Friday, January 31, 2014

from silly games to suicide in 120 minutes

 Before we go any further, I think I should give you some context. A big part of my week, is this thing called youth group. Whatever your knowledge of youth group is, here is what ours is normally like. Students come in to our building, we as leaders are there to greet them and hang out with them, or they can go downstairs and play in the gym for a while. Then once most people have arrived we all head downstairs for some ridiculous games, last nights for instance was something we invented on the spot called sharknado tag, the night before it was fishing gummy worms out of whip cream with your face. Participation isn't mandatory, and some leaders and students hang out by the food and talk instead. Then we come upstairs, we play more games, or watch a video, or do some kind of art project that segways into the evenings storytelling/discussion/Bible Study. Sometimes we get so caught up in silly games and conversations we never get to that other part. That's ok with us though, because youth group is all about creating space, time and most importantly relationships with the students so that they can be loved, hear that God loves them whether through our actions or words, and be challenged by that love and God's word to love other people. We welcome conversation and debate.We welcome all kids, and many of our students don't share the faith of the leaders or our church, and that is fine with us. We have amazing adults who volunteer their time to hang out with our students, and play ridiculous games or stay up till all hours of the night with them on over nighters.  We are very intentional, but also pretty casual, we want kids to feel free to be themselves while they are there. Often there is a lot of laughter, and silliness that happens, too cool for school teens will act like the kids that they still are. Choreographed dance numbers spontaneously happen, dart wars break out, shaving cream ends up all over the building. Our methods aren't perfect, and there are better ways to do this, but this is what we do. It's a mess, but it is a beautiful amazing mess we call youth group.

Youth Group is often lighthearted and encouraging and fun, but sometimes it goes from things like Sharknado tag to suicide very quickly. I work with a great bunch of students who have created a very welcoming environment for their peers, where they can be vulnerable. Some of that is on us as leaders to be the example, to start it, but it's really them taking it and accepting others into "the family" that makes it work. I also work with very brave students, who are willing to open up and say what other are thinking but can't speak. Recently, suicide was not the intended topic, but it came up in the context of it being a choice, possibly even logical option to cope with life changing mistakes and tragedies. Did I mention I have some very brave, thoughtful students?

I know this way of thinking is a reality, you can read some of my blog posts on depression for more about that, but it breaks my heart to know that our kids feel that suicide is an option, that taking one's own life is better in some cases than living it. It is devastating to think that anyone could be so filled with despair, feeling like they might not ever be able to be forgiven for something, or that their value would be lost. That is a lie. A terrible horrible lie. I know the God that says, it's not what we do that matters, it's who we are, and we are his beloved. We are invited to be his friend, and that friendship cannot be broken. The bible book of Romans tells us that there is no condemnation when we put our faith in him, and it also tells us that NOTHING can separate us from his love, nothing. It even tells us that no matter how hard things are and what we are going through, God has our back, and there is hope. I have seen this grace, this love change people's lives. It's not a miracle cure, it's a process of getting to know who God is and how he sees you and coming back to that over and over again. It's hard but it's the best kind of hard. It's life giving, life changing and every kids needs to understand that, whether they understand it as coming from God himself, or they can just see it in the adults in their lives. They so badly need to be reminded that they aren't alone, they will never be alone and they always, always have a place, a people to turn to for help, hope and acceptance.

This is why we play silly games, and spend time hanging out with kids, we don't ever want them to forget that. We want to be extensions of that love. We want to put skin on that hard to understand concept of grace.

So whether you believe in the God that I speak of or not, do me a favor. Love the kids around you, reach out to the ones you don't parent too, let them know you are there for them, that you will help them face their parents, their life challenges, whatever it is they are dealing with. Help them find their "youth group" their safe place.

side note: To all the students over all the years, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to be there with you, as you grew and struggled with life, thanks for inviting me in, for trusting me. Thanks for teaching me about God's love and grace too. To all the volunteers, you guys are heroes in every sense of the word, thanks for coming on this journey, for being there for our kids. To the parents, thanks for allowing us to be part of your team, thanks for letting them go on so many adventures with us.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why Disney,Riordan and Roth got it right,even if you think it's wrong

