On Being Out of Youth Ministry For a Year

If you have been around, you may have heard me say that I miss being in vocational youth ministry. This was the first year I haven’t been on a youth retreat or a student mission trip or planned a fundraiser or the ten thousand other things youth pastors do. Some of these things I’ve literally done regularly throughout the last 12 years of my life.

Of course, I miss the students but I promise not to get overly romantic about missing all the aspects of youth ministry. For instance, I don’t miss the fundraisers. Not because I’m embarrassed by raising money for important needs but because I refuse to believe that there are so many grandparents celebrating milestone birthdays on the mornings of our car washes.

If I’m being honest, I’m grateful for having this season off. With the arrival of our third and moving to a new community without our family and the supportive friends we had in NJ, it’s been a good thing to not have a mission trip, retreats and various weekend activities. It’s not just being away for those weekends but also the time in preparation, in meetings, in the gearing up – whoever thinks a mission trip consists of a that week has never led one.

Like everybody, I’m still busy – it’s a different type these days. But I do get to be home more at night and have more weekends free. Which has helped us connect with the relationships we were fortunate enough to have prior to moving here and the new ones we are creating.

It’s good for me to feel the honestly of missing so many things in youth ministry. It was a special and important time in my life. Also, it was very beneficial and here are some of the ways how:

Teaching. If you can teach high school and/or middle school students, you can teach just about anyone. I mean that. These kids are smart, they can be tough, they can be short on attention, respect, and can be apathetic to content that is not being graded and may not seem practical. Crafting messages that have been based on Scripture, that are relevant and beneficial to their lives, interesting enough to sustain attention, prophetic enough to challenge, and encouraging enough to proclaim that there is a God who exists and loves us has been the task I’ve been tackling for years. Every teacher knows there never really is a finished product but my current preparing/delivering has certainly been shaped by youth ministry. In teaching in different adult ministry contexts throughout this past year, one of the few things that I have knowingly changed has simply been asking myself, “Who is the audience?” Different starting point, very similar methodology.

So what’s the lesson here? If you suck at teaching students, there may be a place for you in adult ministry? Not really. However, it does seem that working with students really helps in all aspects of communication.

Relational Connection – Youth ministry taught me the difference between being a talking head and the indispensable qualities of being a pastor of young people. Most of us have heard the Howard Hendricks line, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I was never really impressed with the line, probably because I hadn’t met Hendricks (or that he didn’t know to care about me ;) but everyone who cares about the people they are leading discovers some form of this maxim eventually.  The other thing I learned was while you cannot be all things to all people (even if you consider yourself to be a “people person”)

You cannot relate to everyone, there is no such thing as a “universal personality.” It is impossible to learn every caveat of pop-culture and counter-culture. Part of the reason is due to the way counter-culture works – it’s intentionally exclusive.

So what’s the lesson here? If you can identify with a 14 year old girl obsessed with Twilight, you can connect with anyone? Not at all, simply celebrate all the people in your sphere of influence and build healthy Christian relationships.

Working With Dedicated Volunteers – These volunteers are the difference between the church as a serving body and a professionally pastorally run organization. They work together for sure but when volunteers are not supported by ministry staff and if ministry staff don’t have reliable volunteers, well, not only does the unity of the church suffer but very little execution of ministry and capacity for mission happens.

I’ve been preparing to do the training for our women’s Bible study tomorrow. A lot had gone into the vision of the year long before I was asked to help with the training. There’s a lot of depth to this ministry and there are a lot of people it utilizes. In fact, tomorrow there are separate training sessions for morning and evening respectively. Throughout the year they will be leading their women’s small groups through the book of Acts and I’ve been told that many of them have been leading for years and years and they do much, much more than teach.

There’s a lot of talk about “equipping and releasing” people for ministry and what qualifies as “discipleship” and what is dismissed as a Christian hobby. Dedication to the leading of the Holy Spirit from all is essential.

