Friday, July 29, 2011

I Am Grateful Today. . . .

The last year has flown. God has been good. I am grateful to Him. The words to this, one of my favorite hymns, have taken on significant meaning for me over the course of the last year.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

Soli Deo Gloria.

"Divided" The Movie. . . . Hmmmmmm. . . . .

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I've had several friends contact me for my thoughts about a new film - Divided - that blasts away at youth ministry as we know it. Since I've lived in the youth ministry world my entire life, they thought I should have some opinion. To be honest, I hadn't heard of the film but when time finally allowed, gave it a watch. . . just in the last hour in fact. What's most interesting to me is that as soon as I logged onto the film's site (you can watch it there), I realized that I not only knew the guys who had made the film, but I met them when they emailed me several requests to be interviewed for the film. . . and then they spent probably close to an hour interviewing me on film. And yes. . . I'm in the movie. . . for about 5 seconds!

Let me say that it does strike me as odd that filmmakers who asked to include me in a film they made never contacted me to let me know that the film had even been released, that I should give it a watch, and that they might want to hear my response. That serves to confirm my feeling about the film after one initial viewing - that this is an extremely biased film that was not made as a result of Philip Leclerc's stated desire to embark on a fact-finding journey, but rather that the film was conceived and made with a bias and agenda that existed long before the first clip was ever shot. To be honest, I had forgotten about my interview with film-making brothers Philip and Chris Leclerc back in 2010 at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference in Chicago. I remember feeling like they never really explained to me what they were trying to accomplish with their film, but I granted the interview anyway. Philip and Chris are genuinely nice guys, but I recall walking away from the interview sensing there was an agenda. . . I just wasn't sure what it was. Now I know.

Divided is a not so much a documentary as it is a promotional piece for the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. . . a reality that left me feeling snookered and manipulated as a viewer. Being conservative and reformed in my own theology, I have been vaguely aware of this organization and some of its more high-profile champions. As I understand it, NCFIC endeavors to promote what they understand to be a biblical approach (or the ONLY approach)to the spiritual formation of children, which includes the elimination of any and all age-segregated programming in the church, including Sunday School and youth ministry. These champions trace youth ministry's lineage to paganism, evolutionary theory, and men who were rebellious against God. Leclerc spends most of his interview time in the film with these high-profile, intelligent, and well-spoken champions.

I'm sure that I'll be watching Divided again soon, and thinking more deeply about it's method and message. I know it will be talked about quite a bit in the youth ministry world and so it should be. In the meantime, let me pass on some random thoughts and responses in no particular order. Know that these are somewhat incomplete, but here's my start in what will be an ongoing process, I'm sure. . . .

-Divided is a film that asks some very good questions and addresses some issues in youth ministry and the church that must be addressed. There are things we need to repent of in youth ministry. . . our lack of depth, our willingness to jump in and think we can supplant the Biblical design for the parental nurturing of children in the faith, that we've relied too much on programs and fun and games, etc. In fact, these criticisms that are leveled from "outside" the youth ministry world by NCFIC are many of the very same criticisms that loads of us have been working diligently, prayerfully, and biblically to address from within for decades. It troubles me that none of that was ever included with any depth or honesty.

-Viewers need to remember that what they are seeing and hearing in the film is mediated. Sadly, it's mediated in an imbalanced manner. I know that the Leclerc brothers shot hours and hours of video that has been boiled down to the one hour that remains. The comments that were chosen for inclusion serve the film's agenda well. I wonder how many of the comments from kids and youth workers at the film's start were taken out of context, chosen to prove a point, etc. I also wonder how many that could have been included that might cast a more positive light on youth ministry and what God is doing were left on the cutting room floor. Any of us could choose commentary from teenagers that casts our particular message in a good light, while casting those who think differently in a more negative light. That's what happened here.

-The problem of the stunted spiritual growth of the emerging generations is complex and multi-faceted. Yes, a lack of father-involvement is key. In fact, many in youth ministry are addressing that. And yes, youth ministry that's more about fun and games than taking kids from a diet of milk to one of meat is a real problem. But what about consumerism in our culture and our church? Has that played a role in people serving idols rather than the one true God? What about all the creature-comforts we enjoy that supplant an opportunity to suffer and thereby passionately seek and rely on God? What about poor preaching? Divided is too simple in it's analysis, diagnosis, and prescription.

-How about a film on the numbers of young people who grow up in homes who are doing what NCFIC prescribes who are not walking with the Lord?

-The interview with Ken Ham was especially troubling to me. I wonder if Ken Ham has ever gone to a youth group where the youth worker understands his/her role as a secondary spiritual support, where the Bible is taught, and where deep thinking is encouraged? And, when did holding to a "young earth" view become the litmus test for spiritual maturity?

-I'm afraid that Divided and its message is rooted in a dualistic view that splits God's world into separate sacred and secular realms. There is a thread of poor understanding of common grace and general revelation woven in and throughout the film's message and theology.