Rick Riordan, Veronica Roth and the producers of Disney Channel's Good Luck Charlie have taken bold steps recently into controversial territory, and I think they should be applauded. All of them have written gay characters into their stories, and they have done so with dignity. In House of Hades of the Heroes of Olympus Series a character painfully, struggles to come out to some but not all of his friends, as he fears rejection. In Allegiant by Veronica Roth, another character is casually outed and talks briefly about how he has to keep it hidden because of society's wish to keep things pure. In Good Luck Charlie, Charlie has a friend with two mommies. In none of these stories was homosexuality a huge issue or agenda, instead it was part of life. It was a friend of a main character struggling, or just living their lives as a gay person. In the Riordan series also published by Disney, it took two series and 12 books for this issue to even be identified.I am grateful that these people have chosen to write characters into their stories that all kids can identify with, despite all the boycotters they may face. I am grateful that there is a place in kids' pop culture where kids that struggle with these things can see themselves, and where other kids can see them, and I don't think that compromises my faith, my Biblical Interpretation or the moral fabric of my family.

No matter how you feel about homosexuality, it is real, it is present, and it is all around you. People are struggling with their sexual identity and trying to live comfortably in their own skin.  Who they are attracted to, or what they do in the privacy of their bedroom, should not define them, lessen who they are as people, or the issues they struggle with. Having gay characters in children's literature and TV does not corrupt our society, it doesn't support their bedroom habits, or break down society. It creates empathy, it recognizes the pain of human existence, it sees past the superficial, and brings dignity to the person, and that helps society. That fosters good will toward your fellow man. That builds strong families.

My eight year old sings Macklemore's "Same Love". He could probably sing you every word, but if  you asked him what the "she keeps me warm part is about", he would probably say it's about how her mom loves her. He doesn't get it. He has also watched entire seasons of Modern Family, but just the other day asked if two guys could get married. These things haven't negatively infected his moral being, they haven't made him any less attracted to girls, especially blondes and redheads. It's given us the opportunity for more conversations, and him the opportunity to learn about people. It helping prepare him to be a good friend to others no matter who they are attracted to. It's caused me to show him things that Jesus said about how we treat others.  No"negative" agenda behind that song or that show, has wormed it's way into his head, instead a little bit of understanding has, and hopefully compassion. He will read the Bible on his own someday, and make his own conclusions about the world around him, and these things will be just one part of the decisions he comes to. 

When I read about Jesus, it's his love, his compassion, his refusal to let the sins of people stand in the way of his love for them that I see. It's that I want to impart to my kids. So I am thankful for great writers, and mediocre Disney Channel productions for creating an environment that accepts people, and helps kids identify with their own lives and the lives of their friends. I am grateful for their honesty. If you aren't at least you can be grateful for another opportunity to talk to your kids about what you believe, to crack open the Bible and look at Jesus together,because those things just might make your family stronger, and they will have a bigger impact on your kid than any book or TV show ever could.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I've probably already ruined my kid's college applications, and I think I'm cool with that

Parenting is hard. Really freaking hard. Like there is always a constant gnawing worry, in your belly, and a fog on your brain, about whether or not you are doing the right things for your child. Are you helping them to be the best they can be, are you setting them up for success? Will I ever be able to give them the same opportunities I had? Seriously it can be terrifying. For instance, here is some stupid crap that I worry about, beyond the terminal illness, brain trauma, and death fears, and those are really fun too. I worry about that fact that my kids have no college fund, that they haven't ever been on a team sport, but just tried classes, I worry, that they aren't super good at any one thing yet. I worry that I have let them eat too many of some kinds of foods and not enough of others. The list goes on and freaking on!Being a kid is hard too. It may seem awesome and carefree, now that we are adults, but I remember the horrors, the pressure, the pain of my suburban life of privilege all too well.

Then I get an email from my school district offering me a night of learning how to parent my TAG (Talented and gifted) student, and this is what it is advertising, a night with a woman who will do this- "she discussed good planning for high school in anticipation of getting ready for college. Her presentation will include ideas for using the time in high school wisely, in order to create an interesting and perhaps unique college application. For parents of middle school students". 

Pardon my use of potty mouth abbreviation, but WTF?!?!

I don't want to spend the next six years of my kid's life making her live so other people will think she is worthy. I don't want to carefully craft her teenage years so colleges will notice her. I don't want her to learn that it's all about the end game and that the college application process is that end game. I don't want her to live with that pressure, because that is crap!

What I really want for my kids, is to know what it means to be loved, to know that they are loved, and to be able to love others. Seriously that is what I want. So that is what I am going to put my energy and my worry into. That. Screw the rest of it!

