23 December 2016

Tolkien - "Noel"

What follows is a recently re-discovered poem, originally written and published in 1936 by the master wordsmith, J. R. R. Tolkien.  Jason Duesing and ArtsBeat (via the NY Times) have elaborated on the discovery and future plans from the Tolkien Estate here and here, for this and other lost poems.

Allow me to simply share Tolkien's gorgeous wordplay to stoke the nostalgic fires of Christmas.


Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Merry Christmas!

07 December 2016

Priests by His merit

I wrestled with a section of Leviticus 21 the other day during my morning reading.  There, the following instructions are given to Moses concerning Israel's priesthood:

No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord's food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God...  he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” (Lev 21.21-23)

As we read earlier in the passage, a "blemish" might include blindness; mutilation; disease; impotence; crippled, lame, or deformed limbs; and hunched backs (21.18-20) -- anything that might render a man physically or mentally inept.  On a practical level, such a restriction makes sense, but when I read a passage like that, my heart reacts because it's difficult to read compassion and kindness into such a law.  In fact, it's (understandably) the exact type of passage a doubter might point to as an example of a biblical contradiction.

"You claim this god of yours is loving, but what about this?"

When I read a passage like this, I think about the way people with disabilities are treated in modern society.  Yes, there are programs, organizations, treatments, and caretakers designated to meet the needs of handicapped individuals.  Yes, every restaurant has special parking spots for folks with blue swing tags.  Yes, restrooms are designed to accommodate wheelchairs.  However, the average person moving at the average pace of American society doesn't have the time of day or the wherewithal to consider those needs.  In fact, we are either more annoyed by the inconvenience these individuals can represent, or we're simply too uncomfortable around them to be properly motivated to serve them.

It's an unfortunate reality that individuals born with physical or mental disabilities have been marginalized in every society.  Ironically, it is only now -- at the current peak of supposed human evolution, where the callous "survival of the fittest" path has supposedly brought us -- that we've reached a point in society where we now have programs and institutions that can effectively care for individuals who fall into the varying categories of special needs.  That is, instead of placing them in neglected, isolated communities; treating them like they're possessed; or ostracizing them entirely (as societies have done in the past), we are actually taking strides to provide the disabled and handicapped with a quality of life unprecedented in past decades.  In evolutionary terms, this can only be defined as regression, not advancement.  And yet, modern sciences, engineering, therapies, and social work altogether geared at assisting people with disabilities reveal a depth of heart that points to the warm fingers of a compassionate Designer -- not the cold randomness of survival.

Considering all this, when I read a passage like Leviticus 21, I desperately want a verse 24 to hurl open the doors of mercy and compassion, welcoming and inviting people with deformities and disabilities, allowing them direct access to the throne room of God.  If anyone should have love and a special place for for the deformed, the lame, and the outcasts, it should be God Himself.  But even though there is no verse 24 here to express that sentiment, that doesn't mean I can jump to the conclusion that there is no room in God's heart for servants with "blemishes."

A couple clarifying points will help.

One, this section of Leviticus is addressed specifically to those in the line of the priesthood -- that is, Aaron's descendants.  And in that regard, the command is only applicable to eligible males in the Aaronic line who would otherwise perform priestly duties in the tabernacle or temple.  In other words, this is no more a blanket statement prohibiting any Israelite with a deformity who wants to serve in the temple from doing so, than it is grounds for the community to ostracize any debilitated individual from worshiping with the rest of the community (keeping in mind that if he has a disease that is contagious, he must subject himself to rules of cleanness and purification).  This law does, however, prohibit those in Aaron's generations who have special needs from serving as priests in the tabernacle/temple.

Two, what seems on the surface to be a passage ostracizing Aaronic descendants with birth defects is actually a statement about the holiness and perfection of God.  In other words, the kind of physical, mental, and spiritual state an individual must be in to appropriately serve as a priest is a writ-small reflection of what God requires of each of us.  The equation is simple: no one is holy like God is.  No one -- not even the perfect specimen of human fitness, physique, or symmetry; not even the most law-abiding, moral citizen.  Even the High Priest himself could only enter directly into God's presence one day of the year to offer sacrifices for the atonement of all the people, and that was only after he performed extensive acts of ritual cleansing and offered sacrifices for his own sins and those of his family.

Across the Testaments of Scripture, the standard that must be met is perfection.  Which is and always has been impossible for humankind.  You must serve God, but to properly serve God you must be perfect, and you cannot be perfect because you are a sinner.  This is the original Catch-22.  And yet, if we study the Word of God carefully and take a deep, long look into our own hearts, we cannot honestly deny that this is a self-inflicted state, not the work of a cruel, merciless deity.

Now, enter Jesus.

Jesus' earthly ministry accomplishes what we ourselves could not do.  His perfection, holiness, and obedience fulfills all the requirements of God's just demands.  Where universal sin had earned death and judgment, He came to drink the cup of the Father's just wrath to its dregs.  In so doing, He took our punishment -- our wages.  And then, His resurrection from the grave verified His power over both sin and death, enabling those of us who believe to have new, restored life.  Instead of being regarded as impure sinners, we can now be righteous in the eyes of God, cleansed thoroughly by the blood of His Son.  Where all of our moral strivings have failed, one act of righteousness has become the salvation we all desperately need (Rom 5.18).

Here's the hope that we can only see in shadow in Leviticus 21: the perfection that God requires of His priests was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

This means we don't have to be perfect, because He was perfection for us.

That especially includes people with "blemishes" -- permanent injuries, illnesses, or debilitations.  As a matter of fact, if we look through the pages of the gospel accounts, we'll find that these are exactly the people whom Jesus spent His time touching, cleansing, and teaching.  The helpless invalids -- the spiritual and physical outcasts from their own heritage -- were the ones to whom Jesus ministered specifically.  Those whom the entire Israelite community had rejected on the basis of deformity, illness, or stigma, Jesus drew back into the community, healing their infirmities and demonstrating what life without sin, within the restored fellowship of God others, is like.

According to Mosaic law, no one with a blemish could serve as a priest, and only those of Aaron's bloodline were eligible to be priests anyway.  And yet, even those individuals who were considered worthy to don the ephod needed their own sins atoned for.  In fact, the span of the Scriptures attests to the fact that the priesthood as an institution was ultimately insufficient to completely atone for human sin anyway.  The book of Hebrews elaborates on the profound reality that Jesus' atoning work completed the task of the priesthood, removing any further need for a temporary intermediate.  This is why God Himself, the Son, became our permanent intermediate: He became our sacrifice and He became our priest (see Hebrews 4.14-8.13).  For this reason, Paul makes the case that any distinction among believers based on class or privilege has been abolished (Gal 3.28), and Peter goes on to write that all followers of Jesus Christ, once living in the outer darkness of sin and rejection, have altogether been promoted to the status of the priesthood:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2.9-10)

The beauty of this is that those who might once have been forbidden from serving in the capacity of a priest, whether because of a physical or a mental deformity, have now been given direct access to God by the atoning work of Jesus.  We are now able to be ministers to the faith community the way the Israelite priests ministered to the nation, regardless of blood heritage, regardless of disability, regardless of our sinful pasts.