-Can youth ministry and father-involvement/nurture co-exist? I sure hope so! In fact, I've seen it happen.

-After viewing the film, I'm wondering what we do with Sunday School or any other efforts to age-segregate in order to teach in ways that are cognitively appropriate. Seriously. . . should we jettison separate and simultaneous efforts to teach the parents the deep truths of the Scriptures (meat) while nurturing five-year-olds in another room with the milk of a children's catechism? After all, shouldn't we as parents be going deeper, and deeper, and deeper so that we can effectively nurture our own children?

-On a positive note, I believe that the film asks good questions about age-segregation in worship. It just shouldn't happen. I've been trumpeting that for years and so have many others in the youth ministry community. But again, there are times when we can separate from each other to be nurtured in age-appropriate ways.

So, those are some very initial thoughts about Divided. I can't wait for the conversation to continue. Watch it then weigh in. Overall, I'm concerned that this film, its tone, and its message will wind up being more divisive than constructive. I hope the latter is the case.

One last thought. . . Did God ordain film? The Bible never says that we should use the worldly invention of film to communicate. The Apostle Paul says nothing about film. Seriously. Just saying. . . .

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thank You Lord, for John Stott. . . .

Last weekend I posed a meal-time question to my wife and a couple of our friends: "If you could choose five influential people from the last 100 years or so and spend one day with each, who would you choose?" I had an unfair advantage as I had already been pondering my list for a couple of weeks. My list included Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Stott. All five have taught me something significant about the essence of the Christian faith.

Yesterday, my list became my version of Mitch Albom's five people to meet in heaven as John Stott passed from this life into life eternal. I learned the news during a pause in my bike ride. Checking my phone after hearing a chirp, I spotted an email from our former CPYU Board member and President of John Stott Ministries, David Jones. The email informed me that Stott had passed away just a short time earlier.
Strangely enough, just the day before Scot McKnight had posted the picture you see here on his Facebook page. It's part of a little photo quiz he regularly posts. Scot asked, "Who is this? And what was he famous for?" I quickly posted, "John Stott? If that's Stott, he's known by me for influencing my life and theology in big ways."

From time to time over the course of the last few months I've wondered how much more time Stott would be granted on this earth. To be honest, I was saddened but still smiled as I stood there on the side of the road thinking about his passing. The church has lost a great leader. Stott, however, is realizing all that he lived for. Thankfully, his legacy and leadership will remain through his vast writings.

If I could snap my fingers and have younger Christians, youth workers, and parents become familiar with one theologian, it would be John Stott. His writings are deep yet accessible. They are extremely practical. Stott had a gift for making that which was complex, understandable for people like me. His books Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ, Evangelical Truth, The Radical Disciple, and The Contemporary Christian are among my favorites. The latter is one that I require students to read. It's powerful, convicting, and life-shaping.

I love this summary of Stott's core values as posted by Mel Lawrenz on The Brook Network. . .

. Make personal devotion to God in Christ our highest priority.

2. Live consistently, with integrity. Resist the temptation to develop a public persona.

3. Develop core disciplines like Scripture reading and mediation, prayer, work and rest.

4. Trust in the unchangeable truth of Scripture. Go deep in our study of it.

5. Prepare public talks with a focus on substance. Look for the connections and orders of our ideas.

6. Value relationships with other leaders. Be a mentor without having to be called a mentor. Follow natural patterns. Don’t reduce discipleship to a program.

7. “Read” the truth of God written in the natural world. Stott was an avid ornithologist. His cumulative knowledge made him a world expert. This was both an avocation and an act of worship. Like many other Christian leaders, Stott practiced a full awareness of God’s presence and work, and that included participating in the Creation with a developing sense of awe and wonder.

In the 24 hours since Stott's passing, I've noticed several people asking others for their favorite Stott quote. That's a hard one. There are so many out there. I'll pass on one that I consistently share in my seminars with youth workers and parents. It captures the essence of our calling as people who are to be in but not of the world. This one's from The Contemporary Christian - “We stand between the Word and the world with consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word to discover even more of the riches of Christ. We listen to the world in order to discern which of Christ’s riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light.”

Today, I am thanking God for the gift of John Stott.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wrestling With Homosexuality. . . .

Several years ago I had a conversation with a close Christian friend who said he had something to tell me. It was a different time - a markedly different time - when he opened and poured out his heart with these words: "I want you to know that I wrestle with homosexuality." His intent was to confess something extremely personal to a close brother. I was one of many friends with whom he had this same conversation.

That conversation - and some others much like it - started me on a journey of wrestling with homosexuality. I confess that the journey has continued on for me for just about thirty years. I don't want my wrestling match to end. It's not time for it to end. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can with confidence say that I have fully reconciled how to respond to homosexuals and emerging cultural attitudes in ways that reflect a deep commitment to God's will and way (as revealed in the Scriptures) in regards to a theology of homosexuality, coupled with a God-glorifying response to the homosexual. In other words, how can I be true to the Scriptures and remain faithful to God in my understanding of and attitudes about homosexual behavior, and how can I be true to the Scripture and remain faithful to God in my attitudes toward, behavior toward, and interactions with those who identify themselves as homosexuals?

