To all those who are broken and fumbling: (and all those who think they are not.)

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” -Matthew 19:16-22

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When Jesus revealed the rich man’s need, he stood back, aghast at the request. How? How could he give up everything? What kind of benevolent Messiah would ask that of his followers? He worked hard for what he had and no loving God who would make that a prerequisite for entrance into his Kingdom. Surely it is the law that holds the power of salvation! Surely i’m a good person, surely…I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

Jesus looked at the disciples and claimed that “It is harder for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” As his disciples scratched their heads at this, wondering how their Master could endorse such a narrow way, Jesus said that those who would inherit eternal life would be those who left everything behind for him.

My quasi-Christian American civil religion doesn’t allow for this kind of cognitive dissonance. We want to take up our platforms and raise rabble over so much, but when Jesus’ words hit us squarely between the eyes and challenge and provoke us, we are more apt to close the Book and go on with the way we like, as we have done many times before.

I don’t believe that Jesus is slandering the rich or diminishing God’s goodness with his strong words. I believe he is illustrating the law apart from grace, he is decrying selfishness and raising rabble about our tricky penchant for idolatry.

I grew up in a loving supportive Christian family where my Mom and Dad were both present and loved God with reckless abandon and, in many ways, raised me to fall in love with Jesus and to truly believe what he says. I grew up in a youth group where for many kids, this was not the case. I have since ministered in youth groups where this was not the case. And you know what? I love those kids.

One of my favorite things about them is that they are abundantly aware of their need. They are well acquainted with their brokenness and their doubts. There’s so much that I want them to know about the Gospel and selflessness and truly taking hold of the life God is calling them to, and that can be very very difficult at times. But I don’t have to convince them that they are desperately in need of a savior. They are so aware of that. And there’s a lesson in that.

The rich man walked away from Jesus because he wanted the Kingdom of God as a sort of side item in a combo meal he paid for with his “good” works. I want my wealth, my security, my self-assuredeness of works righteousness and if that’s good enough for my perfect life, that is good enough for eternal life.

And Jesus stood in the face of that flimsy theology and spoke directly to his need that he would not admit he had. Our pride swells and our spirituality buckles under the weight of the brokenness we believe we are hiding.

It has been an unbelievably difficult week for me. My friend Max went to heaven on Friday. My mother found out that she has cancer in one of her kidneys. That mocking voice in the back of my mind has been whispering threats and doubts and insults and hurling me to the conclusion that I am powerless to stop the tides from pulling me under and filling my lungs with water, but you know what? God has revealed to me in all of this that I am powerless. I am irreconcilably broken and I have not arrived and I will not arrived until the day I embrace my Jesus in his Kingdom.

It is out of our abundant need that the seed of the gospel is watered and grows. It is in having the humility to admit that we are broken beyond any repairs we could complete ourselves and must look outside of ourselves for the truth of Jesus to hit us squarely between the eyes and cut us deep.

My friend Max was one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He lived his life without fear of failure because he knew who was holding him. Before he died, he wrote a note in the hospital about how he picked up his Bible and hugged it to himself. “The very Word of God is heavy on my chest,” he penned. Max, at any moment’s notice, would’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to be in the will of God. He spoke boldly to others about the love of Jesus. He figuratively had the very Word of God heavy on his chest at all times.

So in brokenness we find respite.

In loneliness, we are comforted by God’s very breath.

In adversity, we rise stronger than before we were knocked down.

In humility, considering others as better than ourselves.

In obedience, denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus, wherever he leads and laying whatever he says aside for the sake of the Gospel.

We are all in desperate need. We all have brokenness coursing through our veins and to say otherwise is to deny the fundamental realization that brings us to Jesus in the first place. We are beset, but our completeness is in Christ alone.

