Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kids and Plastic Surgery. . . .

There she is. . . smiling at me from her perch on the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble. Everything about her looks absolutely perfect as she stares off the cover of the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Seventeen magazine. Her name’s Nikki Reed. She caught my eye because she was the co-writer and co-star of the semi-autobiographical 2003 coming-of-age film, Thirteen. The irony is that her cover photo captures the hair, eyes, skin, nose, lips and chin every pre-teen and teenage girl covets as they struggle through their pre-teen and early-teenage years. Her face is framed by teasers trumpeting this month’s Seventeen content. They direct readers to look inside to learn about fashion, beauty, and "your perfect party look." This and every other teen girl magazine cover sets the “appearance bar” higher and higher for our kids.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that a growing number of kids who are developing physically during the transition from childhood to adulthood compare what they see transpiring in the mirror with what they see on the covers of the magazines. Of course, that’s the way the marketers want it. The sad result is a generation of kids who buy the lies that “I am what I look like” and “if I don’t look like that I’m worthless.” This reality is not only feeding the epidemics of eating disorders and depression among children and teens, but is also feeding the dissatisfaction that’s leading a growing number of kids to pursue cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery in an effort to improve their physical appearance.

Plastic surgery is certainly nothing new. It’s a legitimate branch of medicine that is dedicated to restoring or altering the human body. It is used to reconstruct and correct abnormalities caused by birth defects, developmental problems, injuries, infections, or disease. It’s also used to cosmetically reshape body structures in an effort to improve appearance and feelings of self-worth. According to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there has been an over 155% increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures. In 2010, over 2 percent of cosmetic procedures were performed on children 18 and under with the most popular procedures being otoplasty (cosmetic ear surgery), rhinoplasty (nose jobs), and breast augmentation. In addition, teenagers are seeing cosmetic surgeons for liposuction, otoplasty (reshaping of the ears), breast enlargement, breast reduction, breast lifts, collagen injections, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels. Teens in South Korea are flooding cosmetic surgeons with requests for procedures that enlarge the eyes. And believe it or not, there are reports that a growing number of girls here in the U.S. are getting breast enlargements from their parents as high school graduation gifts!

What’s fueling this growing trend that’s not expected to slow down anytime soon? A look at today’s youth culture reveals several reasons for our teens’ love affair with cosmetic procedures.

First, there is the intense and pervasive presence of image pressure. In a Bliss magazine survey among British girls with the average age of 14, two-thirds of the girls surveyed said “the pressure came from celebrities with perfect bodies and boys.” Girls who compare themselves to the never-ending onslaught of images know that to be acceptable is to be young and to be beautiful. The boys have bought the lie as well. If they see themselves as not good enough and there’s the possibility of getting better, they’ll pursue it with little or no regard for the cost. Cosmetic surgeons report that more and more teens are showing up holding celebrity photographs that capture the appearance they want for themselves.

Second, our kids are growing up in a media culture where an endless number of shows - especially "reality TV" - trumpet and glorify the possibilities and merits of cosmetic alteration. They know it can be done.

Third, our teens live in an instant fix society. If something’s broke, hurting or not right, there’s a pill, prescription, or procedure available to make it right. Because they want to avoid emotional and physical pain, they’ll opt to do anything that makes them feel and/or look better.

Fourth, our culture is extremely narcissistic. This reality is certainly not limited to today’s youth culture. We’ve all learned to selfishly do “what’s best for me.” If I’m growing up with my eyes focused on myself and my needs, it’s not at all surprising that I’d want to fix anything that I don’t like about me.

Fifth, peer pressure is extremely powerful. When our teen’s peers, boyfriends, and girlfriends buy into the appearance pressure, they will in turn pressure our kids to buy the lies that so easily lead to the desperate and vain measure of cosmetic procedures.

Finally, parental pressure plays into the mix as well. It should come as no surprise that many teens who feel the pressure to change their appearance have learned from parental example. Liposuction and breast augmentation are the top surgical procedures, and botox injections are the top non-surgical procedure for both men and women alike. That example, coupled with our criticisms of our teens (“You look like you’re gaining weight.”, “You’re skin looks so pale.”, etc.) can lead our teens to desire and choose the plastic surgery option.

What can youth workers and parents do to instill a healthy sense of physical self in children and teens so that they will avoid the growing obsession with plastic surgery?

First, we must communicate that plastic surgery, while sometimes necessary for one’s physical health, is not the road to redemption. Our dissatisfactions with ourselves are rooted in a yearning for God and His gift of new life. No surgeon’s knife, Botox filled needle, or miracle cream can fill the God-shaped hole in the soul. Plastic surgery is a redemptive dead-end that leaves you feeling empty.

Second, we must teach our kids that aging and death are theological realities that can be fought, but never beaten. Humanity has been cursed to physically age and die since the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Try as hard as we like, those realities can never be reversed on this earth. It’s a fact that time and gravity are not especially kind to the human body. Consequently, they need to realize that a growing number of people in our culture are locked into an anti-aging exercise in futility.

Third, we must shoot straight with our teens about the risks related to plastic surgery. A simple search of the Internet uncovers stories and warnings about the very real dangers of some of the most popular cosmetic procedures sought out by teens.

