Doubt is Good … Reflecting on Our "Religulous" Winter Retreat – Part 2

Doubt is Good For the Soul
The first time I showed Religulous to our youth leaders, some confessed that they felt guilty for laughing. Being a product of sacrilege, I didn’t think too much of it. I was more concerned about the doubt that would be created and reinforced – which was part of the reason I was showing the movie. Everyone I know doubts. Not just Christians – I mean everyone I know doubts something that they were at one point certain about.

It’s my opinion that we don’t doubt enough! If we did, I think many of us would have a stronger faith. For many the first time they truly examine their doubts is in the proverbial ancient literature class where they discover the idea of “Genre”. The Bible is a narrative with various genres – Historical, Law, Poetic, Apocalyptic,

I think a solid youth ministry discusses that first. For Bible-believing Christians, we don’t teach our students enough Bible. There are various reasons for that which I can’t get into here but we don’t teach enough Bible. Even more importantly, as Bible-believing Christians, we don’t teach our students enough the importance of walking in the Spirit. When we explore our doubts as we are seeking the Holy Spirit, a lot of beauty, truth, and the presence of God is found.

“Umm, God, Do You Really Exist. Can I ask that without getting smited?”
God is not afraid of our questions. I used to think He was. I used to think that my submitting any question in the direction of God would grieve God and I’d either get cursed with a broken television or worse get called into pastoring at a King James Version only church (I can the blog reader say it right now, “If the King James was good enough for St. Paul – it’s good enough for me!”.

Doubt is Two-Edged Sword
All that said, doubt is a two-edged sword. People give up the Christian faith for various reasons, but among them is because of a giving into their doubts. Bill Maher would say something like, “No, they grew up out of these idiot fantasies about space gods and virgins and started thinking for themselves!” But whenever I think of some of his statements, the CK Chesterton line comes to mind, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

The Line Between Great Doubt and Great Faith is Very Thin
I used to also think that the less you doubted the more your faith grew. Though I’m not a good linear thinker, if you could picture a line and on the far left, it was labeled, “Great Doubt” and the far right “Great Faith”, i would have assumed that they were polar opposites from each other. But I think it’s a pretty thin line. It’s when we believe in spite of the doubt, in spite of the pain, that our faith is growing.

I see Matthew 7:7-8 as a promise to the seeker of faith (“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened”) and reminded our students as I have been reminded many times, great people of faith doubted before they obeyed – Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Thomas and you could even make the case that Jesus was tempted to fall into doubt. When He’s prays in the garden for the cup to pass over him, that is not just poetry. Luke 22 describes that he prayed so earnestly that drops of blood fell to the ground. Wether this is figurative language or the A rare physiological phenomenon “hematohidrosi“, he was certainly stressed. I dislike the idea that Jesus skipped his way to His crucifixion and gave a “thumbs up” before being nailed to the cross. In fact, it’s this Jesus in Gesthemane that encourages my faith. Indeed, Jesus knows what it’s like to at least be tempted to doubt … and to believe.

I’m not sure where I found this now but have loved it:

The Skeptic’s Prayer
Dear God,
sometimes I’m not altogether sure what I believe or why I believe it. But I do want to know you. I want to find you. I thank you that you’re walking with me on this journey, even though it often doesn’t feel like it. I invite you to plan an even bigger role. Guide me, lead me, help me, God. I want to rest in you. I want to work with you. I want to believe in you.

Reflecting on our "Religulous" Winter Retreat Post 1

Last weekend we went on our Sr. High Winter Retreat to Harvey Cedars. For the past few years, these winter retreats have been very confirming moments in our youth ministry. We’ve been doing movie-themed weekends (Crash, Saved!, The Matrix) and getting into deeper discussions than we normally get to during our Wednesday night gatherings. Being away from a Friday to a Monday, not having school the next day and having multiple sessions allows for us to dive deeper into our themes.

This year we showed Religulous and our main themes centered around doubt, faith and practice.

What’s interesting to us about Bill Maher is that he grew up in Rivervale, NJ and graduated from Pascack Valley High school which is less than a mile from our church and of course attended by several of our students. He grew up attending a Catholic church in the next town as well. As his story goes, they stopped attending when he turned 13. We laughed several times at these connections and we couldn’t resist wondering if Bill ever visited our church.

What would we have said to him? What should we have said? We made it clear that we ought not to demonize Bill. He’s not an enemy of the faith. In fact, he brings up various points that we found easy to agree with. Generally speaking most of the types of Christianity he presents in his mockumentary are types of Christianity that I disagree with as well. From greedy televangelists to characters and visitors at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience, I shook my head too many times frustrated by what is considered “Christian”. We all did.