As followers of Jesus, we all have our place in the Kingdom -- a place not determined by anyone's merit but His.

Jesus is the great equalizer.  The cross levels the entire playing field.  In the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no distinctions of sinner or saint.  Those who were once deformed have been transformed.  We are all now priests and esteemed family members, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

This understanding should motivate us to have a greater compassion for both those with special needs, and also for those outside the community of faith.  As members of the royal priesthood, our responsibility is not to offer sacrifices on their behalf, but to proclaim the excellencies of light, truth, and the hope that Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice.

As we have been shown grace upon grace and unfathomable mercy by the God of all comfort and compassion (2 Cor 1.3), let us extend the same to the lost -- and especially to those with disabilities.

23 November 2016

Thanksgiving, 2016

Thanksgiving is such a warm, nostalgic holiday for me, just in terms of its laid-back atmosphere and its proximity to the end-of-the-year season.  Specific moments are somewhat vague -- I can remember lying on my belly drawing cartoons out in our sun porch (the toy room), and another year putting together a cardboard, punch-out farm set that my grandmother got me -- but my appreciation for the holiday is a messy bundle of pleasant, quantitative recollections of rest and family time.

That said, I know I'm not the only one who can use the holiday like a checkpoint -- a momentary pause to say thanks for my blessings and fill up my gratitude tank before heading back into my normal, humdrum way of living.  It's easy on Thanksgiving to be thankful, because it's easy to be happy when thing are comfortable.  But normal life (and sometimes holidays too) isn't always (ever?) comfortable.  Outlined below are three questions that I need to be asking myself regularly, none of which will rock anyone back on their mental heels in revelation.  However, learning to be content isn't just about accruing new practical ways to don a brave face when things are ugly.  For Christians, it's about learning deeper appreciation for the reality that has always been in front of us.

How an I practicing "24/7/365 gratitude," not just "Thanksgiving gratitude?"

I heard the story of an elderly preacher who, after years of faithful ministry, suddenly began preaching the same sermon to his congregation week after week.  At first, the people were polite and said nothing, but they all wondered if their minister was starting to show his age.  Finally, as weeks turned into months, they began to grow concerned for his mental health, and one of the trustees was nominated to approach the pastor and inquire whether or not he thought it might be time to retire.

"...because you do realize," the spokesperson said nervously, "that you've been preaching the exact same sermon each Sunday for six weeks now, right?"

Calmly, the pastor replied, "Tom, I'll move on to another topic as soon as this one actually sinks in."

Personally, I don't need the reminder to be thankful every time Thanksgiving rolls around.  I need it every day.

According to the Apostle Paul, joy and gratefulness should be among the chief, distinguishing qualities of Christ-followers (Phil 4.4).  To be anything but grateful in the face of what we have been given is to be both self-centered and incredibly short-sighted.  We all know how easy it is to set aside just one day of the year to take a deep breath and re-evaluate the silver lining.  We also know that it's much harder to maintain that spirit of peace and thankfulness on a daily basis -- largely because we have a penchant for always expecting things to go our way.  We read, "All things work together for good for those who love Him" in Romans 8.28 and conveniently ignore the fact that the biblical idea of "good" is tied to our spiritual growth, not to our personal comfort.  And in the midst of such skewed thinking, our spirits become jaded to the lessons God might be trying to teach us and we sink to begrudging the hours rather than redeeming them.

But maybe it's not just our attitude that needs to be examined.

Maybe it's our view of the Almighty.

Faith and trust are key elements in maintaining daily thankfulness for God's provision.  But they aren't just attitude words.  They're belief words.  Together, the joint exercise of faith and trust logically expresses the reality that I don't possess all the knowledge, and that there are things completely outside of my realm of control.  In that regard, maybe my struggle with gratitude is not because my faith in God is weak, but because my conception of God is.  Do I really esteem Him to be good?  Faithful?  Omnipotent?  Or have I stunted my understanding of Him by inflating my own abilities, esteem, and expectations?  Forgive the not-so-latent Calvinistic flavor, but either God is sovereign or He is impotent.  Any in-between is a contradiction in terms.  And frankly, a God who is not in control is not much of a God at all -- certainly not one to place my faith and trust in.  Certainly not one to whom thanks and praise are due.

No wonder our faith is so small if we have such small views of who God truly is and what He can do!

Here's what I know.  The same God Almighty who expends sufficient mercy and grace to all sinners also gives the necessary resources that His children need for life and joy and worship (Matt 4.4Luke 11.13Jas 1.17).  He is good and He is big and He is holy and He is trustworthy.  As Christians, we can rest in His sovereignty even when circumstances are poor, because our faith is placed in what is truly "for good" -- not in the stunted, shortsighted promises of American consumerist spirituality, but in the aim of holiness that our Savior has sovereignly purposed for all of His children, and in the hope of eternity spent with Him.

How am I giving thanks for the little things?

Prayer, in general, is crucial.  Without a prayer life, I'll find it impossible to be truly grateful for anything.  Specifically, praying before a meal might seem like just a mundane habit -- more like family tradition or a teaching tool for children than a genuine expression of gratitude.  However, maintaining this kind of practice is a small way to live in constant dependence upon God.  Having this kind of discipline is an indicator that I don't just run to Him in a panic when the sky is falling, but have intentionally disciplined myself to be prayerful.  When relationships fail and work is a mess and my life seems to be in shambles, there are still fragments of goodness and hope to be found in commonplace things that altogether point to the bedrock fact that God is still working.  However, if I haven't learned beforehand that there is nothing I've been given for which I shouldn't be deeply thankful, I'll find it difficult to find anything meaningful in the rubble.

Conversely, what I'm quick to complain about (i.e. NOT pray about) also shines a spotlight in the direction of my values.  It's so easy to sink into irritation and downright bitterness rather than wait for the grain of sand to become a pearl.  However, if I train myself to express gratitude when things are good, by pausing to be thankful for the proverbial "little things," I can preemptively form a habit that's hard to dislocate.  If I teach myself not to take even the most mundane things for granted, suddenly those are the things on the tip of my tongue when I'm hard-pressed to find reasons to be thankful in difficulty.  Giving thanks regularly for the dispensable things makes giving thanks at all that much easier when things become difficult.

This kind of thinking involves a large measure of training and self-discipline.  It's not our natural inclination to express gratitude, not when things are difficult, and especially not when we live in the middle of a generation that feels entitled to only the best.  I must work at expressing gratitude by engaging when I don't particularly sense a need to, so that in the future -- when the world is collapsing in around me -- I can more naturally turn to my default response.

Praying before meals, for meals, is a tiny way to do that.

How does my gratitude (or lack thereof) reflect my response to the gospel?

My perpetual emotional/spiritual state should be one of deep-seated peace and joy in what Jesus Christ has done for me.  My response to poor circumstances indicates just how deeply the message of redemption has sunk into my heart.  Am I quick to complain and find it impossible to see past the sickness, the loss, the circumstance?  Well, maybe I don't truly understand the gospel.