What’s the lesson here? Ministry involves people, time, training, and empowering others to serve. Regardless of the size of the church, there are a lot of moving parts, consider yourself blessed to play whatever role you are asked.

That last one comes natural for most youth pastors. Many don’t see the fruit of their labor for years.

I’m not going to suggest that everyone should go through youth ministry. For many reasons, I don’t think that’s true and among them is that it seems to limit how God uses people. But I do find myself extremely grateful for all the blessings of having served in youth ministry – the relationships, the memories, and how the experience continues to shape my heart and work today.

It will be interesting to reflect on how I continue to look back on this season. To the reader, feel free to share your insights on youth ministry or your respective past experiences – thanks for reading.

Reflecting on This Year’s Senior Sneak With the Class of 2012

Well, I’m probably writing this post too soon but I’m ok with that.

I’ll play it off as best I can but I was really excited when it was decided that the Sr. High graduates from my previous church were coming to Boston for their “Senior Sneak.” For those that don’t know, the “Senior Sneak” is this elaborate celebration for the graduating class of senior highers and it has become a long tradition at the Montvale Church started by … well we don’t know its exact origins but it could have been King David (because he liked to party).

The reasoning is multi-fold, one, we’re sorry for all the generic soda and lame snacks we’ve given them over the years, [Read more…]

Harry Potter and the Student Mission Trip – The Inconsistencies and Virtues of the Missional Life – Post 2-

The primary audience of this series of posts are directed … to me and maybe this one is for youth workers too.

There was a moment during one of our mission trips when a couple of our high school students were debating whether or not they should see the new Harry Potter movie that was coming out when we returned.

When asked for my thoughts I said, “Well I personally have no problem with Harry Potter. Are people really concerned with the magic & sorcery? I grew up on Lucky Charms and Narnia books, I’m now in the ministry …”

They replied, “No, not like that. It’s just odd to be serving at this AIDS Camp and then planning what we’re going to do next week.”

It’s here when they had my attention. I’ve always been sensitive to whether or not short term mission trips were a good thing. I end up concluding that they are when given the appropriate framework. In this case, I was concerned that this mission experience was simply going to be “consumed” similar to how the new Harry Potter movie was going to be “consumed”. On the other hand, I was grateful that they were aware of this tension and so like any good youth pastor, I fueled it.

“Good point, maybe you shouldn’t then.”

To which one replied, “Yeah that’s ok, I don’t really feel up for it anyway.”

It was odd for at least three reasons. One, it was a sudden reactionary response that killed the conversation without resolve. Two was because we were sweating in the intense heat of the Bahamian sun and the prospect of air-conditioning, a comfortable chair and a refreshing cold Coke would be quite alluring (Who is the idiot that chooses these mission trips in July?? Oh ;). The third was it wasn’t my point at all. I simply didn’t believe that God was going to be any more glorified had they gone or not.

I’ve always been in the habit of saying something like “Don’t go on these mission trips, be moved by the experience and return home despising your suburban upbringing. Don’t disdain your family, destroy your material possessions and judge the life-style of others. If you are a suburbanite, you are one, until you move to the countryside or into to the city. Instead, share what you have gained from the experience and invite others to dissever it for themselves. The short term mission trip has many blessings, among them is that it encourages those who are being served to feel the care of countless complete strangers. Another set of blessings is extended to the one doing the serving.”

This is part of the framework that we try to create. This is deepened by the idea that we are to serve in the way of Jesus, which is concerned much more with the attitude and the relationship than with the metrics of the work (though how much work we do is part of stewardship). It’s this attitude that I hope we return with more than the desire to keep building cabins and sidewalks here in the ‘burbs.

I know all of us in ministry want to see tangible differences but having our students sell all their possessions, drop out of high school and become some type of suburban monastics may not be wise, sustainable or even Christ-like. The opposite of that would of course be, having students return home with no distinct differences aside from being tagged in a handful of pictures, a souvenir or two, maybe an encouraging note given by a youth leader and the thought, “I did my part, now where’s the remote?” The latter would certainly be Exhibit A of the poverty tourism argument.