It was this ongoing wrestling match that caused my eyes to stop when they spotted a recent edition of "Christian Research Journal" on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. The cover photo and article caught my attention: "GAY TEENS - BULLYING - SUICIDE - Are Preachers to Blame?" Joe Dallas begins his piece with a rundown of high profile suicides that took place over the course of three months about a year ago. In each case, bullying was cited as a precursor to the self-inflicted death of the homosexual victim. Dallas says that "the outpouring of national grief that followed was predictable and right. . . outrage was called for, and disgust over bullying was expressed far and wide."

Dallas goes on to say that Christians and non-Christians alike seek answers to a host of questions, most important of which is "how do we prevent more of the same?" I agree. These stories should break our hearts. Sadly, there are many in our culture - some who call themselves "Christians" - who take a "He-she deserved it" and "let them die!" approach. Equally sad is that people who take this reprehensible and anti-Christian approach usually get the most press, leaving those of us who struggle to form a Christ-honoring response largely unnoticed. Maybe that's why Kathy Griffin and others cited by Joe Dallas speak out to say that anybody who says that homosexuality is wrong or immoral have the blood of these suicide victims on their hands.

I would in no way argue that Joe Dallas's article offers a complete perspective. I don't believe he would either. But he does say that for those of us who hold to a biblically informed worldview (those who believe that homosexuality - like many, many other things - falls short of the Creator's design) face the challenge "to not only maintain and promote a Scriptural position on human sexuality, but also to defend that position against charges that it is inherently destructive. This we can do through rebuttal, reflection, and resolve."

I won't work through Dallas's rebuttal to the slippery-slope arguments put forth by people like Kathy Griffin here - you should read the article for yourself. But what I will pass on is what Dallas says about things that should be part of our own wrestling match with issues of homosexuality. . . or any other sin/sinner issues that we choose to publicly address. He writes, "Granted, the evidence backing charges made by Sykes and Griffin is lacking, and when the church is accused of complicity in these awful suicides, the burden of proof isn't being met. But we cannot with integrity absolve ourselves of any unfair or unkind attitudes toward homosexuals, and here some serious reflection is called for." Yep. . . we need to wrestle with this stuff.

And so as you wrestle. . . consider these sentences from Joe Dallas at the conclusion of his article: "We can know the Word of God, seek the Heart of God, and express both the Word and Heart of God to the homosexual. If we resolve to do this, diligently and consistently, we cannot fail."

I am fully aware that these issues run deep and wide in our culture. They are complex, difficult, and not easy. And if we hope to truly reflect Christ and honor and glorify God through what we speak, teach, and do, we'd better be tending not only to specks, but to logs.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sad Story of Amy Winehouse. . . .

After a weekend getaway void of most technological connections, Lisa and I returned home late last night. I settled into bed and decided to give the Sunday paper a quick once-over to see what happened in the world while we were away and disconnected. Several pages in, I verbalized surprise at one large headline. "Oh man! Amy Winehouse died!"

For all of us, it's only a matter of time. I recently heard someone say that every year we all pass an anniversary that we aren't aware of. You see, every year we live through the day on our calendar on which we will die. Only 27 years-old, Amy Winehouse died far too young. While saddening, it's not all that surprising. Even her mother is quoted today as saying that she somehow knew something was up only 24 hours before Winehouse was found dead. Any Winehouse was a fascinating yet tragic figure even while she was alive. Tormented by so many of the issues that we all pray won't visit kids in these troubling times, Winehouse made music that flowed out of these realities. That's why it connected so well with so many.

One of the first things I did this morning was log onto our CPYU website to read what I had written about Amy Winehouse back in 2008. I had written an analysis of Winehouse, her music, and what it tells us about our culture and the people who live in it. Here's how I started the piece. . .

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” In more recent times, pop culture historians have said almost the same thing another way—that “what goes around comes around.” When styles and sounds are recycled years after they first dropped onto the landscape of adolescent culture, both of these sayings are proven true. While it isn’t at all unusual to stumble upon a pop culture “do-over,” the nuances of the replication and the replicator can be quite startling.

Eight years into the new millennium, the most recent pop music “goes around” is a petite little Brit who’s channeling the distinctive look and sounds of ’60s girl groups ala The Ronettes, Poodle skirts, heavy eyeliner and beehive hairdos. But true to the rapid changes that have taken place in youth culture since Ronnie Spector and her Ronettes topped the charts with “Be My Baby,” this 2008 version is not a member of any of your mother’s ’60’s girl groups. If Ronnie Spector had any tattoos, we didn’t know about them. If she was struggling with disordered eating or addictions, it wasn’t at all obvious. And if she sported scars on her arms from self-abuse, nobody saw them. That’s not the case with Amy Winehouse, an extremely talented and terribly tortured young 24-year-old singer who’s taken the musical world by storm. Seventeen years after Nirvana captured the pain of a generation with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Winehouse has—by default—assumed the role of today’s Kurt Cobain by putting to music what far too many children, teens and young adults are experiencing and feeling.
Read the rest of the article here.

