Designed For

Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning;  -Soren Kierkegaard

I’ve spent the last three years working with individuals who have mental health disabilities. The first two years were spent mostly working with adolescents, in which I found some success, but this last year was spent working with adults. I believe that if Jesus were here on Earth today, people who have mental health disabilities would be a high priority on His list. One only has to do a short survey of the gospels to see that He spent time with the socially marginalized. He was changing lives and promised us that He would equip us to do the same. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of these you will need in great excess when it comes to working with individuals who have mental health disabilities. In fact, “Gentle Teaching” is the driving philosophy behind most mental health programs. I prayed daily before each and every shift that these attributes would be the guiding force behind my interactions with the people I worked for. I learned a lot and I grew a lot from this position. On occasion, I was even presented with the opportunity to share the message of Jesus. In the end however, I had to walk away. Although I prayed for the Spirit to help me in my work and believe that He did grow these attributes in me, it never became something I enjoyed doing. It was always a struggle, like trying to smile when you aren’t really happy. I questioned for a long time my inability to find satisfaction in this work. If I was truly a Christian who was empowered by the Spirit then shouldn’t I be better at this? Shouldn’t there be less of a struggle and more success? Shouldn’t I be better at doing something Jesus Himself would be doing? In 1st Corinthians, Paul talks about gifts. He tells us that God has equipped different people to do different works. The conclusion I drew from re-reading this scripture is this; although working in mental health is a good thing, that doesn’t mean it is what God has designed me to do. Lots of works are good, but we aren’t called to do all of them. Jesus would definitely be investing in people who have mental health disabilities and healing them of these paralyzing conditions, but He would also be doing other things too. John tells us this about Jesus; “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) What are you called to do? So many people spend their lives unhappy doing things that they aren’t designed to do. Maybe instead of being called to do the things we know Jesus did, we’re called to do the “many other things” instead.  I want to encourage you to know yourself, know your creator and find out exactly what He has designed you to do.

Speaking Clearly

This evening on my way to church I stopped at Boston Market to pick up something for dinner. I don’t eat at Boston Market very often, which is a shame because every time I do I’m thoroughly satisfied. When I went to pay the cashier, she started going through the spiel. “You have a coupon for next time….on the bottom of the receipt is a survey….” She said it fast and precise, no doubt she had recited it countless times. When she asked me if I needed plastic ware with my meal I let out a dazed and confused ‘no.’ I actually did need it, but didn’t realize what she was asking until after I answered.

To be honest, I couldn’t quite tell what she was asking me, so thinking she was selling me something I didn’t need or offering me some kind of rewards card, I let out a instinctive ‘no.’ She was asking me a simple question but somehow it was lost in her rattling off Boston Market speak. It was a normal everyday routine for her, but for someone who doesn’t go to Boston Market very often, I didn’t know the questions that were coming.

The same thing happens in the church doesn’t it? Christianity has its own language- “The Lord works in mysterious ways” and “We pray for a hedge of protection” are just a couple of examples (leave your favorite ‘Christianeese’ words in the comments!) There’s nothing inherently wrong with the lingo, but my experience at Boston Market made me wonder how strange it must sound to outsiders.

There is an episode of Home Improvement (I was a 90s kid) where Tim is trying to teach Jill some basic plumbing skills. Like most things Tim does it turns into a mess. Jill complains that Tim is using complicated language and that the funny technical names for tools and parts makes doing the work difficult. This technical jargon is easily understood by those in the plumbing trade but to an outsider they just make things complicated.

When a visitor joins us for Sunday morning service or a teenager at youth group, are we remembering to slow down what we’re saying and to eliminate some of the meta-messages in our Christian-speak? I think it is important to keep this in mind; Not everyone grew up in the church, not everyone knows the Bible stories, what questions are going to come next etc. We need to slow down, explain things clearly and make sure we don’t leave people dazed and confused.

Language is a filter through which we connect unbelievers to God’s love. We take our lead from Jesus who used parables to bridge the culture around Him to the gospel. Notice He didn’t use riddles. Instead He used plain stories Jews at the time could relate to. Sometimes in our modern age we may have to do a little research to understand exactly what Jesus was saying, but His message was very culturally relevant and would have made sense to His Jewish audience. What is the culture we are reaching out to today? What stories can people relate to today? Important questions because the last thing we want is someone saying ‘no’ because they think we are offering them something they don’t need.

