Content

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12 So we’ve all got this thing down, right? Well, I know I don’t. Right now I am on the hunt for employment. I had a couple of interviews last week but so far nothing has panned out. When I got the phone call from the first interview letting me know that they ‘went with someone who has more experience’ my heart sank. The uncertainty of my next steps is anxiety provoking to say the least. Prior to the interview, on my drive down I spent time praying and practicing answers in my head. Interview questions are often abstract and unrealistic. They’re like the ‘scenario’ questions found in text books meant to prepare you for real life situations but fail to accurately replicate the little nuances and intricacies of actuality. I prayed as genuinely as I could, attempting to align myself with God’s will for my life instead of my fear of being financially strapped during this time. I prayed for an answer and I got one. ‘No’ is an answer and according to Paul the response of a mature Christian is to be content. Some ‘No’s’ are easier than others. A ‘No’ from a job interview is difficult but a ‘No’ when asking God to heal cancer can be emotionally devastating. Being content is a lot to ask in times like these but Paul also gives us a clue in this sentence as to how it’s possible. Paul says that he has ‘learned the secret’. In the days of early Christianity secret gospels peaked the curiosity of ancient peoples. Adherents of Gnosticism claimed to have secret knowledge and teachings that were not widely available to the public. Texts such as ‘The Secret gospel of Mark’ or ‘The Gospel of Judas’ appeared as an attempt to substantiate these claims. So when Paul says ‘I have learned the secret’ he captures his audience’s attention because they know exactly what cultural phenomenon he is referencing. Unlike the Gnostics, Paul doesn’t hide is secret. He clearly lays it out for us in verse 13. “I can do all things through Jesus who gives me strength”. This is one of the most inspirational verses of all times. It’s associated with having the ability to achieve success or overcome obstacles and attain victory. It’s the kind of verse that marathon runners or mountain climbers might make it their motto. While it’s true that the strength of Jesus can help us to do all of those things, in this particular context Paul means something different.

Paul is telling us that we can be content no matter what situation we find ourselves in, whether it good times or bad because Christ will give us the strength.

It takes a certain amount of spiritual maturity to master this virtue and with each answered prayer whether yes or no, we get an opportunity to practice. When I got a ‘no’ answer to that job, however difficult it was to swallow, I chose to believe that God doesn’t want me in that particular place, at that particular time for His particular reasons. It’s not easy. Not at all. But the point of Philippians 4:13 wasn’t meant as an inspirational verse to climb mountains, run marathons or close business deals. It doesn’t mean the answer will always be ‘yes.’ Success here is defined as being in a close relationship with God, where you trust fully His answers to your prayers. In its context, it’s about God giving us the strength to be content (to not have any complaints) whether he gives us a yes or a no.

Thrive

A week later and I am still recovering from dancing, screaming, competing and celebrating. I welcomed 2015 the same way I welcomed 2013 and 2014-off the beaten path at a rural north east Michigan youth camp with some 50 energetic teenagers. I nearly lost my voice twice, lost my temper at least once in an intense game of Kemps and no doubt lost hours of sleep. It was loud, intense and a blast.

In the midst of all the activity students had opportunities to connect with God and moments to be honest with leaders about the burdens they had carried on their shoulders in the last year. The theme this year was ‘Thrive’ and it was based in a simple concept: Knowing who you are (Identity) will result in doing the right things (Obedience) which will produce right results (Power).

Sadly, through the conversations I had with these kids, I learned many of them are not thriving at all.

In fact, only a few were being obedient in their walk with Christ. I won’t share any specific names or conversations and I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not flawlessly obedient myself, but I think it’s important for youth workers to understand what the stories of these teens are telling us.

This isn’t about placing blame on any youth program, worker or family. I simply want to talk about how we can move forward. The words of these teens point to a deep sense of personal insecurity that if allowed to continue could be detrimental to the Great Commission set forth by Jesus to ‘go and make disciples.’ After all, the blind cannot lead the blind- nor can they heal them.

In Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9 Jesus’ disciples are presented with a boy who is demon possessed. They try and try but are unable to help the boy. This must have been especially humbling to the disciples who we are told in Luke’s gospel were just commissioned by Jesus to go and heal the sick and cast out demons (Luke 9:1-2)

Finally Jesus comes along and without difficulty drives the demon out of the boy. Puzzled, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to help the boy. Jesus provides some insights as to why the disciples were unsuccessful.

  1. The disciples have very little faith (apparently less than the size of a mustard seed Matthew 17:20-21).
  2. The disciples were not being dependent on God (lack of prayer Mark 9:28-29).

Their faith was dead and without works.

They had yet to fully understand their identity (and subsequent potential) in Christ.

A previous conversation shows us the lack of understanding among them-

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? (Matthew 16:5-11)

How could the disciples miss the point of what Jesus was talking about? How could they not fully understand Him, who He was or what He meant after having witnessed His miracles or the transfiguration?

How can our teenagers not fully understand who they are in Christ after going to church every Wednesday and Sunday, memorizing Bible Verses and knowing every answer to every Sunday school question there is?

Paul in the book of Philippians chapter 4 writes “Only let us live up to what we have already attained”.

As a youth worker, I have the responsibility to act as a mandated reported. This means that if I know of or suspect the abuse of a minor, I am obligated to report it to the appropriate people. I can’t know this information and do nothing about it. If I did there would be some serious consequences.

But that’s exactly what so many of our teenagers are doing (knowing all of the information but not acting on it) and there are some considerable consequences.

James reminds us that faith without works is dead (James 2). This particular passage has been the center focus of the works vs grace debate for centuries. The faith of our teenagers (or lack thereof) is showing us just how one can be saved by grace but dead without works. It’s showing us how if branches don’t remain a part of the vine they die and never thrive. It’s the same problem the disciples encountered when they approached a big problem (demon possessed boy) with little faith (smaller than a mustard seed) and no works (lack of prayer).

There is a certain amount of practicing what you know that helps to develop a sense of identity. What our students have is book knowledge. This kind of knowledge is factual not practical. This kind of knowledge is a foundation not the structure itself. Instead of confidently knowing who they are through what they do, our teenagers know who they are because of what they’ve been told.

And most of the time, they’re told their not good enough.

Zero tolerance policies without a second chance, a Christianity that only promotes rule after rule and photo-shopped impossible to obtain images on the cover of magazines are just some of the sources that send a ‘not good enough’ message to our teenagers and I believe it is causing a culture of personal insecurity and jealousy. Many of them looked at each other and wanted what the other had. Most of them thought that others were better than them, smarter than them, less sinful than them.

The disciples provide another example for us of what is happening. This time in the book of Luke Just after the same incident where the disciples couldn’t heal the demon possessed boy Jesus is a little harsher with the disciples. “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41)

In Luke’s account of the story just after Jesus calls out the disciples on their lack of belief we see this-

“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” (Luke 9:46)

The identity crisis of our teenagers not only encompasses a lack of practicing what they already know, it also includes a lack of understanding how vital of a role they play and how they uniquely play it. No, not how great they are but yes how important they are.

Paul tells us that the body of Christ is made up of many parts. (1 Corinthians 12) The eyes aren’t any more important than the ears, the arms are no more important than the legs. The teenager who can exceed in sports is no more important than the one with a physical disability, despite our culture’s tendency to glorify one over the other. Each has a role in the body of Christ, each has a calling in the great commission.

So at the end of the day (or at least at the end of camp) how can youth workers make a difference?