I realized that Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain both died at the young age of 27. I hope we realize that these two shouldn't be seen as temporary blips on the youth culture radar. They both represented and continue to represent the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God, that we are all marred by sin and brokenness, that all humans long for redemption, and that the role of the church is to reach out, love, and minister as we live and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. In life and death, Amy Winehouse can teach us a lot about our world, our selves, and our hunger for Heaven. Hopefully, we'll allow Amy Winehouse to remind us why we do what we do, while giving us clues for how to do it.

(If you haven't already read the entire piece on Amy Winehouse, I encourage you to take some time to read it in order to learn about Winehouse, her music, the draw it has on kids, and what we can learn from the Amy Winehouse phenomena about doing ministry with kids in today's world. You can read it here.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

To Those Who Have Been Given Much. . . Crisis In Africa. . .

I just exchanged texts with my good friend Rich Van Pelt from Compassion. I asked Rich what he knows about what's happening in Africa. It seems that the rest of the world knows alot more about the famine, drought and resulting crisis than we do. Rich told me that it's all over the news in Europe.

The good news is that the U.S. news media is starting to pick up the story. I was prompted to contact Rich after watching this story on the NBC Nightly News just a few minutes ago.

Shortly after running the story on what's happening in Africa, NBC Nightly News ran this little clip on what seems to be one of the biggest stories capturing our attention in the U.S. right now. It should sadden us to hear this story's numbers thrown around in light of what's happening in Africa.

This morning's reading in Encounter With God pointed me to these words in James 1:27 - "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

So, what now? May I ask you to do two things? First, would you consider stewarding what God has entrusted to you with one of the organizations that will use it to meet the needs of the desperate folks in East Africa? There are many organizations from which to choose. Lisa and I are going to use Compassion and we invite you to do the same. If you would like to make an immediate donation through Compassion, just click here.

And second, would you do all you can to spread the word? These are the times when the body of Christ can step up and use the wonders of social media to start and sustain a movement that could make a difference in millions of lives.

The Gnawing That Is Today. . . .

At the level of my emotions, this has not been a morning to sing show tunes from "Oklahoma." You know. . . that jump-out-of-bed-with-a-spring-in-your-step little tune that starts with "Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I've got a wonderful feeling, everything's going my way." Not this morning. If things were going my way, things would be a lot different.

You see, just when I try to convince myself that everything's going along fine (that's what we're told to believe isn't it? aka - "positive thinking") I come face-to-face with reality. And I think that's a good thing.

Today, the family of one of our CPYU staffers is grieving the loss of a fifty-something father to pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed in March, he passed away two nights ago. I can't imagine. Today, a close friend heads to the doctor wondering if test results indicate the presence of chronic disease that will be a life-changer.

Yesterday, I ran into another friend while picking up a bunch of bagels for the aforementioned grieving family. This friend's a widow who lost her husband to Parkinson's just 10 months ago. Incredibly lonely, she goes to a local eatery every day just to be around people and work through her grief.

Today, one of our CPYU volunteers heads out for a battery of tests, trying to get to the root of some major issues. In addition, this person is looking ahead to some surgery.

This is not the way it's supposed to be, is it? And I think it's a good thing to keep these matters at the forefront rather than brushing them aside because they are downers that inhibit our happiness. I'm learning that a healthy understanding of sin, suffering, and brokenness leads to a deeper dependence on God, a greater understanding of our need for a Redeemer, and a deep longing for things to be made right.

This morning, I sought out and prayed this powerful prayer from "The Valley of Vision":O CHRIST,

All thy ways of mercy tend to and end in my delight.
Thou didst weep, sorrow, suffer that I might rejoice.
For my joy Thou hast sent the Comforter,
multiplied thy promises,
shown me my future happiness,
given me a living fountain.

Thou art preparing joy for me and me for joy;
I pray for joy, wait for joy, long for joy;
give me more than I can hold, desire, or think of.

Measure out to me my times and degrees of joy,
at my work, business, duties.

If I weep at night, give me joy in the morning.
Let me rest in the thought of thy love,
pardon for sin, my title to heaven,
my future unspotted state.

I am an unworthy recipient of Thy grace.
I often disesteem thy blood and slight thy love,
but can in repentance draw water
from the wells of Thy joyous forgiveness.

Let my heart leap towards the eternal sabbath,
where the work of redemption, sanctification,
preservation, glorification is finished
and perfected for ever,
where thou wilt rejoice over me with joy.

