This is what happened when my Labs chased cattle

We had two black labs growing up. They were dumb as rocks and chased after anything that moved: footballs, nerf guns, cars, leaves, deer, cats, shadows, and tails. The sheriff arrived at our doorstep one day and said our dogs had chased some rancher’s cows and they were going to take them away. Apparently it was some kind of canine federal offense to chase cattle and the dogs had to serve the maximum punishment. Probably the death penalty.

My Dad had some friends over at the time doing a baseball fantasy draft back before it was even a thing on the internet. My older brother started crying and threatened to call the cops on these uniformed men who were taking the dogs away. I liked the dogs, but knew if they were gone it’d save me like a millions chores and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving anything outside to get chewed up. But my brother threw this fit and said he would walk to wherever the dogs were being kept to free them. It embarrassed me in front of all Dad’s friends.

But now I wish I hadn’t been embarrassed. I don’t remember anyone’s face except for my brother’s. I don’t know what I could have done to save the dogs, but I could have done something to help my brother mourn.

It’s just one of those times when I close myself up to everything that’s going on around me. It’s an awareness thing, a selfishness thing, a compassion thing. Does it ever get to a point when what I’m chasing catches up to me? When I’m locked up completely behind my own selfishness and blindness?

This is what writing does for me: it opens locked doors.

Creatives are catalysts for violence

In a park two strangers sit on a bench in the dry heat of the afternoon. Beads of sweat gather on the their foreheads and upper lips and they stare off into the distance when one man says to the other some bit about his life, some small nugget of truth like, “I miss my daughter,” or “It’s hot,” or some other kind of cliched phrase one stranger might say to another.

To which the other replies, “Word.”

And here we’ve come into some kind of agreement, a pact, if you will, of two men saying truth has just spoken and we align ourselves with this truth. Hence the phrase, “Word,” which moves in and out of fashion (probably out by now), but which stays with me because of it’s irony, that “word” in its literalness is also truth, “Word-up,” or “For sure,” which is just music. We’re singing to each other now. We can say any number of variations which is all lyrical and musical and essentially poetry speak that’s created a reality between two people. Something that did not exist is now fully alive, yet, invisible.

Or we can answer silently, by nodding our head or in our hearts confirming, thus we are always creating new realities in twos and more, that interaction is based upon acceptance and rejection, deflection and disagreement.

We speak poetry to each other every day. In the mundane and unmemorable moments we’re singing poetic connection.

“The relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event. A relation between an I and a You. A relational process,” (Edward Hirsch). Like how reading Scripture places us within this process with our Creator. Or hearing the stories about a spouse’s day connects one to his/her feelings and emotions.

Roy Peter Clark expands on the idea of twos in connection:

The secret knowledge I seek, I now believe, is embodied by and embedded in the number two. Just as two defines the information coding of computer science and genetics, two has become in my mind the essential number to create meaning in all texts, most visibly in short texts: Jesus wept. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…

We may have the analytical skills to slice a long work into several parts. But when we seek the sources of energy, again and again it seems to resolve itself to two.

Here is the idea of noun and verb colliding and connecting the way a reader connects and collides with stories and poems.

Creatives are catalysts for violence.

As We Watch

My sister played in her last high school volleyball game this weekend. I passed up on the Oregon State vs. Arizona state football game for it, but I was glad to be there anyways and see my family. My brother is a photographer and he positioned himself on the opposite side of us in the student section. As game time grew closer and the students arrived he kept having to move up the stands farther so they wouldn’t be in his way. It kept distracting me because he was carrying his camera and his bag and trying to move up the steps and over seats and finally he found a place without any obstructions.

A few minutes into the game a young girl entered the gym with her mom. She was wearing a cheerleading skirt over her jeans and was obviously disabled, Down syndrome or something. Her mother lead her to where the other cheerleader were standing and she hugged one and the stood behind them. But she didn’t watch the game or even pay attention to the other cheerleaders. Instead she watched the crowd of students as they cheered and chanted. She just watched them.