  1. Accountability. In the same Philippians passage, Paul tells us “Take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17). When we take the small group of youth we led discussion with at camp and extend it into monthly meetings, students will have the opportunity to view us in day to day settings and you can be sure they’ll be taking note. At the same time, we will have the opportunity to view them and take note of the progress they’re making in their camp commitments. It’s easy to make a commitment at camp, it’s another thing to thrive when school starts again. Teenagers who have gone to church all their life and know all about Jesus need to be called out on how they are acting as a result because faith without works is dead and a dead faith can’t heal anyone.
  2. Value. When we make it a point to hang out with teenagers outside of the camp setting, they’ll know that we value their presence, ideas and spiritual walk. When the world around them and even sometimes the church is telling them ‘not good enough’ we can be there to see the progress they’re making and say ‘getting better’. I truly believe the more we value our teenagers the more they will value themselves which will in turn create more confident, less jealous teenagers.

Can you imagine? With a little valuing and a little accountability the great commission could be greater than ever as it is steered at the helm by confident, obedient and powerful young people doing miracles in the name of Jesus. That’s thriving.

(APP)ropriate Limits

Over the weekend our church youth group had an overnighter (not to be confused with an all nighter as we did eventually sleep) and for the first time working with teenagers I felt out of the loop Ok let’s be honest, I felt like I was getting old. The kid (another term you use for teenagers when you start getting older) told me about an app called Wattpad. Wattpad is a social platform for writing and sharing stories. I was surprised I had never heard of it before because up until this point I thought I had kept up fairly well with social media.

I’ve had a Facebook for several years, blog inconsistently and even insta (I’m told its no longer necessary to add ‘gram’ to the end.)  Yet, as the conversation continued  I realized how out of touch I really was. Apps I’ve heard of but didn’t see the need for such as Vine, SnapChat and Twitter were part of the everyday world of a modern day teenager. Not only is YouTube popular but certain broadcasters reign supreme. It’s a far cry from my flip phone days and its why anyone working with youth who has spent more than two years into their adulthood needs to realize they’re detached from youth culture.

Recently a ‘new’ (I use the term loosely understanding that its probably been known in the teenage world long before it was known in the adult world) app called After School has been making news headlines. Its another story about teenagers abusing their phones based on the belief that their activity is anonymous, untraceable and impossible to bring about unwanted consequences. One news organization reported that the app ‘featured porn and bullying’.

But here’s the thing.

By itself, the app doesn’t feature anything. The only thing the platform offers is an opportunity for its users to use their free will to create information.

It’s the same situation Adam and Eve were presented with in the garden. Through six days of creation, God created a platform. Initially this platform was unscathed and didn’t know violence or pain. Until they realized they had another option and selfishness crept into their hearts influenced by that serpent, they had every intention of doing good and being in a perfect relationship with their creator.

After the fall, Adam and Eve were hoping to remain anonymous  too.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” Genesis 3:8-9

We know that they were eventually exposed and so are a lot of teenagers who think they can hide. The exposure has given law enforcement a new question-what kind of consequences these teenagers should face? As it stands teenagers who share nude photos can be charge with possession and/or distribution of child pornography. This kind of charge carries a hefty sentence of years and years in state prison.

Apple’s reaction to the news that teenagers were abusing the app was to temporarily remove it from the store only to re-introduce it again with a 17+ rating and small purchase fee. Not outright removing the app angered many parents and professionals.

But here’s the thing.

I think apple did the right thing. In fact, I think they did what parents and professionals should be doing. As I said earlier, Apple created a platform, its users decided what to create within it.  It’s users are responsible. We as adults need to remind adolescent’s of the choices they have to make, clearly explain the consequences (because the teenage brain has a hard time seeing ahead) and when necessary set a limit for them. In this case, Apple set the limits but frankly its our job to do that. Apple doesn’t know your child better than you do.

Ever since the fall of man, there is an innate curiosity or sinfulness that shows itself especially during the formative years as it is coupled with the teenage brain that is rewarded for thrill seeking behavior and convinced ‘nothing bad can happen to me’. I remember learning how to use a dictionary in school and my first thought was to start looking up every bad word I could think of. It seems as if  there is something dark to discover the mind will thirst to find it.