No matter how unbearable life becomes, no matter how badly we screw up our own plans, no matter how poorly other people treat us... as Christians we rest in the confidence of knowing that our salvation is both unmerited (on our part) and unshakeable.  I didn't earn it, and so I can't lose it.  I was a wretch to whom God showed unfathomable mercy, and now I can rest my hope in eternity and be deeply, truly thankful -- even when the present is a frighteningly miserable experience.

The reality of what we've been saved from and saved to is cause for incredible joy and thankfulness.  No more am I a lost and broken enemy of God, earning wages upon wages of destruction and judgment for my lifetime of sinful investments.  Now I am a favored child -- a rescued and redeemed saint, a member of the priesthood of all believers, part of God's ransomed family, covered by the blood of Jesus.  The righteousness that His perfection attributes to me is a permanent state, and nothing can take that away.

With that perspective in place, it is far easier to be grateful for the little things, the big things, the good things, and even the bad things.  We can be motivated to express our deep gratitude for salvation and demonstrate attitudes of joy and contentment even when everyone around us is opting to complain and despair.  It's no wonder countless ministers of the Word have historically encouraged Christians to preach the gospel daily -- to ourselves!  It is by reaffirming what the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ has accomplished that the problems of life, the universe, and everything shrink in stark, almost embarrassing contrast.

Nothing can touch what God has done.  Nothing compares to the blessing of my sin -- not in part, but the whole! -- being nailed to the cross so that I may bear it no more.

This Thanksgiving, let's pause as always to reflect and refresh.  But let's also strive to carry that spirit into the day after.  And the day after that.

15 November 2016

The "no, yeahs" and the "yeah, nos" of modern communication

Tara and I were recently laughing with some friends about a strange phenomenon that exists in American conversations.  There are plenty, of course, but I'm talking specifically about the "Yeah, no," "No, yeah" thing that we all unconsciously do when we're conversing.

No, it's not just Californians or Miami natives as the memes suggest.  It's all of us.

On one hand, this is an amusing artifact of speech, much like the "ums" or the "you knows" that proliferate within our conversations (though grammarians might twitch a little bit when we hear other people speaking this way, or realize that we ourselves are doing it!).  To some degree, these habits are just sentence filler.  We don't know what to say, so we say something to keep the conversation from lapsing into awkward breaks of silence while we connect thoughts together.

On the other hand, I think there's something fascinatingly complex about this "nervous tick" of language that we all employ.  It has everything to do with a zealous and ingrained sensitivity to the ways we relate to others.

"Yeah...  No."

TRANSLATION: The answer is no, but I understand where you're coming from and affirm that perspective as a logical, reasoned, and perfectly appropriate way to think.  I in no way intend to convey, by my opposite perspective, that you are in any way to doubt your own position or feel insecure in holding that perspective.  However, I am going to present my alternate point of view.

"No, yeah!"

TRANSLATION: The answer is yes, but let me begin by diffusing any possibility that you might think I disapprove of or disagree with your opinion, which you are perfectly entitled to hold.  I in no way want to misconstrue your original idea or present it as something negative or inferior to my own.  The fact that I am about to supplement your idea with my own thought should not in any way be taken as an argument.

Doesn't that sound like legal jargon to you -- the fine print at the bottom of a bill of sale, or the preface to your tax return agreement?  Ironically, while we are saying a whole lot with very little, we're also doing exactly what all legal documentation does: expressing a simple idea in complex and nuanced language to prevent all possibility of the message being misrepresented.

And in doing so, we of course make it far more confusing than it needs to be.

Americans are in the business of affirming and apologizing.  Even if we are going to unabashedly speak our minds, we're still -- at least in word -- "letting the other guy down easy."  You and I are products of a culture that thinks with the heart it brazenly wears on its sleeve, yet dresses in incredibly thin skin.  We sense the danger in our balancing act of fitting in with our society yet standing out in some way -- a practice amplified to such degrees by the modern, social media lifestyle that it is far easier to retreat to the safety of a 5-inch screen for "real" interaction than it is to hold face-to-face conversation.  We are unabashedly who we are on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, but when it comes to in-person interaction, we timorously distance ourselves from the possibility of conflict.

"No, yeah"/"Yeah, no" is pacifying language.  It's verbally tiptoeing around the feelings and sensibilities of others.

I think we've reached a point in our tolerance-based culture where we are in a constant apologetic state.  We apologize for asserting ourselves, for taking our turns, for expressing our opinions.  We are terrified of being seen as bigots when it comes to our religious and social views, and so we are incapable of even disagreeing on sandwich preferences without being neurotically apologetic.

That said, I'm still torn on whether or not to label the mentality behind this as completely negative, because I think it's of the utmost importance for us to know how to be sensitive and thoughtful toward other human beings.  There's no point for Christians to argue the sanctity of life from the Bible if we are just going to treat one another like garbage.  Maybe this quirky habit of language can help communicate our underlying concern for other people's sensitivity.

After all, Paul's epistles are chock full of commentary on the ways in which Christians are to go out of their way to be kind and edifying (Eph 4.29Col 4.6); to live in harmony with believer and non-believer alike, despite the inevitable differences of opinion that arise between all human beings (Rom 12.18); and to surrender our own preferences on peripheral issues in order to preserve unity within the body of Christ (Rom 14.13; 1 Cor 8.13).  If it's truly important from a Biblical standpoint to prioritize the needs of others (John 13.34; Phil 2.4), then gentle, nuanced, and understanding communication with others is key.

Here's my concern, however.  All believers still need to prioritize integrity and honesty, speaking unabashed truth tempered with loving compassion (Eph 4.15; Titus 2.8).  Just because the world in which we live doesn't want to hear our message doesn't mean we should swallow it and keep it to ourselves.  We certainly shouldn't be characterized by arrogant, in-your-face condemnation.  But we also shouldn't be characterized by the kind of hesitancy that is born out of fearing to challenge others' perspectives.

Affirmations and apologies (in this context) are petty and largely self-interested.

"No, yeah" -- TRANSLATION: I affirm you so you, in turn, will affirm me.

"Yeah, no" -- TRANSLATION: I affirm you so you don't get angry with me for saying what I really think.

In other words, let's avoid conflict at all cost and just give each other shots of validation.  Let's bring the "live and let live" philosophy of tolerance to its only logical conclusion: isolationism, because tolerance can really only result in uniformity, and uniformity -- while equalizing -- is deeply alienating.  The only other alternative is to crush others' individuality with our own and even more dramatically expose the inherent paradox in the coexist philosophy: insisting on my right to think and speak a certain way when it conflicts with another individual's right to think another way means I'm just as intolerant as I claim the other guy is.  Rather than reveal this structural flaw, we hunker down behind barricades of disarming language, affirming and apologizing so none of the landmines ever go off.

I don't want to spend the rest of my life ducking disagreements in everyday conversation.  I intend to be a peacemaker, sure -- whether speaking in-person or commenting back on Facebook.  But being a peacemaker and being a pacifist are two entirely different things.  I want to speak truth boldly to my neighbor, communicating from my heart with kindness and concern, yet seeking even in disagreement to be respectful and understanding and non-confrontational.

So am I using "No, yeah"/"Yeah, no" in my speech because I'm attempting to be considerate, or am I just being a conversational pacifist?    Being conscious of the habitual ways in which we speak to others, and intentionally working toward communicating with clear purpose, can only improve our ability to relate to those around us as we communicate the vital gospel of Jesus Christ to lost and needy people.