Have we done that? You know what I think we have but some good effort into it. Not perfectly, there have been a lot of bumps, but I think we have. We have provided lots of experiences for them. We have let them explore their interests, communicating to them that we value what they think. We have encouraged them to try new things, and do things that they aren't always good at. We have loved and snuggled them for hours in front of way too much TV. Let them stay up too late watching violent things like the Ateam. We have taken them to concerts that were too loud, amusement parks that were too corporate and expensive. We have let them eat dessert every night that they can remember, but we have also taught them about where their food comes from, and what foods fuel them. We have showed them what it means to live in a family and be with a group, communicating that you don't always get your way, and you have to put others needs ahead of your own.We have taken them to the places and situations where we enjoy serving others, and modeled what that means. We have let them care for way too many animals, but we have also taught them compassion and responsibility for another living thing. We have missed countless deadlines for team sign ups, and financial opportunities, and all kinds of workshops on parenting. We have gotten caught up in the experiences of life too often sometimes to focus on the bigger picture. We have also admitted our mistakes and we have apologized. So we might not be doing everything right, we are definitely screwing somethings up, but we are doing our best, and helping them do their best at being decent, loving, compassionate human beings.

Doing things that look good on a college application is not bad. Please don't misunderstand. I don't think getting good grades, excelling at things, being on sports or other teams are bad things, they are great. It's the pressure, and the why of it, that sucks. Are you just doing it for that college board? Are you doing it because if you don't you aren't good enough? If that's why, it's no good!

So I am going to quit wasting my time worrying so much, modeling the bad behavior of putting ridiculous pressure on myself. I am going to make some brownies, and snuggle under a blanket with my kids and watch the Ateam, after they finish their homework. But then I promise we will get off our butts and walk the dog. I think that's good college prep for today.

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's ok to be Ordinarily Extraordinary

Scripture Philippians 2:5-12 
You should have the same attitude as Christ Jesus had,
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore God elevated him to the highest place of Honor.
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Last summer after a lot of encouragement and prodding from others I decided to look into publishing some VBS curriculum that I created. There was a friend of a friend that has published a lot of youth group curriculum, so I reached out to him and sent a sample of what I created.  A month ago, he finally got back to me and told me basically that it was pretty typical, ordinary stuff, nothing great about it. I will be honest with you it was pretty defeating. I mean I knew it wasn’t the best stuff out there, but I also knew I didn’t like a lot of the stuff out there, and that was a big part of why I created the curriculum instead of purchasing. So to hear that he thought it was just like everything else, was kind of devastating.

Ordinary seems like a bad word these days for many in my generation and especially for the ones after me. If you Webster it, it says, things like common, not impressive, regular. In the day of reality TV, social media, blogging, and pintrist, those things seems like a death sentence. Our world today seems not so much about who you know but who knows you. How many followers, likes etc. Have you seen pintrest? It’s a whole website of collections of people being amazing. They turn toilet paper rolls into shelving units, and cupcakes into sand castles, and every birthday party has fifteen activity stations and a photo booth of home-made props. Nothing is ordinary. There is so much pressure to be something extraordinary, to make your own mark. It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses anymore, now it’s being the most amazing and unique you. It’s kind of like packing up the Christmas decorations. Your house is so festive and fun, and prettier, and now it has to go back to just ordinary everyday. No special music, or cookies, or lights, just the everyday.

But don’t pack up all the nativities yet. When you look at the nativity, you are reminded that God isn’t about the famous and the well known, he’s all about the humble and the ordinary.  I think one of the best examples of that next to the baby is Joseph. Joseph the guy in every nativity set that can barely be told apart from the shepherds.  He is only even mentioned in 3 Chapters of the Bible and just a few verses in each. You rarely ever see artwork of just Joseph and the baby Jesus. I showed an image of Joseph holding the baby Jesus, that I found in an image search to our youth group, and they were convinced it could not be Joseph it had to be adult Jesus holding baby Jesus.  He was ordinary, hardly worth mentioning, and yet he was a huge part of the story of Jesus. He stood by Mary, probably saving her life. He remained celibate at a time when women were treated like property and were expected to serve their husbands in that way. He listened to God, trusted and followed and because of that he is not so famous, but the love of Jesus is.

Joseph could have saved his reputation and divorced Mary, he could have worried about himself, but instead he lived for God and for others. As an ordinary man he was able to do something extraordinary, because he got out of the way.  In phillippians chapter two, preceeding the verses we read, verses 3 and 4, Paul says, Don’t be selfish, don’t try to impress others. Be humble thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others too. Joseph did just that. He was content to be ordinary to give up some status in the community, and follow God despite what others might have thought.

