Monday Morning Brief – 12.8.08

Highlight of the Week:  Enjoying taking Susan out for birthday dinner.  Our Christmas cantata was beautiful. 

Drama of the Week: Our church installed a new fire alarm system earlier this year and it has these lasersensors to detect rising smoke high in the sanctuary.  Unfortunately on the balcony side, near the sensor is where we have one of our lighting control panels that are utilized more during the holidays.  This being our first holiday event, we tripped them twice in one week.  More to it than that, like when I silenced the alarm (after knowing there was no chance of danger) and allowed everyone back inside.  It’s not policy but Icannot figure out why these laser sensors have thesame protocol as an actual smoke or monoxide detector. Anyway, while some thanked me from getting them out of the cold, others were not as happy with me. There was no fire, the alarm was piercing loud, it was 30 degrees outside, children, older people, were freezing and no offense but it was taking a real long time for the fire trucks to show (God bless them, I appreciate immensly what they do), at some point human leadership needs to discern and intervene, otherwise, you are living in the Matrix.  So maybe next week I’ll be competing with Evan and jump hunting or our families will be sitting next to each other at The Well on Sunday mornings and at Thomas’ The Plant on Sunday evenings.  

For Advent I’m:  pretty much only doing Advent Scriptures/prayers and poems like Thomas’ on Everyday Liturgy.  We haven’t started decorating or candle-lighting or anything so my plans were pretty much thrown out the window.  Looks like I actually am a good evangelical ;-)

Listening to:  Sufajan’s Christmas albums, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ “Cardinology”, more Jenny Lewis’ Acid Tongue, and tried Brandon Heath (sorta like Mat Kearney.  It was alright)

Reading:  schoolbooks and everything Ecclesiastes.  When I grow up, I want to be  “Qohelet”  (but less jaded).  

Saw:  4 Christmases with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon.  Funny and cute.  We hadn’t been to the movies for a while but it was alright.  I did like the church scene though.  Not as great as the Little Baby Jesus prayer in Talladega but pretty good.

Looking Forward: to the end of this semester.  I’m enjoying working on this Ecclesiastes paper but will be glad when it’s over too.  Getting more into the Christmas/Advent season.

Procrastinating on: Everything.

Happy Birthday Susan

Today is my wife Susan’s, birthday.  Every now and then, I think back to what she was thinking when we started dating.  Though it’s hard to imagine, I wasn’t always as amazing as I am now.  In fact, if there was ever a time I could have used a Todd Hiestand re-design, it would have been upon entering freshmen year of college.

Dating Susan was a no-brainer for me but I always imagine her surrounded by dorm friends, pie-charts, plus and minus comparisons, spreadsheets, profile, anaylis, and headshots of other guys, and perhaps a lot of wine at our conservative Christian school trying to navigate the uncharted territory of Christian guys at our school (thank God, I was only up against Christian guys – lol).  Aside from me explaining to her that I was destined to have a lucrative career in youth ministry and that we would have a church van at our immediate disposal (provided that we properly sign it out), I’m not really sure what she was thinking.  Maybe she mooched off her friends too much and their encouragement of me was their revenge.  Maybe her former boyfriends were Kirby vacuum cleaner salesmen, or maybe she is crazier than me and I haven’t realized it yet.  Hmmmm.

Well, it’s been quite the year.  I’ve been saying that a lot lately and I hope (and for all of you) it becomes cliché because it generally means it was a year worth living.  Some of our prayers were answered this year and we’ve entered into a great season of parenthood.  We’re enjoying our church and receiving (and hopefully giving) a lot of love.

For years we’ve had conversations about the will of God and how they may not include our plans and dreams.  We were always convinced that our faith would not waiver for those types of reasons and sought His peace as we journeyed together.  These days, we’re better at doing life, our marriage is stronger, and we’ve been encouraged by God’s goodness once again.  We know that we will be in and out of good and tough seasons but it’s nice to have both kinds of pictures in the scrapbook.

Susan, you have become (and is becoming) an amazing woman.  Your beauty, joy, humor, spirit of forgiveness, and faith are gifts you give each day.  What can I give you on your birthday when material gifts would only dilute these words and my reciprocation wouldn’t measure up?  Still trying to figure that out after all these years, thanks for your patience, I hope our love is enough, Happy Birthday, Susan.  