In the same way guns dont kill people, phone apps also have the potential be used for good or bad. We dont give guns to the mentally impaired so why do we freely and without limits give powerful, society impacting, life altering digital devices to teenagers whose brains have yet to fully develop? Unless they have early onset maturity which usually stems from excellent parenting (something so rare these days) a phone with internet access might just be too much for a developing teenager to safely handle without limits.

And its not Apple’s job or the government’s job to determine those limits. It’s ours and we can’t afford to be out of touch with technology or our kids.

Abandoned

I’ve been watching videos on YouTube of urban explorers who were willing to take the risk of not just trespassing into long forgotten buildings and houses but also posting their experiences on YouTube. Many of the videos are shot just miles from my house in Detroit, which is considered by many to be an urban explorer’s Disneyland. Some of the videos are pretty eerie, especially this time of year when spooky is on the menu. Abandoned hospitals, houses and military facilities stand (just barely sometimes) as markers of our history, mistakes and failures. As you can guess, none of the buildings were closed and left to ruins for positive reasons.

Throughout all the videos there is at least one thing in common; a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘natural decay’. This not only includes the eventual demise of the structure as it rots due to lack of maintenance but it also includes nature re-claiming its former territory. Where men once tore down trees and leveled the land to make room for their mansions, nature has returned to reclaim its right to ownership. As Jesus put it “Do not store up treasure on Earth where moth and rust destroy… (See Matthew 6:19).

This process of natural decay usually begins slowly but it’s interesting that the only reason it is initiated in the first place is because nobody fought to maintain the property any longer. Although I can’t do a whole lot of urban exploration myself because it would not be physically safe for me, I have experienced some level natural building decay in an old church building our youth group played a role in restoring on a summer mission trip. It didn’t take too long for things to fall apart, water damage, plaster walls crumbling and a tree growing in the attic.

It’s amazing what damage can happen to buildings that sit around, do nothing, and are never used.

The same thing can happen to a faith that is never utilized. It can become cold, dark, vandalized by intruders and a victim to natural decay with little recognition of what it once was. James warns us about this process when he says ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17).

I love how Paul in his various letters to the churches in the New Testament describes faith as an activity like walking.

‘Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ Romans 6:4

‘Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worth of the calling with which you have been called. (Ephesians 4:1)

‘For you were formerly in darkness, but now you are Light of the Lord; walk as children of Light.’ (Ephesians 5:8).

It’s not natural for any of us to maintain a relationship with Jesus. It goes against our original sinful nature that will slowly start to take over again the second we stop walking. Jesus showed us how to keep walking when He quoted scripture in response to Satan’s attempt to vandalize His heart in the desert (See Matthew 4) . Yet, more than just an ability to memorize and quote scriptures, this pointed to the active relationship Jesus had with the Father.

I can’t imagine Jesus going a day without talking to his Father, but I know have when things have gotten ‘too busy.’ But eventually through a natural decay, ‘too busy’ lends itself to full-on abandonment. It’s a scary place to be and urban exploration videos serve as a warning to never stop walking with Jesus, never let our sinful nature try to re-claim our hearts and minds. Instead, we should remember the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 2:12-13 and be active participants in the process of sanctification with a healthy fear and a reminder of what could happen if we don’t.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose.”

Utopia

‘People are the most complex people to work with’. It’s a simple and silly phrase but it’s been racking my brain lately. For social workers, ministers and all of us in the social sciences, there is a particularly unique stressor we face; the ever-changing constantly in-flux attitudes, behaviors, opinions and desires of the people we serve.

People are complicated.

I don’t typically watch ‘reality’ TV but lately I have been getting into a show called Utopia. The basic premise of the show is a group of different people with different backgrounds and beliefs come together to form a new society. I’m sure the characters were carefully selected and wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing is scripted but the premise does speak to the uniqueness of the individual. Each episode is filled with the frustrations of differing opinions on how money, time and efforts should be spent and what would be best for the society. There is basically constant arguing and it’s anything but a utopia.

