Thursday, July 31, 2008

Facebook prompts more thoughts. . . .

This Facebook thing continues to be fun. The reason is rather simple. . . . I’ve connected with my old youth group kids from the 80s and we’re rekindling loads and loads of memories. . . . many of which, unfortunately, have been documented in posted photos. Then there’s the opportunity to connect with new friends, most of them involved in addressing matters of faith and culture, leading students in youth ministry, or some combination of both. It’s rather amazing. For those of you who have grown up in a world where this type of technology is normal, remember that I used to fall asleep with a 9-volt battery transistor radio glued to my ear as I either listened to my beloved and perpetually disappointing Phillies, or one of the two local Top 40 am stations. . . . WIBG and WFIL. Thus, my amazement. Speaking of 9-volt batteries, I felt pretty good about teaching a young friend how to test them the other day. If you don’t know how to do it, get ahold of one and stick the terminals on your tongue. Just don’t do it while you’re sitting in the tub.

So one of my wonderful youth group kids was one of the first to join our growing online reunion. His name is Jeff. I loved this guy back then and I love him now. Jeff reappeared on my map one Sunday morning a few years ago, rather unexpectedly. We were sitting in worship when my wife gave me the old elbow. I wondered if I was singing off key, again. I wondered if some article of clothing was askew or improperly affixed. That’s usually the case. This time she leaned over with a smile on her face and she said, “Look over your shoulder up into the balcony where the choir is sitting. Is that Jeff Caddick up there?!?!?” I turned and looked. Yep. It was Jeff. At least a good dozen years had passed since I had seen him. We bee-lined up to the balcony after the service and began what’s turned out to be a great reconnect. I discovered Jeff was now a man, married, and a dad. I was suddenly old. Now I see Jeff and his family almost every week.

Jeff’s one of those guys who’s a computer whiz. It wasn’t surprising to find him on Facebook. . . or maybe he found me. He’s also a very funny guy who has posted some hilarious captions on the growing arsenal of photos that have been uploaded to our page. I think Jeff has to be hilarious, as most of the photos of him in his high school days capture the hilarity of his personality. . . . and his wardrobe choices. . . .which sadly, were much like the choices the rest of us were making. Having a sense of humor serves to deflect the pain.

Being a computer guy, Jeff is also a blogger. A couple of weeks ago he posted some of his memories of his own high school years. . . . memories that were prompted by those photographic time capsules. He blogged about the conflicting pressures and experiences that combined in his life leaving him – like all teenagers – wondering who he was and what the world might think of him. Jeff’s posting got me thinking about teenagers today. This stuff of the teenage experience has never changed. Kids still struggle.

Over twenty years have passed and Jeff’s done great. He’s walking with the Lord and married someone who’s doing the same. That’s what I prayed for all those kids. Now, he’s blogging about wondering what his little girls will grow up to be and experience. I’ve been there with that with my own four kids. In fact, when I had one eye on Jeff and his peers back in the 80s, I had another on my kids, wondering and praying about what their lives would be like in the future that’s become today.

Back then, I didn’t know what Jeff was thinking. In my mind, he was a kid who had no reason at all to lack confidence in himself. We set out as a youth ministry staff to unconditionally love Jeff and his peers in our group. We always encouraged them to do the same to each other. I prayed then and I hope now that we did a good job at it. If we did, it was in spite of ourselves and purely by the grace of God.

Still, there’s a lesson in there for all of us who are working with and ministering to kids. You don’t always know what they’re thinking or what they’re going through. We need to pray for them, love them, accept them, be the hands and feet of Jesus to them. . . . and encourage them to be and do the same to each other. Being a teen was rough back then. I think that when Jeff looks at his wonderfully cute little daughters he knows that it’s only going to be much more difficult for them as their teen years approach. Jeff and his wife will love and nurture them. They’re already doing that. Hopefully, there’ll be some understanding youth workers who will come alongside and do the same. There can never be too many of us who love Jesus who also commit to loving kids. That’s a message I hope to communicate to all my new Facebook youth ministry friends.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Youth group. . . .

So now I’m on Facebook. I had an account for several months but never did anything with it besides setting it up. My profile picture was that generic blue question mark. From time to time I’d get emails informing me that so-and-so had requested me to be their Facebook friend. Because I had forgotten my password and the steps necessary to access my account I never responded to any of those requests. . . leaving me feeling guilty that people might think I was avoiding them. But youth culture continued to change and I figured it was high time I get with it and get networking.

