Monday, August 31, 2009

Teddy and Me. . . .

If you aren't my age, you probably can't understand my fascination with all things Kennedy. I think it happened when JFK was assassinated and I experienced it all as a 2nd grader. Sure, I had been a tourist at the Kennedy White House on a family trip several months before. But the Kennedy thing didn't begin for me until that watershed moment in cultural and political history when the TV provided non-stop coverage of the events in Dallas. It left a deep and enduring mark on me, most likely because my 2nd-grade mind was trying to process the murder of the President.

Since then, I've read all kinds of books on the family, the assassination, and how the Kennedy's have influenced culture and history. Part of my fascination has been invested in trying to figure out the fascination with the family. Ironic, isn't it? Lisa jokingly tells people that when I get to Heaven the first question I'll ask is, "Did Oswald act alone?" Several years ago I flew to Dallas a day early for a YS youth workers convention. I arrived late at night but managed to get up at the crack of dawn to spend the day at Dealey Plaza. I called home early in the morning and asked Lisa is she could guess where I was. "The grassy knoll," she answered without flinching. She was right. She knows me well.

You might have guessed that I spent a good chunk of time last Friday and Saturday watching the television coverage of Teddy Kennedy's funeral. My interest came from my fascination. I was never a fan. In fact, I grew up thinking Teddy Kennedy was an over-privileged and two-faced crook who was a living contradiction. Books, conversations, and my own observation of the man reinforced my opinion that he was most-likely getting into more trouble than any of us ever knew. When he did get caught, it was a combination of privilege, status, power, influence, and money that made for an easy out.

After processing Saturday's events, I'm not sure where I stand in my understanding of Teddy Kennedy. I never knew him. The knowledge I did accumulate and the opinion I had was mostly shaped by the words and opinions of others. Sure, much of his admitted misbehavior was sorry and sad. But on Saturday, for the first time, I think I realized just how human Kennedy was. The funeral was filled with comments from people who knew him well. Predictably, nobody said anything bad. There were, however, numerous references to his ability to make mistakes and poor choices in his personal life. At one point, the presiding priest talked about redemption.

Just when I was ready to oblige my biases and stereotypes by concluding that the world might be a better place without Ted Kennedy and his antics, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was brought to my mind - not coincidentally - that I am a sinful and fallen human being who has a tremendous ability to make mistakes and poor choices. . . . and I do. In the eyes of the One doing the tapping, my combination of shortcomings make me no better than anybody else. If I think I am, then I am actually worse. And, I was reminded that I am totally indebted to the One doing the tapping for the unearned and undeserved gift of grace and redemption that I've been given.

Thinking about that brought to mind a fact that I found a bit discouraging. Over the course of my life I have from time-to-time been critical of Teddy Kennedy. . . both in my own mind and in my words to others. But I don't think that I ever once prayed for the man. I realize there's no excuse for that. There's a much-needed lesson in there for me.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I'm Not Sure They'll Listen. . . .

I'll bet this has happened to you. It's already happened to me a few times. The other day I'm driving down the local interstate at a pretty good clip. I'm in the right lane. An on-ramp is coming up. I see a car gaining speed as the driver readies to merge. I move to the left lane and the car merges as we're right next to each other. I glance over at the driver. He's not paying attention to the road. He has one hand on the wheel, one hand on his cell phone, and both eyes focused on writing a text message as he looks in the direction of his lap. I don't know the guy's birth name, but I - alone in the car - refer to him out-loud as "you idiot." Sorry. I think he earned it.

Have you seen this? Have you done this?

There's been lot's of banter lately about people who text while driving. Our texting-addicted teens are perhaps most prone to this dangerous new practice, and I'm sure we're going to be hearing more and more stories from law-enforcement, the judicial system, and legislators about the potential dangers and horrifying results of texting while driving. Any of us who drive know that a car is a potential weapon whether intended to be or not. And, we know that momentary distractions can be dangerous and even deadly.