 

I Know

It was cold. That’s all I remember. I felt barely anything as I was in the throes of grief and trying to make sense of God, a task bigger than the groaning emptiness packed tightly beneath my skull. I tried to explain this to my friend who was in the car with me, but he didn’t understand. No one did. Folks could listen, and try to assuage my feelings of guilt and incompletion but none of them had lost a friend. None of them understood their own mortality the way Jordan’s death had thrust it in my face.

Dying at 21 wasn’t supposed to be possible. Not for us.

And all of my friends still understood the world as one of bright hope, optimism, and opportunity. But no matter how hard I tried, or how much I prayed, I couldn’t see it. Back then, I always said something along the lines of “God won’t let me sleep.” While insomnia was the least of my worries, it was the ever-punishing constant that defined my nights and made me question everything I’d once held sacred.

Greif is like an emptiness, like an absence that’s felt so strongly, your brain won’t shut off. A few months after the accident, and I was still picking up the phone to text him, still getting messages weekly from his Mom and never knowing what to say in response.

The word “bleak” used to mean very little to me, but at that point in my life, it was the only thing I knew. And expressing these thoughts to another person? Thinking back, spending time with me during those months was probably a real drag. But all I wanted was someone who understood, someone who really understood and didn’t have to pretend. I wanted to be able to share with someone who knew what I was feeling to the point where we didn’t even need to use words. I didn’t need a speech, I needed someone to look at me and boldly say, “I know.”

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ. I got that. More than that, I got to be that for others on so many occasions. Because if dealing with grief taught me anything, it’s that I never want anyone to feel damaged or stupid or different for having such heavy emotions that they don’t always have words for.

As a believer, I can choose to see tragedy as proof that God doesn’t care or as proof that he does. Let me unpack that:

My hope is in Christ. My peace is in Christ. When waves of doubt come over me, or life’s trouble makes me feel like I am drowning, he is my only constant.

And because of the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve lost, the addictions that once had me crushed beneath their weight, I have been given a gift, the gift of relating to others. I can choose to dwell on suffering or I can choose to let it shape me into a person with greater compassion and patience for others.

As one of my favorites, Oswald Chambers, said:

“You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you. But if a person has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, having no respect or time for you, only turning you away. If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people.”

Those words give me life. They remind me to use the pain I’ve experienced to give others life, or at least point them to the One who can. I’ve learned, more than anything, to stop talking and look at them and boldly say, “I know.”

And that may be one of God’s greatest gifts.

Of Intentions and Idols (Let Us Run)

Chains

I sat with my class in a corner of the sanctuary, music played throughout the building, people sang and prayed and worshiped. I saw children running, only to be stopped by concerned parents and shushed by the present clergy. This was a sacred place, a holy place to encounter the divine.

And on the stage, one might’ve expected to see a pulpit rising above the crowd. But instead, there stood several monolithic statues, faces etched from stone, frozen in time forever, or at least until the years ate away at them, paint faded and crumbling. These were the gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith, impersonal sentinels with stony faces looking toward their devoted worshipers indifferently.

A lot of folks, especially those of my own religion, would compare this scene to that of an ancient city in an ancient world that bears no resemblance to our own. But that is not true. It is a world we live in, and a world we find ourselves entrenched in, even in the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to a Hindu temple in Charlotte. It was an interesting experience, one where I gained much respect for the people, but also came away with a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness.

This particular instance was a more vivid depiction of idolatry than I’d ever seen in my own American dream-ridden life or in the lives of the people around me. It’s a lot less subtle when you watch people literally bowing down to and offering food to statues who will never be able partake of it. But what I saw there was a reflection of my own heart and my own proclivities.

Tim Keller, hearkening back to John Calvin, says that our hearts are idol factories. This means that something about human nature points to the inescapable fact that we are wired for worship. And if God is not the center of our worship, we will surely find something to take his place. I saw people in that temple physically bowing down to idols, participating in what we would call idolatry, but hey! At least they are honest about it.

Myself and so many of those I love fill their lives with a plethora of distractions and luxuries that we like to pretend have no ultimate grip on our lives. And idolatry barely ever starts out as a bad thing…Idolatry, in its simplest form is making good things ultimate things. It is where admiration turns to obsession, where appreciating God’s good gifts becomes focusing more on the gift than on the Giver, where want becomes overwhelming need.