I get asked about Facebook, social networking, and new technologies all the time. Now that I’m a four-week Facebook vet, my opinions have changed somewhat. On the one hand, I still think that kids today need to get outside and play with flesh-and-blood friends for numerous reasons. I know that with my own four kids the changes in culture-at-large have been reflected in their age-descending tendency to spend less time in real relationships, and more time poking their fingers across keypads of varying sizes as they relate digitally. My youngest (at 16) spends more time with technology than his older siblings ever did. . . . mostly because he’s living in a world filled with more technology to spend time with. Sure, the nature of community is changing for kids. My son can strap on a headset connected to an Xbox360 and the Internet and play games while chatting in real time with “friends” around the world. . . . who, by the way, he’s never seen or touched. But as an old-timer I’ve got serious reservations about what this new-fangled type of community will do to our kids’ ability to relate long-term. And, I’m sure there will be fall-out for the way we do church and experience Christian community. . . . and I’m not sure it will be better.

But on the other hand, there’s some Facebook community fallout for those of us who are older that I think is pretty amazing and good. I grew up in the world of face-to-face community. I did youth ministry in that world as well. From 1985 to 1990 I served as the youth pastor at a church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. On July 1, 1990, I followed God’s call away from a community of kids, leaders, and families that I had grown to love deeply. That’s when we started CPYU. In the time since I endured the grieving that comes with leaving a group of people you have loved and spent time with for so long. At some point the grieving stopped and I just accepted the face that in God’s great plan, we’ve gone our separate ways. Our community had become a memory from “back then.” Oh, there’s been the occasional phone call, email, and visit with those “kids” (I think the first one turns 40 next week!). When those moments come we pick up right where we left off – a sign of true friendship. But they have spouses, children, and lives of their own. They live all over the place. And, we never, ever get together as a group anymore. Until I started hunting them down on Facebook. . . . and an amazing thing happened. One by one our youth group is re-connecting on a Facebook page I set up just for us. We’re starting to share our stories. Over 250 photos from those years have already been posted. . . . most of them rather hilarious. The photos are like a historical recounting of 80’s youth ministry. The pictures don’t lie. Yes, we regularly used the Youth Specialties’ games books, and it seems that at many of our youth group activities, the guys dressed like girls. What was going on back then?!?!? The commentary on those photos indicates that none of those kids has outgrown their sense of humor. So now we’re laughing, talking, and planning a reunion sometime in the future.
As of today, 47 of our original group have come together to reconnect and rebuild that wonderful community we were experiencing twenty years ago. More are joining us regularly. None of this would have happened without Facebook and the phenomenon of social networking. The very thing that might undermine real community for the emerging generations, has rekindled what was real community for those of us who have grown up (or at least we think we’ve grown up).

If you wind up being my Facebook friend, you’ll see that my profile picture is one that makes a statement. It melds my childhood face with the most advanced technology of my childhood. . . . a doomed-to-fail attempt to prove to my kids that somehow I’m technologically hip. It will never happen.

But I really don’t care. I’m trying to do the best I can with the technology I’m learning (slowly, I might add) in the hope that I’ll experience community at a deeper level with some old friends who were a gift from God then, and – I’m discovering – are a gift from God now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mentored. . . .

When it comes to faith, none of us is ever too old, too smart, or too good to be mentored. I am increasingly convinced of this fact. But when I look back over the course of my life and the path of faith God has had me walk, I realize that there was a time when I was too young, too stupid, and too bad to consider the need for a mentor(s). In other words, I saw myself as having it so together in my faith and ministry that I thought, what was there, if anything, that anybody older and more seasoned could teach me? I see now that I was embracing a poisonous blend of pride, arrogance, and self-deception.

Sadly, this reality rears its ugly head from time to time in my own life. I’ve got enough years behind me that a look in the rear-view mirror confirms that I’ve invited this “ugly head” to pop up from time to time. Equally sad – and certainly not a justification for my own behavior – is the universal tendency of followers of Jesus and people in youth ministry to be doing the same. I’ve seen it more and more in recent years, particularly as we’ve been a part of the shift from a world that is less and less modern, and more and more postmodern. Potential mentors are disqualified because their age leads us to assume that they and the modern culture they inhabited are passé. In other words, what – if anything – of value would they have to teach or tell me? This tendency is especially prevalent among those of us in youth ministry who are closer to our first year of ministry than we are to our last. . . . that is, those of us who are young.