Regular readers know that I like the gray areas and here is no exception. Similar to my first post in this series on “compassion fatigue”, we have to accept who we are and who we are changing into. Not everyone should return from a mission trip, sell all their possessions and return and serve. It’s profoundly beautiful when we see people receive this calling and similarly, we need to receive our own callings. More on that later in the series.

I cannot count the number of times when a student has returned home from serving in New Orleans or at the AIDS Camp and a friend says to them, “I cannot believe you were cleaning out one of those houses destroyed in Katrina – you don’t even clean your room.”

Or in the words of another female student, “My friend said to me, ‘I believe you, but I just can’t picture you helping like that with your church. It hurt at first but I totally got to explain it to her.'” It’s in these accusatory conversations that I believe God finds joy and the server discovers that they have been changed as they were trying to bring change.

That’s a very powerful moment and among the other moments and prayers, I hope God uses all types of lessons to help us with all sorts of virtues contextual to our lives. Maybe in this case, we end up consuming less, giving more, caring more, serving more, judging less and grow in the life that Jesus modeled for us.

Thankful For the Lessons Learned While Serving in Youth Ministry – Thanksgiving Series – Post 1

This week, I am posting a series on some of the blessings I’ve been thankful for that I haven’t expressed before. So here we go:

First up, I’m thankful for the lessons I learned in youth ministry. Until this September, I had been serving in vocational youth ministry since the beginning of 2000. One of these days, I’ll try to intelligently post on my transition. But until then, know that I loved being a youth pastor.

As I have been enjoying settling into my new position, there have been moments that I’ve missed serving in youth ministry.  Like when the Montvale group (my previous church) shared about their mission trip experience at the end of September (was thrilled to watch my young friend Jorge’s video of our trip). Other examples include hearing about their fall retreat and seeing my new church’s youth pastors lead their respective retreats. Our middle school pastor, Andrew, told an incredible story of one student’s experience last month and among my thoughts were, “I used to tell that story.”

That said, I’ve been grateful not to be away these weekends now with our third child having just been born and two little ones wrecking havoc on our home. My dear wife is a trooper and since she’s taken that Mom’s class led by the Marine veteran, I think we’ve “taken back the beach” – Oorah! Still, I look at back at my time in youth ministry and here’s what I am grateful for:

1. Youth ministry demanded that I be a better speaker and taught me how to hold people’s attention. You think the adult listening span is short, try a 9th grader’s. There are countless lessons I learned by teaching young people over the years from reading body-language, to the way humor works, inflection, pacing, to “what’s in my head is not coming out right from my mouth, now what do I do …. just keep moving, don’t let them sense weakness or lack of confidence … must take back the beach!”

2. Youth ministry forced me to pay attention to practical theology. Many times, I was the first person to explain an essential doctrine like the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Not only did this mean that I had to explain these theologies in understandable terms, but I needed to truly think and live them out.

3. Youth ministry helped me to see the world of contextualization. Here I am as an X’er leading Millennials who are being parented and educated by Boomers in an ever-changing society. Add to it that I’m proclaiming a God, that among the things we say about Him is that He is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” Contextualization was the key for learning the balance between relevance and timeless truths.

4. Youth ministry taught me to be a better leader. It taught me how to deal with criticism from students, from parents, from volunteers, fellow staff members, from soccer coaches …. did I miss anyone? I learned the values of listening, decision-making, forgiveness, seeking forgiveness and the need to keep pressing on among other needed lessons.

5. Youth ministry made it clear that they key to ministry is loving people and showing them you care.

So it turns out, that I’m getting back in the saddle. This Sunday I’ve been asked to teach the 6th Grade Sunday School class on “something from church history that doesn’t suck.” I’m a little nervous but I feeling up for it.