While it is necessary for us to remain humble and acknowledge the many stumbling blocks that we have created, I hope we were reminded that we desperately need to be a better Church. We need to practice a better Christianity.

Reflecting On Our Invisible Children Screening

What is Invisible Children?
For those who don’t know, for many years these children were being abducted by Joseph Kony’s army the LRA and turned into child soldiers (and many of the girls were trafficked).  To avoid being abducted, many of the children would commute out of their village and to a bigger town and sleep in hiding. The next morning they would return to do their schooling and chores and then commute back (There are some absolutely horrific and heartbreaking stories).  Since the ceasefire in 2008, Cony’s army is believed to be in the Congo and night-commuting has stopped.  This has become an important time for healthcare and education. You can learn more and watch short video clips at and order the full length dvd’s, which of course helps raise funds.  You can read more of the beginning of IC here.

How We Got Involved
For me, It started when my friends Todd Hiestand and Gary Alloway were planning to take their church, The Well, to a sleepover in center city Philadelphia to create awareness for the “Invisible Children” of Uganda.  Like most people I know, there are so many causes and organizations that need help.  How do you discern which caues/organizations to support and which ones not to?  It’s an impossible question but I’m of the school of thought of being faithful with the opportunities that present themselves and for us, this came was one of them.

I was very moved by the first Invisible Children dvd called “The Rough Cut”.  It’s disturbing alarming and even more depressing is knowing that Uganda is not the only place of such evil atrocities.  A few years ago, we showed it to our Sr. High youth group.  They too were moved.  Immediately, I had facebook posts and emails about what we could do to help.  It started by taking a  collection and later buying a  few dvd’s and a few shirts.  Last year we saw another one called “Sunday”.  It’s a story centered around a teen-age boy named Sunday that lost his family but now dreams of being a doctor.  This past summer at YS’s DCLA, we saw their newest one called “Go” which features their new “Schools for Schools” campaign (American schools helping Ugandan ones). Afterwards we signed up to host a screening.  One of the awesome “roadies” called us and the date was set for Wed. Oct 21st.

Aside from raising financial support, creating awareness is an  extremely important part of the cause. We are not a large church  and not a large youth group but we decided that this was a cause  that we wanted to share with our friends.  In some ways, this  became a way of discussing faith and religion with others.  But  instead of asking questions like, “Do you know where you will go  after you die?”, a better question was “Would you like to come to  a free documentary screening about the atrocities in Uganda?  It’s  really moving and we can help.”

Flyers were created, Facebook invites were sent, and quite  seriously, most of our students felt this was among the easier  things to invite people to.  The weekend before our screening, we  stood outside grocery stores, Starbucks, and went business to  business asking if we could post our flyers.  When the night  finally came, we had almost 200 people.  Even better was that  crowd brought their wallets and bought shirts, dvd’s and signed up for the “Tri-campaign” ($3/week to IC).

We had a really solid response afterwards from students, parents, and people from our community we met at A&P, who saw our signs in deli’s, laundromats and Facebook.  One mother called me the next day and said something to the effect of, “You are showing us that we need to rethink evangelism.”  I think I’ll save that for another post but that was a moment that did my heart some good.

Invisible Children is a form of the Gospel.  And screenings are an excellent opportunity of telling our communities that Christians care about the needs outside its walls.  Further, the situation in Uganda is dire.  I’d like to encourage you to look into this, especially my fellow youth pastors.

How you can get involved:

  • Go up on and watch some of their shorter video clips.
  • Order some DVD’s
  • Read up on the history of the war in Uganda.
  • Consider inviting a bunch of friends and host a screening with the hopes of creating awareness
  • Not a youth pastor?  Consider showing a documentary to a few friends or your church small group.
  • Commit to giving through the “Tri” Campaign (3 bucks a week)

So what’s next for us? It looks like a benefit concert.
As always, holler if you have any questions.  Would love to help in any way I can.

Why We Were Created (As Told to Our Sr. High Group)

Last night kicked off our first night of Sr. High youth group.  I was glad that it went pretty well.  This year’s theme is simply called, “God & The Other”.  Ironically, the series began by talking about ourselves, specifically for what purpose were we created.

Though I am somewhat familiar with the idea that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism), I am not sure that accurately sums it all up.   I was raised in thinking that we were created to worship God in all that we do.  While there’s truth in that statement, I’ve always found it lacking.

From a very early age, I knew where I would spend my eternity and I tell you, it scared me.  Clearly I remember hearing the older ladies behind me squawking as we sang these hymns in slow motion.  Then the worship leader would proudly say, “This is what we’re going to do in heaven! Worship God with the angels for aaaalllllll eternity!”  This distressed me because I found it nearly impossible to get through our Sunday morning worship service.   In fact, I remember being relieved when the worship leader would say, “Only the 2nd & 4th verse!” because we were short on time.  My motivations were suspect when I prayed for the rapture to come every Sunday.