08 November 2016

Good American ≠ Good Christian

I'm somewhat baffled by the stripe of American Christians who show up on election day in full patriotic fervor, getting to the polls early and posting "I voted" statuses on Facebook to shame everyone else into following suit, who tote out the heavy-hitting quotes of our (obviously Christian) Founding Fathers on the rights to bear arms and speak our minds freely in any given setting... and then disappear back into the woodwork until the next opportunity arises to take a bold political stand on something.

I'm a little concerned by (and for) these individuals, who take up the crusade when their exegetically, biblically-based American rights are threatened, lambasting other individuals who align themselves in different political circles, and yet claim to stand for such things as humility, kindness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control.

When it comes to casting the ballot, I'm surprised at how many Christians present either acute anxiety -- because "What if the wrong guy gets in??" -- or acute rage -- because other clearly unintelligent people are voting for the "wrong guy" and it is the Jesus-given mandate for Christians to educate the masses on why their political opinions are misguided and destructive to our great country.

I'm alarmed at how many people might read any of the above the descriptions and think it applies to someone else.

Don't get me wrong or misquote me.

I'm a registered voter who dutifully went to the polls this morning.  I care about and pray for America and her elected officials.  I am not implying that political issues are unimportant.

What I am saying is that my identity is found in Christ, not in America.  My security isn't in my driver's license, my voter registration, or my social security number -- it's in my Savior.

In that regard, what truly frightens me is how short-sighted our patriotic fervor is.  Yes, maybe we want a great nation for our kids and our grandkids, and it certainly isn't wrong to want safety, decent healthcare, good education, and cheap living expenses.  But this is altogether an incredibly out-of-focus perspective to have if that's what we as Christians are hanging our hats on.

In the light of eternity, does America's status as a great nation really matter?

Are we really making this an issue of stewardship, or are we just concerned that we have comfortable lives for the incredibly brief time that we inhabit this little planet?

Are we actually striking a good balance between living in the present and still investing in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Personally, that's where my citizenship is, and my Commander in Chief is a Savior who died on my behalf and rose from the grave to give me freedom and hope above and beyond anything American life can ever hope to offer.  To pin my constitutional rights on the cross and elevate free speech, gun ownership, and low taxes to the level of Christian rights is to make idols out of good things and cheapen the cost of redemption.

My Savior didn't die to make America great -- not ever, and certainly not "again."

I really believe that if the church truly has an image problem in the eyes of the world (and it does), it's largely because we Christians become far too impassioned about politics and hot-button issues and, in so doing, lose sight of eternity.  We claim to be about higher things but descend instead to the level of embittered patriots.  We tip our hand and reveal that we are far more concerned about the things that happen here than we are invested in what is to come.

In order for us to strike a better balance between actually stewarding well what God has so graciously given still maintaining an eternal perspective, we cannot lose sight of this crucial element.  When it comes to rulers and authorities whose names and policies will only be remembered for a brief time, we can know with certainty that it is God who truly builds the house (the family/the nation) -- not any given candidate (Psa 127.1).  Regardless of who is sworn into office as a result of today's election, the Heavenly Father is not only sovereign over that outcome, but is also building His own Kingdom -- a far greater Kingdom, and one that is not in the least bit affected by the political landscape of human history.  We give ourselves far too much credit if we think that, if we fail to vote in the "right" President, we are somehow responsible for the failure of God's directive.  We know that His purposes comes to pass, regardless of finite human intent (Gen 50.20; Prov 19.21).

In that regard, I'll continue to perform my civic duties as a citizen of the United States.  I'll vote and sign petitions and pay my taxes.  I'll stand for the national anthem, support and respect our military, and speak up when something is disagreeable or contrary to what I believe.

And yet, I'll hold tightly to the reality that America doesn't need to be a Christian nation in order for my God to accomplish His plan, for His gospel to be spread, or for my life to be robust and full -- physically, emotionally, spiritually.  As a child of God, my source of hope, my joy, and my sustenance are all found in one place and one place alone.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

11 October 2016

Therefore Go

But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man's mouth?  Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exodus 4.10-12, ESV)
Intelligent rhetoric and dialogue were high priorities to the Egyptians, whose feats of engineering and complex written language still baffle the modern world.  To Moses -- a man who may have had a legitimate speech impediment, or who may have simply doubted his own ability to communicate -- the task God was assigning him seemed better suited for a more gifted speaker.  Which is why he literally asked God to send someone else, even after receiving three miraculous signs that God promised would verify Moses' testimony to Pharaoh.

The mistake Moses made is a mistake that many of us who find ourselves in leadership or teaching positions (especially ministry-related leadership and teaching) can also tend to make.  That mistake is thinking that I am responsible to make a difference.  In other words, presuming that it rests on me to change people's views, and that if they aren't impressed with me, then I'm failing to do something right.  And when I fall into this kind of thinking, it's easy to allow the monumental task of communicating the Word effectively to eclipse the One who gave me the task in the first place.

This is something I personally wrestle with.  Like Moses, I doubt my speaking ability.  That may be surprising since I'm a writer, but that's exactly it -- I'm far more comfortable with and confident in the written word than I am with my speaking ability.  I cringe at all my own "um's" and "uh's" and harshly critique my word choice after the fact.

What Moses failed (and I often fail) to understand is that -- as God's mouthpieces -- our responsibility  as Christians is not to make a difference, to get followers, or to impress anyone.  If we see those things as the objectives or the signs of success, then we are thinking far too highly of both our own abilities and the role God intended us to play.

As servants, ministers of God's Word, leaders in churches, or messengers of Christ to a lost world, our priority must be to communicate God's Word without getting in the way of the message itself.  When I'm more concerned about impressing the ones I'm teaching, I make the priority my image and not the teaching itself.  When I measure my success by others' estimation of my abilities (or my own estimation of my abilities), then my purpose is skewed and I'll miss any real success my ministry might otherwise have.

"Well, yes, but if I'm doing a good job won't they be affected?"

"Shouldn't my students see me as a leader and have a sense that they can come to me with questions because I have answers?"

This is some of my own sinful reasoning.  Making the focus me, my ability (or inability), and missing the real priority.

I won't beat around the bush.  God's message is the real priority.  I must magnify Him through the communication of His Word, not myself.  THIS is my responsibility, and it means I can let go of my own insecurities and simply walk in faithful obedience.

Is it wrong to want to be wise, so that students can feel comfortable coming to me with their questions?  If that's my goal, then yes -- yes, it is wrong.  It is sin, because I am setting myself up as the guru on the mountaintop who can filter God's Word to those on spiritual journeys, selling truth at the cost of respect -- instead of seeing myself as a servant who has simply been blessed by God with an opportunity to teach and to guide, and making my goal to help them discover the truths of God's Word for themselves as they grow in their faith.  May I never be accused of preaching the gospel out of selfish ambition (Phil 1.15, 17)!  Let me be a guide on someone else's journey with Christ and nothing more -- someone whose only job is to share insight from the Scriptures so that others can get closer in their relationships with Jesus!