On Sunday I went to a new church for the second time. After leaving the church I was working at I thought I knew which church I wanted to start attending, but then I didn’t really know. This church has about 20 rows of seating and a balcony with more, a large wooden stage with a full band and a piano. They’re moving offices to make room for the bursting amount of children. The head pastor is soft spoken and funny and a good speaker.

I was sitting in my seat during communion, watching the people as they went up to the table for communion, and the band is playing music and everyone is singing. And I felt like the girl with Down syndrome in the cheerleading skirt the night before. Just watching the crowd. I felt like my brother a few more rows up taking pictures. Who can’t get hired at a job because he’s too disabled. Even when he’d do the job for free. Because he watches the world and he watches his brothers and he just wants to belong.

Just to belong.

Why Playing is Biblical

 

Jesus loves me when I'm playing.

I saw this picture in the school bathroom and liked it. I liked it enough to take a picture of it which isn’t a smart thing to do. That is, taking pictures in a school bathroom. I’d advise against it, but I made sure the bathroom was empty.

I don’t like that the picture is sexist. Two girls and only one boy. But to that boy I’d say “Play on playa.” The picture is also racist. Two white kids and one black kid. There are no Asians, Middle Easterners, Aborigines, or Canadians included in the picture. The picture is also bourgeoisie propaganda. Do you know how many children in the world have a swing set to play on? Not many. So this is obviously a rich country like England or France.

Regardless of all that, the picture says that God loves us when we play, and that is often opposite of what church people say. There’s this hidden, subtle thinking error I see in many Christian that says if we aren’t constantly working and staying busy and going to church then we’re letting God down or we’re not pleasing him. They say things like fishing or sports or watching football are distractions and we should instead be going to church. And it’s true that those things can be a distraction but no more then something like church can be a distraction.

We have a God who loves to play and loves it when we play and loves to play with us. So play on playa.

Rob Bell Likes Art Chocolate

Jake Dockter talks with Rob Bell about art and faith (here). Here’s a quote from Rob:

People have to ask themselves questions about what they even want or desire. Because it all begins with a deep dissatisfaction of how things are. And we do not change without pain. So a person would have to be in enough pain and despair to say “I do not want to be a part of this anymore. God, please show me another way of understanding things.” As far as people who are in systems that don’t work, like a religious system or a church, then you have to leave it. Because it’s destructive and it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to give you life.

Why Church Leaders Should Read Fiction

• A short piece (here) on why church leaders should read fiction. Mike Duran discusses it as well here.

Fallen by Matthew Raley

Fallen by Matthew Raley

Jim, the church chairman, sees his pastor, Dave, get out of a car with a woman who is not his wife. As Jim wades into the water with his confrontation of Dave’s actions he soon finds himself in the deep end of a scandal that changes from bad to worse.

Raley’s debut novel doesn’t withhold it’s grip until the last page. In a setting that’s all too familiar for churches with a pastor who deceives and controls to the breaking point, Fallen is a forceful novel about the wolf among the flock, about the disastrous effects of sin, and about God’s formation through struggles.

Fallen is fashioned on its strong use of dialogue and Raley’s subtle observations that intensify each scene. Read an interview with Matthew Raley here. Buy the book here. Visit his blog here.

Dancing Jesus: Why The Church Has Failed The Youth — Part III

(Read Part I and Part II)

Youth Ministry is Done in Families

It’s difficult showing churches and ministries the benefits of shifting the focus from a segmented community to a Family that fosters numerous mature adult relationships.

As Chap Clark, author of Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers expresses, “Young people are desperate for an adult who cares.” He explains that “the foundational reason behind separation between the adult world and the world of adolescents is that society has abdicated its responsibility to nurture the young into adulthood.”

Unfortunately churches do the same thing.

“This generation feels separated,” says Clark Blakeman, Pastor of Community Relations at Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Or. Blakeman was asked by senior pastor Rick McKinley to help with the vision for the youth ministry at Imago Dei. Blakeman had served as a youth pastor for the past 8 years in the Portland area.