We often demand on our way. In our society of American culture we have a strong sense of internal justice to the point of condemnation. We have a tit-for-tat mentality, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The same is true for the way we think about injustices, you bloody my nose and I bloody yours back. After all, it’s only fair isn’t it? Even the Bible tells us ‘A tooth for a tooth’.

As a youth worker, I have often encountered other youth workers, parents, teachers, etc. that have used this same mentality in their work with the youth under their care. The youth they work with may yell, scream, and be uncontrollable so the adult yells and screams right back hoping to control the kid when in reality all they are doing is becoming uncontrollable themselves.

This morning in church my pastor was talking about gentleness an idea from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ Matthew 5: 5. In our selfish attempts to get what we want we often try throwing a fit. Kids do it and adults do it to, it just looks a little more refined. Yet, according to this Bible verse we will ‘inherit the earth’ by doing just the opposite, by being meek or gentle.

Remember how God got Elijah’s attention? “ After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper” 1 King’s 19:12

I’m learning that it’s true especially when working with youth. A whisper often gets the desired outcome more than a scream. A relationship built on trust, kindness and gentleness is a catalyst for positive outcomes.

Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline, has this to say-

‘In submission we are at last free to value other people. Their dreams and plans become important to us. We have entered into a new, wonderful, glorious freedom- the freedom to give up our own rights for the good of others. For the first time we can love people unconditionally. We have given up the right to demand that they return our love. No longer to we feel we have to be treated in a certain way. We rejoice in their successes. We feel genuine sorrow in their failures. It is of little consequence that our plans are frustrated if their plans succeed. We discover that it is far better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way.’

People are complicated and gentleness doesn’t make them any less complex but what it does do is it makes them valued, respected and reflects the love of Jesus. In essence, it is the foundation of a real utopia; A world where the only person who gets their way is everyone else. I’m pretty sure there is a bible verse or two about that too.

I do it too

Youth who have Autism (or anyone who does for that matter) exhibit very strange behaviors.

Or do they?

When something doesn’t fit into the mainstream category of ‘normal’ we tend to label it, we tend to fear it. If you saw a person with Autism in public displaying a behavior you didn’t understand as a result of condition you’ve never heard about, it might be natural for you to have some reservations about being around that person. Well, I am here to give you some good news; there is nothing to fear!

Some of these seemingly ‘strange behaviors’ are actually easier to understand than you might think because well, you and I do them too! Now, first let me get some things out of the way. This post isn’t to make light of the complexity of Autism or the hard work of those continuously researching this condition to help us better understand how we can help those whose life’s are impacted by it. I also do not want to make light of how devastating the fear of this condition has been. Indeed, many tragic years of forward progress have been lost to the fear of Autism. Today this fear presents itself typically in more subtle ways but at the height of institutionalization, countless people were treated as anything but. Thank God these horrid places were closed allowing for momentum to swing in the direction of progress. This post is written in hopes of keeping that progress going.

One of the most commonly displayed behaviors that persons with Autism exhibit is called ‘stimming’. Stimming is the repetition of physical movements, noises or manipulation of objects. Some of the more common example include hand flapping, snapping fingers and rocking. Nobody is 100% for sure why someone with Autism engages in these types of behaviors. However, there are a few theories out there, very few of which are easy to understand. So I’m here to offer a more simple explanation. It’s not scientific at all and I’m not going to back up my idea with academic research. It’s a simple idea based off ‘a-ha’ moment I had.