Here’s a good test for whether or not that thing you love is an idol to you: If it were to be taken away, could you go on living? Obviously, I’m not talking about enough food to live or water. But the point is that the problem doesn’t lie in the idols themselves, many of these things are innately good gifts from God. But the problem is somewhere deeper, the problem is inside of us, in our hearts. We are desperate to worship, but not so desperate to be obedient to the thing we worship. Which is why worshiping God seems so difficult, because of what that demands of us.

But the catch is that you cannot worship anything without obeying it, whether you realize it or not. All this makes me thing about that anti-smoking commercial that was floating around a while back. Here it is:

The thing is, whatever you devote all of your time, energy, and devotion to will stop being a good gift to be used and start making the rules for you. You build your life around the thing you idolize. We turn good gifts like sex into porn, prostitution, and nymphomania. We turn food into gluttony or anorexia and bulimia. We make something good sinful and let it reign over our lives. Instead of God.

I have a lot to learn about idolatry, but I see it in my everyday life. My prayer for myself as well as for those who are reading this is that we will return to Christ, worship him as he ought to be worshiped, and place our affections on him, and not on the idols that we hold dear. It is God’s desire for us to seek first the Kingdom, and it is my desire that that would be my desire as well.

“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”-Saint Augustine

What You Lose (or, grief still feels like fear.)

“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen…”–C.S. Lewis

Some feelings strike all at once, like being suddenly slugged in the face. There is no denying the impact, no gnawing anticipation for the pain you know is coming sooner or later. The pain is there, throbbing and ever-present, always calling you back to the moment of collision.

But other expressions of emotion take time to fully form, like a sickness that you know is there, but takes a long time to show any side effects. Grief is one of those expressions for me. I have seen it take so much from me and from those I love that sometimes the part of me where doubts and fears run rampant wants to respond to Paul’s admonition of death in 1 Corinthians 15 (O, Death where is your sting?) with a biting, “It is here. And boy does it sting!” And I still do not understand nor can I articulate the depths of pain grief brings.

If you know me personally or have followed this blog for very long, you probably know that I started it back in 2012 as an outlet for me to deal with losing one of my best friends. I stand firm on the belief that the pain of loss is one thing about this world that shows you that all is not as it should be. As much as I may or may not be adjusting to life without Jordan, over 2 and a half years later, and as much as I stand firmly convinced that God’s mercy and grace is overwhelming in the face of all that overwhelms me, I cannot shake the thought that a 21 year old dying in a freak accident is an atrocity, a tragedy that cannot just be explained away as an act of God that would make more sense to us if we were only spiritual enough.

All that said, it is with a heavy heart that I add a chapter to the story of how I personally have interacted with the closeness of tragedy.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I went to church as usual and sat in my pew. I felt a staggering peace come over me that morning. Let’s call it gratefulness. And I remember praising God for blessing me with this job, this church family, for relationships in my life that truly meant something, for teaching me even when my stubborn self did not want to be taught, the whole nine yards.

I drove the church van that morning. As I dropped off the remaining teens, my cell phone started ringing. My friend DeMarcus and I sat at the stop sign for a minute for me to answer. It was my Dad.

“Hey, Dad. What’s Up?” I said, as if everything was normal. It wasn’t.

“Hey son,” he replied. Something was off. “Where are you?”

“I’m driving the van, on my way to drop DeMarcus off and then back to the church.” Silence. Odd silence.

“Oh. Call me when you’re done…we need to talk.”

We needed to talk? Was this a father-son conversation or was I being dumped?

“What do you mean? Is everything okay?” I stammered.

“No. It’s not.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

He sighed, “Charlene passed away this morning.”

Tears welling up. Heart hammering. My mind full of questions, doubts…fear.

