Thursday, March 26, 2009

My First Cigarette. . . .

A news story this week caught my eye and jogged my memory. The story was about a new trend that has parents and health officials concerned. It seems that a growing number of children and tweens are "smoking," of all things, Smarties. Not only that, but they're posting their Smartie-smoking videos on YouTube. They crush them up in the cellophane roll, open both ends, inhale the crushed sugar into their mouths, and then blow out sugary Smartie smoke.

Ahh, kids these days. . . . oh. . . . wait a minute. . . what about kids in those days????

All this talk about Smartie-smoking took me back to my childhood fascination with smoking. You need to know that I grew up in a home where nobody smoked. No cigarettes, no cigars, no pipes. Nothing. However, I grew up in a neighborhood where plenty of my friends' parents smoked, and they smoked all of those things.

Lucky me. I had a bit of a childhood fascination with the smell of cigarette smoke. Yep, I was one of those weird kids who liked the smell. . . sort of like the smells I liked when we pulled into the gas station and my dad would roll down his window to tell the attendant to "fill 'er up with regular." Come on. . . I know I'm not alone in this. I also remember the smell of cigars. . . mostly the smell of collective cigars as that smoke mixed with the odor of watered down beer in the stands at Connie Mack Stadium. I still think about baseball when I smell a cigar. And then there were the pipes. I had a few friends whose dads had pipestands on tables next to their favorite chair. They also had those ashtrays that sat on floor pedastals next to their chairs. I remember sticking my nose into those pipe's bowls to grab a sniff of scented tobacco. I also remember a couple of neighbhorhood dads who would walk behind the lawn-mower with a pipe clenched between their teeth. It looked kind of like a steam-engine puffing through the backyard.

Not only did we have real-life flesh-and-blood examples showing us how to smoke everywhere we turned, but the world of marketing did a good number on us. Back then we didn't know as much about the dangers of cigarettes. Smoking was presented to those of us who were Christian kids as a moral risk (yes, there will be lots of smoking in Hell! Can you say "sin sticks?"), not the health risk we know it as today. On the other hand, smoking was presented by marketers as manly, adult, and even the sexy thing to do. Liberated women smoked and they even had their own brand. . . Virginia Slims. Marketers knew back then that to grow the cigarette business, they had to cultivate new smokers. Even the Flintstones - a cartoon I loved and watched faithfully - marketed cigarettes to kids like me. More recently, there was Joe Camel. I've heard lots of statistics over the years regarding kids and smoking. The tobacco companies know that 80% of adult smokers started before they were 18. And, the tobacco companies know that they have to develop thousands of new smokers a day to replace those who either die off or quit. So, it makes sense to go after impressionable young kids.

Like all other kids, I wanted to appear grown up. In today's world, marketers call that age-aspiration, and they're experts at exploiting that desire in order to get kids to adopt values, attitudes, and behaviors that result in spending money on things. . . . including cigarettes.

Okay. . . so we never smoked Smarties. But we didn't have to. The world of candy-makers and toy-manufacturers set us up with far superior stuff. There were those thin candy cigarettes that came in those look-alike boxes.
They were white sticks of sugar with a little red tip. Be careful! . . . and be sure to eat from the "unlit" end first. There were also bubblegum cigarettes. These were cylinders of the cheapest bubblegum known to humankind (think about three steps below baseball card bubblegum) wrapped in paper. A thin layer of powdered sugar on the gum allowed us to blow smoke out the other end of the cylinder. There were also the fake cigarettes that we could buy in packs that had no candy content. These weren't for eating or chewing. They were solely for "smoking." Made of paper, the "lit" end featured a piece of crinkled gold foil that protruded out, making it look like it was glowing with heat. Inside the paper cylinder was chalk that you would blow out past the foil. How did I know it was chalk? I inhaled a couple of times by accident. Oops. We also had those great bubblegum cigars. The label said "El Bubble." Yes, cubans!
Why was there a Native American (or "Indian" as we called them back then) chief featured on the box??? And then there were the licorice pipes that we could eat, and the bubble-pipes that we could "smoke," or more accurately, "bubble."

So there I was. . . a conflicted young man. On the one hand, smoking was wrong. On the other hand, I was battling that universal childhood recipe that included one part curiosity, one part impulsivity, and two parts wanting to look grown-up. Marketing, adult examples, a load of tasty sweet tobacco treats, and my youthful impulsivity combined in a dangerous mix. . . . that of course, led to my first cigarette.

