminding us of its great gift.

One of the lines from Fields of Gold describes the sun in the jealous sky. That line has always haunted me. I know my days are numbered, and as the Bible says, my life is but a blade of grass, a vapor that will quickly vanish. After a few years, my body will decay and disappear. Give it a few more years and my pictures will slowly come off the walls of family and friend’s homes. My memory will be relegated to a cardboard box in someone’s garage. But I believe a part of me will live on—that part of me that beheld love. I may pass on many things to those who come after me: old t-shirts, a guitar, a few dozen books…maybe even one of my Star Wars Pez dispensers. But the only truly meaningful memory I will leave behind is the memory of love. Hopefully, those who knew me best will remember my love and that will bless them. No matter how jealous the days will be of my life, how short my life on earth may be, a part of my love will never be forgotten. That is the part of me that will live on years after I’m gone. Love is the gift we can all leave behind.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I've learned these past years

Today is my three year anniversary as youth pastor at Downey First Christian Church. In all honesty, I can say the past three years have been an incredible journey. I decided to blog today about what I’ve learned over these past years.

I think we grow up thinking differently about time. When you’re younger, life goes by slowly, and then suddenly, all of that changes after high school. It’s weird. I’m sure people have theories about this that are very scientific. I don’t. I just think after a certain age we start to realize how short life really is. Anyways, looking back at the past three years, I am still a little dumbfounded and even at a loss for words, at where the time went. It’s actually sort of amusing. If you would have asked me three years ago about my thoughts on time and minsitry, and if three years was a sufficient amount of time, I would have answered "Absolutely." I was dead wrong. It’s taken three years to break into the culture. It’s taken three years to truly build relationships. Three years is not a sufficient amount of time. This is both a scary and exciting thought. Ministry takes time, and it’s important to take your time when starting out.

Ministry success
I think my idea of what ministry success is has changed as well. I’m pretty sure most of us go into youth ministry with a grand vision and a copy of Purpose Driven Youth Ministry in our hands, and we think we can change the world. Then we begin to realize that every church is different, purpose statements are catchy but don’t produce miracles, and to be frank, ministry can suck some times. (Yeppers, it can) I’ve noticed there are a lot of comparisons made in youth ministry and ministry in general. What was your attendance last Sunday? How many students do you have in your high school group? Then, of course, we all use our numbers to boast and point to our ministry’s effectiveness. Regardless of numbers though, I’ve started to realize that true success in ministry is about relationships. It’s about creating a culture where people find intimacy with Christ and one another, where outsiders feel welcomed to come and explore the message of Jesus. If this can happen in a group of a hundred kids, awesome. Way to go for having that big of a group and shepherding them in discipleship. If it happens in a group of ten kids, kudos once again. You can’t let numbers be the only way to measure success. There are a lot of big churches out there that are doing incredible things in the kingdom. Likewise, there are a number of them who act like they’re hosting the Teen Choice Awards, and Jesus is an afterthought. In our ministries we need to help students live the way of Jesus—feed the poor, welcome in the outsider, and change our world in whatever ways we can.

Facing Opposition
This has been the most fun lesson I’ve learned—the art of facing opposition. Truth be told, it’s definitely tough at first, but then it kind of grows on you. You learn to take criticism, disrespect, and realize you’re still okay with yourself and your vision for the ministry. I know I sill have that “I need everybody to like me” syndrome, but still, I am able to function when people don't like me. Moreover, I am able to serve them and show kindness even when they are manipulative and demeaning. (Okay, so it still stings a little bit, but come on, there is real progress here!) No matter what, every person in ministry is going to face some kind of opposition. It might be a parent who thinks you’re the antichrist, or a volunteer who has sworn herself to annihilate you within your first three months of ministry. Awe, the list could go on and on. But none of that really matters. Opposition is natural. You learn to roll with the punches and you come out a better leader and more mature person because of it.

Group trends and changes
Youth groups change over time. It seems like with every graduating class, you see certain attitudes and behaviors leave the group—sometimes this is bad and sometimes it’s great! There may be months where you have a lot of new kids coming around. Other times, you wonder if students have friends outside of the church. There are seasons when girls outnumber the guys and times when the guys seem to run the girls out of town. Youth groups, like all things in life, have trends and are constantly changing. I’ve celebrated with our youth group as attendance soared, and new people came to faith. I’ve also embraced our committed students when they were the only ones who decided to join a small group. Change is natural…and it’s a good thing. Churches change over time, and usually this means a youth group will change as well. It’s all part of the process. You have to remain positive and continue pursuing your vision, even when everything feels like it may be falling apart. Realize its part of the change process.

Finally, after three years I’ve learned that I’m not Bill Hybels. (And that's a good thing because that guy kind of annoys me at times.) But that’s okay, because I’ve surrounded myself with a team of incredibly talented and dedicated adults who love hanging out with teenagers and spending time with one another. I couldn’t have asked for more: I get to do ministry with my friends. A youth group or church for that matter should never be about a single person, giving a star performance. A church should be a community, a family that wants to seek God and life together. That is beginning to happen in my youth group. It’s taken three years to get to this point. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth it.

God is good
Looking back over the past three years, I can genuinely say this has been a good ride and I’m excited for more. We’ve started a movement. It’s not a movement of thousands, or even of hundreds. Nevertheless, it is a family of people wanting more of Jesus in their lives, and desiring to see his kingdom built on this earth. There have been moments where I’ve doubted God, and even more moments where I’ve doubted myself. However, even in these moments of confusion, God has been faithful. This life and this thing called ministry...well, it’s all good because God is good. He continues to surprise me and fulfill His promises. I pray for many more years of exciting ministry, partnering with the Spirit and seeking His direction. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of ministry, we need to remember that at the end of the day, God is still God...and He is always good.