This fact has been confirmed by one of the great advantages of keeping a foot in the virtual community inhabited by fellow bloggers and social networking fans. One of things I most look forward to during my frequent visits to youth ministry bloggers and Facebookers is the list of books that are being read and have been read. Because I love to read, I’m always looking to discover new suggestions for that next book to add to my “to read” pile. . . . . which by the way, has gotten so overwhelmingly out-of-control that I now call it my “hope to read” pile. Again, an analysis of what many are reading shows a lack of balance. Most everything is new. . . . stuff which of course is important if we are going to read widely. But absent from many lists are texts from older saints – both living and dead – who are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Could it be that our pride, arrogance, and self-deception has led us to believe that these folks have nothing at all to say to us? I hope not.

These thoughts were sparked this morning as I finished reading John Stott’s The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor.
Several years ago – knowing that Stott’s health was beginning to decline – I tried to set-up a meeting with Dr. Stott for the purpose of picking his wise and experienced brain. I was hoping to assume the posture of a Timothy on behalf of all Timothy’s in youth ministry, hoping to get to ask a series of questions that would get this modern-day “Paul” to pass on some final words of wisdom that would help us as we endeavor to live for the King and His Kingdom in the 21st century. That meeting with the man who has served as one of my greatest mentors through his books never materialized. So I’ve been happy to recommend his writings to anyone and everyone.

As I closed the pages on Stott’s The Living Church, I realized that what I had just read was most-likely what he would have said to me and our youth ministry community if I had been fortunate enough to meet with him face-to-face.

My challenge to you is this: allow John Stott to mentor you. This Godly and brilliant servant of Christ has much to say to those of us who follow Jesus and are calling kids to do the same.

And while we’re at it, do you have any mentor or book suggestions for me? I’m always looking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

1,000,000 words. . . . . .

The old saying goes, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” The picture of the magazine cover you see below is worth a thousand times that. If you work with kids, parent kids, minister to kids, love kids. . . . you need to “read” this picture. Then, you need to talk about it. I think this photo – more than any other I’ve seen in a long time – captures the essence and reality of today’s youth culture.

If you’re in youth ministry, don’t plan anything for this week’s gathering. Instead, put the photo up on the big screen. Get into some small groups. Then, have your students discuss these questions:

- Does this picture make any suggestions on how to think, talk, act, or live?

- What does the picture say about the way the world is?

- What does this picture say about the way the world ought to be?

- Is there right and wrong?

- What’s portrayed as right?

- What’s portrayed as wrong?

- What do the Scriptures say about the values, attitudes, and behaviors portrayed in this picture?

- How does God call us to live out His Kingdom priorities in the midst of the world depicted in this photo?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Why does God? . . .

Josh hopped onto our bed late last Wednesday night. He had a question. “Why does God allow someone so young to die?” We’ve had these discussions before with our kids. I’ve had them numerous times over the years with other kids who have lost young family members or friends in tragic, unexpected ways. This time it was a 22-year-old high school classmate of Josh’s, Matt Garber, who had drowned in Costa Rica while spending his summer doing missions work.

Matt was one of four kids in a local family we’ve gotten to know over the years. Our kids are all close in age, and Matt’s three siblings have all been classmates, teammates, and friends with my kids. Matt was looking forward to starting a career in nursing in just over a month. . . . once he returned from his missions trip.

My discussion with Josh on the bed took the usual course. I explained that there are many things that happen in life that we just can’t understand or explain. When those times come, I hold on to the things I know (my list of “This I know’s”). I believe in God’s love, grace, mercy, and sovereignty. I also know that our world is polluted by sin. I know that God has begun and will finish his plan to undo all that’s been done.

As you can imagine, Matt Garber’s death is the big news in our town. Sadly, the Garber family has in one month gone from the joy of celebrating Matt’s older brother’s selection in the major league baseball draft and Matt’s college graduation, to coming together for a funeral. All last week we prayed for the Garbers. We prayed that eventually Matt’s body would be found so that some small sense of closure could come.