Cruising into work on a beautiful blue sky day with easy and smooth flowing traffic, I found a favorite song on the radio and cranked it. It was too good of a feeling, the warmth of the sun rays, the smell of a freshly cleaned car, the feel of speed in the steering wheel, the wind hitting my hair and of course the sound waves flowing into my ears. Overwhelmed by the intake of my five senses I had to respond. I started tapping the steering wheel, bobbing my head and singing along. What I was experiencing internally could not be contained anymore, allowing itself to an external response. It clicked for me and maybe it will for you too. Think of stimming as nothing more than an external response to an internal sensory overload; a scenario we know people with Autism experience far more often than most.

It’s just an idea. But I like this idea because it narrows the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ making it more like there’s just us. Everyone experiences sensory information (to a certain degree or another) and everyone responds to it. Our responses all look different even among those not diagnosed with Autism but we all still share a common trait; humanity. So relax, take it easy, people with Autism aren’t scary, they’re just people. And we need to be careful to label them as anything else. Labels are dangerous because when we as adults in the presence of youth give out labels such as ‘idiot’ to the driver that cuts us off or ‘stupid’ to the waitress who messes up our order then what labels are kids likely to give themselves when they make the necessary mistakes that come with learning and growing up?

So the next time you see a kid waving their hands around and you see it as random instead picture it as excitement and remember that you display the same thing when you clap your hands or throw them in the air at a concert. The next time you see a person with Autism rocking themselves see it perhaps as self-comforting, something you and I do when we have a speech to give but we’re so overwhelmed with nervousness that we can’t keep our feet still. Heck, the next time you see a person with Autism, just see them as..

a person.

What’s it matter?

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This last week I had the opportunity to accompany our church’s youth group on an urban mission trip. The city that we went to is one that has been the center of attention for the last few years for all the wrong reasons; Detroit. It’s a city right down the street from me but in a whole other world that makes the life I’m living seem pretty comfortable.

We worked alongside with an inner-city church that recently bought an old Greek-Orthodox turn Church of God in Christ (COGIC) church. You could easily tell it was originally Greek-Orthodox by the ornate inlay in its arched ceilings, cupola dome, bell tower on the western side and sanctuary on the eastern. At the same time the presence of the COGIC was found in the stained glass windows that contained designs featuring the denominations seal and facial profile of its founder.

Going unused since the early 2000’s the church, like many old buildings in Detroit, fell victim to copper thieves. This raping of infrastructure eventually led to water seeping into the plaster walls and rotting out the metal mesh it laid in. Part of our job was to get the loose material off of these walls, which was easily done with just the tap of a paint scraper. Another task included trying to scrape off glue residue from the marble floor because it had at one time been covered with carpet.

The other reason why we were there was to help facilitate a VBS program put on for kids from the projects. I don’t use that term lightly, these were kids that came from an apartment complex more dreadful in appearance than any housing situation I have seen. The brokenness of these families spilled over into the attitudes and behaviors of these would-be, should be innocent children. Walls existed that a week of impact could not tear down.

After tirelessly scraping off a small section of the tacky glue from the marble floor, I found our youth pastor working on one of the many crumbling walls of the church. I was reluctant to but asked a question that youth group volunteers who are supposed to be supporting the cause,  probably aren’t supposed to ask; What’s it matter? Why are we doing this? What’s the point? Our group of a dozen or so would never be able to restore the church to the extent it needed. We didn’t have $20,000, we didn’t know how to plaster walls and our floor scraping would be much more efficient with a large floor buffer.

His answer was simple but resonated with me; ‘Every little bit of progress we make is less work for someone else.’

It was true not just for the work we were doing on the building but also with the kids. Those kids probably won’t remember the exact dates of that week, what church we were from or even any of our names but it is a few more good days and good experiences they will have. Every little bit of progress we made in telling them about Jesus was a little less someone else would  have to do.

Since we returned, I’ve been asked, ‘Were you ever scared?’ The answer is yes. I was terrified as I drove out of the city, north past eight mile, away from the pain of the children we met from the projects this week and into a world that retreats from the brokenness and keeps the light of Jesus in our comfort zone. That is what scares me the most; that nobody will continue the process we got to be a part of because as I found out, it does matter.