Many times I can remember staying up at night feeling guilty that I did not want to go to heaven.  I didn’t want to go to hell obviously but in heave (as it was described) I was afraid I would be bored and when every one would pray for the Lord Jesus to return soon, I would quietly hope that He would wait a little longer so I could enjoy a little more of this life before I had to fasten myself to the pew of eternal hymn-singing squawkers in heaven.  I later discovered that I was not alone in this hope.

It seems to me that if all God wanted was for us to sing songs all eternity long to Him and interrupt the singing by shouting that He was  amazing, awesome, indescribable, majestic and the many synonyms that Charles Wesley and Chris Tomlin have given us then God would not have created us in the way He had.  Certainly, He went beyond that if we are in HIs image.

Consider our spiritual gifts.  If all God wanted from us was to worship Him in the singing/praise sense, then why the spiritual gift of mercy?  Why service?  Why does James forbid favoritism?  I mean hey, just sit on the floor, shut up, and consider yourself lucky enough to worship our God.  Why do we crave community? And why are we so sexual?  Why is the first command in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply?  Further, it’s been pointed out that if reproducing was so more people could worship God, we could simply agree and hold hands or mutually consent of thinking up a person.  Or since this a coffee-themed blog, we could procreate in a french press by boiling some water, putting in some human soul grounds and truly brew a Guatemalan or an Ethiopian.  It would be much easier than pregnancy and much faster too.  Could God be this inefficient or is it more likely that we have sold God’s idea of  our purpose and worship short?

Most readers of this blog know that the definition of worship I’ve described here is very limiting and weak.  It’s clear that God has created us to love Him and to love others.  We are created to worship God, to worship Him together but we are also glorifying God when we show compassion, when we serve others, when we act justly and sacrificially.  In my opinion, we as an evangelical Church have failed in showing this way of worship to our congregations and to our youth groups.

The problem is if we make God only to be worshipped, we’ve objectified Him and drastically undermined what it means to be created in His image.  We are created to be relational, to be creative, to rule with God and to love with Him. We are created to live in communion with God and with each other.  it bears mentioning that when Jesus is asked (in Mark 12) what was the greatest command, he quoted the Shema and cannot limit our purpose to just loving God with all that we are but also the need to love each other.  This is worship, this is our purpose and this is what Christians should be known for and this is essential to share.  This is what we tackle as a youth group this year.  I covet your prayers as we unlearn, relearn, and learn.

Revelation Generation – What I Liked – Post 1

The story of “Revelation Generation” begins quite awkwardly for me.  I had just begun my  second pastorate here and had decided to take the students to this new music festival  with a  name that I wasn’t crazy about.  Long story short – Rev Gen got rained out and  headed to  Philly.  The following year, we attended and the kids loved the Philly Stage and  stayed for  Newsboys.  Last year was exactly the same, kids loved Philly Stage, and the  Newsboys did  the exact same set list, down to Peter telling the same stories. We left    during Breakfast in  Hell to beat the traffic.  After that, I was fairly certain that we would not return (We have a saying in Texas, “That says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again”). How could we return for a fourth year?  Well, we’re glad we did and here’s why.

What I liked about Rev Gen:

1. The excellent line-up.  The Philly stage attracts a number of our students.  The NY Stage has gotten alot better.  One year they had Brian Latrell (I believe he was a Backstreet Boy and I refuse to Google that for any type of confirmation).  Opening bands like the Fold and Seabird were steps in the right direction.  Then headlining bands like Relient K and Switchfoot tell people like me that they are really trying to make this a great event.  There were more tents like the Urban Stage, the Come and Listen Stage (which is a label that gives away free music), and the Nashville Stage which had Bethany Dillon, Jon Foreman, and Derek Webb.  (I really, really liked that they invited Derek and didn’t censor him.  He’s an important prophetic voice in the Church and along with many of my friends, we were grateful he was there).

2. We didn’t do the Friday concert last year but this year, they had Jars of Clay, Matt West, Delirious, and Mercy Me.  For most of us, wanting to hear  Jars do new songs off “The Long Fall Back to Earth” was the reason we came Friday.  The unfortunate thing was we underestimated a couple of things.  Some of our students had just returned to school and so by the time we left, we missed most of the bands.  Two, Jars wasn’t headlining.  Three, Mercy Me was.  And Four, it wasn’t really Jars’ best show.  Not a big crowd yet, not very energetic either.  Then Jars said they lost track of time and were told they had just played their last song.  Frankly, I think the concert organizers should have let them play their last song, it was clearly an accident and they are an established band.  I don’t know the business of putting on concerts but I’m pretty sure Jars has earned enough respect to play one more.  So in the most anti-climatic way, Dan took the blame, apologized for not paying attention to the clock and said something like, “We want to be invited back so we’ll say good-bye here.”  I thought it was pretty classy to submit to the stage manager and end their show the worst way possible.  I know I’m not being complimentary but it was an awkward moment that Jars handled really well and it spoke to me a bit.