It is not my responsibility to make a difference or to impress people.  My responsibility is to understand that God is the one who designed my mouth and gave me my purpose, and that He is the One who is going to make my work effective.  No amount of training, preparation, or study can help me accomplish anything but my erect my own monument -- that is, if I'm trusting in that and not God's provision as my foundation for effective ministry.

My responsibility is to "therefore go" -- "therefore," because God is in control and because He is both the source and proponent of truth; "go," because He has called me out of darkness and into marvelous light to be part of His chosen priesthood representing Him to the nations (1 Pet 2.9).

My responsibility is to trust that God is with my mouth and that He will teach me what to speak (Ex 4.12).

Altogether, this means I am not seeking to be impressive, but to impress gospel truth upon my students.  If I trust that God is truly the creator of my mouth and that He can put the words on my lips -- words sourced from deep study of His Word and the burning purpose of teaching the Word, stirred up by the Spirit acting within my heart -- then (and only then!) can I be an effective minister, teacher, leader.  A faithful Christian.

Are we all called to ministry, to teach God's Word as our vocation?  No.  But we are all called to be disciples and disciple-makers, to communicate the truth of sin, redemption, and resurrection to the world.  I can't shirk that responsibility just because I'm not comfortable talking with people, just because I don't think I have the right words, just because I don't know how to answer all their questions.  If the message of Jesus Christ has truly, radically changed my heart, I can't ignore that calling.

And that's why it's so immensely freeing to remember that it's not my job to change people's hearts.  "Heart change" is not in my job description.  That's above my pay grade!  The role of the Holy Spirit is to bring truth to bear on the heart and mind (John 16.13).  My role is to responsibly, faithfully, and earnestly teach the Word so that the Spirit can effectively work the change.  My role is to be responsible, faithful, and earnest in my task so that those whom I lead and instruct can see not my ministry or my eloquence, but the ministry of the Spirit vitally at work in me and in them.  Through humility, I must direct focus away from myself and onto the God who is truth and Who makes truth known to us (1 John 5.20).

John the Baptist said it best, after all: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3.30).

Lord, use my mouth.  All this for Your glory, not for mine.

26 September 2016

Stress Management

I was thinking this morning, as I pondered all the tasks in my Reminders app, that 90% of stress is self-induced.

We tend to think of stress as something that springs up unconsciously as a result of the external pressures of life, work, relationships, and financial crises.  Blame-shifters to the core, it's far easier for us to cry victim in these circumstances than it is to honestly evaluate our own hearts in the matter.

Hi, my name is Justin and I'm a recovering people-pleaser.  That means that I can easily allow myself to become stressed out if I think someone (or many someones, since I'm a youth director!) is displeased with something I said or did.  It also means that mundane tasks can incite stress -- stress that seems like it's simply attached to the vast amount of things I have to do, but that really originates within -- attached to a swollen concern of others' perception of me.

Why am I stressed about this task?  Because it's time-sensitive?  Maybe a little.  But the real source of stress is that if I fail to get it done on time (problematic), people will judge my time-management skills (more problematic) and think less of me as a leader (most problematic).  That's like a 10% /  20% / 70% ratio.  And I'm willing to bet that if we evaluated all of the things we claim bring us stress, we'd find that the breakdown isn't much different -- regardless of the specific circumstances.

Here's what I'm learning.  First, I am a glutton for affirmation -- just like the rest of the human race.  Why are other people's opinions of me such a big deal?  They shouldn't be.  Furthermore, my heart is so deceptively prideful that, even though I tell myself I don't care what other people think, I still compulsively check my appearance in the mirror, choose some clothes over others, trim my beard and my nose hairs, and get angry with myself when I don't say things the way I intended.  You, like me, care far more deeply about what other people think of us than we even realize.

Second, the bulk of my stress is almost always the result of my response to a situation, not the situation itself.  It's 10% fear of failure and 90% fear of having my character judged.  Which means that the problem itself is not the problem: I'm the problem.  And if I'm the problem, then I must also have the solution.

I think that's why Paul makes it sound so easy to quash that sense of being overwhelmed in his letter to the Philippians, in which he admonishes the believers not to be anxious for any reason (Phil 4.6).  He makes the peace of God that passes all understanding sound so attainable, like you can just turn off the anxiety with a switch.

Can it really be that easy?

For Christians, it should be.

With our salvation -- that is, our permanent rescue from divine judgment of our sinful condition -- Christians have the ability to surrender such things as stress, anger, and frustration as the sins that they are to a Messiah whose blood frees us from all unrighteousness.  As a follower of Christ, when I am feeling stressed out, I'm also being presented with a choice: succumb to my old ways of operating, or walk in the newness of life that has transformed the very core of who I am.

Most often, we choose stress.  Seriously, we do.  We choose it.  It's far easier to sink into that panicky, "how-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-get-this-done" mode of thinking than it is to surrender moment-by-moment to the power that God provides, because we are control freaks who desperately want to micro-manage our own lives.  Were we to honestly address our own exalted views of our desires and our own self-importance, and exalt instead the One Who is truly in control, however, we might begin to access the divine power of peace that passes all understanding.

This is one of those things that I'm tempted to say is easier said than done, but I'm coming to believe more and more that stress is yet another one of those mole hills we've turned into mountains because we'd rather feel sorry for ourselves than do the hard, daily work of crucifying our flesh.  If we did, we might overcome our stress instead of being overcome by it.

Because I sense the objection coming, the answer is yes -- there are folks who have chemical imbalances that cause them to feel all manner of depression, fear, anxiety, etc no matter what they do.  Unquestionably.  But because our society as a whole would rather claim to be a victim of biology than acknowledge physiological/psychological issues as the result of our own spiritual weaknesses, we instead prefer to be diagnosed and get out of jail free.  Some people do need medication, yes.  Some people's stress is a factor of their biology, and I believe God gives grace in those instances.  However, the stress the rest of us we experience is 90% internal choice -- that is, us choosing to view our problems as bigger than our ability to handle them, and choosing to focus on others' perceptions of us rather than the problem itself.

A view of reality that elevates me and my problems over God and His power is a sinful perspective on life -- it is a form of idolatry that is incredibly difficult to subvert.  But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are told repeatedly that it is our responsibility to walk in the power of the Spirit (in which Christ Himself walked -- Gal 5.16), that we must adopt the holiness of God the Father Himself (1 Pet 1.16), and that we have the ability to battle against the desires of the flesh (1 Cor 10.13).  Stress is the symptom of one of those desires of the flesh -- the desire to have control over not only our circumstances, but also over the people around us.

By acknowledging that we have no true control over anything (except our own actions), we remove one tentacle of stress from our brains.  

By acknowledging Christ as Lord, as the One Who is not only our Friend but also our Redeemer and Rescuer who modeled the path of servanthood so that we too could give up our lives for others... we lessen the power of our own self-exalting thought processes.

By choosing to focus on who Christ says I am rather than what other people think of me, and by choosing to express only gratitude for the magnitude of love, grace, and mercy that God has lavished upon me, I drown my stress in a healthy dose of the peace that passes all understanding.