Fourth, we must teach our kids about the seductive power of advertising. They need to know that marketing is designed to seize on and magnify their insecurities. Then, marketers make product promises that translate into “needs” that lead to purchases. This vicious cycle is formulated and reformulated every day for one reason. . . .getting our kids to spend their money. As parents, we must teach our kids to recognize and understand the lies ads tell and sell. (Here's a link to a helpful list of questions you can use with students to filter ads "Christianly").

Fifth, we must never lose sight of the fact that in God’s grand scheme, suffering builds character. Even though the “perfect appearance” is an always changing cultural construct, our kids still buy the lie, feeling like they don’t measure up. But if we heed the words of James, we soon realize that the suffering of not measuring up or being “imperfect” is part of the growth and maturation process: “Consider it all joy. . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds. . . . the testing of your faith builds perseverance.”

And finally, we must affirm kids' value and worth as God has created them. When I was a teen I never liked what I saw in the mirror. Sure, the pressure wasn’t nearly as great back then. But when we were kids the pressure was there. Nothing meant more to me than to know that even though I felt I fell painfully short in the eyes of the world, I was loved and accepted by my parents and youth worker. Over time, that message finally got through and I came to realize that my “flaws” were really only unique differences (please remember that next time you look at my picture!!).

A few years ago I ran across this ad for Botox that features a middle-aged married couple locked in an adoring embrace. The ad wants me to believe that they were “perfect” in appearance. The ad’s text reads, “We promised to grow old together, not look old together.” What a tragedy. If I can communicate God’s radically different message on appearance to students, I trust that the growing obsession with plastic surgery won’t hit home for the kids I know and love. I pray the smiling young faces I see around me will reflect the image of Christ, and not the images on the front of the magazines.

Oh, and if you're not convinced. . . take 27 minutes and give this horrifying video a look. . . .

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kids Who Cheat. . . And The Now and Future of Marriage. . .

I wonder if they really think they did anything wrong. And, if they think they did something wrong, what degree of wrong do they think they did? I'm talking about the 20 students from the New York suburbs who find themselves in trouble for charging between $500 and $3,600 to take the SAT and ACT for others. The last two students just turned themselves in. Some could face prison sentences of up to four years.

This is a multi-layered story in terms of the cultural forces at work. Sure, there's the cheating. But there's also academic pressure, life goals, parental pressure, societal expectations, misplaced priorities, and idolatry in the layer beneath the cheating. There's other stuff I'm sure.

What struck me as I read the news this morning is that this story offers just a small peek through a window into what we've become, who we are, and where we're headed as a society. We've got some heart problems, for sure. And if left unchecked, the roots of cheating will continue to snake their way through the soil of our lives. If we look ahead and ponder the fruit our lives will bear in the future, it becomes obvious that we need to whack away at the roots where we seem them growing in ourselves and in our culture.

One reality we should consider in all this is how cheating at a young age in the simpler and smaller things of life, sets the table for us to grow up willing and able to embrace cheating in the larger and more significant things of life.

As I pondered that this morning, I opened Scotty Smith's Everyday Prayers to find the November 29th "Prayer for Marriages." I love how Scotty reminds us not only of our own brokenness and bent, but for our need to seek protection from the evil one, as his plan is to undo Shalom in every area of life, including the high and holy covenant of marriage. We know this to be the case because cheating is not only prevalent in marriages outside the church, but also within. That's something we need to hear and receive as a somber warning.

Scotty Smith's "Prayer for Marriages" is one worth sharing and praying today. Perhaps it echoes the yearnings and realities of your own heart, as well as the concerns you have for your friends. It does both for me. . .

"No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:29-32)

Lord Jesus, I’ve been greatly saddened lately over the growing number of my friends who are disconnected from, despairing of, or dying in their marriages. I’m saddened, but not shocked, for two reasons. It makes all the sense in the world to me that the one relationship meant to mirror your love for your Bride would be under constant assault by the powers of darkness.

Why wouldn’t Satan want to do everything in his power to keep us from showing and telling the stunning story of your great affection for your Bride-how you have sought and bought a most ill-deserving people, like us, to cherish, nourish and cause to flourish… forever? Of course marriage is going to be a war zone-the front lines of spiritual warfare until the Day you return, Jesus. Of course, Satan doesn’t want the gospel to take root and offer the fruit of your redemption and restoration in our marriages. He hates you, he hates the gospel and therefore he hates your Bride.

But I’m also not shocked over the great percentage of marriages that are struggling, because I know my own heart, Jesus. Like most of us, I came into marriage, as you well know, with little gospel and big naiveté. I had no clue about the depths of my brokenness, the degree of my selfishness, or the devices of my sinfulness. I had no clue about what it would mean to love one person well the rest of my life, someone who needs the gospel just as much as I do.

And I certainly had no clue that your love alone is better than life… that your love alone can slake the deepest thirst of my heart… that your love alone can provides the depths of intimacy I crave and for which I have been made… that your love alone can free me to love another sinner-spouse the way your love me as your spouse-for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish… forgiving and forbearing… accepting without acquiescing… doing the hard and heart work of the gospel.

So, Lord Jesus, I pray for my friends, as I pray for myself, protect us from the evil one, and restore us to gospel sanity and gospel reality. Give hope to the hopeless, conviction to the foolish, nourishment to the famished… grace-filled wisdom to the betrayed and godly sorrow to the betrayers. So very Amen, I pray, in the loving and restoring name of Jesus.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Discipline Gone Aright! . . .