There is no joy like the joy of heaven,
for in that state are no sad divisions,
unchristian quarrels,
contentions, evil designs,
weariness, hunger, cold,
sadness, sin, suffering,
persecutions, toils of duty.

O healthful place where none are sick!
O happy land where all are kings!
O holy assembly where all are priests!
How free a state where none are servants
except to thee!

Bring me speedily to the land of joy.

So, if there's any reason to jump out of bed with great joy, that reason is to be found in the first three words of Psalm 93: "The Lord reigns." Thanks be to God for not leaving us to ourselves.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Youth Culture Trends That I Missed. . . .

I got an email from my friend Bret Bucklen the other day. I've known Bret and his family for years. He wound up majoring in sociology just like I did at the same college. Along the way, I had Bret as a student in a youth culture class. I love how Bret thinks sociologically, theologically, anthropologically, etc. about the world around us.

The other day, Bret sent me an email pointing to his blog post on "A Sociology of Planking" and asked me what I thought. Here's what Bret posted:

Wow, I must be getting old! You know you’re getting old when you just learn about a pop culture trend which has apparently been around for over a year. And so was the case this weekend when my soon to be sister-in-law taught me via facebook about “planking.” According to wikipedia, planking “is an activity, popular in various parts of the world, consisting of lying face down in an unusual or incongruous location. The hands must touch the sides of the body, and having a photograph of the participant taken and posted on the internet is an integral part…” Apparently the fad is to capture the most creative picture of oneself “planking” in a public place, and post it on facebook or some other social media venue. Probably the best way to describe planking is to show a picture of it.

This discovery of planking (and of its recent spinoff- “owling”- we won’t go there) got me to thinking about why such seemingly bizarre fads catch on with young people. Keep in mind that I graduated with an undergrad degree in Sociology, so I tend to view things through a sociological lens. I really have nothing concrete to offer here in terms of a cohesive theory for why planking caught on. One thing I believe though, from a sociological standpoint no fad is ever simply meaningless (although it may be intended to express meaninglessness). There is some reason (or combination of reasons) to explain its existence. It may be simple or it may be deep. I’m pretty sure that in the case of my soon to be sister-in-law it’s a simple explanation: she’s poking fun at a goofy trend (I actually got some great laughs out of her pictures on facebook this past weekend). But I also think about my youth specialist friend Walt Mueller (President, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding), who talks about the notion that youth trends serve as a “mirror” into the worldview of our young people. What are we seeing in this particular mirror? Is this some sort of narcissism? Is this existentialism, perhaps even a throwback to the “theatre of the absurd?” Or am I reading too much into it? Maybe it’s just a game, but why this game? What does this say about youth culture?

Five hundred years from now, are our descendants going to sit in a Humanities 101 class and analyze planking photographs to discuss the worldview of our time and culture, similar to how I had to sit through pictures of ancient Greek statues in my Humanities class and discuss the worldview of that time?


I realized quickly that I was in the dark on this one. I guess that sometimes you can spend so much time watching culture that you miss culture. Or, maybe there's so much stuff out there in culture that there's no way to keep up with it all! So Bret. . . I have no clue on this one. I'm guessing it's a fad fueled by the convergence of digital camera technology, social media, creativity, risk-taking (in some cases), one-upsmanship (in some cases), and oh. . . a good set of abs.

Bret's post and email reminded me of something else that's pretty important. We need to be keeping each other up-to-date on what's happening in our world. Many of us - usually me - miss it. And while planking isn't something immoral, unethical, or consistently dangerous, there are plenty of things out there that are symptomatic of heart issues needing to be addressed. That said, I guess planking could be symptomatic of deep heart issues that evidence themselves in a need for attention. Knowledge that trumps ignorance is one of the best tools at our disposal. We can't form redemptive/biblical responses unless we know about what we must respond to. So, we need to be sharing what we see and hear with each other. If we're in youth ministry we need to be informing parents. Parents need to inform youth workers. All of us need to be asking questions and talking to our kids.

All this makes me wonder. . . what else have I missed?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Buying Garbage. . . .

If you've ever visited our Center for Parent/Youth Understanding website, you know that we're always on the lookout for what we call "culture quotes" to post. These are sentences and paragraphs that we believe are noteworthy because they give us great insight into who we've become, who we are, and where we're going as a culture. We've been posting them for years. I love them because they serve as great discussion starters. I got especially excited when a high school teacher in Massachusetts told me that once a week he started his class with one of our quotes. The students would talk and debate about the quote, and then he'd offer a response that would serve as a great teachable moment. Great idea!

I found an interesting culture quote in this morning's USA Today. It was in Cathy Lynn Grossman's piece on Casey Anthony's release from prison, "Next chapter awaits Casey Anthony." Grossman's article focuses on the inevitable book deals awaiting both Anthony and her parents. There'll probably be others who get in the mix as well, spurring a small industry around the case.