Reflecting on Competition, the (Christian) American Dream – Post 2

I received a couple of emails and encouraging words of the USA Today post and competition as being part of the problem with our teen-agers.  I’d like to go a little further (which usually only ruins a good point and becomes the blog equivalent of smashing your guitar at the end of the set).

What would it look like if we didn’t put as much pressure on our students?  Before I delve in, here are a few qualifiers:

I am not against competition as a whole, there is fruit in it. 

I believe in personal responsibility and am trying to avoid being overly sympathetic to teenagers and see them as victims.

But I do want “us” (“us” = all from parents, to youth workers, to teachers, to politicians to rock stars, to baristas…) to be faithful to our callings and responsibilities.

I see a couple of questions:  What would it look like if we didn’t put as much pressure on our students?   What kind of dream are we encouraging our students to pursue?  Are we actually leading them (and ourselves) to good, healthy, meaningful lives?  Oh, and how about one more – what is the meaning of life?

My main problem is the “dream” that we sell our kids.  As you know, it goes something like this:  If you get good grades, and are balanced with music, sports, theater, you can gain entrance into a good college, and if you do well there, you can land a great job, marry a great person, get a nice home, vacation wherever you want, and do whatever you want to do.” 
In our Christian homes, we add “and make a commitment to Jesus …” making it the Christian dream. 

I don’t know anyone, literally, who does whatever they want to do.  Even rock-stars don’t do whatever they want.  (Not even if it appears that way on stage).

The dream is a mirage and you can feel free to deconstruct it.  And while I value education and encourage our students to meet their potential, and think SAT prep classes are a good idea, and believe there are many lessons learned in sports, theater, writing in the school newspaper, editing the yearbook, and the numerous other extracurriculars, most of us know that there is more to life.

Though it’s preached in churches, it also makes it’s point in movies like, “Family Man”, “Braveheart”, and even in “Spiderman” (and many others).  And the point is life must have meaning.

If I can transition from our students to “us” as a whole, I’d like to wind down to some kind of conclusion.    Though I believe the aforementioned pursuits and extracurriculars are worthy, important, necessary but only to an extent.  I value education but I also value love. I love athletics but also need the pursuit of peace.  I enjoy being entertained but desire the call to justice. 

Of course, being a youth pastor, I am expected to finish this with a commercial justifying the existence of my position and work.  Don’t fault me too much, I do believe in what I do. 

But this post isn’t intended to convert anyone.  This being a post on the internet, I do not want to presuppose my faith and values on you.  But can we agree that life must have meaning and that our world would be better if we encouraged ourselves and those that come after us to pursue a better dream?  I know as this conversation expands we would have different ideas of that dream and this is among the reasons why we have millions of books, but can we at least agree that the present dream is flawed?

Reflecting on USA Today Article: “Students Cheat, Steal, but say They’re Good.”

From this USA Today article:  “Students Cheat, Steal, but Say They’re Good”

“In the past year, 30% of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64% have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.

Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38% did so two or more times, up from 60% and 35% in a 2006 survey.”

Other findings:

• Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33% in 2004.

• Forty-two percent said they sometimes lie to save money — 49% of the boys and 36% of the girls.

Despite such responses, 93% of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77% affirmed that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

Why and how can this be?  Well the answer is Marylyn Manson of course!  Since his career faded out of the popular eye, this world has gotten a lot safer hasn’t it?  Kidding, my point is that you can’t blame pop-culture for the primary reason for these sorts of issues. 

Whose fault it is?  Everybody’s.  From parents, to teachers, to youth pastors, to marketers, to toll-both collectors to the students themselves. 

We create this incredible pressure on our students that they have to win at any cost, make money at any cost, look great at any cost, live the American dream at any cost.  Cheating, lying, stealing becomes part of the pragmatism to achieve that.

We create this huge pressure and then celebrate the brief positive moments that result.  All the while they stress out, cry themselves to sleep, tear ACL’s, go through eating, sleeping, and emotional disorders so we can clap proudly at graduation. 

Also, some of this is the human sinful condition.  (So to the person who might comment, “People are sinful.  Read Romans 3:23, it’s that simple…”) – yes, I understand that but I think it’s even deeper and more complicated. 

What’s the solution?  Sorry this is a blog so there aren’t too many solutions on these types of posts but I’d like to throw this out there. What if did our part to help get rid of competition?   Aren’t pick-up games more fun when you don’t really keep score?  Professional games that keep score are only fun for the winning team and its fans, right?  Is there a Cubs fan here that can yell a tearful “amen”?  (Until last month, Phillis fans were too depressed to even get on the internet, now they’re the most joyful people I know.)