When I was 16 I was on the receiving end. There were no cell phones. But back in those days, papers and others things would blow off seats and onto the floor. I was newly licensed and recently hired by a lawn mower repair shop. The owner thought that I would do a good job driving his truck and trailer to deliver mowers to customers. Early one Saturday morning he taught me 1) how to drive his stick-shift pickup (can you say "neck brace?"), and 2)how to drive with a trailer hitched to the rear. Needless to say, I was very nervous. Only two miles into my first delivery, I pulled up to a stop sign at an intersection. Another driver made a wide turn at the intersection and hit me head-on. I saw it coming. I also saw him in the driver's seat. . . . looking at the floor instead of out of his windshield. He admitted his fault and blamed his inattention to the road on his preoccupation with a paper that had blown off his seat and onto the floor. I learned a lesson due to someone else's mistake.

When I was 25 I was on the giving end. I was driving with my new wife and lots of morning traffic through Boston's Callahan Tunnel. I looked into the left lane when it appeared that the guy next to me was drifting over. While looking at him, traffic in front of us came to a stop. I didn't. Enough said.

Perhaps you've seen the much-publicized new PSA video from a police department in Wales that's designed to scare kids into thinking twice about texting while driving. Give it a look. A texting teen causes an accident that leaves four people dead.

But will it work? How will teens respond? Realistically speaking, I don't think it's going to do much good. . . and it makes me sad to say that. Think about teenagers for a minute. They're risk-takers. They feel invulnerable. They are impulsive. And, while they know that these things do happen, they think that they will "never happen to me." Add to that the fact that the horror of this video is tempered by years of desensitizing media violence, and I'm sure many kids will see it as a mildly entertaining curiosity or even a lame attempt by adults to get the message across. Of course, that's not to say that it won't effect some kids. . . which is a good thing.

After watching the video for the first time, I thought back to the cinematic scare tactics I was forced to endure during my own high school Driver's Ed class. To be honest, me and most of my adolescent male friends actually looked forward to the days when the lights in the classroom would go down, the clackety-clack of the 16mm projector would begin, and we'd get to ooh and aah at some real-life blood and guts in films like the 1959 classic, "Signal 30." It was one of the most-looked-forward-to aspects of education at my high school. Our teacher, Mr. Vagner, would dramatically kick a metal trash can over near our female classmates for their use, just in case. As we watched, the unspoken assumptive response shared by us all was a simple, "That will never happen to me." We were teenagers.

So, what do we do with all this? The problem is only going to get worse. The combination of cars and technology can be deadly if not used in God-glorifying ways. There's nothing wrong with cars. There's nothing wrong with cellphones. But if we implement these neutral structures in dangerous and irresponsible directions we're only asking for trouble. Driver training - which we're doing with one of our kids now - has to include instructions on how to keep your eye on the road, how to eliminate distractions, and how to keep your hands off your phone.

I hope they get the message. What do you think?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wacky . . . .

So I'm sitting on the couch with my wife Lisa watching our local Lancaster, PA 6pm newscast. For some strange reason, I say. . . "Let's turn to the Channel 6 Philly news." I haven't watched this newscast in a long, long time. Because it's the newscast I watched while growing up in Philly I sometimes like to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane and tune into Channel 6 Action News.

We flip over and there's a story on Hurricane Bill and the massive beach erosion at our favorite Jersey shore place, Ocean City. About 1 minute into the report, my 9th grade gym teacher appears. Oh man. Am I old? Am I young? Do I really need to be transported back into 9th grade and all the garbage that came with freshman year of high school?

So, enjoy. His name's Barry Troster. You'll see him about a minute in. He was tan and bleached blond forty years ago. Look at him now. He's probably still driving a blue Corvette. How old was he then? How old is he now? Check it out here.

This is one of those weird media moments!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Michael Vick. . . .

It's been a weird few weeks for those of us who have spent years living and moving in the world of Philly sports. Okay. . . . I guess an argument could be made that any given hour in Philly sports is weird. If that's the case, then these have been some of the weirdest. First, the Phillies go and mess with their team chemistry by signing Pedro Martinez, a pitcher who some might say is arguably the most arrogant man in baseball. We'll see how that all works out. Then last night. . . during the Eagles' first preseason game, we hear that the Eagles have signed the recently reinstated Michael Vick.

Interested in the way this thing plays out in a town like Philly, I've been tuning in and out all day just to hear what the pundits are saying both nationally and locally. But it's not all the discussion in response to the move that's caught my attention.