Once every couple of years I leave church in tears. Today was one of those days. As our worship service began, our pastor informed the congregation that any visitors or friends would be excused as we stood to sing the morning's last hymn (yep. . . we still sing hymns!). The reason. . . a church discipline announcement that was good news. He made the announcement two more times. Each time, he sounded more and more excited.

One of the reasons I love my church is the seriousness with which we take the matter of church discipline. It's seriousness bathed in grace, evidenced in heartbreak, and designed to keep guys like me in check. Sometimes we not only need to know what we should do, but we need to be deterred from doing what we shouldn't through our submission to the discipline of the church. As I write those words I realize just how antiquated, old-fashioned, and legalistic they sound in today's world. Maybe that's because so many of us grew up seeing discipline administered with the law rather than with grace. Maybe that's also because the culture has somehow convinced us that nobody. . . NOBODY. . . has a right to tell me what to do and how to live unless that somebody is me.

Back to my pastor. On a handful of occasions I've seen him preface an announcement of discipline with a solemn declaration of our shared brokenness. That's followed by an explanation of a long process of showing love and grace that's been rejected. A name and offense are stated. Everyone in the room knows that they are no better than the one named. In every instance, I've left personally challenged and very broken. Not today. Our pastor told us that he had not one, but two good bits of news. We then heard the announcement that two men who had chosen a lifestyle of unfaithfulness to their families and their God. . . and who had been excommunicated from the church. . . had truly repented of their sin. We welcomed them back into the fellowship of the church! Restored. Again, I left with tears in my eyes. This is the way it's supposed to work.

We need church discipline. I need church discipline. The challenges we face in the world are pervasive and compelling. I need my church. We all need a church like that. I'm glad I'm there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Praise and Thanksgiving. . . .

Something for today from my favorite little prayer book, The Valley of Vision.

O my God,

Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,

my heart admires, adores, loves thee,

for my little vessel is as full as it can be,

and I would pour out all that fullness before thee

in ceaseless flow.

When I think upon and converse with thee

ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,

ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed,

ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,

crowding into every moment of happiness.

I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,

for adorning it, sanctifying it,

though it is fixed in barren soil;

for the body thou hast given me,

for preserving its strength and vigour,

for providing senses to enjoy delights,

for the ease and freedom of my limbs,

for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;

for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,

for a full table and overflowing cup,

for appetite, taste, sweetness,

for social joys of relatives and friends,

for ability to serve others,

for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,

for a mind to care for my fellow-men,

for opportunities of spreading happiness around,

for loved ones in the joys of heaven,

for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.

I love thee above the powers of language

to express,

for what thou art to thy creatures.

Increase my love, O my God, through time

and eternity.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Faces Change. . . The Youth Worker and Pornography. . .

When living out your calling includes hour after hour spent standing at the front of a room, your intuitive ability to read the faces in the crowd sharpens. Are they with me? Are they bored? Am I connecting? Do I need to shift gears? Did I just say something that struck a nerve? The answers to those questions are sometimes written all over the faces in the room.

This last weekend I got to indulge in one of my favorite things - spending time with youth workers, this time at the National Youth Workers Convention in Atlanta. The youth worker world is a world I love. I know how important they are to the Lord, to parents, to the church, to kids. I've not only been a youth worker, but I've been shaped and blessed by so many youth workers over the years. . . something I need to consciously be thankful for on the day before Thanksgiving.

Fortunately - and unfortunately - the discussions in our youth ministry world increasingly include talking about pornography. It's a good thing to be talking about pornography because it's one of the greatest threats to the spiritual and relational health of ourselves and everyone we minister to. It's an unfortunate thing because it's so pervasive and enticing in today's world. The statistics tell us this. Our own experience tells us this. Common sense tells us this. The sheer number of stories we see, hear, and find ourselves in tell us this. And, the faces I see in the room tell us this.

I'm noticing that every time I mention this horribly twisted and fallen expression of the sexuality that God created and enthusiastically declared as "GOOD". . . something happens in the room. Postures and expressions change. The quiet in the room moves to a new dimension. You can sense an increased uneasiness that comes with having to talk about something that we need to talk about that's been hushed and hidden - corporately and individually - for far too long. That all adds up in a mix that offers convincing evidence of our need to talk, talk, and talk some more about something that's destroying kids, families, culture, and even some of us.

At one point this last weekend, the faces I saw in the room combined in a moment that screamed urgency. In fact, what I saw as I talked briefly about pornography made it difficult for me to concentrate on the task at hand for the next few minutes. It wasn't what I would call an epiphany. Rather, it served as a strong kick in the pants to be more deliberate in my quest to dig more deeply into this social and spiritual scourge. I've said it before: It's a different world. I was a 12-year-old boy when I first saw the inside of a Playboy magazine. We found it. . . it didn't find us. It wasn't readily available. To be honest, it's frightening for me to think about who I might be today if my 12-year-old self was 12-years-old in 2011. . . seriously.

When I walked out of that seminar room this last weekend, there was something else added to my "to do" list. I've been pondering what my focus should be for my 2012 reading theme. Every year I choose an area of focus. This last year it's been books on Christian/Biblical justice. Next year, I'm going to read about marriage, family, and sexuality. Sure, that's been the overarching focus of my reading since the day I was 18-years-old and set foot on the college campus as a Sociology major focused on issues related to marriage and family. But these issues are nuanced in today's culture and we need to deal with them, at both a corporate and individual level. My 2012 reading focus was clarified last weekend.