As a youth pastor, I tell our students that I won’t pray for their grades or their class rankings (or that they get the lead in a play or the solo in elite choir), but will pray for their work ethic, stress, and time management skills.  As others have, I try to expose the “straight A” student as not the ideal life.  Nor is it the gamer or the first chair cello player.  What good is it for a person to graduate Valedictorian but lose his/her soul?

I want to be careful here and not be responsible for encouraging a generation of underachieving Bart Simpsons but a show full of Lisa’s is quite boring and not well-lived from my perspective.  Back to the point, we must do our part to discourage the succeed at any cost, competitive game that we seem to be caught up in.  More to say, but thoughts?

Monday Morning Brief – 12.1.08

Highlight of the Week – 1.  Yesterday we dedicated Nathan in our church.  We’ve prayed for this day for a while so that was cool. Also loved the little gathering at our place afterwards.  Wished we could have invited everyone but it was nice to be among family and a couple of friends.  2. Sister, brother-in-law, parent in-laws flew in for Thanksgiving (and dedication) 3. Really nice Thanksgiving Eve service.  (mentioned some of it in my thanksgiving reflection).

Disappointment of the Week – Aside for all the preparations for the dedication, I think my biggest disappointment was one of my fantasy football teams performing so poorly this season.  I really had high expectations this year.  Granted we lost a couple close games and had some tough match-ups but I’m paying a lot of fantasy money here and I really expected some better results.  Fair warning – no loyalties to anyone next year.    I am however, first in our other league. First round bye next week.   Not sure how strong we are heading into the playoffs though.  Haven’t had a good QB  and have been dragging Braylon Edwards the whole season (argh!).  We’ll see if it becomes a showdown between me and Evan.  These are my disappointments, so yeah, it’s been a good week.

Listening to: same as last week.  If you like good music though (as opposed to those who choose crappy music.  you know who you are), the best musician who you may never have heard of – Andy Zipf was named American Songwriter of the Week.  “Andy Zipf has built himself quite a cottage industry by constantly writing, touring and building a fan-base one friend at a time…”  I should blog about him sometime.  He really is the definition of an independent artist.  Owns all his music rights, plays shows constantly and never takes a short cut.  He is also a brilliant artist.  

Just Watched: Charlie Wilson’s War.  Really liked it.  I guess I didn’t realize it was rated R and watched it with some people who I wouldn’t normally watch such a movie with.  All consistent with the title. A little too much sensual gratuity, profanity, (apparently that’s how Charlie rolled according to the History Channel special) and of course scenes of violence (as usually is the case in “War”).  Once again, Tom Hanks is brilliant and a lot of fun to watch.  I couldn’t stop laughing at his wit and humor.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman was fantastic.  (Susan really liked his role).  Oh, and Julia Roberts is in it. I guess you tend to forget that it’s her so I guess that means it was a good performance. 

Youth Ministry Has Been:  off for Thanksgiving.  We had the Thanksgiving Eve service so no youth group that night.  Did have Sunday school and the day before had our annual Turkey Tackle Football game.  Good times.  Was also great to see returning college students too.  Most of them seem to be doing great.

Need To: Do a ton of schoolwork and a million other things.  This was a nice break though.  

Keeping in Mind:  The beginning of Advent and World AIDS Day. Hope to meditate on them both in the upcoming days.  

Thanksgiving Reflections

Though since Nathan was released to Susan and I from the hospital, it’s been easy to be thankful.  As everyone knows, life never really goes as planned.  I’ll turn 32 this Christmas Eve and my wife had thought since we married soon after college that we would have 2 or 3 kids by now and then be talking about adoption.  Today, I wouldn’t have changed a thing but it was a tough road getting here.  Grateful for the endurance that the Lord gives. 


All my life I learned that if there were solutions to almost every problem.  How many times was I struggling in a class but aced the big project and the final and got the A?  In tennis, I prided myself in coming back and forced an extra set?  When you’re sick, go to the doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics.  Feeling distant from the Lord?  Spend some more time seeking Him.  Said something insensitive to my wife?  Spend time seeking the Lord!  Add ministry, family relationships and friendships, car problems, etc, etc, and you get the idea.   But not all problems have solutions. 