“One of the things that would be a distinctive of the youth ministry here,” says Blakeman, “was to integrate it into the life of the whole. Without letting go of the fact that teens are in a special place in their life and do need special attention.”

“The teens have their own thing, but they’re also invited into the other things in the church. We are constantly inviting the youth to participate in those.”

Blakeman admits, “It take a little bit to change people’s thinking or approach about it. We’re trying to bring them in, but it’s a little bit slow.”

The idea of youth involved with the larger story of the ministry is foreign to many churches. But we can’t expect our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow if a family or community isn’t leading them.

“Instead of one adult relationship for every five teenagers we should be thinking in terms of five positive adult relationships for one teenager,” said Blakeman. “I think that’s key.”

Blakeman said when he began his first youth ministry position he saw that there was “definite segregation” among the youth and the larger church body.

“We made one shift [in the ministry] that was real significant.” said Blakeman, “And that was including parents.”

It isn’t easy shifting a youth ministry to a family focus. I met a young youth pastor at a northwest church who wanted to start a father-son bible study. When he brought the idea before the parents the idea was met with enthusiasm. But when no fathers showed up to the first study he realized that the father’s were too busy to participate. When he approached about the matter they had work and other family obligations and didn’t have time. The young man was exasperated.

Another youth pastor was amazed at the involvement of the mother’s in the youth ministry, but when he saw the rebellious behavior of the young women he began to ask questions. He realized the mother’s were too involved with the ministry, in organizing events and planning, they didn’t take time for the relationships with their daughters.

Frank Brown’s approach to ministering to the youth in his church began with the parents.

“I went to the parents,” said Frank Brown. “And told them if they wanted youth group then they need to be involved.”

When parents are involved the dynamics change. When godly older men lead younger men and when godly older women lead younger women it creates a stronger family. It creates a grounded and supported youth, marked for long-term success on the basis that their faith is firm and they don’t walk alone with only their friends, maybe a parent, or a youth pastor if he can fit you in for coffee on Tuesday (“How about a rain check?”).

According to Phil Schwadel and Christian Smith in Portraits of Protestant Teens: A Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations:

“Almost three-quarters of Protestant parents who attend church at least a few times a year (73 percent) say that ministry to teens is a very important priority in their churches, suggesting that over a quarter of Protestant parents feel that their churches are not placing a high priority on ministry to teens.”

This study doesn’t mention the amount of involvement by the parents, but it does show that families are interested in the well being of their children and do hope that the church is a part of the faith formation and growth in their lives.

A study by the University of Illinois, in the September 07 issue of Development Psychology reported 40 percent of students in faith-based groups said they “got to know people in the community,” compared to 20 percent of students in other organized activities. And 46 percent of teens in faith-based groups reported “This activity improved my relationship with my parents” versus 21 percent of students in other activities.

Giving Hope

A seven-year-old boy sits next to me flipping through his Pokeman cards.

“Which one is your favorite?” he asks me.

I point to a cool piranha looking one.

“Here you can have it.” He starts pulling it out of the plastic.

His parents don’t live together anymore. He only comes to church when it’s his mother’s week to have him. He is rambunctious and wild with a high probability of becoming a troubled child, the product of an unsupported and fragmented home life.

“Here,” he says. “You can have it.” He puts the card in my hand and smiles and jumps off his seat.

What if he becomes like the lonely young man at the church youth event, wishing he had someone in his life to care enough about his problems, someone who would listen.

Maybe the church, our families, leaders, communities need to be more like the little boy. Placing in our youth’s hands the hope and faithfulness, trust and support, love and encouragement God offers us all.

“Here,” we can say, “You can have it.”

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

Dancing Jesus: Why The Church Has Failed The Youth — Part II

(Read Part I here)

Part II

Mature Leadership Within the Church Family

It’s scary to think of the corporations that we rely on in our daily lives as money hungry monsters and it’s even scarier when we can relate them to the institution of our church. 