3. Unless you go into the merchandise tent, you don’t feel that you are at one of those cheesy Christian concert events.  The production is fantastic from the signs a few miles away directing you how to get this to obscure farm to the numerous workers and volunteers that create a presence of “we know what we are doing so don’t get any ideas.”  They have great signage, very professional looking stages, and enough porta-potites to “facilitate the pending needs” of their own feeding of 5000.

4. Cheap Water.  Bottled water was only a dollar.  I still think water bottles should be allowed in because there are no water fountains but $1 water is a fair deal.  Speaking of concessions, food tickets do help eliminate lines at the actual food booths – nice job.

5. I appreciated the leader tent, (even though they seemed a little more stingy with the water this year).

6. All the workers, volunteers, security measures, demonstrate their professionalism and communicate that they are serious about keeping control of this event.  This is important to me because too many Christian events are put on by well-intentioned churches with not enough expertise or volunteers and people, students especially, find the weak spots and exploit them.  For instance, there is only one way to actually get in.  The perimeter is fenced in very well and monitored.  As a youth pastor, I like this level of safety and security and aside from a few check-ins, our students roam as they please and check in with me every so often so I can make sure they are hydrated and more importantly not hanging out with home-schooled kids from the hyper-fundamentalist church ;-)

7.  Loved going with Tim Nye, Josie, and my youth group. Also loved seeing my friends, Evan Curry, Eric Couch, Charlie Lyons Pardue, KJ Marks, and appreciating seeing Rob Schwinge.

Stay tuned for what I didn’t like.

DCLA '09- Pre-Nassau trip – Post 3

Prior to this year’s mission trip, we attended Youth Specialties’ DCLA.  It was fantastic and one of the best events any high schooler could ever attend.  I encourage you to consider attending DCLA 2012 (?) and book a mission trip with Next Step Ministries for the week after. This was my third time here in DC and having gone as a student and twice as a youth pastor, I honestly think this was the best one yet.

In fact, it’s been pretty interesting for me tracing back some of the history of DCLA.  As a high school student, I remember thinking at DC’94 that this blows camp away! (Don’t worry campers, i still went to Berea that summer).  Back in those days, DCLA  was produced by Youth for Christ and would have big themes like, “Live to Tel”.  For you Millennials that was a Geoff Moore and the Distance song and if anyone knows who he is, you are either laughing or cursing because it took you this long to repress that song and now i just brought it back.  Yeah you can thank jaded X’ers like us for purging out some of these bands.  Unfortunately we were not completely successful ;-).  DCLA was billed as an evangelism conference but for some reason they loaded up a tons  and tons of music that seemed to say, “We’re trying to be like Creation but with air-conditioning.”

Certainly I’m a much bigger fan of the event these days.  It represents a lot of the thought that has gone into student ministry within the last 15 years or so.  It used to be that if we made Jesus cool enough, then kids simply wouldn’t be able to help themselves and just fall in love with the sacrificed lamb of God and inevitably they would pick up a blood-stained cross and follow.  This is how we came to have things like Awesome Radical Truth Time, Spectacular Savior Series, Wild and Zany Witnessing Tricks! Then, add on some CCM and students could think positively about life all day while singing “Shine” while wearing WWJD bracelets (for the record, I proudly never wore one.  Unfortunately, I do know all the words to Smitty’s teary classics like “Friends” and “Pray for Me”).

While I cannot honestly say that DCLA is cheese-free (sorry Lost & Found), at least it’s focused on its mission.  I do not claim to know the behind the scenes decisions, nor do I know specifics and I would only guess the names but from where I sit, it seems that after YS took over, the event underwent quite the paradigm shift.  This year’s theme was “Be, Love, Serve, Repeat”.  Perfect for our group.  There were no bigger than CCM-life bands but it was cool that Family Force 5, Hawk Nelson, KJ-52 were there.  All of us had a good time, we laughed, we were entertained and at times overloaded by it all but what I loved is that the focus on loving Christ and others was central. If you didn’t see it, you were daydreaming about Toby Mac and Mac Powell flying down from the rafters.

Here’s a run down of what I/we liked:

– They told the entire Scripture narrative in 3.5 days in the Big Room.