At our church, I was given the job of roaming around with the mic for a time a time of sharing during our Thanksgiving Eve Service.  It was nice sharing as a community.  People said some beautiful things and I was touched.  My wife shared too and I was very grateful for her words  (She also went first and I appreciated that as well).


That doesn’t mean it’s been the easiest year.  My grandmother died this year after fighting years and years of a lung disease.  I miss her very much but grateful for her life and faith. Grateful especially that one of my most prayed words were answered when she met Nathan on Mother’s Day.  She had just gotten released from the hospital and we had just got him.  This year  was the first time in years that Susan truly looked forward to the day.  My sister flew in from AZ, all the family gathered at my grandmother’s house – it was great. Since we were without a senior pastor, I was given the privilege of preaching and it became a very special service.  It just all came together that Mother’s Day. 


Besides my family, I am grateful for the students (and their families) that I get to serve.  Thankful for our new senior pastor.  And most days, I sincerely enjoy working with our staff.  I’m honored to be a part of our church and am so appreciative of their support in my seminary education.  Then there are the countless friendships that I enjoy. 


I could go on and on, I am just in that mode right now.  And I know I haven’t written anything on salvation (Please don’t be that guy/girl who comments on that because this whole post is about that).  I spent some time thinking about previous years.  I also thought of those who were hurting this year.  For many it’s the first time without a parent or their spouse, widowed or divorced.  For many, it’s yet another without their child.  I hurt for those who spend their holidays in hospitals or planning funerals.  Car accidents and news reports of terrorists grieve me more on holidays.  So do the genocides all throughout the world and other tragedies.  I know this points to some flawed thinking but truth is, these hard realities plague me almost every day – less of course on the days that I am more self-seeking.


May the Lord be near those who are hurting today.  May the Lord be faithful to those who have praised Him and to those who have forgotten Him.  To Him, I give thanks.

Monday Morning Brief – 11.24.08

Highlights of the Week: 1.  Crawling baby boy is all over the place and we can’t get him to sit still.  2.  LEAD retreat with Andy Crouch and with Cohort 10.  Also enjoyed being with other cohorts.  3.  The Templeton foundation event was cool too.

Disappointment of the Weekend: Driving home from the retreat on the spare tire sucked.  Took me twice as long (4 hours) and no one carries it. Need to special order it – argh.  I did get to listen to some good music and some podcasts though.  2.  Some ministry disappointments that I am seeking wisdom on.  We need to practice courage. 

Watched: HBO’s The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo and wow, not sure I can process it. From the website:  

“Today, in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is taking place on a scale that is almost unimaginable. In the last ten years, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped – but their suffering goes unacknowledged. Instead, they are invisible, shamed and mute. This is the story of one filmmaker’s crusade to break the silence surrounding this shocking reality, armed with a firsthand connection with the women and men she meets.”

Listening to:  “Acid Tongue” – Jenny Lewis, “A Thousand Sons” – Snow Patrol, and  also enjoying Songs from Jacob’s Well – Even the Darkenss Will Not Be Dark to You – Mike Crawford and his Secret Siblings.  Like Jake Bouma, I picked up this cd at the Rec. Paul Conference and he has been blogging about it.  All I want to add is that it’s worth the hype.

Youth Ministry has been:  really good this week.  We had a crappy gathering about a month ago.  It was like everyone’s puppy got ran over that day.  There was a fair amount of complaining and general bad moods.  We talked about it and I’m happy to say that November has been a great rebound.  Youth Leaders have been more intentional, students have stepped up, and I hope I’ve been faithful to my responsibilities.  We did a series on disappointment (and expectation) called  “Letdown”.  Primary text was John 6; it was three weeks long with the last one was entitled “Is Jesus Enough”?  Last night was a solid student leader’s mtg. – proud of them. Maybe the best part of my week were the personal conversations I’ve been having with a couple of our students.

Not looking forward to:  Aside from the neglected homework and the monster to-do list, not really anxious.

Looking forward to:  Thanksgiving with the family, 2. We are dedicated Nathan next week and I like the Christmas/Advent Season. 

Reflecting on Andy Crouch, Sabbath, and cell phones

Evan and I were enjoying a discussion on the practice of Sabbath that was brought up by our time with Andy Crouch.   Like many (especially in the West and especially in the Northeast and especially with those who serve in a community in the shadows of NYC but I’m justifying and you get the point) the parts of the practice of Sabbath give me trouble.