One more thing. . . with Thanksgiving causing us to focus on the good gifts God's given, how about thinking tomorrow about more than the gift of daily bread. If you're a youth worker, think about God's gift of love, marriage, family, and your sexuality. . . and say "thanks.": And as you think, ponder how each of those relational threads is woven together in your own life. What does that tapestry look like? Does it reflect the glory of God? Or is it a mess that needs to go through some cleaning up? We'll all see some of both.

Last night I was sitting and watching the news with my 19-year-old son. He commented on the disgusting nature of some of the new allegations and details coming out in the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. After that story, there was a report detailing how the average weekly number of sexual-abuse reports in our state had doubled during the week after the Penn State story broke. I mentioned that I believed a multiplicity of factors - including the growing pervasiveness, presence, and nature of pornography - are combining in a perfect storm that will only make these stories more common as the years pass. That's the way we need to act now - corporately and individually - on the uneasiness in the room and the expression on our faces. I think we know. . . we've got to start dealing with this stuff as it impacts our culture, our kids, their families, and even ourselves.

Youth worker. . . if the uneasiness is rooted in what's happening in your own life, speak up to someone you trust as the first step in getting the help that you need.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Desperate Sign of Our Crazy and Empty Times. . . .

You could call this news of the weird or just too crazy to be believable. Still, my newspaper says it's true. . . and it got me thinking. It's one more sign of the times and our complete obsession with what we look like. I guess that when it comes to our identity, it's what's on the outside that matters. Keep reading. . . and then ask yourself. . . "Is this a result of our appearance obsession?" . . . "Is it a peek into what the future of our appearance obsessed culture is going to look like?" . . . or, "Is it both?"

It seems there's this woman living in Miami who wanted to get a job working at a nightclub. These days, it isn't just your people skills that gets you jobs serving drinks or waiting tables. . . or maybe anything else for that matter. Nope. It's highly likely that your first and most lasting impression is made and sealed with your looks. That's what's emphasized in today's world. Qualification is only skin deep. At least that's what this lady must have come to believe. So, she starts looking for a doctor who can perform some plastic surgery. . . specifically, some curve enhancement in the posterior area. This relatively recent development - by the way - has always been surprising to me. It used to be that people wanted to de-emphasize that part of their bodies if it was a bit over sized. Trust me. . . I know! Yep. . . cultural standards change and they do shape the way we look at ourselves and others.

Back to our female friend. She finds a female doctor to perform the surgery, or so she thinks. The story takes a strange turn in that the female doctor is neither a doctor nor a female. The supposed female doctor has - however - performed posterior enhancing surgery before. . . on herself . . or himself. I'm not real sure what to say here. Using some type of tube, the man who's not a woman or a doctor proceeds to use a tube-like device to inject a crazy mixture of cement, tire-sealant, and mineral oil into the job-seeker's backside. What results - as you can imagine - is great pain that has led to a need for further corrective surgery, an inability to work, and a criminal case.

OK . . . this story is extreme. But it is also a reminder. We long for relationship, for significance, and for love. And then in our desperation, we do desperate stuff to try to find any or all of the aforementioned things for which we've been created. So widespread and common is this universal human trait that most of our attempts to have these voids filled go unnoticed and are not the least bit newsworthy. But when something like this story comes along, maybe it's time to pause and look at ourselves and the unique traps that we fall into over and over and over again.

Augustine knew the Scriptures. He knew the secret of what it means to find one's significance in the arms of a loving God. He wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” When we are filled with Him, we don't need anything else to fill us. . . not cement, not mineral oil, not tire sealant, not "the right" shape, nothing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Shhhh. . . It's a Secret. . . Don't Tell Verna. . .

I've got a friend you need to meet. And if you're in Atlanta at the National Youth Workers Convention tonight, you will. . . but you have to keep it quiet. Verna Kline is in her 80's. She drove to Atlanta from central Pennsylvania yesterday along with the rest of the crew that staffs the On Fire Youth Center in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Verna's been doing youth ministry for over 60 years! She loves Jesus. She loves kids. I've seen firsthand - over and over and over again - how much kids love Verna.

The amazing thing about Verna is that in an age where style is pursued over substance and relevance is believed to be a pre-requisite for effective youth ministry, Verna and her ministry prove just how faulty those assumptions and beliefs are. Verna knows that it's most important to be yourself, love Jesus, and love kids.

I first met Verna years ago. I live in central Pennsylvania. Verna is one of the prototypical Mennonite/Brethren women who populate our area and who pursue the most important things in life. Whenever I see her I want to ask her, "Verna. Can you bake me a pie?" In fact, I usually do! Verna's so busy spending time with kids that she passes that duty off to her daughter. Because CPYU is located in Verna's neck of the woods, I see her at our many area training events. She's a mainstay. Just two weeks ago I did a day-long training event and there was Verna for the entire day. . . sitting and paying attention. . . taking notes like there was no tomorrow. . . concentrating on everything I was saying. Verna is a living example of the Psalmist's commitment as written in Psalm 71:17&18:
17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
18 Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Verna doesn't know it, but there's a surprise waiting for her in the big room tonight. At some point, my buddy Tic Long is going to call Verna up on the stage to be honored for her years of youth ministry. When that happens, thousands of youth workers are going to get to see what youth ministry is all about.

If you're here in Atlanta, would you please do two things. First, don't let Verna know about this. I know she won't be reading my post because she doesn't use a computer or a smart phone. We're safe. And second, let's let Verna see and hear how much we appreciate her.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving, Drought, Famine. . . and Ibrahim. . .