What's caught my ear is how this decision was made. Granted, I've only heard bits and pieces from the people who are talking about how this all happened as they worked behind the scenes. From what I've heard, I'm impressed. While eating my lunch, I watched Eagle's owner Jeffrey Lurie and his press conference. Without notes, Lurie spoke from his heart, candidly expressing his deep reservations about Michael Vick along with his cautious hopes for the good that might come out of this whole thing. I hope it wasn't spin. While I might not share some of Lurie's presuppositions about life, I can't argue with his high regard for integrity along with his willingness to provide a window for a man who's done terrible wrong to find some redemption. There are three things about Lurie's decision that are worth a response.

First, Jeffrey Lurie is willing to call wrong behavior what it is. . . wrong. That's refreshing in a day and age when all-too-often celebrity is used to excuse or overlook all kinds of immoral behavior. Lurie was appalled at what Michael Vick did and he found it to be disgraceful and despicable. He said so over and over.

Second, he spent hours questioning Michael Vick before making his "counterintuitive" decision. Lurie is an owner who's very concerned about the culture of his team. He doesn't want to bring in a player who is purely saying the right things about how he's dealing with his past. He wanted to know that Vick is remorseful. In fact, Lurie stated that he was looking to see "alot of self-hatred," something that shows that Vick was not upset over getting caught, but upset for what he had done. I like that.

And third, Lurie opened himself up to the advice of three people who he values the most in terms of integrity - Commissioner Roger Goodell, Andy Reid, and Tony Dungy. That last name really caught my eye. I'm not sure there's a person in all of sport with more integrity than Tony Dungy. He's been mentoring Vick since this all happened. Knowing what I know about Dungy, the guidance and advice he's offering is straightforword, no-holds-barred, and Godly. If you've read Dungy's books you know that he is committed to a "no excuses, no explanations" approach to life. I get the sense that if God is going to do something incredible in Michael Vick's life, Tony Dungy would be a great human instrument to use.

I'm not sure how this thing's going to play out. Only time will tell. If Micheal Vick doesn't do one positive thing on the field for the Philadelphia Eagles, but he does experience redemption. . . it will all be a success. This could turn out to be a pretty good story.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Teens, Sex, and Early Marriage. . .

There's an article in the latest edition of Christianity Today magazine that I'm sure is already getting some attention and buzz. "The Case for Early Marriage," by Mark Regnerus, is one of the most thought-provoking assessments of our current abstinence culture, the state of marriage in America, and numerous cultural forces that are leaving a mark on people in ways that should cause concern.

While the article is about marriage - not marriage for the sake of legitimizing sex - Regnerus has dropped some thought-provoking and well-reasoned fodder for discussion into what I hope becomes a healthy debate about teenagers, abstinence programs, and what we focus on in youth ministry. Regnerus rightly asserts that "few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to" in terms of saving sex for marriage. I agree. I also believe that much of the fervor of parents and pastors is rooted in reckoning with the personal difficulties they had when they were the same age. It's important to note that Regnerus is not suggesting that teens get married. However, he does support marriage among those three and four years removed from their teenage experience. Again, the implications for those of us doing youth ministry or raising kids are deep.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, here's just a little of what Regnerus writes to whet your appetite:

Indeed, over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church-going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort. I'm certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I'm suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don't and won't.

What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more? No. It won't work. The message must change, because our preoccupation with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that Americans - including evangelicals - are doing to the institution of marriage by discouraging and delaying it.

Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they thing they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But is must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.

I urge you to give the article a good look. Then, why not let us know what you think.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Remembering John Hughes. . .

The pictures on the walls here at CPYU serve us as visual reminders of why we do what we do. Among them are a bunch of movie posters. If you would visit our office and stand in the main common area, you'd see posters for two of my personal favorite teen films, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. John Hughes directed both. The 59-year-old Hughes died on Thursday morning while taking a walk.

If you watch movies and you like to laugh, you're most likely familiar with Hughes even though you might not recognize his name. Included in his body of work are a host of comedies that when mentioned, conjure up visual images and verbal references to some pretty classic scenes. Among my favorites are Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, National Lampoon's Vacation series, and the Home Alone films.

But Hughes also had the ability to tug at our hearts. While John Candy's Del was hilariously funny as a traveling shower curtain ring salesman, viewers were moved by Del's loneliness and need for connections. And what male youth worker who's had to share a hotel room with their peers at a youth worker convention hasn't at some point made reference to this scene? . . . .

