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 they serve. The youth they work with my 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.

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 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.

We Need Lunks

I wasn’t sure if my gym was open tonight because of the holiday weekend so I decided to Google it. I quickly and easily found the hours and so much more. Sitting underneath the hours of operation were several reviews. Several negative reviews. Having never had a negative experience myself, I was a little taken back and wondered if I had somehow overlooked my gym’s apparent atrociousness.

As I read through, I noticed two common themes. First, the positive reviews were written by your average Joe looking to occasionally use equipment they don’t have at home. They’re not looking to become body builders or take this exercise thing too seriously. They just wanted to go somewhere, drop in and go. The other and more predominant theme was written by those complaining about the place being an amateur gym. They see pizza days and tootsie rolls at the front counter as counterintuitive to the mission of getting healthier. More importantly, these people didn’t feel welcomed.

The gym itself refers to these people as ‘lunks’ a slang term defined underneath the giant lunk alarm on the wall of the gym as someone who grunts, drops weights or judges others and when someone does any of these things (in the eyes of the staff) the alarm goes off clearly pointing out the perpetrator.

Isn’t interesting what this gym has done? This gym that wants everyone to be a part of the planet, that has ‘you belong’ and ‘no judgment zone’ signs decorating it’s walls, by ostracizing these lunks has violated it’s very own mission statement. The only ones judged on this planet of non-judgment are the lunks who are probably the healthiest ones there anyway! The truth is, we need lunks. Sure, sometimes they can be annoying; lunks aren’t perfect but they do set an example, not in their grunting but in their commitment and dedication. In all honesty, us who are half-way committed to this thing called exercise could learn a thing or two from them.

Do you see the metaphor?

We live in a a culture, very concerned with being non-judgmental and its infiltrated the church. I’m afraid we have designed a place for those who want to be just morally fit enough to get into heaven but still fool around on the weekend. A place where those who believe Jesus wanted so much more than just going to church once a week -a complete lifestyle change- are ousted. Alarms go off when they push the norms a little too much or make anyone uncomfortable with the power of God’s word. But the truth is we need these spiritual lunks. Our culture needs them now more them ever; spiritual giants who know that you cannot just live off of milk, you need solid food (See 1 Cor 3:2).

Indeed, everyone can and does belong in the body of Christ but you see, without the lunks, without the spiritual leaders who daily pick-up there crosses and follow Christ, who have some moral backbone, we’d be simply missing the point of Christianity. It’d be like going to the gym once a week, eating junk the rest of the time and then condemning those who exemplify a healthier way to live. What kind of planet would that be? What kind of church would that be?

Reflections on the last 10,000 days of my life

About a month ago, a curious question popped into my mind; how many days have I been alive? Thanks to modern-day Google it is relatively easy to figure out this answer (yes, I could have done the math but leap years get complicated). As it turns out I was soon approaching a milestone. As of this Sunday June 22nd, I will have been alive for a total of 10,000 days.

Now, there is no way for me to do the math but I am in awe of the complex mixture of experiences I’ve had over these years. Within this span of 27.5 years I’ve had a few days of illness, a dozen days of sadness but hundreds of days of overcoming obstacles and thousands of days laughing and smiling.

Although He was waiting for me many days before I surrendered my heart, I’ve spent the last 5,000 days knowing the love of my savior, Jesus. Because of this one single factor alone, the last half of my life outshines the first half. This was hands down the best decision I have made in the last 10,000 days.

I’ve made plenty of other decisions during this span. Some of my biggest regrets include dropping out of high school, choosing my own will  over God’s wil and friendships lost to poor prioritizing mar the timeline of my past.

Although I have learned a lot of hard lessons from the wrong things I have done, what stands out to me even more are the things I didn’t do.
A recent example (Day 9,997) includes going out to lunch with a friend and seeing a trio of Navy soldiers a couple booths away, feeling prompted to pay for their meal and not doing it.

There’s a quote out there that says something to the effect of ‘At the end of your life, you’ll regret more what you didn’t do than what you did do.’ The biggest sins will be those of omission instead of commission. It’s like James writes,  If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (4:17).

So here’s to less regrets and to more obedience. More seeking the kingdom first so that everything else will fall in line; more days of joy and happiness. Here’s to the days of me chasing after Jesus being more than the days He spent chasing after me (Although I have a strange feeling He still chases after me and I’ll never be able to outrun Him). Here’s to day 10,001 which is probably 10,000 more than any kid with Spinal Bifida would have ever lived just 100 years ago.

A Life Less Frightening

If there is one tenant of Christianity that should be seemingly easier to accept than others, it’s sin. We’ve all experienced it in the tugging of our hearts and the tears that flow when we encounter the death of a loved one or feel the anger over the unfairness of a birth defect or the pain of sickness. Sin is more than just a choice, it’s a state of being. It’s our present state of being. Jesus died on the cross for us and that took away the punishment of our sinful deeds and empowers us to make better choices through the Holy Spirit, but the reality is we still live in an environment where sin permeates everything; genetics, weather patterns, thoughts, and no matter where we look in our own environment we cannot find a cure.

Out of desperateness we long for anything that’s less chaotic than what were used to. For example, I recently came across a research study touting that ‘today’s teens are the best-behaved generation on record’ because they drink less smoke less and get pregnant less. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things and I’m glad the tide is turning but to set this as the highest achievement possible would be settling. Preventing bad behavior among adolescents is one goal but instilling fortitude is a better one. Yet, settling is exactly what we do.