Thanksgiving is one week away. I thought about that this morning. Sadly, the thought was sparked by knowing that there's only a week to get any preparation finished. . . and there's lots to do. Realizing I needed to re-focus on giving thanks rather than the tyranny of the urgent, I started to scroll through the Rolodex in my head for a list of things to be thankful for. The Rolodex paused as I pondered a couple of things that happened yesterday.

Lisa and I had the privilege to go into our daughter's sixth grade classroom to talk about our trip to Kenya and Rwanda with Compassion International. She has her students studying the geography and culture of those two countries. She gave us a half hour to share some pictures and experiences related to the geography and culture. Her students paid close attention and asked some very insightful questions. Many of those questions centered on the nature of poverty, which afforded us the opportunity to help them understand the contrast between being a young person in America, and being a young person in Africa. While the morning wasn't about Compassion International, we did show them a couple of pictures of our sponsored child Ibrahim, who was their age when we visited him in Nairobi's Mathare slum a little over two years ago.

It was a great surprise to find a letter from Ibrahim when we returned home. Corresponding with your sponsored child is one of the great joys of Compassion sponsorship. Ibrahim's words at the beginning of his letter capture what the letters mean to him: "First and foremost, I thank the almighty God for helping us continue communicating together and you continuing supporting me." Those words mean so much to me.

After catching us up on what's been happening in his life (school, music, running races, etc.), Ibrahim ended with this request for prayer: "I hope you have the news that our country is in a disaster of drought and famine. I request your prayers so that we can come out of this disaster. I hope you will pray for my country Kenya. May the almighty God bless you."

Thanksgiving is one week away. I realize how much I've been given. Like you, I'm in the top 1% to 2% of the world's population in terms of my wealth. I am reminded of the responsibility I have to steward the Lord's resources. To whom much has been given, much is required.

Ibrahim and children like him all around the world have little to nothing. Sponsoring them through Compassion International gives them food, medicine, an education, and an opportunity to hear the Gospel and be nurtured in the Christian faith. Not only am I thankful for what I've been given, but I'm thankful that Compassion International can take the "loaves and fishes" of our gift of $38 a month and multiply it in ways that God uses to transform young lives. Because of $38 a month, Ibrahim and a million other kids like him have a present and a future.

I would like to invite you to give thanks this year by considering sponsoring a child through Compassion International. . . just click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Invitation into Praying Deeply. . . .

I've found a new morning companion in Scotty Smith's recently released book, Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith. Scotty invites us to pour our hearts out to God each morning in ways that are truly transforming. I am grateful for this book and want to pass it on to you as a recommendation.

This morning, Scotty had me pray this prayer entitled "A Prayer About Beloved Thornbushes". . .

"I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’" Hosea 2:6-7

Lord Jesus, I’ve praised you for the fall foliage of western North Carolina, the panoramic wonder of Cape Town, SA, everything about Switzerland, the Eden-like echoes in Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island, and the azure-blue waters kissing the sugar-white beaches of Destin, Florida. But today, I praise you for the gift of thornbushes.
Lord Jesus, you love me so much that when I love you less you come after me with tenacious uncomfortable providence. You are unrelenting in your commitment to rescue my heart from all illusions, mirages, broken cisterns, idols and wanna-be lovers. I so wish you didn’t have to be, but I am so grateful that you are so doggedly committed to us.
Oh blessed and beloved thornbushes, ever block my path when I begin chasing after lesser gods and other lovers. Hedge me in like a formidable fortress. Cause me to lose my bearings and my way when I set my GPS for an affair of any kind. Frustrate my every attempt to look for more or settle for less than Jesus…
That you are jealous for me and the affection of my heart is the greatest compliment you could ever give me, Lord Jesus. Who am I that the Lord of glory would make me a part of his bride for eternity? Who am I that you would rejoice over me with the festive joy, the impassioned delight, and the desire-filled gaze of a bridegroom?
How I long for the Day when I will never again have to say, “I will go back to my husband as at first…” Until that Day, Lord Jesus, that consummate wedding day, keep me sane, centered and settled through the gospel. So very Amen, I pray in your holy and loving name.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sexual Predators. . . Some Facts from the Penn State Case. . .

I'm sure there's much that hasn't been said that's going to surprise lots and lots of people. What has been already been said is quite horrifying. . . almost too horrible to digest. Have you read the grand jury report from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case? If you haven't, you should. It recounts - in vivid detail - what every human being is capable of. I want to encourage all my youth worker friends to give it a good look. Consider it preparation for the inevitable. If you haven't already had to deal with this in your church or community, you will.

As I read the report, I was reminded of other cases with which I'm more familiar. It's eerily similar. Since being thrust into some difficult circumstances and situations in the past, I've learned this about predators. . .

1. They are careful and calculating cultivators. They know exactly what they are doing. They are drawn to those who are vulnerable. They dance, dance, and dance around some more with great care. Their careful attention serves to keep them from getting caught.

2. They are conniving. They're masterful - MASTERFUL - at weaving lies and deception. They are not only good at deceiving their victims, but they are especially good at deceiving their closest family and friends.

3. They are convincing. You can't believe how convincing they are until you sit with a young victim and hear them say, "I just assumed that what they were doing to me was normal." They convince their victims that they have the victim's best interest in mind. All they have in mind is satisfying their own twisted needs, desires, and perversions.