Looking for More

A couple of days ago, I was in a small café editing a book I’ve been writing (By the way, I’ll share more about the book at the end of this post!). About halfway through my work, a lady and her son came in to chat with the barista, who they apparently knew. They talked about everything but what really caught my attention was a conversation about Kepler 452b.

If you haven’t heard about it already, Kepler 452b is a recent discovery by NASA which they are touting as an ‘earth-like planet.’ Social media has taken it even further with names such as ‘Earth’s twin’ and ‘Earth’s cousin.’ The problem is, people often overlook terms in these reports such a ‘estimate’ or ‘guess’ and then like a game of telephone, conversations such as the one I overheard in the café turn into the misconception that we are on the brink of finding other life.

The boy and his Mom were convinced that we couldn’t possibly be alone because the universe is ‘too big’ and ‘there’s just got to be more.’ Something within us longs for there to be more, it’s not anything new. Acts 17 records a story about Paul going through Athens and his response to those who were looking for something more.

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

It’s silly, but Ancient Aliens on the History channel is probably one of the shows I watch the most. If you haven’t seen it, the show is the attempt of theorists, such as crazy-haired Giorgio Tsoukalos, to prove some of the greatest events and wonders of the world were the result of aliens interacting with man. The wall of Jericho coming down? Aliens. The Pyramids? Aliens. Atlantis? Definitely aliens.

While it’s all just silliness to me, it really does tug at the heart strings of others who are looking for something more. It’s natural for humans in all walks of life to be looking for ‘something more out there’ and it’s our opportunity as Christians to help them discover that in fact, there is something more. Our God is unknown to them and they’re looking. Sometimes people come across answers that can be silly and other times they come across answers that can be dangerous. We have to point them back to the one whose image we were made in. There’s no little green men out there. There is just one Trinitarian God whose image we are a reflection of.

So what does my book have to do with aliens? Absolutely nothing, but it does have to do with looking for more. Looking for Christmas is the planned title and the story follows a Father and his teenage daughter as they deal with the loss of his wife/her Mom. They’re given the challenge of connecting in their own way and the wonder of Christmas might just be the thing that brings them together. Look for its release in November on Amazon and Kindle!

Blessed are the…

It’s been awhile since I last wrote a blog! I’ve been working on a larger literary piece which has taken up most of my time, but I am thankful for a moment to be able to share some thoughts with you again. As you know, I teach a group of college and young adults at my church. The last few weeks have been spent studying the beatitudes. My interest in these profound few verses was peaked after hearing a sermon a friend in ministry gave on the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” His message led me to sharing with our group the insights I had been gaining from my own pursuit of the word.  I’ll admit, a lot of my first lesson was just repeating what he said (it was really good) but I’ve decided to gain my own insights and I want to share some with you.

This coming Sunday we’ll be studying this beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:6

From the moment we begin to study the beatitudes, we have to ask this question, what does ‘blessed’ mean? Most often, ‘blessed’ is associated with ‘happy’ but let’s apply that to the beatitudes. The beatitudes are already paradoxical in and of themselves. Jesus’ assertion is that the poor in spirit are the ones who are going in inherit the kingdom of heaven doesn’t make much sense at face value and applying the word ‘happy’ instead of ‘blessed’ doesn’t help explain it much better: Happy are those who are poor in spirit?

The Greek word for ‘blessed’ here is ‘makarios’ and describes someone who is in a position to receive God’s favor. In other words, the poor in spirit are ‘blessed’ or ‘makarios’ because they have a need that our God can meet.

Hunger and thirst describe the most basic needs of existence; food and water. The feeding of the 5,000 (see Matthew 14) reminds us there is no doubt that Jesus understands the physical need for food. However, Jesus doesn’t use the terms hunger and thirst to describe a physical need. He uses them as a metaphor for a deeper, spiritual need. To a Samaritan woman at a well he offers living water which he promises will satisfy her thirst forever (John 4). To the multitudes he declared that he was the bread of life (John 6). Jesus’ answer for our spiritual thirst and hunger is to fill up on Him. He satisfies us in a way nothing else will and with Him at the center of our heart, we no longer go looking to fill the hole with anything else. The Samaritan woman who once went looking for love in all the wrong places, now finds everything she was looking for and the crowds who gather around Jesus for what He could do are now drawn to Him for who He is.