–  The Speakers were fantastic choices:

Francis Chan – is truly a good man, a great communicator, and seems to be a great example of the faith.  We enjoyed his seminar and appreciated his time in the Big Room.

Shane Claiborne – we were debating whether to change our youth  group name to the Shane Fan Club but another group already did  that.  They grew out their hair, had dreds, made their own clothes  and ran their cell phones off of solar power.  We were willing to do  that and  convert the church music room into a homeless shelter but  we lost  our momentum over the lifelong celibacy vow.  In  seriousness,  judging from the low attendance at Shane’s seminars,  he’s not the superstar to this age group as he is to X’ers and older  Millennials but by Monday, everyone knew who he was.  (Ours did of course, because  Claiborne worshippers like Evan and I made last year’s mission team read Irresistible Revolution).  Seriously, I liked that YS didn’t ask Shane to “tone it down”.  He spoke about war, Iraq, peace, love, and sacrifice in his usual Tennessee meets Kensington way. Some were offended and I wanted to tell them this wasn’t Battle Cry (link does not go to their homepage ;-).

Mandee Radford – was a favorite among our female students especially.  She’s the anti-Joyce Meyer/Beth Moore because she’s cool and normal.  I was grateful that YS asked her to speak.  One of the biggest challenges in our youth ministries is the lack of female voices and examples.  Mandee was fantastic and some of our guys liked her too ;-)

– Optional Seminars – There were two sets of optional seminars a day.  “Optional” to us meant you get to pick one that you wanted to go to, then during the other time slot, you were required to attend that we told you to. It wasn’t as bad as I made it sound, we saw a documentary and a movie together.

Invisible Children’s new documentary “Go”.  Like all of them, it was really good and served as an excellent way to get students and their schools involved. We signed up to screen it so maybe we’ll show it at our church.

A new movie called, “To Save a Life” – Umm, not sure how to describe this one.  it was good that we saw it together because it produced great discussions and I compliment the project.  Although it’s one of the best Christian movies I’ve ever seen (and I’m including Thief In the Night ;-), it tackles a bit too much and lacks some artistic style.  I did like that they cursed in it a few times; that actually added credibility to me and to some of our students.  I also liked that Kirk Cameron was no where to be found.

– Kendall Payne – I’m pretty sure she’s not signed to a label but a true indie artist.  I admit I almost missed the boat on Kendall.  She had released some kind of anti skinny model looking girls song that encouraged girls to appreciate themselves for who they were and to pursue a healthy sense of identity but she probably didn’t hear how it sounded with a bunch of 14 year old girls singing it in the church van (a moment from a few years ago that resulted in Bose, noise-cancelling headphones to all youth leaders).  The rest of her work is brilliant (like Scratch and I personally like the Grown album.)  I usually don’t like to talk about the cover songs of talented artists but she did two that are worth mentioning.  One was “What if God Was One of Us?” which was pretty controversial back recorded by Joan Osborne back in 1995.  It seemed to me that too many of us Christians perceived it as an attack on God’s deity but instead, it said and asked a lot more.  She also did a cover of U2’s “One”.  It was smooth and slow and I hope one day a youtube clip of it appears.  As a fan of U2 (Sept 26 at Giants Stadium can’t come fast enough!), this song is so overdone, but Kendall did a fantastic job.

– Skit Guys! – They’re classic, we love them every time.  We’d follow them into Mormonism if they asked us to.

– Labs – Our students loved them!  They are broken up into student led small groups of 8 and divided into rooms that hold a couple hundred each.  There’s an adult speaker, 4 student-speakers, multi-media and then small group time.  Everything lasts about 5-10 minutes each and that cycle keeps repeating itself.  It’s an incredible use of time that intends on teaching a room full of young minds in an optional learning environment.

– No alter call.  I’m not kidding, I liked that there wasn’t one.  They are not helpful and countless youth pastors have been saying this for years.  It worked for Charles Finney, it doesn’t work anymore.  Instead, there was an incredible time of singing on Sunday night, prayer and worship where we were asked to sit, reflect and ask the Spirit to move in us.  Our students connected with this, even those who weren’t appreciating Starfield’s leading earlier.  It’s out of these times that conversations flow a bit more naturally.

There was a lot more (like the painter Scott Erickson.  He’s featured on YS Video Podcast from last month.  Many of ours loved his work and his seminar.  Marquis Laughlin, the dude with the super deep voice and instead of doing movie previews, he’s reciting Scripture in a beautiful way) but I should end this.  You can watch a quick summary from another YS Video Podcast here (thanks Adam).