Indeed, there were many more lessons gained along the way. If you’re a youth worker, feel free to post yours. If you’re not, feel free to post a lesson you are thankful for in your walk of life.
This week I am posting on why I am thankful for the emerging church movement, Facebook and … Donald Trump.

Reflecting On the Nassau’ Mission Trip 2 Months Later

This past Sunday, the students and leaders from my previous church shared about the week that we spent in Nassau serving at the All Saints AIDS Camp. Though I wished I could have been there to see and be a part of the presentation, I was confident that the MEFC community were going to have a great morning together.

Not too many days go by when I don’t think about the “All Saints AIDS Camp”. I think of the residents, I think of the missionaries Tim and Felicia, I think of the organizations that are serving there, namely Next Step Ministries (but I know there are more), I think of the various staff people and mission teams (Minnesotans!) that we got to connect with as well and a host of others. I remain unmoved by how important short-term missions are. While there are bugs to work out in these types of missions and while there are numerous bad stories out there, these experiences are extremely powerful and they do so much good on numerous sides.

So here’s what I am thinking about today. My hope is that residents of the camp think of the couple hundred people that came through this summer and remember that many care about them. I love that they post our pictures in their cabins and I hope they remember the prayers, the laughs, the hugs, the awkward moments and the kind gestures – I know I do.

I hope we never forget what we experienced through our senses – the smell, the heat, the dirt, the sounds and the things that our eyes see that don’t come through our pictures.

I hope my young little family serves together on a mission trip (like our friends did from Minnesota). I am among those that could not care less if they make it to the “Big Leagues” and I don’t care to see their names in lights. I know Susan and I would be grateful to see them choosing to live a life that is faithful to the unique calling they received from the Lord (whatever that means, accounting, the NHL, non-profit work, whatever).  As we hope to get there I pray that we are always involved in the mission of the Kingdom of Jesus. I hope we are always loving and serving “the other”.

I hope our leaders lead their own trips. I’ve recently filled out recommendations for two people who will be serving in a leadership position with a missions organization next summer. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me feel. And while I know the Lord would have led them to this one way or another, it’s so good to be a part of it.

I hope our students never just see this as an “amazing trip” as if it were a sight-seeing adventure. I hope it continues to shape them. I hope they always wrestle with the superficialities of the world and the realness of what they encountered. I hope they struggle with that feeling of wondering if they are the only one who cares and I hope that moves them to action, sharing the message, and praying to the Lord for strength.  I hope their character grows, their humility deepens and their faith grows.  And I hope they are always willing to labor for those that God cherishes.

Reflecting on Our Trip to the All Saints AIDS Camp Part 2 – What We Found This Time Around

Monday morning, almost 60 of us (2 youth groups and Next Step Staff) crammed onto a bus and headed to the All Saints AIDS Camp. I sat on a cooler in the back wondering about a few things. One, this is going to be the coolest I’ll feel all day. Two, I wonder what is going on in the minds of our first-timers and lastly, I can’t wait to see how the camp is different since we left, how much work has been done since two years ago, and how much we’ll get done this week, and what about the feel of the camp since the missionaries arrived and … my mind kept racing (It’s been like that for months).

If I can be honest, upon surveying the camp, I was a little disappointed. Not the type of disappointment of “I can’t believe this is all that got done – they should have a Starbucks here by now!” But more the disappointment of, “Wow, none of the cabins are completed and none of the residents can move in yet.”

The reality started setting in and I realized that I was thinking like a typical Northeastern American with my unrealistic expectations and projecting my sense of suburban entitlement in the middle of a forgotten AIDS Camp. As I looked around, I realized a good amount of work had been done and heard about some of the developments
like how the “model house” that we first worked on was now going to be a Nurse’s Station. Three other houses could be completed by the end of this summer if electricity and plumbing can get figured out. The sidewalk is becoming safer (my crew helped was putting in a handrail. I’d say at least a third of it is completed). Another of our groups put in a small parking lot that can fit about 5 cars for deliveries, work crews and visitors. And more plans are in the works but of course it highlights the need for volunteer groups to keep coming and hustling.