Wondering whether the same publishing house that did O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" might do an Anthony book, Grossman interviewed the company's president, who said "no." The author of that O.J. book, Pablo Fenjves, said that he wote it because it was about an All-American hero who fell from grace. But would Fenjves write a book about or for Anthony? Nope. Not interested. However, he did say that he thought any book by Anthony would be a best-seller. Then. . . a culture quote from Fenjves: "Trash sells."

Yes, trash does sell. And it sells because. . . well. . . we buy it. Why is it that we don't purchase, read, consume, ponder, and allow ourselves to be shaped by good stuff? Why is it that we find ourselves swimming in a culture where stuff that's even less than mediocre is more desirable than what's ultimately best?

Stand back and survey the landscape of stuff that you consume, whether it's books, TV, music, etc. I've got a hunch that if we are honest with ourselves, we'd see that what we've allowed ourselves to be drawn to looks and smells more like a landfill than a lush garden. And when we consume it. . . well. . . consider what it's doing to us.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Films. . . .

My buddy Rick Lawrence over at "GROUP" Magazine contacted me a couple of months ago and asked for a list of my five favorites. Ok. . . . category? Five favorite what? Rick left the decision up to me. Since my list would be read by people who love and work with kids, I decided to list five of my favorite coming-of-age films. My list can be found in the latest edition of GROUP. If you haven't seen it already, here's my list along with a little explanatory paragraph.

As a youth culture watcher, I’ve developed a special place in my heart for movies. French film director Jean-Luc Godard once said that "a film is the world in an hour and a half." For those of us who need to keep developing our knowledge of the world of kids, movies offer a great window into that world. So here are my top five “coming of age” films. To qualify for my list, they have to be films that 1) I watch at least once a year, 2) tell the truth, and 3) stir my emotions every time I watch them. There, I said it. These movies make me cry.

1. The Breakfast Club – It’s been over 25 years since this John Hughes classic hit theaters and it still captures the hopes, dreams, angst, ups, downs, and dynamics of adolescence in captivating ways. I’ve watched it so many times that cuing it up is like walking through the door to visit a group of friends. No other film has done a better job deepening my sensitivity to kids who face difficult issues. Sure, it’s a film filled with stereotypes. My favorite scene? When Judd Nelson’s John Bender pours his heart out about his family. Wow. I always walk away from this one with a better sense of why I’m called to youth ministry.

2. Little Miss Sunshine – How can you not like a film starring a little Abigail Breslin?!? This one takes us deep into the brokenness of the human condition, while showing us that even in the midst of our brokenness, there can still be hope. I love the social commentary on our cultural obsession with body image, along with the snarky peek into the creepy world of child beauty pageants. Teenager Dwayne deserves our attention in this one. Pay special attention when Dwayne breaks his vow of silence and spills his heart. We all know kids who feel like this. Very moving!

3. Good Will Hunting – Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this movie is at one level about growing up in Boston’s South End. It captures the “Southie” culture with great accuracy (yep, lots of profanity). But it’s also about Will Hunting’s discovery of his gifts and emotions. This film’s a favorite because it helped me begin to understand the horrible legacy left by abuse. Most gut-wrenching scene? When Robin Williams’ character Sean Maguire gets Damon’s Will Hunting locked in that freedom-giving embrace. Pass the Kleenex, please.

4. Thirteen – This film is especially powerful as it was co-written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed. Hardwicke entered into Reed’s life as a mentor as the thirteen-year-old Reed struggled to navigate her transition into adolescence. The two wrote the film based on those real-life experiences. It’s not pretty. This film takes us into a world none of us ever want to see, but must see. All the pressures, social problems, and family issues of today’s teenage world are explored. Be forewarned. . . there is one scene of female nudity in this film. But for those who understand film, it’s not nudity of the gratuitous type. This film deepened my compassion for lost and hurting kids.

5. American Teen – Filmed in Warsaw, Indiana, this documentary follows several students through their last year of high school. Released in 2008, this modern-day real-life Breakfast Club offers a compelling peek into the social and family interactions of today’s teens. Sure, the kids knew the cameras were rolling, but there’s enough here to open your eyes to things like family pressure, academic pressure, sexting, the party culture, the role of sports in teen life, and more. Because I tend to root for the underdog, I loved getting to know self-proclaimed nerd Jake Tusing, and the free-spirited Hannah Bailey. This is a film worth watching with parents and your youth ministry team.

That's my list. What coming-of-age films are on your list?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What I Saw At Home Depot. . . And A Good Ending. . .

So last night I'm standing at the paint counter at our local Home Depot while the clerk's got my two cans shaking violently in the machine under the counter. I'm guessing that most Home Depot stores are set up in the same way. The paint counter sits on the open aisle spanning the width of the store way up front, just across from all the check-out registers. If you want to see all the action at a Home Depot - and who wouldn't!?!? - then the paint counter offers a pretty good 360 degree vantage point.