Wished that:

– … the focus on our worship wasn’t on Starfield’s lead singer so much.  With access to multiple camera angles, a million different types of backgrounds, a million more that motion backgrounds and the idea of flat worship, Tim’s face was on the big screen way too much and it got distracting.  I know that is not Tim’s, Starfield’s or YS’s intention but it seemed considerably more than at NYW Conferences.  This isn’t a criticism of Starfield, I like them but just the way we did worship seemed too focused on them. I didn’t mention this until one of our students brought it up.  It led to a great conversation regarding worship.

– Fred Lynch would have rapped for us … just once.

– Would have liked to see Tic more.  We love you brother.

Monday Morning Brief 8.3.09

What I’ve Been Enjoying –1. I’ve loved being home.  All is well with Susan, Nathan, and all is well in the womb with Baby G. Just went to another appointment and all is pretty good.  To the right is a fairly recent 4-D sonogram pic.  I’ve never been so happy to see my nose.  Not worried, he’ll still get enough of his mom’s genes to be cute.  2. Still enjoying the afterglow of our mission trip and trying to apply what I’ve gained from our Nassau experience.

What I Was Disappointed By – I know I shouldn’t be surprised but every time I hear about steroids or performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), I get frustrated.  I think part of it is that people like myself have sought refuge in sports pretending it’s the last place of purity but we’ve always been kidding ourselves, nothing is pure.  Speaking as a Yankee fan, I can’t help but think of Game 4 in the 2003 ALCS.  I know a lot of baseball was on something but Mariano wasn’t and if you know baseball, you know that’s true.

What I’m Reading – Still reading the last half of 1.2 of Barth’s Dogamtics that should have been completed almost 2 weeks ago for our independent study.  Just found Enough last night and plan on finishing that soon. About to start Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars.

What I’m Listening to – new Derek Webb, new Wilco, Homebrewed Christianity Podcast with Robert Wright and catching up on Relevant podcasts.

Student Ministry Update – It’s been great to hear all the wonderful things said about our mission trip.  A lot of time, work, prayer, support went into that and I am not taking these good things for granted.  A lot of positive things were expressed by our students, one I hope to share about one day, and while I still have concerns for short term missions (they are not an end), I’ve been really moved by our last couple especially. Now on to planning the new year, cleaning out files, catching up on all the stuff before the mayhem begins again!

Nassau '09 – All Saints Camp – Post 2

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post of our time in Nassau. Today I find myself thinking of how we got there. I keep finding the beginning of this story fascinating because so many things in life seem rather arbitrary. Don’t read that as “random” but “arbitrary”.  Yes, I try to be live my life led by the Holy Spirit but not being a subscriber of the “every moment of your life is foreordained because it has a reason so just set the soul on Christ-control so God can be sovereign and glorified”, I find myself reflecting on the roads taken and untaken.

In some ways, this story begins at Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Conference (NYWC).  Most years, I attend this and among the great speakers and seminars found at this event is the Exhibition Hall. There was a time when I didn’t appreciate it because I found too many lame booths and I’m snobby to that sort of thing (but don’t be upset with me, it’s how the good Lord ordained it). Maybe I matured a little, maybe the booths got better but all I know is that this place became an excellent place to find mission trip organizations and so for the last few years I found our trip there. That’s not to say that they were all good organizations (I believe one is being run by the devil disguised as southern baptists) but you leave a time and place like that with better insight than clicking through sites and reading through brochures.  Among the speakers, seminars, music and their new format, you should add this reason and go.  If it weren’t for our new baby coming this fall, I’d be there.

This past November at YS Pittsburgh (the best one I’d been to by the way), I met one of the founders of Next Step Ministries – Nick Cocalis. He said they were a new ministry, born out of their youth ministry that now had 4 sites, the newest was their greatest need – Nassau. I told him that it was going to be tough for me to fundraise for the Bahamas as I already have a few church-goers that are suspicious of my “glamorous lifestyle”. He continued by explaining it was an AIDS Camp that had been neglected for years and they needed a lot of help. We talked more and I walked away thinking something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something like that?”

After returning home, I remember sitting in my office filing some of the brochures  and creating a “Top-5”. There are many solid missions organizations, numerous  excellent causes, and I believe that God is at work in most of them. But for me,      the AIDS pandemic kept me focused on Next Step. It seemed to me that whenever  we talk about AIDS, we think about Africa, and whenever we talk about places like  the Bahamas, we talk about vacation. So to put it crudely, you are even less  fortunate to get HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean then you are in Africa.