The people described in this particular beatitude hunger and thirst for something very specific; righteousness. There are a couple of different kinds of righteousness. The first is the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Given that Jesus is constantly harping on them about this, we can safely assume that isn’t the kind of righteousness He refers to here. Another kind of righteousness involves social justice or wanting to see wrongs righted and oppression to cease. The Jewish people are a people who at this point have been oppressed by many other cultures and little do they know that in nearly 2,000 years will endure a horrible extermination attempt. Under the Romans they are heavily taxed and physically abused by guards. Righteousness is so strongly sought after, that many of the Jews had hoped and even expected the Messiah to overthrow the Roman government. Another type of righteousness reflects a commitment to holiness or excellent living.

Jesus provides the answer for both the former and latter forms of righteousness. While He didn’t overthrow the Roman government in the way the Jews had hoped, He does promise His second coming to set up a new Kingdom (Matthew 24). Furthermore, for those who hunger and thirst for righteous living, they are blessed because Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit to enable them to do so (John 14). Indeed, 1 Corinthians confirms that we are now the new temple of God, His dwelling place. When we empty ourselves of anything we seek that is not Him, we are then in a position to be filled and that is a blessed place to be!

Commitment and Communion

When it comes to commitment my teenage years come to mind. I was born with a disability and in high school I had a fear of embarrassment and social anxiety because my disability made me feel different. Instead of overcoming my fears, I put up a wall around me. I talked to very few people and put very little effort to do into anything but maintaining my wall. This also included little effort in my schoolwork and eventually I ended up dropping out and getting my GED.

Flash forward to today where just a few months ago I finished graduate school with a 4.0. It’s a huge contrast and the defining aspect that made all the difference was commitment. Some might look at it and say I wasn’t committed in high school and in college I was committed. But looking back on it I would say in both situations I was committed. The difference is what I was committed to. In high school, I was committed to maintaining the wall I had put up. In college, I became committed to my schoolwork and the calling to ministry God had in my life. I still had a small wall but I wasn’t as committed to maintaining it anymore.

I believe we are all committed to something. Commitment never ceases to exist. It just changes. You will be committed to something. Weather it’s yourself, God, materialism, popularity, a wall you’ve put up etc.

I’ve been reading and re-reading the last supper story. I’ve been tasked with leading a communion service for the youth at our church family camp this year with the over-arching camp theme being ‘committed’. When I look at the story of the last supper, I see three different commitments. We see commitment to self in Judas. We see a commitment in words but not actions from the disciples and finally we see God’s commitment to bring salvation to His people in Jesus

“And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”” Matthew 26:17-25

To say Judas was not committed to Jesus is only have the equation. We also have to ask what he was committed to. Remember, commitment doesn’t go away. We are all committed to something. Even Judas.

Like the other disciples he gave up his job and plans to follow Christ. He may have thought like many at the time that Jesus was going to lead a revolution to overthrow the Roman government and when that didn’t happen he became bitter. He gave Jesus his life but not his heart. His heart was only focused on what he could get out of it and that led to his self-destruction. When he thought Jesus was leading a rebellion he was willing to give him all. When he found out Jesus’ message was about love and sacrifice his commitment changed.

We live in a culture that encourages us to have a commitment like Judas; A commitment to your own glory. Society says you don’t have to be committed to anyone but yourself; just look at divorce rates. The world says to us be committed to your glory, your happiness or it might tell you it’s okay to be half-committed; to go to church every now and then, praying couple times a week etc. is ok but it would be crazy to tithe, fast or actually evangelize others. This is a commitment of words but not actions.
The picture of Jesus spending time with His disciples is a portrait of His commitment to them but were His disciples fully committed to Him? We know from history that all of Jesus’ disciples (sans John and Judas) were martyred for their faith, a testimony to their commitment to fulfill the great commission and have the gospel spread to the ends of the earth. From the book of Acts on we have amazing examples of full-commitment. But it wasn’t always that way.