There were some other developments that I was discouraged about. Like when I heard how one set of parents abandoned their 4 year old to what is believed to re-enter a life of drugs and prostitution. Last time we were here, we spent a good amount of time talking to this family and playing with their daughter. We also started to understand a little more about how the camp is organized (or unorganized). This led to a few other questions speculating about motives and such. It reminded us of how poverty is always punctuated by among other things, broken relationships and oppressive systems.

I was happy to hear of some of the other improvements. The new missionaries (Tim and Felicia who moved from Wisconsin and arrived just after our first trip in the summer of ’09), have arranged for clean water to be delivered throughout the week, organized hot meals, have advocated for better medical care, have connected the camp with more local organizations and have prayed/ministered at countless opportunities.

Then there were some things that haven’t changed. Like our friend Arthur still sings hymns to all who come to visit him on his porch (if you could hear this man with HIV sing “I Am the Lord Your Healer”, it would bring a tear to your eye). Miss Moxie still hugs everyone who comes in her door and asks for Psalms to be read and Brother Vincent is still listening to his Bible and preaching as often as he can. Wheelchair bound, malnourished and blind, they are still praising the Lord.

Earlier this post, I mentioned the need for volunteer groups to continue to come to help with the construction, but that’s only half the story. They are also needed to help with relationship-building. They are needed to help bring a sense of justice to this camp and they are needed to share the hope of Jesus to these souls. We’re glad that we have discovered the virtue of returning to the same places on our short-term mission trips. Because although we’ve been here before, it was a different experience this time and I am sure it will be different the next time too.


Reflecting on Our Sr High Mission Trip to the All Saints AIDS Camp, Nassau Bahamas – Post 1

We just got back from our student mission trip to the All Saints AIDS Camp located in Nassau, Bahamas and I have to say it was fantastic. We had a great experience the last time we went as well and deep down inside, a few of us feared that it wouldn’t be as special as last time. But we also knew that we don’t go on mission trips to simply “get special feelings” and I think that’s why we ended up with one. That makes sense right?

If this is your first time reading about this here’s a bit of context. About 15 miles from the beautiful beach resorts sits this camp for about 30 people who have HIV/AIDS and/or have no other place to turn. Their conditions are deplorable and a couple of organizations like Next Step Ministries and missionaries (like Tim and Felicia who arrived a couple years ago) are committed to improving their living standards while serving in the name of Jesus. (You can check out my other posts for more starting here).

As I have been thinking about the trip these last few days, I find myself grateful that a number of concerns that I had been praying for worked out as well as they did. As mentioned, our group was here two years ago and it was such an incredible experience that I know I was not the only one who was afraid that the glory of old would potentially become a stumbling block for us. I am grateful that it wasn’t. It seemed to me that the returning students were intent on letting this year’s trip be this year’s trip.

Another concern was our first-timers.   They’re usually young, idealistic, and I still like them.  It’s exciting to have them but there is always concern if they believe the trip is going to be something that it isn’t. I am grateful to say they came ready to work and build relationships.

Then there was my concern/hope that all would work out with our leaders. Because of the way things went, we ended up bringing 7 leaders. Each of them are wonderful and have great hearts. Each of them different, each of them opinionated like most Northeasterners (yeah we definitely lack that friggin’ Midwest charm), and then add me to the mix :). All I know is that we have the best leaders a youth pastor and his students (and a church family) could ask for. Amazing and wonderful people and I continue to be so grateful for their sacrifices and hearts.

I get very sensitive regarding short-term missions. I was not always a believer of them and I understand the concerns/objections some have towards them, especially if the trip is reduced to a form of “poverty tourism” and the theme becomes, “We don’t have it so bad where we are from – aren’t you glad you’re not them.” (But if you are not careful, you might be even worse off – more on that in a future post that might morph into next week’s sermon). But that didn’t happen either, instead I felt that we were truly broken for the hurt we saw as we asked God to help us see everyone the way He saw them (and may we have the courage to see ourselves as He sees us).