On Saturday morning, I went for a bike ride on a local trail. As I oftentimes do, I was praying while riding. This time, I spent time praying for the Garbers. Not coincidentally, I was a mile from the end of my ride when I skidded to a stop to talk with a jogger. It was Matt’s younger sister Janelle. She’s a good friend of my daughter Bethany. I said her name and she looked at me bewildered, not sure who it was who was stopping to chat with her. Once I took off my sunglasses and unbuckled my helmet she recognized me. It was an emotional moment as I asked her, “Janelle, how are you doing?” We stood there together and talked for a long time. We talked about what had happened to her brother. She told me they had just found his body. She spoke about her brother’s faith in Christ. She talked about how she was doing. When I finally rode away, I had been ministered to by a young lady whose deep pain, hurt, and grief were being experienced in the context of her deep faith in Christ.

Without the “This I know’s,” I’m not sure how people get through tragedy. It is a mystery of grace, but it is a reality. Last week in worship I reached into the hymnal rack and pulled out a little supplemental book of hymns written by the late Dr. James Boice. I’ve grown to love the words of #5. . . . and I think the text of this simply titled “Hallelujah” brings great light and hope in the midst of grief and questions.

What can separate my soul
From the God who made me whole
Wrote my name in heaven’s scroll?
Nothing. Hallelujah!

Trouble, hardship, danger, sword
Brought by those who hate my Lord?
Slander here? Or no reward?
Nothing. Hallelujah!

Angels, demons, now or then?
Wickedness dreamed up by men?
Persecutions come again?
Nothing. Hallelujah!

Victors we’re ordained to be
By the God who set us free
What can therefore conquer me?
Nothing. Hallelujah!

We face death for God each day
What can pluck us from his way?
Let God’s people every say
Nothing. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

New Teen TV. . . .

Last night I watched the premiere of the new ABC Family Channel series, The Secret Life of The American Teenager. I hadn’t seen any of the previews so I really had no idea what to expect from this new show from the producers of Seventh Heaven. Even though the first hour left me feeling like the show is a bit hokey, over-acted, and somewhat lame, I do believe there’s some potential. . . most of which lies not in the show’s plotline, but in the possibilities the plotline present for discussion with a certain – yet to be determined – group of kids.

First, the story. . . . which is at this point fairly simple even though it’s headed quickly into the realm of teen-targeted soap opera. All the campus stereotypes are present, and during the first hour they had some interesting interactions designed to lay the groundwork for further plot development. Fifteen-year-old freshman good girl Amy Juergens plays French horn in the band. She suspects and discovers she’s pregnant, the result of her first-time (and nothing good about it) sexual experience at band camp. The father, Ricky Underwood, is the band’s drummer. Sexually abused by his father as a child, Ricky now lives in a foster home, regularly attends therapy, and is obsessed with having sex with every girl he meets. . . . including Amy. In this first episode, Amy reveals her pregnancy only to her two best friends, who offer advice, but she has yet to tell her mom and dad. Incidentally, Amy’s 13-year-old sister Ashley is an emerging Goth whose search for identity is leaving her family dazed and confused.

Other characters offer stereotypical portrayals of how teenagers handle their emerging sexuality. Grace Bowman is the 15-year-old bubbly evangelical Christian who speaks in Christian clichés – oftentimes while a church organ plays in the background (I said it’s hokey), and is outspoken about her promise ring pledge. In teen language, Grace is “hot,” which may be why she’s so good at getting her unsaved peers to attend her youth group’s post-football game dance and party. . . . where, by the way, Grace teeters on doing some dirty dancing of her own with boyfriend Jack. Even though he’s a football player, Jack is Grace’s follower when it comes to faith. It quickly becomes obvious that all of Jack’s faith-talk (clichés and organs again) is more of an effort to convince himself to remain sexually pure, than to give in to his – for lack of better words – curiosity and horniness. After unsuccessfully trying to get Grace to engage in oral sex (“Is oral sex sex?”), viewers discover that Jack satisfies his sexual curiosity with steamy and seductive baton twirler Adrian (I told you it was going to be a soap opera!). Incidentally, it’s Grace’s downs-syndrome brother Tom (a member of Grace’s over-the-top and sticky-sweet evangelical family) who discovers Jack and Adrian locked in a kiss at the end of the first episode, leaving everyone hanging until next week.

One other character worth mentioning is Ben, another virgin freshman who wants a sex life and talks about his desire with unbelievable openness with the new school counselor. By episode’s end, Ben’s pursuit of Amy leads him to join the school band (cymbal player!) and the episode closes with Amy and Ben slow-dancing in the church gym. At some point in an upcoming episode, Ben is in for a big surprise.

That’s the story. Now some thoughts.