Look at the nativity again, who were the first guests? The plain, common, field rats, known as shepherds. God wanted them to be the honored first guests. God valued them, even though they just watched someone’s sheep. I wonder if God considered their life sacrificing service to their sheep, the care Jesus talked about when he used them as examples of God’s love. There was value and beauty in their everyday lives as they cared for the sheep.

Last week I watched the new, Ben Stiller version of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I will confess that I have not read the short story, or seen the Danny Kay version, so I can only go off of the one I saw. It was fantastic by the way, but in it Walter Mitty lives a very ordinary life at first glance. He is plain, not even noticed by many of his coworkers, and he is told by an Eharmony tech support person, that he needs to do more things for the things I have done and places I have gone portion of his online dating profile. Walter is frustrated by what his life becomes and often retreats into elaborate day dreams of a more high profile exciting life. Through the movie though we start to see how extraordinary he really is in the way he loves the people around him, and works hard at his job, which he takes very seriously. I won’t spoil the movie for you, if you haven’t seen it or read the story, but it is a wonderful picture of the beauty that comes in our everyday choices to love, to serve, and to put others first.

The very place in which Jesus was born is an image from God of the beauty in the humble, and the common, even in suffering. Had Jesus been born in the last century in a hospital room, somehow, I don’t think we would have hospital bed scenes in our Christmas displays, even though they are ordinary. They aren’t nearly as humble. The Lord and savior of the world was born in a manger, in a stable. He was born in the midst of animals and poop. He was wrapped in simple cloth, not in a fine robe.

In Paul’s nativity story here in Philippians, he tells us that Jesus’ attitude, was to not think that being equal to God was something to cling to, he gave up divine priveleges and became slave as a human being, born to die for others. It was in that which God gave him honor. And it was in that where we really saw God’s love and mercy. He became ordinary for us. He gave up heaven for us.  The baby, the humble, vulnerable baby is how God chose to come and dwell among us. It was the best way to display his love and his message of grace.

It’s often in the everyday, small acts that a great amount of love and sacrifice is displayed. We reward police and firefighters when they do something we deem exceptional, but it’s the everyday stress, training and work that they go through that makes them true heroes. It’s the busy mom, that still gets the notes in the lunches and makes the special meals for her family when she can that is a hero. It’s the retired person that gives their time as a volunteer and touches hundreds of lives by just showing up each week, to serve food, read to a child or so much more. We may not elevate them, but make no mistake, love is shone through their actions and has an impact, whether they see it or not. When we live for Jesus, it’s even more, because we are pointing to something even bigger, a love like no other.  
Actors have dozens of awards they can win for their work, the guy who works in an office cubicle unfortunately does not, he may never get recognition. But his years of faithful service, his attitude of humility and following Jesus by showing care and compassion to his fellow coworkers are better than any movie those actors could make. He may not touch millions, but he shows Jesus to those around him.

Reading through the Bible you see that God doesn’t go for celebrity, he goes for ordinary, not exceptional, average. He had a faithful family man lead the effort to save mankind and the animal kingdom on a boat. He used a stuttering murderer to lead the nation of Israel to freedom. He chose a young shepherd to be the giant slayer and become king. They were ordinary people, but they displayed the power of God. They pointed people not to themselves, but to Him. They became extraordinary, not on their own, but by following God. And those are just a few.

There is beauty in the very ordinary. I will admit, when I got the feedback from that youth curriculum writer, I was upset. It made me question who I am and what I have done, as silly as that may sound. Silly thoughts ran through my head, Who am I if I don’t get published. All I will ever be is average. Why did I waste my time, only to make something ordinary. But then I thought more rationally about it, God’s way of thinking broke into mine, and I realized, I didn’t write that for me. I didn’t sit down and think, I want to write something to make some money or get notoriety.  I wrote something to meet the needs of our kids, to give them a fantastic, fun, week that made them understand there is a God who loves them, and a fantastic book that tells his story. I wrote it to help kids of every learning style have fun and get that, and so teachers and helpers could enjoy the process. According to the feedback I got from kids, parents and volunteers in the two sites we used it, it did those things. It showed them God, it helped them understand and remember the love of Jesus. So who cares about me and my role in that. I was a part of something for God, he worked through me. Isn’t that enough?