There are statistics that reveal there are about 22 million people who suffer from HIV in Africa while there are approximately 250 thousand that have the HIV virus in the Caribbean area. It seemed clear that we weren’t going to Africa this year and slowly and slowly, the Next Step AIDS Camp opportunity seemed clearer. More confirming to me was how underwhelming that statistic seemed.  Meaning most would feel that statistic is not impressive enough in a tragic sort of way because the number isn’t bigenough.  But even if it wasn’t, to me it was another group of people that represented the “least of these”.  But here’s the other thing, the number proportionately is huge!  The Caribbean is the second-most affected region in the world while sub-Sahara Africa is the first.

Here’s the perspective that made sense to me.  I live in Bergen County, NJ which has a population of about 90,000 people which is about 3 times the population of the Bahamas.  My county reports about 3000 HIV cases (in 2007) while the Bahamas reports a little over 6000 cases.  So the Bahamas has a third of my county’s population but twice as many cases.

To be honest, I didn’t have any cut-off numbers as l mentioned some of this is arbitrary and stats are not always the best way to determine the legitimacy of a cause.   What they did for us was provide context and perspective.  Further it was helpful for me to those that speak in the language of stats and figures.  Anyway, this is part of what I shared with those around me and then to our sr. high group and eventually to the church.  Most people got it, supported it, and loved it.  Today, I find myself so grateful to how this all came to be.

If you are interested, you can get started here at Next Step’s intro page for the All Saints AIDS Camp.

Nassau’09 – All Saints AIDS Camp – Post 1

Last Thursday, we returned from our mission trip to Nassau, Bahamas and here’s my attempt to try to summarize.  Being a pastor, I am prone to exaggeration but as sincere as I can be, it was a truly an amazing experience. Having had great mission experiences to places like the Czech Republic, New Orleans, Estonia, the “amazing-ness” of this experience came a bit unexpected to me because to get to the point, if you leave for a mission trip wanting to serve and share with others and you have realistic expectations, you generally have a great experience.

It’s on these trips that we are able to detach ourselves from our private self-serving worlds, bond with those we came with, love our new friends and take part in the Mission. Many times, the destination of the place and the particular mission actually become secondary because the beauty of the time is found in serving the Kingdom in a humble, loving Christ-like way. And for many of us, this is unfortunately too rare of an occurrence (I have more to say on that but this post will be long enough as it is).

Maybe what was so unique about this experience was so many  incredible aspects coming together. We attended YS’s DCLA (post  coming one day) from Friday-Monday (July 10-13) and our students  loved it. We spent the remainder of Monday sightseeing and woke up  early Tuesday and flew out of Reagan International. Generally after  you  attend a big conference event you want to go to do some thing  instead  of returning home, so for us, this worked well.

Our trip was to do some construction work at the All Saints AIDS  Camp. All Saints literally started as a leper colony that eventually became a refuge to those with HIV/AIDS who had no other place to go. Among the most surprising aspects of our time there was for a place that had to deal with the passing of their residents, death seemed like a distant topic to them. In fact, I had to remind myself of this terrible reality throughout the week. More of the focus was on being intentional with the time and opportunities that we had left. This made construction on these new cabins and paving a new sidewalk not only more tolerable but important.

Let’s be clear here, the work sucked. It was extremely hot, (90’s for the first few days we arrived), and extremely humid. Then there was the fact that I never learned how to mix cement by hand in my honors classes in high school and neither did my students. We were broken up in two groups, one for the new cabins and the other for the sidewalk. I learned that I’m better with a power saw than I am with a hammer and nails. I also found a place to vent my frustration with parents who pick up their kids late from activities and those that Google criticism of the emergent church as opposed to reading the actual books for themselves. That place is breaking up old sidewalk with a sledge hammer. Indeed it was good therapy and I’ve returned to Jersey in search of sidewalks that I can … uhh … nevermind.

Anyway, the work was tough on our students but they held it together. One girl admitted that she despised the type of work she was made to do. That was until she met a lady at the camp and saw how hard it was for her to walk down the sidewalk. She said, she really needed to talk to her and then to see it because her attitude completely changed.

We had a great team of students that got along great with each other which is  hard  to do when you’ve been together for 2 weeks, exhausted, hungry, and  feeling  disgusting most of the time. There was no need to discipline anyone  which  allowed me to take on a different role than I normally get to do – a  friend. Our  leaders did a great job as well. Then there was our new friends from  Next Step.