First, the show is simple, over-acted, and as I said before, a bit hokey. I felt like I was watching High School Musical without the music, but with a simplified peek into coming-of-age sexuality in today’s youth culture. That said, the target audience for this show is pretty clear. Late elementary-aged girls, middle-school girls, and high school girls who are less jaded (naïve) will most likely get sucked into this soap opera. I can’t imagine the typical high school kid connecting with The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I could be wrong.

Second, I think the show will raise enough real-life issues (sexuality, sexual abuse, oral sex, etc.) that it’s value will lie in parents and their kids watching together, followed by some healthy discussion. If that doesn’t happen, the show could function as a pretty powerful mentor and map for kids looking for sexual and relational guidance.

Finally, I’m guessing the portrayal of Grace and her family will have lots of Christian’s buzzing with anger this morning. I can understand that. . . . I hope that I never come across that way to the watching world. (I can assure you that my life looks nothing like the smiley/bubbly/sugar-coated lives of the Bowman family). But the reality is that the portrayal flows from a watching world that has all-too-often seen Christians live shallow, cliché-filled, unrealistic, and dis-integrated lives. What the show reflects back to us shouldn’t make us angry at the writers and producers, but should make us angry with ourselves. I don’t think the stereotype would exist if we didn’t fuel it. . . . . which just might be the best discussion point coming out of the first episode of The Secret Life of The American Teenager.

So do we watch next Tuesday at 8pm? Or do we find a good book and lay in the hammock? It all depends on who else will be watching. If it catches on with the kids – and I think it’s destined to do just that – then we should be watching too. Then, we need to do some talking as this is one show that will help open doors for discussion on a variety of real-life issues, each of which the Scriptures speak to in liberating and life-giving ways.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chasing humility. . . .

If I remember correctly, it was while watching the old Romper Room TV show that I learned at a young age to “do be a do-bee” and “don’t be a don’t-bee.” The meat on the bones of those little songs and rhymes were character lessons on virtuous behavior.

My kids grew up without Romper Room, but television fed them lots of lessons on character and appropriate/acceptable behavior. As a dad, I quickly learned that it was important to be looking over their shoulders to see how what they were watching was schooling them for life. Sadly, looking over the shoulder has become more and more necessary, as the “do’s” and “don’ts” have become quite muddled since shows like Romper Room went off the air. It’s become harder and harder to find good positive role models whose lives evidence positive character and virtue.

While the only consistent model for our behavior is Christ, we can from time to time point to examples of people who go against the flow of the status quo to model in a breath-of-fresh-air sort of way character that is worth aspiring to. A couple of weeks ago our local paper ran an article about one of those people and the valuable life lessons he learned from his Dad which continue to inform the way he lives today. According to the way most high-profile sports superstars live self-absorbed “look at me” lifestyles today, this guy just goes about his business quietly and without flair. If you’re a sports fan you no doubt know the name Chase Utley. The quiet and unassuming second basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies is such a good player that more fans have sent their all-star votes his way than in the direction of any other player. I’ve watched Utley more closely this year than ever before. Whether winning or losing, homering or striking out, or fielding or missing a ball (rarely!), Utley’s demeanor never changes. There’s never any showboating. When things don’t go his way, there are not tantrums, anger, or excuses. The more I watch him, the more amazed I am by the way he plays the game. The fact that I’m amazed is a sad commentary on the state of our culture. Utley’s behavior and approach to the game should be commonplace. Because it’s not – sadly – it stands out.

Back to Utley and his Dad and the article our paper ran on Father’s Day. . . . it seems that when Utley was a little boy playing ball in his home state of California, he complained to his father about a fellow player who did quite a bit of show-boating on the field, and bragging off the field. Utley’s dad simply shared a lesson he had learned from his high school guidance counselor. The lesson was this: “If you’re really good at something, you don’t have to tell people. They will tell you.” And so, Chase Utley focuses on pursuing excellence at his craft. You know by the way he plays. Not by what he says. What I like about Chase Utley – and what I like to point out to my kids about Chase Utley – is his humility. It’s refreshing because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The writer of Proverbs says that “humility comes before honor.” Jesus reminds his followers that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And Peter reminds Christ-followers to “clothe yourselves with humility.”

We are all sinners saved by grace. Anything good we have or do is a gift of grace. I am reminded this morning that in my home, my church, my community, and my world I am nothing. . . and if I am something, it is only by the grace of God. So with the Puritans we should pray, “Help me to humble myself before Thee by seeing the vanity of honor as a conceit of men’s minds, as standing between me and Thee.”