Quickly bored while waiting for shaking paint cans, I started watching people. A young woman carrying a potted plant started walking in my direction from the door to the outdoor garden center. She was moving fast and looking up each aisle. "Must have lost her husband," I thought to myself. At about the time she passed me I noticed that traffic near the store's front door had come to some kind of halt, with a half a dozen folks just standing there after coming into the store. Then, a few orange-aproned store employees starting moving toward the exits. Three of them merged right next to me. One had a walkie-talkie and was barking instructions about a "Code Adam." I assumed someone was seen pocketing an item and trying to walk out of the store. Stupid me.

In a matter of seconds, I figured out what a "Code Adam" is. I looked towards the garden center doorway and saw a middle-aged woman walking briskly in with a little two-year old boy in her arms and a smile on her face. The woman had a big smile on her face. At this point, the young woman with the potted flower started walking from the other direction with a look of pained relief on her face. Before mother and way-ward son were reunited, I realized what "Code Adam" was all about. The young mother held the potted plant in one arm and her son tightly in the other as she went to the register. The tears in her eyes and her grasp on that little boy spoke loudly. It was a story that ended well.

On the way home, I wondered to myself about how "Code Adam" got its name. I figured it might have something to do with the 1981 disappearance of little Adam Walsh in Miami, Florida. A quick search of the Internet confirmed my hunch. I lived in Miami when Walsh disappeared. I had been away for the weekend on a retreat with my youth group kids when Walsh went missing. I remember driving back and passing through toll booths plastered with "missing child" flyers covered with the little boy's picture. It was all over the news. That story did not end well.

Watching that mini-drama unfold from my paint counter vantage-point really got me thinking about kids lost to the culture, what it means to be spiritually lost, and our loving Shepherd/Father. I was thinking about the story of the Prodigal Son. I was thinking about Jesus leaving the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. I was thinking about the urgency He has and the way we need to share that same sense of urgency. Everyone at Home Depot was focused on one thing for those few very long minutes last night.

Is there a lesson in there for me?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Web Of Lies. . . Lies On The Web. . . .

This week's news makes us think about lies. Former Major-Leaguer Roger Clemens is in court facing charges of lying to Congress. You watch the video tapes of Clemens and his accusers recounting markedly different stories, and you know that at least one of them is lying. Everyone, however, tells their stories with deep conviction on their faces and in their voices. Who do you believe?

Casey Anthony's acquittal on all charges except for lying offer another high-profile example of how easy it is for people to lie, lie, and lie again. Anthony and members of her family have lied over and over again. That's the truth.

We live in a culture that seems to have embraced lying as a way of life. I'm not sure we're at the point where lying is seen as a virtue, but it certainly isn't a vice. . . at least not if you can do it and not get caught. This cultural reality has combined with our deceit-prone sinfulness (yep, we all live with that as an ever-present tenant) and our emerging virtual world in a mix that's made fertile ground for lies, lies, and more lies.

My reading and research this last week and for several weeks prior has taken me through a stack of books cataloging the blessings and curses of life in the online age. I just finished reading Daniel J. Lohrmann's book "Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web." Lohrmann is an award-winning computer security expert who also happens to be a Christian. His book plays off our ever-present fear of Identity Theft to warn us about the more insidious and sneaky thief a thief we oftentimes welcome - who steals our integrity. Lohrmann lays out the many ways that "Integrity Theft" takes place in the digital age.

The first paragraph of the book's intro says it all: "Tim excelled at work and his colleagues and staff trusted him. But one day Tim's executive assistant accidentally discovered that he was running a questionable online business during office hours. For weeks, Agnes tried to ignore her boss's behavior, but she couldn't live with herself. Agnes anonymously reported him to security. Once caught, Tim lied to cover up his activities. When faced with undeniable evidence, he blamed others. One lie led to another until he was deemed untrustworthy. Tim resigned just before he was fired." Lohrmann goes on to write about this new "e-morality" that is rapidly emerging.

It's stories like these - and we will all be encountering them first-hand sooner or later - that should cause us to look to God for standards to which we must commit ourselves, to develop healthy online boundaries and habits, and to teach our kids - who will know no other culture and world than the one they've been born into - the difference between right and wrong.

Perhaps we should embrace and meditate on these words from Proverbs: "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight" (12:22).

Perhaps we should think seriously about the consequences of falsehood that we encounter in stories like those of Anthony, Clemens, and Tim.

Perhaps we should consider the darkness of our own hearts and how easy it is to NOT tell the truth, especially when it's easy to use the Internet to pose as someone else, market ourselves, or even remake ourselves over just a little bit in an image that's not who we really are.

Perhaps we all need someone or a group of someones to always be looking over our shoulder, ready to call us out if we're dipping our toes into dangerous waters.

Lohrmann gets it right when he says that there is "an extraordinary increase in the number of temptations we face in cyberspace. New seductions are clearly packaged as 'innovative opportunities' that are really appeals to engage in unproductive, harmful, and even immoral activities online. . . . our trustworthiness, character, and even religious beliefs are ultimately at stake. Regardless of the relative ease of clicking on a link, your online actions are affecting every area of your life."