I've also learned some things about the closest family and friends of predators who have been exposed. . .

1. You just can't believe the accusers or the accusations. The evidence can be right under your nose, and you just don't believe it. How many times have we heard people say of a predator, "He/She is just not capable of doing something like this!"?

2. You just won't/don't believe the accusers or the accusations. Even after confessing guilt in a court of law, there are predators whose closest family and friends still refuse to believe the truth. It's a combination of wanting to believe the best of those we love, along with the power of the predator to deceive.

3. Lack of belief sometimes leads to complicity.

If there's anything good that come out of what's happening at Penn State it's the wake-up call that might lead to preventing some horrible stuff from happening to a host of kids in a variety of places. It's the realization that not only is this stuff real, but that we need to have systems and protocols in place in our youth groups and churches to both prevent and redemptively deal with it all.

Keep listening. Jerry Sandusky's story will continue to unfold. There's much, much more to learn.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joe Paterno. . . And More Lessons. . .

Yesterday morning I was sitting with my wife in the Susquehanna Club at the Harrisburg International Airport. The TV to our left was on Fox News. I looked above Lisa's head and saw a large framed photo on the wall that I've seen many times before. I said to her, "Turn around and look at who's on the wall above you." I snapped a photo of that photo with my phone. The photo I took is to the left. It's a familiar scene that's been happening on Saturdays for years a few miles north of where we sat. There was Joe Paterno leading his Nittany Lion team onto the field in what has become known as Happy Valley. At the exact moment I was taking the picture, a story broke on the TV. . . Joe Paterno had just announced that he was retiring at the end of the year. No joke, exact moment.

I love football and I have followed Penn State over the years. I know several people who have played for JoePa. This year, one of the team's leading players is the son of a man who was a part of my earliest youth ministry efforts. As I blogged two days ago, my son Josh had been coached at camp by Jerry Sandusky when Josh was a middle school player. We have a picture of the two together. I admired Sandusky for his charitable work with children.

Yesterday, I tried to verbalize the feelings I was having to my wife, Lisa. My friend Adam McLane had asked me to put it all in perspective for people who don't live here in Pennsylvania. Adam's question had me struggling to find words to describe the feeling I had. What I said to Lisa has nothing to do with Penn State and football. To be honest, I don't bleed blue and white. What I was feeling was more a response to being duped. . . deceived. . . fooled. I don't think I would have been able to find the words for my emotions or even had those emotions if I hadn't had a couple of unfortunate opportunities to have experienced those emotions already in some very deep and personal ways over the last few years in situations that are eerily similar. The Penn State situation simply triggered memories and emotions in ways that allow me (in some small manner) to understand what folks in the Penn State situation are feeling. It's like walking into your house after it's been turned upside down by burglars. . . something else I've experienced.

This morning, I woke up to see the newspaper front page you see on the right. Yep, JoePa and news of his firing was there. . . big and bold. But look at the headline to the right. The assistant principal at Lancaster Mennonite High School. . . and sexual abuse. What's next?

I made a statement in my last blog that some people have taken issue with. I wrote: "Welcome to our contemporary world. In a culture saturated with sick and sinful distortions of God's good gift of sexuality, it's no wonder this stuff happens with increased frequency and depth. It's going to be happening more. That should make us wonder: if it starts to happen more, when will it be normalized, overlooked, and no longer criminal?" I stand by that statement. . . with even greater commitment this morning. There is a biblical sexual ethic that's been given to us by the One who created the amazing gift of sexuality. There's a competing cultural sexual ethic that continues to evolve. . . a compelling and convincing ethic that's grabbing hearts, minds, and human beings. . . convincing them that anything goes.

Four things I'm thinking about today. . . .

First, it can be anybody. . . even you. As I said in a youth worker forum last week, all of us are just one split second and one bad decision away from doing this stuff. A good and proper understanding of human depravity and sin is a tool that can keep each of us in check. And, don't be surprised when those closest to you who you might trust the most choose this stuff and eventually get exposed. It happens.

Second, let's talk about sex. I know that these cases are incredibly complex. But if we don't set and continue to set the table for kids in terms of their understanding of sexuality, they will learn, buy into, and live the lies. Then, the more the lies take root deep and wide, the less we'll be concerned about what the Scriptures call sin. Vice will become virtue. . . something that will destroy ourselves and others.

Third, our churches and youth groups are places where this stuff is happening. We can't keep looking the other way. Two of the biggest mistakes we make are to not have systems already in place for dealing with this stuff, and refusing to believe that what's been done has been done. . . and then blaming the victims or those whose hands were forced to respond.

And finally, I believe Penn State did the right thing last night. Yes, JoePa has done much for the University and college football. Yes, Jerry Sandusky was the perpetrator. But when there's a system in place that lets time pass, that covers things up, that looks the other way, that minimizes something that can't be minimized. . . well, then that system needs to be purged. JoePa's sin was a sin of omission that was occasioned, perhaps, by years of living in a world where people would sweep these things under the rug and look the other way.

My home state is now a stage that the country is watching. But this is a story about us all.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thinking About Coach Sandusky. . . .

We have a picture of our son Josh with Jerry Sandusky. During his middle school years, Josh attended Coach Sandusky's local football camp. Meeting Sandusky was a treat. The guy worked under the legendary Joe Paterno, he was the defensive genius credited with creating "Linebacker U," and he cared enough about kids to start a foundation for kids. Jerry Sandusky was admired and respected for so many reasons. As the father of a football player, I was thankful for the opportunity afforded Josh to learn under a guy like this.