We absolutely loved the Next Step Staff. The recruiting they do is pretty impressive. A bad staff could potentially hurt a trip but between their talents and their hearts, they really were an incredible blessing to all of us. I hope they have a great rest of the summer and find ways for God to continue to use them so powerfully. What was also great about it was there was 8 of them this year (as opposed to 4 the last time. And for the record, the 4 last time were amazing and I know the Lord multiplied their efforts. But a bigger staff was really helpful, especially since there more than 50 us this time as opposed to 17). So fellow youth pastors, please consider this a strong endorsement for Next Step Ministries – check them out here.

Then there was the “other youth group”. Raise your hand if you have ever served with another church and that be …. hmm … looking for the right word … “interesting” experience (I have a few of my hands raised ;) and I am sure we can be that group for others too).  That said, a very special aspect of our trip was sharing this week with the youth group from Minnesota. They were a great bunch of students and they had a wonderful leaders as well. We were broken up into crews and our projects included roof work on two cabins, demolishing an old one, cement mixing for a parking lot, painting, and construction of a handrail to make the new sidewalks safer (I was on the handrail crew). All of us felt a great connection serving and talking with each other. The only lamentable thing about them was that they are Twins fans – Oh well :)

There were a few other things to highlight and I’ll begin there tomorrow as I can not wait to write a good bit about the residents, the missionaries, and the video series Next Step created and showed us this week. Thanks for reading!

Our Student Mission Team Is Returning to an AIDS Camp

If you know me or if you have been following this blog for a while, you know I am a believer of short-term missions. While I see some of the shortcomings of these trips, I have also experienced the virtues of these weeks.

This year, we are returning to the All Saints AIDS Camp with Next Step Ministries. We will be headed to the Nassau, Bahamas this weekend and be there until the 17th. Our main objective is to do what we are told to do cheerfully and effectively in the name of Jesus (If you have worked on a short-term trip, you’re probably smiling and know exactly what that means). What I believe we are actually doing is building cabins for the residents of the camp. Two years ago, we worked on cabins and spent the other half of the time destroying sidewalk and repaving a new one. The sidewalk was completed last summer and most of the projects are focused on cabin building, a new bathhouse, kitchen-cafeteria and perhaps a chapel.

It’s always been interesting to me that the All Saints AIDS Camp used to be a leper colony. The camp sits on a ridge on the opposite side of the resorts, down a long winding dirt road overlooking a cliff and a cemetery. There is a little bit of electricity and access to water. Other amenities include a picnic table.

Still, we found most of the residents to be cheerful. One woman we made a connection with frequently asked us to read Scripture to her and she would love to sing hymns. There were many like her which we found to be incredible. There has always been a Christian presence in the camp and many of the residents are professing believers. After our trip, the camp received resident missionaries whom we have been praying upon hearing the incredible news. I am curious to how the camp feels since their arrival.

Upon hearing the possibility of this place (at the National Youth Workers Convention in Pittsburgh of ’08), I was quick to dismiss it. I mean taking high school students to an AIDS Camp and hearing all the jokes of a mission trip to the Bahamas is a tough sell. That day, had you told me that it would have been one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives, I probably would not have believed you.

It’s become a very special place to me. You pray very different when you’re at a place like that. Last time I was there, my wife was pregnant with Dylan and she’s now pregnant with a little girl. I’m telling you, you think differently about life when you’re there. It’s a special place and our students were very moved by the experience. And one moment I’ll always remember is one of our girls turning 16 there.

There are countless things to remember but one of my another highlight was getting a tour of the island on our free day by one of the residents … who was blind. I’m eager to meet up with him again and though I expect that he won’t remember me, we certainly remember him and his story of God’s deliverance.