The Next Step team was absolutely amazing for us. Andy was the site manager of  Nassau who carried so much responsibility but didn’t let it bog him down. He was  very sensitive to our needs and changes of plans. Having just completed law  school, I found it to be an odd thing for a him to be working at an AIDS  Camp. A  Further, he seemed to be a truthful person (perhaps that didn’t help in law school  but he’s an amazing person). There was Dennis who was in charge  of construction and he’s good at it. I couldn’t believe how patient he was with all of us. As a team we always found creative ways to make his work harder but he never got annoyed with us. Sonja was the worship leader/speaker for the week. She did a great job leading and speaking each night and most days she was out mixing cement with us. I look forward to seeing her speak at a YS event one day. Last but certainly not least was Jessica. I forget what Jessica’s job was supposed to be because she did just about everything. She cooked, did construction, joked around, visited the residents with us, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who moved the clouds the one day we got off to a rainy start. What’s interesting is that they each grew up in different parts of the world, Mexico, Australia, Nicaragua, and … Wisconsin. We all felt that we made new friends this week.

The most moving part of our week was spending time with the residents of the AIDS Camp. Many of them had committed their lives to Christ some time ago and had some sense of joy. We were all moved by a woman named Moxy whose body was clearly failing but whose spirit was so alive. Then there was brother Vince who lost his eye sight while serving in prison but was committing Scripture to memory by listening to cds. He used to be a tour guide on the island and one of the most beautiful moments that none of us will ever forget was when we picked him up on our free day and asked him to give us a tour of the island. They told him where he was and then he would start the tour. It was unbelievable.

There were a lot of other beautiful moments as well, from how we handled disagreements to the children’s worship service we did at the Children’s Emergency Hostile. Throughout our time, we painted nails, handed out flip-flops and toiletries we had collected from back home and in short, learned to get over ourselves. It’s a hard lesson to bring back on the plane but I was encouraged by how much our students grappled with the life they wanted to live and the life they had. Life in the Kingdom of Jesus is not easy and I believe this week, the window opened a little wider for us to see and experience it.

Offense versus Defense in Student Ministry

A little while back, my friend Eric, told me that our youth ministry is geared more towards offense then defense.   While either/or is not my language, my initial thought was it’s probably better to be that than the opposite. Like so many (especially youth pastors), I am tired of being part of the Church that appears to be cryogenically frozen in a defensive posture.  Even worse, should they break that position, it is only to get into a mode of judgment or criticism.  

Here’s some of the greater context of what we are trying to do.  Our students know some of my passions and fears.  The passions are somewhat normal youth pastor ones like family, friends, coffee, etc. I enjoy discussions that intersect faith, culture, theology, issues and the tensions that exist within these conversations.  Add music, movies, books, wifi, and baseball, and I could live on any “island” ;-).  Following Christ faithfully in our context is a topic that I believe we I am always discussing.

My fears are somewhat normal too.  Like falling out of the Superman ride because the 16 year old who wanted to be a life guard at the Jersey shore pressed the “Release All” button when reaching for his Red Bull or drowning in the pool at one of our summer parties because someone jumped on my head, broke my neck and I stayed under the water and no one saved me because they thought I was kidding and so I drowned (wow what an awkward moment that would be).  Like I said, normal fears.  Our students also know that as youth leaders, our real fear is that our students will abandon their faith as they leave the safety of our homes and youth groups.

Because we believe that God is not afraid of our questions nor is the truth trying to hide, we not only encourage our students to ask their questions but try to provoke them.   At first the temptation is to be too provocative and do your favorite old school Tony Campolo impersonation every week.  Certainly there is a goodness in quoting a brilliant moment from a conference you attended but remember that you are at a different starting point when you hear that quote.  (Not saying to avoid it, saying to be careful.  Anyway, I digress). 

I have found that if we encourage our starting points to be honest from within our contexts and see if and how we are being faithful to Christ, then there is a relevant and worthy discussion to be had.  Those discussions ought to be sensitive enough to welcoming doubts and questions.  I sometimes voice them like “Some of you love the Lord so much but you feel guilty because the ideas of evolution make a lot of sense to you.  That’s ok, you should think that through.  God is not afraid of our questions but realize the answers take time, discipline, and work.”  This resulted in two students talking to me privately about that. 

I’m describing a starting point and sometimes I find myself guilty of rushing our students past them.  For instance we say that Christianity is the best and most unique of the world religions but if we haven’t explained the virtues and the issues from alternate worldviews, then the statement tends to lack integrity.   Does everything require an 8 week explanation?  Certainly not, but may God give us the wisdom in making the statements we make and modeling the lives we live.

Indeed, some times it is an ideology or a passion that hinders us in our faith journey and we get to the point where we have to sacrifice it in order to worship our Lord.   This is part of the process of life long discipleship that we need to do our part in allowing the Spirit to work through us so their faith be take root.  

Finally, our students know that we love God and we pray they too will love Him with all their hearts mind and soul.  Coffee, books, traveling, even family and great friends are secondary upon coming to an understanding of what Christ is asking of us.  To go back to my friend’s language, it is in this way, that I find Jesus to be the most offensive and so, may we be Spirit-led and model this life.