It's one of my most vivid childhood memories. It was early in the summer. I was playing at my friend Lisa's house. Her mom was a smoker. She kept cartons of Salem menthols in the end kitchen cabinet, right above the phone. She also conveniently stored loads of matchbooks in the same place. Her mom was out of the kitchen and we saw our opportunity. Too short to reach the cabinet, I pushed the kitchen chair over against the counter-top. Lisa climbed up, opened the cabinet, and grabbed a pack of cigarettes along with a couple books of matches. I can still see it. . . and feel it. Guilt has a way of serving to set the cement of your childhood memories.

We quickly snuck out of the house and through the narrow woods to the neighbor's property. It was a large piece of land with an old spring house sitting off to the side. It was a great place to hide. So there, hunkered down behind the spring house, we attempted to share our first cigarette. I say attempted because we encountered some fundamental problems. We had played with enough matches in our devious and sneaky young lives to have no problem getting the matches lit. The cigarettes were another story. I remember I would light a match for Lisa and she would do the same for me. Holding the matches in front of each other's Salem menthol, we would try to get them lit. We went through our two books of matches before we had to quit. The problem? We were too young and stupid to know that you were supposed to inhale and not blow out while lighting a cigarette! Consequently, our feeble attempts ended with us blowing out all of our matches. Today, there's a part of me that thanks God for the conditioning I got with those blow-through bubblegum cigarettes.

By the way - and this is absolutely 100% true - did I mention how old I was when this all happened? It was 1962. The summer of my sixth birthday. The summer between first and second grade. Yes. . . modeling, marketing, and the tendency to mimic those who are older is a volatile mix in our kids. Always was. Still is. I'm afraid the Smartie-smoking thing might figure into the mix for kids today.

Oh, I tried smoking later in life. I figured out how to light them up - cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. I even once tried a wad of Red Man. It wasn't pretty. Fortunately it was all just passing curiosity and none of it ever stuck. It was mostly a once-and-done thing and I never got hooked. But there were many lessons learned.

Now, I'm going to go celebrate with one of those El Bubbles! Why? Because I'm happy that I didn't turn out like. . . . this guy. . . .

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Twittering Narcissists. . . . .

Like all things in life, Twitter isn't a bad thing. Hey, we even jumped into the Twitter-sphere here at CPYU. What we're hoping, however, is that we use it in the right way. I've blogged about this before so there's no need for redundancy. And, with everything else in life, this is a new technology that's here to stay and that has to be used thoughtfully in a God-glorifying rather than self-glorifying way. How we choose to use Twitter says alot about who we are. How we choose to use Twitter models for our kids who they should be. We've got a responsiblity here. That said, somebody sent me something yesterday that's equally funny and sad. I think it captures a bit of what happens when we are consumed by something we should responsibly consume. Give it a look and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Must see movie. . . .

Every once in a while a film comes along that I have to recommend to everyone who knows, loves, lives, or works with teens. About a year ago, I heard about a new independent documentary set for release in July, 2008. The film, American Teen, follows five Warsaw, Indiana High School seniors and their peers as they experience their last year on campus while planning for what comes next.

Sadly, American Teen saw a very limited theatre run in just a handful of cities. I was communicating regularly with the production company to schedule an exclusive showing at a theatre here near our CPYU offices. It never worked out. Since then, I've been looking hard for a copy of the film so that I could not only see it myself, but to schedule a screening and discussion. The good news is that American Teen is now out on DVD. And finally, we've been able to schedule a screening, lunch, and discussion here in the Central Pennsylvania area on Thursday, April 2. If you're considering joining us, you can check out the details here.

American Teen offers a wide open window into the rapidly changing world of today's youth culture. It's a fascinating film featuring some very lovable, insecure, and conflicted teens. If you view the film through eyes of faith, you will be moved by what you see. American Teen also offers lots to discuss and lots we need to answer through our ministry and parenting efforts.

I know that only a limited number of you can join us as we watch the film together. If you aren't able to watch with us, set up your own viewing and discussion party. We'll be posting some more information on our website very soon, including a 3D review of the film, and a list of helpful questions to guide your discussion.

Please give American Teen a good, long, hard look. It will open your eyes to a world and teenage experience that's different from the one you knew.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chris Brown, Rihanna, and Talking Points. . . .

Last Thursday I spent a few minutes catching up with one of my tweenaged nieces via text-messaging. She likes to communicate with me that way. She lives several hundred miles away so I don't get to see her too much. I went through my normal litany of questions about school, family, etc. At one point in our conversation, she confessed to multi-tasking as we were texting, and broached a new subject when she told me that she was online trying to find out if Rihanna was taking Chris Brown back.