And then there's the teen film that offers a window into the adolescent world that's still relevant today - The Breakfast Club. I am amazed at how a film that's almost 25 years-old can still help us understand the trials and travails of teenage life. The film was made five years before CPYU was founded. Twenty years into our ministry of providing information and analysis on today's youth culture, it's a movie that I still point to as a timely primer on teenage life and culture. The Breakfast Club is my favorite teen film of all time.

The death of John Hughes reminds me that I haven't watched The Breakfast Club in a few years. This weekend, I'm going to watch the DVD. If you decide to do the same, be sure to watch the DVD - not the TV - version. There's something about the honesty and brutality of the language used in the unedited version that opens our eyes to reality in some very significant and moving ways.

This isn't the first time I've mentioned the recommendation of one theologian for all Christians to start their day with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In this case, start your weekend with the Bible in one hand and The Breakfast Club in the other. It will open your eyes to how we need to bridge the gap between the life-giving Word, and a yearning-for-life world.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

One Copy of Seventeen Magazine, Please. . . .

I've learned that there's absolutely no way a grown man can purchase a copy of Seventeen Magazine at our local Barnes and Noble without looking like some kind of pervert. I've learned that lesson numerous times over during the course of the past umpteen years. . . and each time I step to the counter, it never gets easier. Trying things like sandwiching the teen rag between copies of Sports Illustrated and Guns and Ammo only makes you look and feel more suspicious. And then there's the little "yeah. . . right" look you get from the cashier when you try to explain that you're a researcher studying youth culture. I was reminded of this last night when I stepped to the counter one more time.

Why do I put myself through such humiliation??? Trust me, I don't enjoy reading Seventeen one bit. It's painful. First and foremost because I'm a middle-aged man. Do you really think I have fun reading about how to "get a great butt by the first day of school!"? And secondly, it's painful reading because it offers insight into what it means to struggle through the teen years as a girl in today's youth culture. It makes me wonder, "what would it be like to have to have a great butt by the first day of school?"

Today, I'll be exegeting Seventeen along with some other magazines just to get a sense of what marketers are telling our kids about what's really important in life, what our kids believe is really important in life, and how youth workers and parents can best contextualize the Gospel in ways that kids can see and know what's really most important in life. Judging from the cover of the August 2009 edition of Seventeen and the sentence trumpeting the virtues of appearance - "1,081 Ways To Look Amazing!" - what's most important is what's on the outside, or stated another way, what we make ourselves to be in front of others. Our teenage girls cultivate that in certain ways. Our teenage boys buy into it as well. As adults, we're fair game to get succoured into believing the same silly lies. Now, with the help of today's rapidly advancing technology we can create, brand, and sell the "me" we want the world to believe is really me through Facebook, Twitter, and countless other technologies. It's not just about physical appearances either.

One of the guys I've come to appreciate most in my reading is Brennan Manning. If you haven't read any of his stuff, you should. Start with The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning is what we all should be. . . painfully transparent. Admitting the temptation to appear to be someone he's not, he's spent his adult life pursuing a life under the Cross that puts to death giving into that temptation, in exchange for a life of messy vulnerability and experiencing deep and liberating grace. I'm currently working through his old book The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. Ironically, on the same day I was concerned about what I looked like buying a magazine that convinces a generation of girls to be concerned about what they look like, I read some very amazing and challenging stuff in Manning's book. Let me share an extended portion. . . .

I can really relate to the temptation of the contemporary world to look good but not be good. When I was a closet alcoholic, I almost always drank myself into oblivion out of the public eye. Through an elaborate series of pretenses and disguises (you know, Listerine for tell-tale breath and Visine for bloodshot eyes), I tried to cover up my impoverished inner self. When I glanced into a store window, it was to check out myself more than the merchandise on display. Even sober, I still sneak glances at myself to make sure that I don't lose my trial membership in the fellowship of "beautiful people." I am painfully aware of these small vanities in myself. I hear the Southern novelist Walker Percy when he asks: "Why is it that, when you are shown a group photograph in which you are present, you always (and probably covertly) seek yourself out? Is it to see what you look like? Don't you know what you look like?"