Stress is 90% internal quandary.  If I can surrender my doubts and insecurities and unreasonably high self-expectations, all through the power that Christ supplies, then that 10% (what I call the "legitimate" stress in my own day-to-day life) will be all the more manageable.  I believe we're called to thrive as believers, not merely survive.  With stress constantly dragging us down, we are only capable of the latter.

11 July 2016

Reviews, Pt. 10

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9

Next on the playlist!

Here are the album reviews I've written since the middle of April.  As usual, clicking on the album covers will take you to the band's music where you can listen to and/or download the album in full.  The hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.


Knifeworld - Bottled Out of Eden (UK)
[PROG Mind / Tollbooth]

A challenging piece of multilayered writing, Bottled Out of Eden contains all the dynamic intensity and unpredictability that has carved such a unique niche in the progressive rock arena for Knifeworld’s music.

Starchitect - Results (Ukraine)

Results is a rough entry in the nebulous catalogue of modern post-metal.

Monster Killed By Laser - Hunched & Twined (UK)

Hunched & Twined: really cool, superfluous, psychedelic prog presented in four-minute increments or less.

The Rube Goldberg Machine - Fragile Times (UK)

RGM’s work is subtle, nuanced creativity, taking cues from the likes of Steven Wilson while still maintaining a strong individualistic approach to songwriting.
Big Big Train - Folklore (UK)
[PROG Mind / Tollbooth]

Folklore has energy, melody, nuance, and character, and it’s certainly a candidate for best album of 2016.

Jon Anderson & Roine Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (UK, Sweden)
[PROG Mind / Tollbooth]

The Invention of Knowledge is a mature distillation of its writers’ individual, remarkable craftsmanship.

10 July 2016

Post #100

I'll just go ahead and unceremoniously batter down that 4th wall once again to start things off -- hopefully for good reason.  After five years, with this entry you're currently reading...

Häxprocess has officially reached its 100th post.

(much rejoicing, fanfare, etc)

It seems not all that long ago that I was self-consciously clicking "publish" for the first time on 4 April of 2012.  The blog has covered lots of ground since then, as its solitary author has more or less adhered to a more or less frequent posting schedule.  My goal for 2016 was two posts per month, an objective that -- if you let your eye wander to the lefthand side of the window -- you'll note I failed back in April when I posted only once.  June, seeing his opportunity, soon thereafter disappeared entirely from the calendar.  Which means July's now my month to get back on the ball.

At the same time 100 posts is a milestone, however, it also seems like such a paltry number when compared to the avid, multiple-posts-a-week sites that comprise the blogosphere.  Thankfully, I can say with complete honesty that lack of activity on Häxprocess is not a reflection of inactivity in the other areas of my life -- more often than not, life itself has been the single biggest factor in my absence from writing.  My struggle with consistency is not so much a struggle with laziness as it is a lack of quality time: when I've sat down to write these past few months, I've had minutes and not hours, or I've been exhausted and unfocused, or I've had other things to work on.

But motivation and time usage has a lot to do with what I thought I'd briefly discuss with this, Häxprocess' 100th post.  That is the importance of understanding that, at any given choice, we have a choice between consuming or cultivating.  Before you close the tab, let me assure you that this isn't some kind of socialist philosophy I'm talking about, even if comparisons can be drawn.  Simply, what I intend by this specific terminology is that we should evaluate the use of time by whether we are getting something or giving something.

Am I consuming or am I cultivating?

Am I taking or giving?

Am I receiving or serving?

Am I being passive or active?

These are some good evaluating questions to ask ourselves, especially in our free time.  Most (though not all) of us don't have a problem putting in a little effort when we're being paid for it.  However, when I clock out and head home, what characterizes my activities and attitudes?  Do I drop onto the couch and turn on the TV or fire up the PS3 (yes, I'm a generation behind), because now is "my" time?  Maybe there's nothing explicitly wrong with that decision, but I should realize that I'm choosing to spend the time consuming, not cultivating.

The issue here is not necessarily an issue of right vs. wrong -- unless of course laziness is an idol you wrestle with -- but rather an issue of right vs. better.  In that regard, some who are reading this simply won't care.  Good enough is good enough.  But for those of us who are striving to bring every nook and cranny of our hearts and lives into submission to Jesus Christ (2 Cor 10.5), this is a great way to impact the area of productivity as well as cultivate an attitude of selflessness.

Why?  Because if I'm thinking in terms of consuming/cultivating, evaluating the way I'm spending my time according to these parameters, it's much harder to simply zone out -- at least, not without feeling convicted about it.  If I know what the better thing to do is, and I'm clearly identifying whether what I'm doing at any given moment is self-serving or self-sacrificing, then suddenly the choice is much easer to make.

For me, my leisure time is when I am prone to be the most self-serving.  Because, like a consumer, I think it exists for me.  It's my time to rest.  It's my opportunity to do things that want to do.  Therefore, it's easy to enter a vegitative state until (and sometimes after) my wife comes home, even when the dishes aren't done, the lawn needs moving, and there are unfinished projects as far as the eye can see.  With that kind of operative mindset, irritation when something interrupts my "earned" repose is only a snap of the fingers away.

With everything, there's a balance.  There's time to unplug, to sleep, to consume.  Resting is both a gift and a command (Matt 11.28Ex 20.8).  However, if American Christians were to honestly evaluate their time usage, I think we would unanimously come to the conclusion that we're merely passing, not exceeding expectations.  Our habitual patterns -- inbred, learned, and adopted -- are consumerist; our norms are far from self-sacrificing.  The moments when we do choose to serve others are the exception, not the standard.

But we're not really doing anything wrongwe say, sipping our comfortable cappuccino.

We're not sinningwe insist, folding our hands over the gospel according to Self-Interest, we could just do a better job caring for others.

This thought process reveals our low estimation of God's standard of holiness, and our high estimation of our own goodness.  We forget that any righteousness we might know is His anyway, attributed to us through the blood of Jesus, and therefore we don't get to set our own parameters on what is "good enough" for the Kingdom.  The new reality for a follower of Jesus is that we are freed from sin not to be self-interested, but to be servants, to live to glorify God and meet the needs of others before we even consider our own.  The fallacious "in order to love others you must first learn to love yourself" philosophy has sunken in deeply into our culture, purchased in the package deal that proclaims the almighty "I" as the center of the universe.  In order to develop cultivating patterns, we must see through this arrogant self-deception -- otherwise, we will never be anything more than consumers who occasionally give back whenever we might feel charitable.

The concept of self-denial is more often seen as some kind of radical self-abuse in our day and age, rather than perceived as a form of focused discipline.  That's probably a topic for another post, but it is embedded in this issue as well.  Being a cultivator isn't just about serving others, it's also choosing to be productive when I could instead be passive.  I can come home from work drained and flop onto the sofa... or I could teach myself to be dedicated, sit down at the computer and do some writing, pick up the guitar and work on my craft, do a project around the house... etcetera.  There's lots of specific ways to think about this, but the core issue is simply that we should be far more inclined to be at work than at repose.  That doesn't mean we should be workaholics who don't have the ability to rest, but it does mean that we should much more strictly regulate our time consumption.  I know my own inclination to use weariness as an excuse for unplugging -- physically, mentally, or otherwise -- but "rest" doesn't need to be synonymous with "passivity."  I should instead train myself to challenge my own sense of limitation by applying myself to productive, cultivating ways of resting -- using my free time to invest in service, craft, hobby, or project.