If you would remember to pray for a few things that would be great.
– Pray that we would be “agenda-free” and only focused on serving in the name of Jesus. One of our collective concerns is the temptation to recreate our previous experience (which would be like us making an idol and worshipping that memory instead of God).
– Pray for our safety and health. It’s extremely hot and we’re building cabins, tools are sharp, wood is heavy, and though we are very safety conscious, please pray for God’s hand to be upon us.
– Pray for those we will be serving and serving with. As wonderful as it is for Americans to come and help build a new home for you, it must get a bit exhausting talking to a new group each week. We do our best to communicate to our team that we are not tourists but there is obviously a relational element to these weeks. And so we pray that those who we are serving would be blessed in many ways by us. We will also be serving with another church (from Minnesota) and we’re looking forward to meeting them.

I’d like to think that post a thought or two next week but I’ll be more committed to being there, so we’ll see.

For more context, you can about our trip two years ago here and here.

Reflections On The Senior Sneak and Ode to the Class of 2011

Each year we go on a “Senior Sneak” where we break the bottle of perfume and show extravagant love to those graduating seniors who were an active part of our group. Over the years, we have found this impracticality to be an appropriate demonstration of our love for them. Every year there is some form of deception (Rahab-esque deception, not Ananaias & Saphira type, you see?). One year, I created a false itinerary, another year I created a packing list with items they wouldn’t need, and one year, we just hid the info from them (they weren’t that bright of a class ;)

This year, we told them the Sneak was cancelled by the trustees because of budgetary concerns, then because we felt “so bad”, we “scheduled” a much lamer lunch after church. But of course, the Sneak was never really cancelled. With the help of their parents, we took them to Boston to see Owl City and enjoy the town.

Every year there is some type of theme. This year’s was “Say Good-bye to High School”. Which explains Owl City. Most of our students loved Fireflies … in 10th grade. But Owl City works well for us. Adam Young professes to be a believer, he creates fun music and he’s not trapped in the Christian sub-culture. The new album was just released last week and I’ve always wanted to take the group to Boston.

I won’t bore you with how the theme worked in and out of our time but we did the typical Boston thing: We spit at Fenway, walked around late at night, did the Freedom Walk Tour, saw the Harbor, ate at Quincy Market and finished our time at the Boston Commons. It was our last stop that was by far the most special. We sat in a circle each person had something said about them by everyone in the group. I allotted an hour and half for this – between the tears, the hugs, and the heartfelt words, it took us a little over 3 hours. It was needed closure. Not only did some things need to be said, it was probably the last time we’d have this opportunity together. It was beautiful and I’ll never forget it.

The best Sneaks are with classes that not only never gave up on our youth group community but sincerely tried to follow Jesus together. And the class of 2011 is special. I told them during the graduation portion of the worship service that in my 11 years of ministry, they were in my Top 10. But the truth is, they are a unique class. They were a big class filled with strong personality types, many very gifted in the arts and they really had bought into what we were trying to do as a ministry (it wasn’t always easy but they hung in there).

I also feel that God used this class to bring out the best from us as youth leaders. They were sharp, servant-hearted (though extremely busy) and always wanting to dive deeper. They read Don Miller, Scot McKnight and a good few had read Gabe Lyon’s Next Christians (a gift from this year’s Winter Retreat). How cool was it that on the Monday of the sneak, USA Today had a feature entitled “Can Cause of Social Justice Tame Our Culture Wars?”. (Not sure if we thought that was God providentially winking at us or maybe USA Today always runs stuff like that).

They are also special to me because of where they fit in my own life. Many of them were in the room when I announced publicly for the first time that we adopted Nathan. They were among the first to hear that Susan was pregnant with Dylan. And then again, that we are having a baby girl this September. In lesser of life importance but still very cool moments, we watched the Giants win the Super Bowl together and we cancelled Sr. High Youth group to watch the Yankees beat the Phillies in ’09 (we just knew it would happen in Game 6). We served on mission trips to New Orleans, an AIDS Camp in the Bahamas and picked up trash together and various other things. Looking back on it, I’m moved by how much we did together over the years.