Just after The Last Supper Peter and Jesus have a conversation:

Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:

‘I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”

And so said all the disciples. Matthew 26: 31-35

We usually think about Peter and his failing commitment to Jesus but notice in word, all of the disciples said they would be fully committed to Jesus. Yet when it came down to acting on that commitment, they all failed. The disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was declaring his commitment through prayer, they scattered when Jesus was arrested and even Peter denied Jesus three times as Jesus foretold.Their commitment level at the time was lukewarm and the Bible tells us in a verse I’m sure you’ve heard before that God does not want us to be lukewarm.

Finally, The Last Supper or Communion is our way of remembering what Jesus did on the cross for us. He was committed to saving His people from sin. The connection with it to the Passover is symbolic of His commitment to His people from the very beginning. The plan was and has always been to save them with the blood of the lamb. This time the lamb would be Jesus himself. The very fact that after this final Passover meal he went to the cross instead of calling upon His angels to save Him shows that he was committed to being obedient to God’s will instead of His own personal desires, a struggle we know existed because He was both fully man and fully God. But he overcame.

Philippians 2 tells us to learn from His example.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

You are committed to something. The question is what? Where does your commitment lie? I want to encourage you as I will the teens at camp,  to seriously ask this question now and every time before you take communion.The Bible tells us to examine ourselves before taking communion. (1 Co 11:28). We are encouraged to examine ourselves and to ask ‘where do my commitments lie?’ Have I given everything to Jesus? Have I given nothing? Or have only given a little bit? May you partake in communion as a symbol of your full commitment to the one who is completely committed to you.

Moved by Compassion

Moved by Compassion

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

This Sunday the teenagers in our church group are going to learn about the dire circumstances for those caught in Human Trafficking. “Harassed, helpless, sheep without a shepherd”, these words perfectly describe the victims of human trafficking. It’s not a fun topic to discuss (no social problem is) but its an important one and one that requires a response. In the same way Jesus was moved with compassion for the helpless, we as Christians are also called to bring about restoration in His name. There is a wide array of social problems our world faces (the harvest is plenty), human trafficking is just one but for as many problems as there are, it never seems like there are enough people responding (the workers are few).

Perhaps the last people expected to be the workers are teenagers. If you Google the phrase ‘teenagers and…’ you’ll get the following suggestions; ‘teenagers and alcohol’, ‘teenagers and drugs’, ‘teenagers and depression’, ‘teenagers and social media’. It’s a reflection of our culture’s low expectations for adolescents. Society doesn’t expect the teenage years to consist much more of experimenting with drugs or alcohol, posting selfies on Instagram and having an attitude.

Our culture continues its reflection of low expectations for adolescents with constant stories about teenage crimes in the media. But teens can’t be allowed to  just blame the media or Google. It’s too easy to play the blame game. Teens might say say things like “my parents don’t believe in me” or “my teachers don’t care what I do”. And although I think it’s probably the exception, some teenagers do legitimately find themselves these situations .Nonetheless, we need to remind them what Google searches say, what the media says, the presences or lack of encouraging adults does not give teens permission to give in to low expectations.

We need to remind them of 1 Timothy 4:12 which says “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. And point out that 1 Timothy doesn’t say anything about making sure the adults around you have their act together or that only positive stories about young people are shown in the media (I for one would love to see more but let’s be honest negativity often fuels the news). This verse talks about personal responsibility. “Don’t let anyone..” “Be an example…” these are actions on the part of the young person. We have to remind teens that we may not have control over many of the circumstances in our lives but they we do have control over our response to them.

Proverbs 23:7 says “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” Henry Ford said it this way, “Whether you think you can or not, you’re right.” We need to help teenagers forget what the world thinks about them because honestly its poisoning their motivation. Instead we must help them realize the same power which caused Jesus to conquer the grave lives in them and they can prove the world wrong at anytime.