Now there's what's happening today. The allegations have been floating around for years. Now, there's at least enough credence to warrant his arrest. And the Penn State football program and community is hanging out there in uncertainty. The court of public opinion has been working overtime the last few days, with media outlets across the country hashing, speculating, and editorializing non-stop. . . a contemporary reality that makes it increasingly difficult for the greatest judicial system in the world to function at an optimal level.

In thinking about this story over the last few days, there are some themes that keep popping up in my head.

First, if these allegations are true, Sandusky has perpetrated some horrible, horrible things that have harmed and hurt far too many people. . first and foremost, the alleged victims. Whether you call them predators, child abusers, or creepers. . . these guys are good at lying, cultivating/grooming victims, and keeping up appearances. They're incredibly shrewd. I've seen it up close a couple of times in recent years, and it's scary. I liken what these people do to meticulously creating a bomb. When the bomb explodes, the fallout and shrapnel is spread far and wide. . . echoing on and on and on. The shock waves are rippling through Penn State as we speak.

Second, the legal process needs to be allowed to work. Let's not forget, Jerry Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty. We need to embrace that reality as if we were the one's on trial.

Third, the aftermath of these things can be so upside down. . . horribly upside down in fact. I have seen it happen and heard too many stories. . . blaming the victim while blindly believing and supporting the lying perpetrator. Reality is, they are such good liars that they can convince people that what really happened didn't really happen. . . even when the evidence that it did happen is undeniable. If the perpetrator is someone near and dear to us, many of us just can't and won't believe the allegations to be true. We might need to have the scales fall from our eyes.

Fourth, welcome to our contemporary world. In a culture saturated with sick and sinful distortions of God's good gift of sexuality, it's no wonder this stuff happens with increased frequency and depth. It's going to be happening more. That should make us wonder: if it starts to happen more, when will it be normalized, overlooked, and no longer criminal?

Sneaks are in our midst. When they're exposed or sniffed out, do everything you must to intervene so that future victims can be spared from having to deal with the detonation that will leave them broken and shell-shocked for the rest of their lives.

As you watch this story play out, learn from it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Homeschooling. . . Now This Makes Sense. . . .

What took the longest on this post was coming up with a title. I've got the sneaky suspicion that anything I write in that title slot is going to get me in trouble with somebody. I've settled for what it says up there. . . so let's move on. . .

Homeschooling. . . to be honest, the topic has sometimes driven me nuts. Over the years, I've had aggressive and offensive/defensive homeschoolers come at me hard. I've stood at the front of the room fielding questions at the end of a seminar where I know that warring factions are in the room and I'm being set up. I avoid those arguments like the plague. My standard answer and position is this: "Different kids thrive in different kinds of schooling." I also tell people that my kids all went to public school. Christian/Private school options were not affordable. If we had chosen homeschooling, you would have read about our family in the newspaper.

What always concerned me the most was the "why" behind homeschooling. I've seen and heard from an overwhelming number of people who believed that 1)homeschooling was the only "Christian" option; 2) homeschooling is a clear indicator of parental love and a close family; 3) homeschooling guarantees good outcomes; 4) homeschooling keeps kids from being poisoned by the world; 5) etc. I've never bought it. . . any of it. Theologically and biblically you just can't make the case. These attitudes have troubled me deeply. I've also seen too many sheltered homeschooled kids who either couldn't function in the world, or who blew up later in life. The real issue for all kids - homeschooled or not homeschooled - is the darkness in their hearts. . . just like the rest of us. Too much of the homeschooling culture has reminded me of the Pharisees. Fact is, no kid is immune from cultural influence. Still - and people need to hear this - I think homeschooling can be done in the right spirit and that it is the best option for some kids. I could say so much more.

This last week, a friend informed me of an article that a Christian school headmaster had posted on the school's website. The title caught my attention: "Solving the Crisis In Homeschooling: Exposing the Seven Major Blindspots of Homeschoolers." At first glance, it might look like an attack from outside the Homeschool community. Rather, it is written by someone from within. It's a noble and honest article that wrestles with biblical and practical realities. It's worth a read. . . not just if you're a homeschooler who's got your head in the sand. . . but if you're a Christian parent who's got your head in the sand. . . or a Christian parent. . . or someone like me who needs to be reminded of these things.

Give it a read. This is helpful stuff.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Lesbian Homecoming King and Queen. . . .

This is a story that is much more multi-layered and complex than any of us might imagine. In day's past, you might read the headline someone sent me from the San Diego Reader - "In Bold Step Forward, Patrick Henry High School Selects Pretty Lesbian Couple As Homecoming King and Queen" - and simply condemn. . . no questions asked. . . no compassion. I think it's a good thing that we don't live (at least most of us don't) in that kind of world anymore. In the past, you've heard me lament the heartless and less-than-God-honoring response to homosexuality that was a part of my high school experience. Sure, it wasn't extreme, but it was bad enough. I'm not proud of it.

This year, Patrick Henry High's Homecoming King and Queen - as voted by their peers - are Rebeca Arellano and Haileigh Adams. It's a first for the high school. It's also a first as far as anything I've ever heard about.