I told them that I don’t know who I am going to argue with now. The Class of 2012 is much smarter, much more polite, and they already agree with me ;). But truly was an honor to be their youth pastor during their high school years. While we will always be brothers and sisters in God’s family, things will be different from this point on but these are the days I am extremely grateful for Facebook (because you don’t really have to say good-bye, just “See you around”) and these are the days I feel blessed to be a youth pastor.

God’s grace to the Class of 2011 and don’t forget Mark 12:29-31!

Teens, Plastic Surgery and Cindy Jackson

Over the weekend, I heard about this woman named Cindy Jackson who has had over 60 cosmetic surgery procedures and has spent over $100,000 on the work spanning the last 25 years. Oddly, she doesn’t look terrible at all. In fact, if I saw her at Shop Rite, I’d think she was another 50 year old woman. But she is not ordinary, she actually holds the Guinness Book of World Records for most cosmetic surgeries. She is even now a cosmetic surgeon consultant (which has to be a real easy job :) and she’s dating a 29 year old dude. Perhaps in her world she has it all. Obviously she has money, the attention of men, she probably has a loyal following of women who are cheering her on as she fights the war on the aging process.

If she was a comic book character, she’d be armed with a scalpel and sleep in a botox chamber and fighting against an ugly character named Dr. Hideous. (I should totally pitch this to Comedy Central later today. Oh wait, I’m hanging out with students later  – Oh well).

Now I am not against plastic surgery procedures, I think in some cases, it’s a worthy consideration. But I do start getting nervous when we talk about teen-agers and plastic surgery. By now you may have heard stories of 15 year olds going under the knife to fix certain birth defects. In some cases, they may be a good idea in the same way that braces are. In other cases, it seems likely that such procedures will have a negative impact on students and society.

What does it say about us as a society when we admit to treating you better if you looked a certain way? We might be inclined to react and say, “Hey that’s how society is!” Believe me, I know. I was the sole minority in my school until 10th grade and the only kid with a middle-eastern shnoz in the county – I remember. But I remember also thinking that my identity can’t solely come from my appearance and like all adolescents, the search of “Who am I?” began. But what does it say about the society?

I’ll be the first to say that things are different today than they were in the late 80’s-early 90’s and it would be foolish to only compare the way things were to the way things are. As a youth pastor, my heart goes out to the teens of today for the many different types of pressures they endure. And while I would like to remind them that there are incredible blessings about being a young person today, I get that it’s hard too. I remember one of our female students explaining the number of girls in her school who have undergone procedures to help them look great in a bathing suit. And I’ll never forget the line, “It’s not just the people at the beach who see you, because of Facebook everyone sees you!” Indeed things are different today.

I don’t want to cite examples of what I deem as legitimate and what is not, it’s too judgmental (I think we can all agree that lypo-suction is not a moral issue right?). And I will be the first to say that this a gray area and that’s ok too because I like gray areas. But I will say that it seems wise to say that cosmetic surgery to fix things like birth defects is quite different than cosmetic surgery to attempt at looking “perfect”. Cindy spending $100,000 and sixty procedures articulates that quite well. I submit that deep down inside she would prefer the unconditional love of a man that truly loves and accepts her faults and all than to be with a 29 year old guy who may not be around when the money and botox run low.   And even more importantly, I hope she genuinely “accepts herself”.

This is among the many aspects that I love about the Christian ethic. It demands that we treat people the way we would want to be treated. It reminds us that we are all flawed and in need of redemption and it offers us identity in our most original design by the Creator Himself. That cannot be found in 6 weeks of recovery after the initial consultation. Which brings us to another question, “What does it say about a society that accepts and loves people for who they are?” I know some may scoff at the idealism here. And it’s true and with the risk of more scoffing, I’d like to add that this “heavenly society” offers that we live the good life forever with our Maker and Redeemer. This is where identity is found and nurtured. And it’s my hope that those searching can find it.