Just like that, her text message opened the floodgates on a host of cultural issues. I was reminded that pop stars are front and center in today's world. . . . even if yesterday they were virtually unknown. I was reminded that pop stars are made. . . . and that these manufactured pop stars develop quite a following. That following is young, very young, pre-teen in fact. Consequently, they're very, very impressionable. And, I was reminded that our children and teens increasingly lead very broken and confusing lives. . . Rihanna and Brown are both still very, very young. I've taken a special interest as I had written in the last couple of years about Chris Brown's music and story, and how he became a pop star.

Which leads me to the felony and abuse charges against Chris Brown. Just 19-years-old, Brown allegedly battered his girlfriend Rihanna fairly severely. The result - as it should have been - was felony charges filed against Brown. For the last several weeks, the soap opera has played out all over the media as fans and curious onlookers wonder if they're relationship is on, off, on, or off. Sadly, this horrible reality is good for those in the celebrity gossip mill who need these high-profile stories to keep their following growing and satisfied. Last week, Oprah (the most powerful woman in America) had Tyra Banks and others weigh in on the situation. The editorial page of yesterday's local paper had commentators dissecting and responding to the case as well. Once again, abuse is front-page lead-story news.

If we care about and love kids, then we need to do something with this story. On the one hand, we must avoid at all costs the temptation to follow the media culture's lead that can lure us into assuming the gossipy voyeuristic posture that discusses fact and rumor void of discernment or perspective. On the other hand, we must seize this as a cultural reality that we can use to shape the future reality of our kids' lives. But how?

First, we must realize that we live in a culture that both fosters and encourages actions like Brown's. He's a kid. A teenager. He's grown up in a media world that's been saturated with no-holds-barred sexuality, entitlement, misogyny, violence, relativism, and narcissism. The great irony in all of this is that while he most certainly should be held accountable for his immoral actions, who can blame him? Really.

Second, we must realize that just like Brown, our kids are kids growing up in the same world. Until we wake up and do something to stem the tide of this stuff at it's source, well. . . it's going to be more widespread, more common, and more severe.

Third, our responsibility is to address the reality that exists. . . prophetically. This is our greatest responsibility. We must know God's will and way as revealed through His Word and speak that way of living in God's world in contrast to the world's way of living. This prophetic influence is exercised by following the teaching example of Jesus, proclaiming the "you have heard it said that" with the "but I tell you." Our kids need to know that there is not only another way, but that that other way is the right way.

Fourth, we must address the reality preventively. This requires that we not only build strong families and teach kids how to think Christianly about the messages that constantly bombard them from the media, but to instill in them a sense of right and wrong that leaves them with the ability to quickly and clearly look at behavior like Brown's and say, "Not for me." We need to instill in them coping mechanisms and alternative, God-honoring ways of living in relationships with others.

And finally, we must redemptively address the "dragon" of violence and abuse that will rear its ugly head in the lives of the kids we know and love. The Chris Browns we know must be surrounded by the church and get long-term help. The Rihannas we know must be led to help, be told to forgive, and be told to move on.

Perhaps this redemptive step is the one that forces us to face some very confusing dynamics that must be understood more deeply and struggled with in terms of our practical response. I'm still trying to figure this one out. I know that God is a God of forgiveness, grace, and redemption. I know that the God who can move mountains and still storms can move the mountain of one's collective past and command the seemingly endless storm of abusive behavior to cease. But what about all the evidence that seems to point to the stranglehold that sexually and/or violently abusive patterns hold on perpetrators? The "I promise to change and never do it again" all too often is followed with victim's laments of "Why did I believe him/her?". . . and then the cycle repeats itself one more time, and one time after that, etc.

Have you talked about this stuff with the kids you know and love? If not, why not? If so, what have you told them? If you start your day with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, how have you spoken the former to the latter?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Death, Death, Death. . . .

When we moved from Philadelphia to Elizabethtown over 17 years ago, we faced a dilemma we had never before encountered. Because our house was built on farmland in a semi-rural community, there was no public water service in our neighborhood. We had to rely on a well. Years of farming left the water in danger of high nitrate content. A neighbor told us about a little store front not far from our house where we could purchase purified water. Each and every week, we'd load our car with gallon-sized plastic jugs and pockets with quarters before heading to Crystal Pure Water. It was a small little business started by a local man named Ray Diener. He had three coin-operated dispensers (25 cents a gallon!) in his shop.