Again, the issues are complex. There's the issue of homosexuality. There's the issue of our attitudes towards homosexuality. There's also the issue of faith. In her acceptance-speech, a cross-wearing Adams was sure to thank Jesus "for making this all possible." We can also learn a lot from the fact that a student body voted for this.

Perhaps I'm even more concerned about remarks made by Taylor Hunter, a senior at Patrick Henry who was raised in an evangelical Christian home where he was taught that homosexual behavior is wrong. Here's what the article reports Hunter as saying: "Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, despite what you've been told all your life. And I believe in hot lesbians. . . . . I believe that young people are the future, and we have the power to change things for the better. By honoring the beautiful people - whatever their sexual orientation - we can do our part to make the world a more beautiful place. I hope that 2011 will be remembered as the year that teenagers stood up for physical attraction in all its forms."

Wow! There's a lot to unpack in that last paragraph. Changing attitudes in our kids, the lack of integration of faith into life, a postmodern ethic, the fruit of a culture obsessed with style and appearance over substance, our sense of what is "better", issues of the trustworthiness of parental and Biblical authority. All that before we even get to the issue of homosexuality.

I need to think about all of this some more. In the meantime, I decided to revisit some wonderful recommendations from Dennis Hollinger in his book The Meaning of Sex. His words are concise and to the point. Let me pass some on. . . .

"When we look honestly at the teachings of God's Word, inlcuding those of Jesus, it is evident that Christians and the church cannot legitimize same-sex relations. The paradigm from creation is clear that God created humans in a two-fold way, male and female, and that sexual union is to be a one-flesh relationship between to humans who are not alike in gender. . . .

The church should be unambiguous in articulating God's design for sexual intimacy: a covenant relationship between a man and a woman. The church actually shows great love and pastoral care though its gracious articulation of God's designs. We fail the world and struggling individuals when we continually appeal to more dialogue, ambiguity, and merely compassion. . . .

But at the same time we are called to walk and cry with, empathize, forgive, and support those who struggle with homoerotic impulses. We can never apply biblical ethics with cold callousness and harness. We must recall that after discussion homosexuality in Romans 1, Paul gives a list of other sins that we too easily ignore in the church: greed, envy, strife, slander, arrogance, pride, and lack of love and mercy. . . .

What can the church offer pastorally to those struggling with this issue? First, we can offer hope for healing through divine resources and professional counseling. Second, we can offer hope for healing through divine resources and professional counseling. Second, we can offer ongoing empathetic support and accountability for those who find it difficult to change their inward inclinations, but are called to maintain celibacy. Third, we can offer forgiveness when there is failure amidst the struggle, albeit without watering down the ethical norm. And finally the church must rid itself of homophobia, the hatred of gay persons."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The More I Think I Know. . . .

Yesterday was a shot in the arm. We had a full day with a room full of pastors, youth workers, parents, and seminary students at the Evangelical Theological Seminary Fall Forum on "Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture." I typically leave those events wondering if I said things correctly, if my words were clear, if I got in the way in any manner that I should not have, etc. I also treasure the speaking opportunities - like this one - where I leave knowing that I've been blessed. That happened yesterday for sure.

How was I blessed? I was blessed by the diversity in the room. We had a full spectrum of folks in that room. Young and old. Suits and ties. Guys who looked like they were modeling skateboard clothes. The contrasts were marked. But everyone was there because they love Jesus and they want to serve Him more effectively by loving and caring for kids.

As the day ended, a man named Levi thanked me for sharing what I did. He was a pastor. Levi was one of the oldest people in the room. I won't guess his age - I'm not good at that. He was, however, old enough to be my dad, I'm sure. He was dressed the way people used to dress to go to church. Nothing about his appearance seemed culturally relevant in the ways we so sadly understand cultural relevance today. He was sitting in the 2nd row on the aisle. He furiously scribbled notes throughout. Levi's presence and words blessed me in great ways, and he did so on behalf of dozens of other folks like him in that room.

First, Levi and the members of his generation in that room reminded me that we spend too much time thinking about style over substance/content. We get too concerned about appearances, and we've even been led to believe that if it's not styled in the latest or most contemporary way, it's not going to work. Not true. Levi and others like him have lots to give. . . and give they do. Why else would a man who (according to our culture) should be retired and playing golf give up a day to learn how to be more effective at reaching and ministering to the next generation? I know lots of kids who have been deeply impacted by guys like Levi. I hope men and woman like him keep showing up.

Second, Levi and the folks like him in that room reminded me of just how counterproductive, dangerous, and wrong our age-segregation practices really are. When marketing has done its job and convinced us that those who are younger need to be separated from those who are older in our churches during worship. . . well, I don't think there's anything good that comes from that. Why in the world would we ever want to break up the body of Christ and keep kids from Levi's wisdom, experience, and knowledge? Why wouldn't we want to foster and create opportunities for Levi and the kids to connect in ways that are mutually edifying?

Third, Levi and his peers in that room reminded me that we should never stop seeking to learn. In fact, we need to be constantly reminded that the more we know and the more we think we know, the more we should realize how much we don't know. That's the person I want to be. It reminded me of the day I graduated from seminary. I had a conversation with a classmate where I verbalized something I had been realizing in the days leading up to graduation: "I wish I knew as much as I thought I knew on my first day of school at this place." I don't ever want to lose the perspective that puts me in my place and keeps me humble.

So. . . today. . . thanks so much to Levi and everyone else in that room. Thanks for what you do. Thanks for your passion. Thanks for your example. And thanks for reminding me of things I must never forget.