One of the major flaws of institutions (take for example McDonalds) is that the weakest link is where the business meets the customer. CEO’s and managers, with years of education and experience, make major decisions on marketing strategy and where to build buildings, and they go into painstaking detail on the concept and execution, but when the consumer and business actually meet it’s with the most inexperienced and uneducated employee of the corporation. For McDonalds it’s the teenage high school drop out that interacts with the customers and performs the transactions.

As the body of Christ, where the individual meets Jesus and the Church, that point of contact needs to be the strongest, deepest, most mature devout Christians (plural emphasized) to meet and walk with that person.

“We’ve used the business model for the church, instead of the extended family model,” said Frank Brown.

Then why are so many new or young pastors beginning in youth ministry? Why give the most inexperienced leaders to the most inexperienced Christians? Where are the elders, the parents, the mature adults? Many churches give the youth ministry to young pastors as a sort of starting ground, a way to work up the ladder. Yet very rarely are wisdom and youth contained in the same person. Why give the gems of our young leaders to the most inexperienced?

This is also a problem of many youth ministries. They are isolated from the church family and many are lead by inexperienced and/or immature Christians. In Bible college I could walk through campus and immediately point out the individuals majoring in youth ministry based on personality and clothing style. It was an unfair stereotype. But unfortunately it was often true.

Success Not in Numbers

Entertainment is our attempt to appeal to culture. It’s a tool to increase numbers. The problem with numbers is that it’s short-term success. Success shouldn’t be measured in growth or numbers. Success shouldn’t even be measured. Our Western mindset entices us to make the youth a product. We’re not willing to develop theological thinkers for fear it won’t keep numbers up.

Parents carry a baby for the first few years of their life but the baby doesn’t produce anything. And yet we look for performance from our youth to rate the successes of our ministries instead of developing, nurturing, leading, and growing them within the family.

Real success is long-term. When the young man or woman that a youth pastor spent hours praying for and teaching and leading returns 10, 20, 30 years later with his or her family and their spouse affirms youth ministries impact in their life. That’s success. That beats out large numbers any Sunday.

Our consumer driven culture can perceive the church as a product. What can it give me? And too often we bow to the demand with entertainment. Youth ministry should be fun and creative, but novelty is being taken to the extreme when entertainment is the focus. Every youth leader can attest to searching the web for new games, or icebreakers, or ideas, or anything to keep kid’s attention. Then when real life hits and the “cool entertaining Jesus” they met in their youth group doesn’t take care of life’s problems then Jesus, God, and the Bible are no longer relevant.

The difficulty is convincing churches and ministries to shift the focus from a segmented one to a family oriented one that fosters numerous mature adult relationships.

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

Dancing Jesus: Why the Church Has Failed the Youth — Part I

Part I

“I want someone I can tell my problems to.”

When I heard this from a sophomore male during a group prayer at a recent youth event I was shocked for a number of reasons. One, I could relate. Two, he shouldn’t be alone. Here in this moment he shared a deep longing in his heart neither I (only a helper for the weekend), nor the youth pastor, nor his father, nor any other mature Christians in the church were filling. He had very little sense of belonging, of support, and of direction.

Why? Why was he so alone yet so surrounded? What are we surrounding our youth with these days that they still feel alone even among friends, activities, games, and youth events? This young man epitomizes an unfortunate trend in today’s youth ministry, where the youth feel isolated, alone, and in need of something more.

Patricia Hersch in her book A Tribe Apart describes the scene of kids going to school in her town,

“Out there on the corner, even my own children fall into the shadows as they join their peers in another world before my eyes. They have stepped inside the adolescent community, a perplexing place where kids these days are growing up among themselves, out of the range of adult vision. I run past the bus several times as it goes from stop to stop, and I am aware of how distant they seem, how separate. I wonder why and whether anybody else cares.”

My heart turned when I read this. And I wanted to say I care, Christians care, the Church cares. But then I wondered if I, they, we really do.