At the core, this post is actually only connected to the idea of productivity, and not directly about it.  It's really about being a servant -- a mentality that is cultivating by default: it sees and meets needs, it understands and handles problems, it prioritizes, it is proactive.  A servant mentality removes ill-conceived notions of ownership and entitlement.  A servant heart asks, "What can I do for Your Kingdom by serving others?"  By contrast, a consumer heart can only ask, "How can I make life more comfortable for me?"  Both of those pursuits have eternal consequences, but only one of them has a happy ending -- the deep joy and satisfaction of knowing and being known by our Savior, and receiving from Him the only affirmation our hearts should ever crave: "Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into my rest."

My intent for Häxprocess when I started it remains the same: that is for it to be a blog for personal, creative expression, with special emphasis on writing about Christian living and accurate biblical interpretation.  It's not a strict goal, but it is driven by the purpose of glorifying God through an ability He's given me.

It's a small way for me to be a cultivator rather than a consumer in my free time.

For the next 100 posts and upward, may God continue to use me and Häxprocess in a way that is pleasing to Him.

25 May 2016

Three "Don'ts" for Youth Ministry

Nothing quite terrifies a student like making eye-contact with their small group leader and knowing he or she hasn't done quiet time in a week.

Nothing quite chases an kid off the basketball court like knowing his youth pastor is going to seize the opportunity while guarding the 3-point line to ask that question again.

Such can be the mindset of the teens in our youth groups, even ones whose hearts genuinely want to pursue Jesus, and especially those who are merely trying to keep you from asking uncomfortable questions, when we become spiritual badgers rather than patient shepherds.  I remember being on that side of the table or court, swallowing my Adam's apple as I tried to think of reasons (as opposed to excuses) why I hadn't done my quiet time.  And often a student's own embarrassment is what causes them to be defensive -- far more than any question I might ask.  But the difference between a student who, through the power of the Spirit, learns to overcome weaknesses and pursue Christian maturity and one who falls away because he/she can't overcome a sense of deep moral failure, often has much to do with the operating methodology of well-intentioned youth leaders.  Often, those of us who find ourselves in youth ministry don't take into account the long-term impact our modus operandi will have upon impressionable students' lives.

Be mindful: I didn't say it's our fault as leaders that some of our kids walk away from the faith.  We can't change hearts even if it is our privilege to shepherd them.  But we are responsible to be faithful stewards of the roles we've been given.  In this regard, faithfulness means hearing and understanding students' struggles and thought processes, meeting them where they are, helping them to see clearly how the truth of the gospel directly impacts the nooks and crannies of their lives, introducing them to the powerful aid and presence of the Spirit abiding within them, and resolving to be edifying even in moments of stern rebuke.

In my case, the youth pastor who often had to tell me to buckle down and do my quiet time eventually became my mentor, and later my boss and one of my closest friends.  But not everyone has the same rosy experience.  Not every student walks away from youth ministry feeling like they were cared for, or that their spiritual needs were met.  And we won't reach every student who passes through our doors.  But we should commit ourselves to removing all possible obstacles in order to effectively reach teenagers with the gospel.

Here are three simple "don'ts" I've experienced in one capacity or another, both as a student who grew up in a church youth group and as a servant of God's Word to teenagers.

Don't terrify your students.  Picture a puppy who knows it's bathtime.  Can you see the ears back, the tail tucked between the legs, maybe even the trembling paws?  Big dog or little dog, the knowledge that you are approaching with a big towel and a bottle of canine shampoo can debilitate them all.

Conversations with our students shouldn't always be "bath time."  We need to temper our approach to asking tough questions and giving stern warnings.  For example, there's a difference between the way I directly ask questions of a boy in my office who, of his own volition, asked to talk to me about his troubles, and the way I ask questions of a boy who hasn't asked my advice and is talking to me in the hallway about a girl he's dating.  Counseling students in either regard requires sensitivity and discretion.  I can't just be an unwieldy spiritual wrecking ball, crudely smashing down their humanistic walls without considering the potential destruction such an approach could wreak.

I think I should take a quick step back and qualify what I mean by "counseling."  I believe that all of youth ministry is a form of counseling -- whether I'm playing soccer with my students, hanging out at the sign-in table with them, teaching them from the pulpit on a Wednesday night, or actually sitting in my office with one of them who has asked for help, I'm engaged in an ongoing counseling process.  In that regard, in each of these settings I need to learn to ask good questions, carefully and strategically, and to give advice with sensitivity.

In other words, you don't need to ask your students every single time you see them whether or not they're up-to-date on their quiet time, whether they've engaged in that difficult conversation with their parents yet, if they've made up with so-and-so.  Those conversations can arise organically, certainly, and I shouldn't be afraid to ask the tough questions, but I also don't want to give my students reason to duck into a classroom when they see me coming down the hallway.  Like Jesus was with His disciples, we need to be ready to seize teachable moments for what they are.  But not every conversation you have needs to be invasive.  Surgeons don't just dive right in and start cutting, even when they know there's cancer in there somewhere.

I'm of the opinion that we do a lot of damage to our long-term relationships with our students by failing to engage in small-talk with them and simply getting to know them.  This is not a waste of time, nor is it putting off the hard stuff.  It is trust- and relationship-building.  Talking with your students about their school, sports, activities, relationships, and their hobbies demonstrates to them that you do care about what is going on in their lives, and aren't simply pursuing one agenda.

And by doing this, the moments when you do choose ask the tough questions will become all the more potent.

We aren't trying to create negatively-encourageable legalists who check the Quiet Time box every day and in order to feel good about their spiritual temperature.  We are trying to inspire passion for Jesus Christ, for living righteously and digging deeply into the Word of God.

Don't terrify your students.  Engage your students.  Learn to encourage and challenge without being a nagger or a Big Bad Wolf.

Don't just be your students' buddy.  This is the flipside of the same coin.  It's great to be friendly with students, laugh at their jokes, tease them, and otherwise enjoy their company.  This is a huge benefit to youth ministry -- the ability to simply enjoy spending time with the students God has placed in your youth group for shepherding.  I personally am blessed and honored to serve a wonderful, wonderful group of teens as well as a mature and engaging group of college students.  But as fun as it is to play games, share jokes, and talk about the upcoming Marvel movies, you absolutely must remain the leader and authority figure for your students before you are their friend.

This is accomplished through a number of different approaches.  My list is by no means exhaustive.

One way is simply by intentional use of a title -- i.e. "Pastor Dave."  Maybe this seems obvious, but a title conveys authority.  I actively, consciously, and verbally submit myself to Pastor Dave when I address him by this title.  I speak differently to Dave when I address him by his first name alone.  In that moment, Dave becomes an equal, not an authority figure.  Of course, if you're like me and your official title is "Youth Director," not "Youth Pastor," the nickname needs to be a little more creative.  Youth Director Dave is wordy, so he could just go by Mr. Dave and that would work too -- especially if there's a significant age difference between Dave and his teenage students.  I violate my own rule because I'm just "Justin" to my students (both teenagers and college students), but I maintain that where a title is given by your church or organization, it should be used appropriately.