It’s easy for us to settle for any hint of goodness because we find ourselves in a world where we’ve come to expect the worst. 

There was a terrible news story this morning of another school shooting, the 74th since the Newtown Elementary School shooting. Shepard Smith while reporting on a scene of backpacks taken from the school and piled into the street to be sniffed by bomb-sniffing police dogs, commented “We have seen so many of these, we know the routines the officers go through.” With this being the 74th incident in just a little over two years, many have gotten to the point where 2 or 3 shootings a year would be considered to be a ‘relief’. I can almost hear the news report ‘It’s been a good year as far as school shootings go, there were only 3 this year.’ We have gone from a culture ill-prepared to deal with school shootings to each and every school having a concise plan of action. We think being prepared for these types of events is a good thing but in reality it’s a result of the fall and not the way things where meant to be.

Occasionally we are fortunate enough to see a hint of true love in a dedicated spouse or the forgiveness of a friend.

A key ingredient is to be open for these instances to appear in unexpected ways. Disney has recently been helping our culture to do this. In the movie Frozen and more recently in the Disney movie Maleficent, ‘true love’ is needed to end curses put on two princesses. Disney has taken this narrow view, one they have promoted for so long themselves and our culture has hopelessly bought into (There are many princesses in our culture out there looking for the same thing; to end the curse inside their spirit and many of them look for the cure in a prince charming.) and expanded it to include acts of true love carried out by a committed sister or a repentant foe. This is a much better message for our culture but just like any hints of true love we might see in this world, they still fall short of what was meant to be.

The problem is that many of us forget just how short they fall from what is really good. We end up focusing on good short-term circumstances when God is about everlasting goodness. And in this process we equate our narrow version of good as being His version of good.

Think about it; I made a few extra bucks today so God is good, I got a new job so God is good, my friend didn’t die of cancer so God is good. Indeed, these are good things in the immediate but to equate them with God’s goodness would be making God out to be pretty small

We settle when we keep God as being only as good as our version of good.

We believe God is good enough to forgive and erase our sins when the truth is His grace abounds (see Romans 5:20). We settle for a life less frightening when God wants us to have life and life abundantly (John 10:10) We settle for telling our neighbors about Jesus when God wants us to go to all the nations (Matthew 28:19). God’s version of good is better and bigger than ours.

So join me and pray fervently that school shootings will be reduced and the sick healed but pray even more that Jesus will come back and fix our world. God isn’t satisfied with a decrease in bad and an increase in good. No, his position is complete restoration. Laws banning guns aren’t the answer to obtain the peace we are looking for deep in our souls. Think bigger. We need Jesus to come back and set things right and we shouldn’t settle for anything less. God is good all the time and all the time God is good and even better than our version of good.

To the Class of 2014

They say that high school can be the years that consist of your greatest memories. For me, high school is a dark blur that I have only recently tried to remember. In 2005 I was supposed to join my class in celebrating our achievements, walk across the stage near the end (I’m a Wyatt) and throw my cap into the air. It was a moment that I never saw because I chose a different path instead.

I always knew from the time I was barely a teenager myself that I was called to a special purpose by God, to work with teenagers. But being a teenager myself was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. It seemed like everyone around me made friends easier, was faster and stronger and most of them didn’t have the same health struggles. Don’t get me wrong, everyone struggles with their own things in their own way but my struggles felt overwhelming to me.

Dropping out of high school was a choice and one I’m not proud of. I was certainly smart enough to do the work. That wasn’t the issue. The problem is I lost sight of my purpose in life. Stocks would still rise and fall without me, babies would still be born and the planet would still keep spinning even if I remained idle. I wasn’t suicidal by any means, just lost. My parents asked everything. Is the work to hard? Is it too easy? And like a typical teenager I told them they just didn’t understand.

Purpose wasn’t anything they could give me, it was something I could only be given by my heavenly Father. In college He renewed my calling and I saw the light again. I graduated with a 3.77 which was only .3 away from honors (yea I’m still frustrated about it today). I can’t really explain the process and I don’t know what it will take for you to find your purpose either but I do know one thing; We need you to find it.

Class of 2014, we need you to actualize everything God created each and every one of you to be.

The truth is, stocks will still rise and fall, babies will still be born and the planet will still keep spinning even you remain idle. Families will still continue to be broken, fathers will still leave their children searching for a piece of their identity and our culture will become more and more numb to sinful behavior.

Do you see why we need you?

The bad news is that you can’t fix the world but the good news is that Jesus can and you can be a part of it. Paul said to the church (universal) that it was made up of many parts but was one body. In this same way, you each are a piece in the puzzle of your graduating class. You each have an individual purpose in representing God’s grace and truth to a broken world.

I’m sorry to say that college isn’t easier. In fact, most of life only gets more difficult from here. So we need YOU to get tougher. We need you to find your confidence, an intrinsic worth that nobody can instill in you, boyfriends can’t provide and alcohol can’t adequately maintain.

Class of 2014, we need you to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We need you to die to yourself, your insecurities and doubts and believe that God created you for something specific then pursue it with all you’ve got. I guess that’s how I would describe what I had to do. I had to fall in love with Jesus. It looked one way for me and it look a total different way for you.

We are a unique people, created by a unique God to do His unique works. The journey is the best part and yours has only just started. Congratulations on this part and all the best for the next. Remember each moment, even if they aren’t the happiest. You never know who might be impacted by your story.