If Christ is truly the Lord of every square inch of our existence, then His Lordship must extend over every square inch of the rapidly growing digital frontier. And, our every exploratory step must scream "Glory to God!"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

American Youth Ministry. . . What Would Dietrich See?

Stand back. . . take a look. . . and evaluate. We need to do that more, especially for those of us involved in 21st century North American youth ministry. I fear we don't do it enough. . . and it's hurting us.

One way to stand back, look, and evaluate is through the eyes of history. Looking at the past is one way to make sure we get it right this time around. A highly-respected "old friend" has been helping me do that this week. The journey he's taking me on has been pretty doggone thought-provoking. My "old friend" is one of my heroes of the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I first "met" him when I was a college student reading his books "The Cost of Discipleship" and "Life Together." Now, I'm reacquainting myself with Bonhoeffer through Eric Metaxas' phenomenal book, "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." It's outstanding and is sure to be one that I'll read a few times. I hope you'll read it too.

Yesterday I had to stop several times to process and think as I read the chapter on a young mid-twenty-year-old Bonhoeffer and his one year trip to America to study at New York's Union Theological Seminary from 1930-31. Metaxas does a great job explaining Bonhoeffer's deep and thoughtful (don't expect anything less from Bonhoeffer) impressions of the American church. Writing to folks back in Germany, Bonhoeffer described what he found at Union among those preparing for ministry: "There is no theology here. . . they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria." He found the students to be extremely theologically shallow and illiterate. Instead, they were consumed with politics, sociology, and other issues of the time. . . and probably not too deep on those either.

As Bonhoeffer described the busyness of his fellow students, I couldn't help but think of how busy we've become as we build our brands, pursue marketable relevance, maintain our social networks, and tweet our lives away. He wrote, "Not only is quietness lacking, but also the characteristic impulse towards the development of individual thought. . . there is little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition." Bonhoeffer found there to be "more a friendly exchange of opinion than a study in comprehension." He concluded that even though there was a strong leaning towards community, that community was "founded less on truth than on the spirit of 'fairness.' One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a 'good fellow.'"

Do you see why I got stuck yesterday? If we stand back and look at the state of contemporary American youth ministry with Bonhoeffer, I wonder if he would be pointing out much of the same these 80 years later. Our time is co-opted by busyness. With so much to do, what we should be doing rarely gets done. What falls by the wayside is the cultivation of spiritual and theological depth. Not only do we not seek out times of quiet, but we find them incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling. By not centering in, we blast ourselves out all over the place. . . to here, there, and everywhere. And if our ministries are about multiplication, we need to remember that zero times zero yields zero. Are we shortchanging our Lord, ourselves, our church, and our kids?

Eric Metaxas says that Bonhoeffer's conclusion on what he found in the American church (with the exception of the Black church) "was withering." Bonhoeffer wrote, "I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there. . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights. . . where one sees chiefly the threat which America signifies for us."

Let's hope Francis Bacon was right when he said, "Histories make men wise." I hope they make those of us in youth ministry go deep.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Songs In The Key of Adolescence. . . Which One's Best? . . .

So I had this great little conversation with my nephew yesterday. We were sitting by the pool with a 60s/70s station providing our Fourth of July soundtrack. The little game of "Name the Artist" I was playing with my brother-in-laws was fun. Fully expecting to get some push-back, I asked my nephew - a big music fan - for his opinion on what might have been the best era for pop music based on relevance, quality, depth, etc. I was surprised when he quickly agreed that the music on the station entertaining us was representative of the best. Debate avoided. Then I asked him why he thought it was the best. He went right to the lyrics. Sure, there was some pretty goofy stuff out there at the time ("And they called it Puppy Love. . . ", anything by Barry Manilow, etc.). But there was some depth and thoughtfulness that isn't always there anymore. . . at least it seems that way to me. That's the reason my car's satellite radio usually finds itself on stations that play music from that era.

While driving alone the other day, one of those station's played a song I hadn't heard in awhile. It's one of those songs that captures the heart of adolescent angst and the realities of life as a teenager. Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" won the Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1975. It's a heart-breaker that fuels - or should fuel - compassion for kids.

I met Janis Ian in 1983. I talked to her briefly about her song and the realities it reflected. She impressed me as a serious, thoughtful, and somewhat sad figure. "At Seventeen" wasn't just a song. It was Janis Ian.

What songs of the last fifty or so years are the best songs about the adolescent experience? I think "At Seventeen" has to rank fairly high. Is there a song in your memory vault from your own adolescent years that should be on a list of the best? Are there songs that are new, newer, not so old, and old that you would play for someone to give them a better sense of what it means to be a teenager in today's world?

God has given us an amazing gift in music. We should treasure music that tells the truth. . . even if that truth reflects brokenness that's ugly. What songs should be on the list? And why?