Two, don't waffle on rules.  This applies as much to a rule you make up during a ridiculous game, as it does upholding standards for youth group conduct.  If your students see you going back and forth on rules, they are more likely to challenge you when you attempt to put your foot down.  And the more you are prone to waffle, the more likely you are to concede the point and allow your students the final say on things.  Maybe it seems like a little thing, but a leader who sticks to his word is a leader that garners respect.

Third, find the appropriate balance between leadership and friendship.  I don't think this is a matter of turning the authority on and off: I think this is a matter of the consistent character you display to your students.  If you lead a college group, this can be an increasingly difficult line to find, most notably when you're not all that much older than those you're leading (as is my case).  Be a leader.  Don't just try to act like one.  This requires a level of maturity and self-discipline that many who find themselves in the position of youth director or youth pastor unfortunately don't possess.

I deeply value the relationships I have with my students.  In fact, there are a number of my college-age young adults whom I would consider friends and partners in ministry.  But as much as I enjoy the time I get to spend investing in these particular individuals, I'm still their leader.  I still have a responsibility to guide and direct, a priority that surpasses simply hanging out.

Fourth, discern, understand, and manage the climate of your youth group.  Are your students a bunch of troublemakers who openly disrespect your lay staff?  Then you need to be firm, ALWAYS back up your leadership team, and maintain an authoritative stance even during game time.    Don't hesitate to rebuke -- gently but sternly, in private or in public, and involve parents where problems persist.  Is your group a bunch of laid-back, churched kids who have no problem taking instructions?  Then you don't need to be nearly as heavy-handed and authoritative.  Are they naive and suggestible?  Then engage with them with clear focus: take advantage of the teachable moments and give instructions where appropriate.

Don't just be your students' buddy.  Be a mentor.  Shepherd and cultivate.  We do this by being burdened for our students' spiritual growth -- to the point where we aren't hindered by fearing what they think of us.  Love them enough to address their shortcomings head-on.  Love them enough to know when speaking into these situations is appropriate.  Love them enough to walk with them through repentance.

Don't be a pacifier.  At the church where I serve as youth director, we have always operated under the principle that teens should be treated as young adults.  That means we don't have a separate "teen service" on Sunday mornings, and it also means that our two-hour youth group meetings consist of a full forty-five minutes of worship, prayer, and teaching.  We also have game time and maintain a regular calendar of fun, fellowship-oriented events -- certainly.  But these are not the emphasis.

Our "draw factor" is not our bottom line.

Here's what I'm getting at.  We can't sacrifice preaching.  Furthermore, we can't sacrifice mature preaching.  That is, we must not mistake palatable and relevant preaching for watered-down preaching.

We don't have to cut the wine, we just have to offer it in sips.

The richness of the gospel -- its cover-to-cover, Scripture-wide implications and nuances -- are things I want my students to know, understand, and experience in their own lives.  This goes far beyond the typical, true-yet-blandly-oversimplified news wrapped in a bow that knowing Jesus makes life better.  In order to teach teenagers about an infinitely majestic, powerful, loving, and active God, we need to whet their appetite for deep, intangible things.  We need to teach out of our passion for our own relationships with God as well as our own hunger to know Him more deeply.  But as we delve into theology, we also have to wade out into the deep end with our students.  Of course, this assumes we are studiously practicing the self-same, nose-in-our-Bibles methodology that we should be preaching each youth group gathering.

Now, by "mature teaching" I'm not saying every series you do should be a discourse on free-will/predestination, communicable/incommunicable attributes, cessation/continuity of Spiritual gifts, eschatology, angels/demons, or church government.  But we can teach on those things if we are actively leading our students into deeper relationships with Jesus Christ.  Of course, if we are to touch on any of the aforementioned topics, that means we also have to scrap the prototypical youth ministry "get-em-in-and-get-em-saved" mentality.  If each week you have a room full of regular attenders, you don't need to beat them with a salvation message every week.  That's not being sensitive to your students' needs, nor is it building upon an already-laid foundation.  If, on the other hand, you have lots of visitors each week, it's great to touch on the good news -- especially if the Spirit is blaring all kinds of internal alarms that you should -- but the goal of youth ministry isn't (or shouldn't be) to have large numbers of students coming to Christ.  It should be to consistently preach the gospel in a way that leads in spiritual maturity.  Don't fall into the numbers trap -- that is, counting raised hands during every invitation so you can feel like God is working but never move on from a five-point gospel presentation.  Developing spiritual maturity in your students is far less quantifiable than raised hands, sure, but it is not immeasurable, and it certainly shouldn't be our secondary priority.

Jesus told the apostles to make disciples, not converts.

Does your teaching encourage students to actually open their Bibles during your lesson?  Does your teaching encourage them to get into their Bibles outside of youth group?  Does your teaching explicitly challenge erroneous ways of thinking and living?  Does it encourage students to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of those around them?

Does your teaching just till up the soil or does it also plant seeds of truth?

Does it even break open the surface of the ground?

Why we as a church assume teenagers aren't capable of growing in spiritual maturity is somewhat baffling.   Teenagers don't need to be spiritually coddled.  To the contrary, they need to be instructed in how to begin walking with the Messiah who saved them at VBS when they were eight.  They need to be warned of the dangers of temptations that will mercilessly ambush them as they step out in greater and greater independence from their parents.  They need to be reminded that Jesus died for the sake of followers who would follow Him carefully and self-sacrificially -- not for their right to watch Netflix and only dust off their Bibles when life gets difficult.

Far too many youth ministries relegate to themselves the duty of keeping a calendar of fun events, sharing some uplifting, moralistic thoughts, and not much else.  Far too many youth directors think it's enough to simply get teens in the doors of a church (and maybe that is an accomplishment for your students!).  But if we never crack open the Word of God to directly challenge our teens' way of living and thinking, then we are only validating the underachieving American mentality that all we need to do to be "spiritual" is be kind to others and considerate of alternate ways of life.

Fun events and gentle, peaceful messages can pack the couches and folding chairs on a Wednesday night, but it can't give teenagers what they truly need on a spiritual level.  On the flipside, we can also be aggressive manipulators who attempt to do the work of the Holy Spirit, guilting kids into raising hands during invitations rather than speaking to the heart of the gospel and allowing God Himself to reap the harvest.  Don't settle for either of these -- being an energetic leader with a great calendar of events who merely gives teens a good feeling about who they are, or a tough-cop bully who makes students feel like they have to earn God's love or squirm beneath His wrath.

Be more.  Be a discipler.


I'll freely confess that I am imperfect in each of these areas and continue to grow in my understanding.  But praise God for the freeing and humbling knowledge that I am merely a servant -- that this ministry is His, not mine, and it does not need me.  God can just as easily raise up someone else to shepherd FBC's teenagers.  Yet He has chosen to use me for the time being, and that is an enormous privilege.

May we each be faithful to uphold our individual callings with joy, with fear and trembling, with sacred and somber regard for what is required of us.

To Him be the glory!