When our teens hear the tragic stories of the victims of human trafficking, I fully expect they will be moved with compassion for the helpless and harassed . Right now we are raising money to donate to an organization fighting to end human trafficking but it hasn’t generated much because its kind of putting the cart before the horse. Without having heard our speaker’s presentation they don’t know how bad the situation is. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve raised some money and its wonderful see those committed to stepping up to the plate before the first pitch is even thrown but I look forward to them seeing the crowd and being moved with compassion because I know teenagers, attitude and all, can be some of the best works the Lord has ever sent out into the harvest field.

Talking at the Picnic Table

Every first Sunday of June our church has ‘Celebration Sunday’ it’s a time where we give special recognition to our children’s ministry, enjoy a concert-style service and a cookout. I tend to sit with the teens during these potluck meals, attempting to break the divide between ‘adult tables’ and ‘kid tables’. It’s a little easier for me as a single guy and no obligations to sit with family. What isn’t necessarily easy for me is entering their conversations that reflect the ecosystems they live in. I may choose to sit at the ‘kid table’ but it’s been awhile since I have lived as an adolescent and studying adolescence at the graduate level is not the same thing as interacting at the picnic table level. When I first came to this church and started interacting with our teens my go to style of conversation was sarcasm. Sarcasm is my typical defense mechanism when I am nervous. It’s probably also the most ineffective and risky form of conversation to take on too. Don’t get me wrong, wit and good timing with jokes is fun at any age but I am convinced that my sarcasm was too much and caused me to just come off as phony and like I was trying too hard.

Eventually after I became more comfortable, I transitioned into genuinely trying to get to know these teens and their lives. School was my first go to topic because it encompassed so much of their lives but after a while I started getting responses like “nobody wants to talk about school when we aren’t at school.” I could understand that because like most adults I’m not much for talking about work after I get home from it. It was very difficult for me to not talk about school and I still have to resist the urge. It’s not a taboo topic, I just am purposeful about letting them initiate the topic when they’re ready. There is more to me and there is more to them than what we do, even if that’s the easiest thing to talk about. I’m trying to stay away from the easy topics because I want to be challenged to grow in my teenage conversational skills. There is a lot to think about when it comes to engaging in conversations with teens. I want to make sure that what I am saying is providing a good role model, age appropriate and that I am not engaging in making fun of others or immature behavior. As important as it is to remember all these guidelines, I expect to make mistakes but it’s ok because I am finding even though I’m not perfect at it and I over-analyze every word I say, when I dive into real life conversations with teenagers I seem to gain a genuine respect from them just for trying. So even when I am unsure of what to say I come out better in the end if I dive in and say something then putting up a wall of sarcasm.

Today’s topic of conversation was one I’m convinced I would’ve resorted to my sarcasm defense mechanism had I found myself in it when I met this group of students three years ago. Sometimes teenagers who are still sorting out their faith don’t only talk about ‘church appropriate’ things at church events. Maybe that’s a good thing because when we don’t talk about cultural issues, we don’t have a response for them either. It’s too easy to create a bubble or an us/them mentality but the problem is this is the exact opposite of the great commission. So when a student brought up one of the hottest current topics, it was an occasion when culture pushed its way through the protective church bubble and demanded a biblical and well thought out response. In a moment of silence in our church appropriate conversation a student said, “What do you think about Jenner?” Honestly, it caught me off guard at first because I knew a simple responses was simply not possible. After some awkward silence, the student said “My friends and I were joking about how big her jugs are”. I think it was an attempt at comic relief but if all they really wanted was to engage in inappropriate jokes about it I was going to move the conversation along to something else. We moved on to another topic but the whole time I was gathering a response in my mind. This was a current event and these teenagers were old enough to discuss it from a biblical worldview. In another lull in the conversation I found my opportunity to dive in, ‘Do you honestly want to know what I think about the Jenner situation?’ I asked assessing this student’s level of interest in having a serious conversation. What followed was a conversation of tough questions, lots of ‘but why?’ questions and a transition from social event to social impact. Teenagers are more than capable of engaging in some of the most important conversations Christians need to be having and adults can help by being a moderator who …

  • Isn’t perfect but Is willing to let down their defenses and dive in
  • Willing to engage with them at the picnic table level
  • Sees them for who they are not what they do
  • Keep the conversation on a track that leads to it being beneficial
  • Is always prepared to give an answer that’s Biblical, well thought out and full of grace (1 Peter 3:15)