There are heroes all around us, that will never be recognized for the amazing work that they do to shine the light of Jesus love into others lives. I get to work with a lot of them, Sunday School teachers and youth leaders. They show up, every week, and sometimes all they do is talk to one kid, or hang out with one teen, and I think in God’s eyes, that is extraordinary, it might be his favorite event of the week. Just that they showed up to love that person. They inspire me.

The nativity inspires me. So I say, don’t pack it. Or get it out. Why do we just have crosses and Jesus as a grown up stuff out. Leave a nativity up all year somewhere. Be reminded everyday, that God is extraordinary in the ordinary moments of our lives. That he doesn’t care how many people know who we are, he knows who we are, and he lived life as an ordinary person for thirty years, so that he could understand us, and truly sacrifice himself for us, so that he could suffer and be with us. Ordinary is okay, because it allows room for God to be extraordinary through us. Extraordinary, extremely good, very unusual, different, impressive.

We decided that the nativity we will keep out this year, is one made by someone who we think is quite extraordinary, because she lets Jesus love shine through her. Sherri Kessler made a nativity quilt for us. She faithfully serves our elementary school youth group, Good News Tues and has done so for years. She loves those kids and cooks amazing food for them, mails letters to them, talks to them when she sees them outside of youth group, sets a table for them as if they were honored guests. She does the same for all of us at coffee hour every week between services. She loves and encourages our family too. The way she serves God by serving all of us is extraordinary. So we will keep the quilt up this year, as a reminder to us, to be ordinarily extraordinary like Sherri.

We got stuck in the airport for a couple of days in Phoenix, and it was awful, but I saw some pretty extraordinary things. Things that weren’t touted over the loudspeaker, or recognized by flight crews, but they were significant in helping people get through a challenging time. I saw a guy ask a woman soldier to take his seat in a very over crowded gate. I saw a woman watching the cellphone of a stranger, so it could be charged at an outlet in the overcrowded gate and not get stolen. I saw people sharing what information they had, when the airlines wouldn’t. A woman opened her bag full of special treats she was taking home and offered them to anyone who was hungry as all the food vendors had shut down hours before. I experienced the grace and compassion of a baggage clerk who looked into my tired eyes and took five minutes to try and track down my bags for me, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about tracking them down when we finally got home, even though the line was out the door with exhausted, angry people needing their bags to be there in Phoenix.  Maybe he was just doing his job, but he was doing it well, very well under the circumstances. I don’t know if any of those people followed Jesus, but their actions spoke God’s grace to me in those moments, and challenged me to show that same compassion.

I want to leave you with one last image, go to Pink Tutu Project, when you are done reading. It’s of a man I think is very Joseph like. I shared his story with our youth groups a few weeks ago, and I just can’t get him out of my head, in part because his images are so memorable, but also because the love he conveys is so extraordinary. His name is Bob Carey and he created the Pink Tutu project. Bob’s wife has battled cancer twice now. When she was first diagnosed, he as a photographer, started posing and taking self portraits in this pink tutu. Now as you will see he has a very ordinary, and average body. Outside of his tutu, he would not be given a second look. These images brought joy to his wife. So he would send her to her chemo treatments with these images, and she would laugh as she looked at them. She started sharing them with her neighbors in treatment. Bob saw that his images had the power to bring them laughter, and healing in the midst of awful sickness, so he decided to make more. He put his averageness on display, humbled himself and walked into more public places in his tutu, taking more shots. He then decided to give a book of his image to every cancer treatment center he could. Then he went a step further and started a foundation to help women pay for the things insurance doesn’t cover in cancer treatment, and now sells his images to fund the foundation.  He did these pink tutu photos for years before he ever got recognized.  He poured himself out in a pink tutu for others, not for himself, but as a sacrifice of love.

As you reflect on last year, and work up resolutions for this year, know that you are loved no matter who knows what you have done or how great you are. Whether you can list out accomplishments or create an amazing repined pintrest board, your life is significant.  What you do, if you do it, as a sacrifice of love for God and for those around you, is extraordinary, no matter how ordinary it may seem.  Don’t worry this year about whether others recognize what you do, don’t even worry about whether you are making a difference. Follow God, listen to his words for you.  Live out his command to love him and love others, and know that if you do, he will do extraordinary things with you. Others may not know, but they will see God in you. What an awesome opportunity we have. How exciting to think that every thing we do can have meaning and we may not even know it.  If God could use a baby, he can use you. If he sees significance in sheepherding he sees significance in caring for your grandchildren. If he can use a carpenter to help save the world, he can use the work you do in your office, the compassion you offer the stranger and the smile you give the salesperson.