For over 17 years now we've continued to go to Crystal Pure Water about once a week. Oftentimes Ray would be in his usually unattended store cleaning the machines, restocking bottles, and chatting with customers. A gentle and unassuming man, Ray was always pleasant and loved providing this service for his neighbors. Few knew that Ray's generosity extended far beyond our own community. He was actively involved in providing water purification systems for needy communities in under-developed countries around the world. In fact, he was instrumental in starting numerous mission trips and service projects.

Two years ago this coming May, our community was shocked when Ray Diener was murdered one evening on the front step of his home. He died in the arms of his wife. Not long thereafter, the police arrested four local teenagers and charged them with murder. Earlier this week, the then 18-year-old trigger-man, Abraham Sanchez, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. This morning, our paper's headlines informed us with the words "Killer gets death," that the same jury voted for the death penalty for Sanchez, the son of a pastor.

All last week our newspaper reported on the high profile trial. The three young accomplices - who all have yet to go to trial themselves on charges of criminal homicide - told the horrific story of what happened that night in May 2007. The four were driving around Elizabethtown looking randomly for a home to rob. They saw Ray Diener through the window, sitting in his house. They knocked on the door. Diener came to the door and they asked to use his phone. Soon after Diener brought them the phone, Sanchez pulled a gun and according to one of the guys, Ray Diener knew what was about to happen. He was shot three times while pleading for his life.

Today, my morning paper was filled with lots of other bad news. I read about a young gunman in Samson, Alabama who killed 10 people then took his own life. I read about a 17-year-old teenager in Winnenden, Germany who went into his old high school and killed 15 people, before taking his own life. And, I couldn't help but think about the Illinois pastor who was shot and killed last Sunday during a worship service.

How are we to make sense of all this? I would never posit easy answers. I can only go back to the "this I knows" that give us some limited knowledge of what goes on. Providentially, I've been committed this year to reading through John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion with a small group of people. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, our assigned reading has taken us through Calvin's systematic description of humanity's fall into sin, and the depravity that effects us all. This morning I skimmed back over some of what Calvin wrote regarding how the Scriptures define this universal condition. He writes things like "A true knowledge of ourselves destroys self-confidence," "sin overturns the whole man," "no one is permitted to receive God's blessings unless he is consumed with the awareness of his own poverty," "only damnable things come forth from man's nature," and we "have all been overwhelmed by an unavoidable calamity from which only God's mercy can deliver" us. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jeremiah 17:9). The prophet Isaiah tells us what we should already know. . . that violence is in our hands, that our feet rush into sin, and that we are swift to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:6&7). When we truly understand all this, we must lament with the Apostle Paul over our wretchedness. And, we should rejoice in the life-giving coming of our Savior.

When I read this morning's account of Ray Diener's last minutes on earth, I was struck by the fact that his killing was random. Could his killers have looked in my window that night and chosen me? Sure. Maybe it's safe to say that I was fortunate. Should my horrified look at Abraham Sanchez and other cold-blooded killers include pats on my back of self-admiration because "I would never do anything like that"? No. If I know the human heart. . . . my heart. . . then I know that I'm only one bad decision away from doing the same myself. It's only by the grace of God that I'm not there. The fact is, the more I look at the Scriptures and see myself through the light of God's word, there but for the grace of God go I. I can't be one of those people who says of others or myself, "He's not the type of person that would do something like that." If we're really honest, we're all pretty messed up.

And so as I read the local headlines this morning, I'm forced to think about human depravity, its depth, and its extent. I'm grateful to the God who has given me the "life sentence" I don't deserve. And, I'm grateful to all the people who he's used over the course of my life to serve as signposts, pointing me to that life-giving place known as the cross. That cross can only shine as bright as it does, when seen in the midst of the total darkness of our sin.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Two Winners. . . .

I know. I know. We're a week late on announcing our winner of the Sam Van Eman book, On Earth As It Is In Advertising. And the winner is. . . .Kane. Here's the ad he submitted:

I'm not sure the ad's a winner (long arm hair on anybody - ewwww). . . but it won Kane a book. Hey Kane. . . to claim your prize you need to email Derek at dmelleby(at) with your vitals (I'm not sure why, but Derek told me to write it like that).

Now, for the second winner. Have you heard the new U2 disc? I don't need to say anymore. And for my winning track, check out the four coolest Irish boys in the world last night on Letterman. This is just the way it's supposed to be. Enjoy. . . .