Concern for appearance might be the American original sin; it goes right along with fake furs, paste jewelry, sawdust hot dogs, and deceptive advertising. Such self-deception is subtle, even for a while relatively harmless. But the temptation to settle for looking good while everything is falling apart inside can be dangerous. After a long season of accepting appearances for reality, a Christian forgets what truth even sounds like. We end up asking with Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?" The prayer of Gregory Nazianzen, esse quam videri - "to be rather than appear to be" - rises often from my heart.

Manning goes on to describe living life with Jesus at the center. He tells readers about an old beat-up wood frame in his kitchen that contains this saying: "God will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars."

A wise friend once told me, "Never believe your own press." That's good advice. In today's world where we make, Facebook, and Twitter our own press, we need to be extra careful lest we 1) show the world someone who doesn't really exist, and 2) come to believe that we actually are the facade/brand we so readily present to the world in fear that somebody might find out who I really am.

That "Great Butt" we all seek. . . whatever it is in our lives. . . is symptomatic of deeper issues. "Lord, show us what it means to live with integrity."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Just Plain Stupid. . . .

Eighteen years ago this month, we moved to our current home and community. Where we live now is an hour-and-a-half and what I erroneously thought was culturally light years away from our last home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When we moved here, our oldest child was getting ready to start second grade. Our youngest was not yet even an idea. It was natural that we would take advantage of the new-found benefits of small-town life by allowing our kids to pursue their interests in the abundance of community-based activities for kids their age. So, they got involved in all sorts of stuff, much of it related to school and athletics.

One welcome benefit of our kids' involvement was the opportunity for us to meet new people in our new area. When we moved here, we didn't know anybody. But the hours spent on the sidelines or at our kids' elementary school facilitated new relationships with young parents who shared kids of the same age. Never before in my life had I met so many new people so quickly.

Over the years, these friendships grew, mostly on the sidelines. Weekend tournaments, time spent working together at the concession stand, watching our kids play together, coaching with my new friends. . . . it was great. As we got to know each other, conversations led to discovering areas where we shared common values, hopes, dreams, and parameters for our kids. Over the course of the next 10 to 12 years, it was easy to fall into the assumption that as long as our kids were together, our values and parameters were being enforced. It was easier to believe that as long as my kids were at "your" house, they were being watched and being held accountable.

Sadly, we learned that what we come to take for granted isn't always what is. By the time our oldest kids made it to high school, we began to hear more and more reports of local parents who were encouraging - rather than discouraging - the underage abuse of alcohol by providing a "safe" place for their own and other people's kids to drink. Initially, I was saddened to learn that there were actually adults in our community who would do such a thing. Not long after, I learned that some of these people were people I had known and trusted for years. It made for several direct and uncomfortable discussions.

While nothing has served to convince me that this approach to raising kids is anything but just plain stupid, it does make sense to others. "They're going to be doing it anyway," the conventional wisdom says. "For that reason, we are going to be good parents and do our kids and the community a favor by providing them with everything they need - including the safety of our home - to drink safely in ways that keep them and others from harm. And hey, if your kid is lucky enough to drink at my house, I'll be sure to confiscate their keys." Thanks, but no thanks.

For years I've been scratching my head about conventional "wisdom" that promotes deception, immorality, drunkenness, law-breaking, and even - yes - alcoholism among our impressionable kids. Now, there's some research that we've got on our side. The folks at Penn State's Prevention Research and Methodology Centers have concluded that the best choice for parents to make regarding underage alcohol consumption is a zero-tolerance policy. According to researchers, there is no scientific basis to the widely held assumption that if we prohibit alcohol, it becomes a desired forbidden fruit. Neither is there scientific basis to the belief that providing alcohol to under aged kids encourages responsible drinking as opposed to abuse. The survey of college students found that those whose parents had a no-tolerance policy in regards to underage drinking were significantly less-likely to drink heavily in college. . . and vice-versa (pun intended).

The reality is that there are no guarantees in life. Our kids will make their own decisions. But we cannot forget that our God-given responsibility is to teach them right from wrong, healthy parameters, good decision-making skills, the very-real dangers of alcohol abuse, and respect for the law. Not doing so is bad enough. Doing the opposite is not only worse, but just plain stupid.

There's another lesson to be learned through our experience. It's this: in today's world, it pays to keep asking questions. Don't assume that just because people share your Zip Code and time together, they will therefore think, talk, act, and parent just like you. In today's world, keep asking questions. You can never know too much.