I saw that Evan posted something on this but haven’t read it because I don’t want it to influence this post.  I think it will be interesting to see what we both come up with.  So here’s what I am thinking as I am drinking a cup of coffee from Peru in Steel City Coffee House in Phoeniville, PA. 

One of the few things in my life that I am generally pleased with is that I actually do take time to pray, meditate, read Scripture and whatever.  I try to have a time of Sabbath each day (or late at night as it is in my case).  I normally do this after I have littered, kicked my dog and gossiped about it.  Whatever goodness I claim in my time with the Lord, the idea of taking a day of Sabbath has been a different matter.   

I think it was in Velvet Elvis that Rob talks about his practice of Sabbath.  Almost a year ago, Tim Lucas from Liquid Church said in a service that he has a day where he turns off the cell, doesn’t look at email, and is with his family, etc.  I’ve heard similar stories say, “I tell the office don’t call me, I’m not answering, (there’s always some kind of concession for emergency), I’m spending the day detached from the world and in communion with God and family …

My practice of taking an actual day (like in the fundamentalist’s literal 24 hour period – lol) has always been sporadic, inconsistent, and at times non-existent. 

I’ve always envied those that have had found the discipline and community that have allowed for that Sabbath to happen.  Often I wonder if I can have it or if it’s that I won’t let myself have it. 

Can one practice Sabbath without turning off the cell phone?  Frankly speaking, I think that’s the overused example.  In fact, I’d like to make the argument that I am not controlled by my cell phone.  I hardly answer my phone when it rings.  In fact, I spend minutes being teased by my friends how they can never get me and so on.  Probably the most used feature is my voicemail.  Some of my friends read this blog and I know some will forever begrudge me but I think they know this anyway.  Because of the constant unproductively in my life, even my closest friends whom I love spending hours discussing my favorite subjects are sent to voicemail.  In fairness, I think most would say I call them back.  Sabbath from my phone is not what I need. 

Nor is it from this blog.  I present my case by the infrequent postings and the limited comments.  Regarding twitter, I have to remind myself that I have twitter.  These things do not control me. 

Perhaps the things that control me are the pressures and stress that I either inflict on myself or allow others to inflict on me.  There is also a healthy pressure that I labor for and I call it ambition.  A lot can be said about that but we all know that ambition has the potential to be a worthy pursuit.  That said, I confess the need for Sabbath.

But I think where I end up landing is here – What I think I need is not Sabbath for the sake of retreating from something but Sabbath to pursue someone/thing greater than I normally do.  I hope to reflect on this again.  

Andy Crouch – Discipline, Breathing, Sabbath and Scales – Session 2 Post 3

Session two began on the idea of Practices and Disciplines Andy defined “discipline” as a simple thing, maybe even uninteresting, done over and over so that you will eventually be free to do other things. He compared it to playing scales on the piano. Then he actually played scales on the piano. Normally that sort of thing that would bug me but I guess when you’re intelligent, talented and a have a great sense of humor, you can pull it off. He talked about “Breathing” – if you want to live musically, you need to learn how to breathe. Which led to a discussion on Sabbath. If we want to live more musically as Christians, then we have to learn to stop what we are doing and do the spiritual equivalent and breathe.  

For more, check out Evan’s notes.

Andy Crouch – violins, cds and satisfaction – Session 1, Post 2

Though I have been away from my family more than usual, it was good to be with my seminary friends on this retreat.  I’ve been looking forward to this retreat since they announced the speaker would be Andy Crouch.  So, after introductions, icebreakers, and a Sprit-filled time of worship, it was Andy’s time to speak.  He began from behind a keyboard talking about how he saw this sign at a Starbucks that said, “Live More Musically”.

Evan’s post has good notes, so check that out.  A lot of the time was focused on creating this chart between the benefits of playing the violin or playing a cd.  The point made was what gave the greater satisfaction in the long run.  Though there were advantages to the cd (like wide-distribution, great quality, portability), its satisfaction/enjoyment expires and descends.  While learning to play the violin becomes almost infinitely greater over time. 

Andy described that in order to continue to enjoy the playing of a cd, you need to constantly buy cds and it is similar to how we describe addictions.  We have set up our churches similar to this as well.  One of the issues that I have complained about over and over is the consumer mentality of churches.  Because we’re teaching people how to play cds, not teaching them how to play the violin.  So much more to say, but you get the idea.