Starving for Something More

Youth ministry has become the equivalent of the kiddy-table at Thanksgiving dinner. The miniature plastic picnic table with plastic cups and forks and knives and if she bats her eyes at grandma and insists then the Cinderella teapot also. Towards the end of the meal heaps of red Jell-O and cranberry sauce are cuddling with the carpet, and mounds of mashed potatoes and yams and steamy gravy are here, there, and everywhere. It’s a mess. So the adults send over young cousin Bobby or Sarah to keep them under control. And the same mess happens only instead of the adults cleaning it up it’s Bobby and Sarah’s responsibility.

“The form of the church is cockeyed,” says Frank Brown, a pastor in Dallas, Oregon for the past 25 years. “A lot of things [in youth ministry] are just entertainment. We have fragmented our youth from the extended family and created a sub-family.” Brown began his ministry as a youth pastor in the San Francisco area.

“I preached straight Bible doctrine,” says Brown about his first youth ministry position. “It was about the word of God. When you can create appetites in your kids it becomes a runaway train.” By the time Brown left his first youth ministry a year later he was drawing more numbers then the actual church. “It was kind of embarrassing,” Brown admits.

Brown said he taught the kids to serve. They would visit drug rehab centers, and group homes (the ones with the least visitors), and they would send letters to the elderly in the church.

“Teaching of life skills and service is important,” says Brown. “That’s an important part of what youth ministry should be about.”

Youth ministries today are entertainment driven, a higher-level daycare of rafting trips, water balloon nights, lock-ins, pizza, movies, candy, and games. But churches end up competing for kid’s time against school activities like sports or band and all the other activities where parents rush to and fro to drop off and pick up and rush off again.

Churches are isolating the youth. Instead of adopting them and leading them into the church family. Youth ministries have their own pastor, sometimes their own building, and even their own services. It’s the youth here, and the “big people” over there.

“Without a proper view of God, you can’t meet people’s needs,” says Dr. Marty Trammell. “I think if you’re going to meet kids’ needs you have to teach theology. [Youth ministry] is put your arm around the person and let them know you’ve been there.”

Trammell is known as the “Love Doctor” on campus of Corban College in Salem, Ore. where he is a Humanities Professor and author of Redeeming Relationships. Trammell, also the Family and Youth Pastor of Valley Baptist of Perrydale, Or. began his ministry as a youth pastor. Trammell said he incorporated early, a family-oriented approach to youth ministry.

“By the time they’re 13 they’re apart of the adult community,” says Trammell. “They’re an adult now, we want them to be thinking like that. The older men and women sit down and talk with the teenagers. They don’t come to me and say this young person is having a problem. They first go to them. There is a lot of encouragement.”

Trammell also emphasizes parental involvement in the youth activities. Asking the father’s to speak at least once to the youth group.

“I think if you spend more time with the youth group you find your kids are easier to live with. You see dad’s and mom’s grow. The dad’s can [grow to] teach because they learned to teach in the youth ministry.”

Trammell unveiled to me the cover for his book before it was released, asking me if I understood the images’ symbolism: a zipper. It was fitting for the subject of his book as well as fitting for the subject of re-integrating youth into the family and community of our churches, especially their own families.
Families are designed to be a heaven on earth and when youth’s families don’t provide that then the church must.

A high school girl called me crying recently. We met for coffee and sat outside of the 24 hour Starbucks in the cold weather. I listened as she told me under tears and sobs about her mother’s second divorce, about her friend in prison, and the guy she just broke up for the second time.

I say this only to set up what she told me about her church. She said she would go to her church’s meetings and push for more effort to be put into the youth group. She made suggestions and gave advice. The pastors and the elders of the church told her she should lead it then.

This is often our church’s attitude to the youth. Go and do your own thing, they say. And so the youth do, creating a fragmented sub-culture.

When I was in high school I helped run the weekly outreach program at my youth group. I came with the idea of Club X. We turned the building into a club scene with loud music and spiraling lights and a juice bar. We did our own thing. We entertained ourselves. And it was pointless without the rest of the family. It was empty entertainment, if that. As our youth entertain themselves they are hurting, lonely, and isolated. Broken off from the rest of the church.

“I just want someone I can tell my problems to.” What does entertainment do when our youth are eager for something more?

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.