“I’ll call you back.” I barely got the words out before I hung up. I apologized to DeMarcus and told him in what probably sounded like broken English what was wrong and that I needed a minute. He graciously gave me all the time I needed.

There at the stop sign, right outside of two of my teenagers’ house, I wanted to unbuckle my seatbelt, jump out of the van and beat the ground until it broke. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wanted to get out and run as fast and as far away as my legs could carry me. I wanted to run from Kannapolis to Belmont and hug my Mom, who just lost one of her closest friends. I wanted to embrace her and let her cry on my  chest until the tears couldn’t come anymore, like she did for me when I lost Jordan.

I wanted to take the pain of Charlene’s kids, her husband, her brothers and sisters, and throw it into the ocean. I wanted to reverse time, or pretend it never happened.

There are so many questions.

So many unanswered questions.

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I’ll never forget how she made people feel loved. How she, in my entire army of “second moms”, always took the role of the one who would remind me that everyone could see my underwear and I needed to pull up my pants…NOW.

How she always gave me the most creative (and hilarious) birthday cards.

And, most importantly, how she (and all my parents’ other friends) showed me the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, with loyal people who loved you and supported you. They modeled what healthy friendships looked like, and that has made all the difference in my own friendships.

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I guess I say all that to say this:

I am 24 years old, and I have lost so many people, gone way too soon. And it’s sometimes hard to balance what I believe about heaven and the afterlife with the gnawing emptiness that comes after experiencing a loss.

After Jordan died, I always felt bad that I felt bad, if that makes sense. I believed he was in heaven. I believed he was free from pain and from suffering. I believed he was with God and met Christ, the object of his affections, face to face.

But the gnawing emptiness did not leave. On some days, it still resurfaces. And I miss him. I miss him like I miss my friend Jennifer, who also died young due to complications from surgery. And Ariane, a friend from college who fought a terminal disease to the very end. She died on her birthday. And like I miss Charlene.

I want to make a few things abundantly clear:

1.) Fellow Christians, never minimize anyone’s grief. You may think you’re doing them a favor by reminding them that they are not God and do not know the big picture, but I promise you they have a crushing awareness of that already. If you invalidate their grief and dismiss it, you are not helping, you are damaging what is already damaged. You are kicking them while they are down. This is the most un-Christlike thing you could ever do.

2.) To those experiencing the kind of grief I’m writing about, you are not alone. Your feelings are normal and you have no reason to feel wrong or stupid. I promise you that God is a big boy, and he can handle your sadness, your depression, your darkest thoughts, and your most cruel indictments of his Character. I pray for you. That you would let him hold you close, let him heal those wounds and let you grieve how you need to grieve. He is a God who loves you as you are, not as you need to be. But God’s love is a transformative love, one that changes you, one that embraces you and leads you to embrace others.

The thing about loss…it isn’t the initial loss that hurts. It is the pervading absence.

It is the thought of living day after day after day without hearing the sweet voices of those you love again.

It’s those torturous moments where you think you see them in a crowd and you hold your breath. You know it is too wonderful to be true, but a part of you hopes the rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated.

It is the crushing defeat the day you finally have to delete their telephone numbers because you’ve accidentally called them more than you’d like to admit.

And it is the embarrassment and wave of nausea that hits when you accidentally call your other friends and family by the name of the one you’ve lost.

Grief is the sickness that leaves you guessing when it will rear its ugly head. I’ve had moments in the past two years (and two days) where I just start crying with no provocation. Where did that even come from? I think to myself. But it is there.

I have grown significantly in my walk with Christ in the past several years. My orientation towards grief is daily becoming less one of fear, and more of acceptance. That I don’t have all the answers to life’s injustices, and frankly, I don’t need them.

I am learning to rest in God.

I am learning that when Paul writes those bold words to death in 1 Corinthians, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” He is referring to the encompassing victory of Christ over our damnation. His proclamation that death is not the end. That there is peace, overwhelming peace to be found in Him alone, and nothing can overcome his furious mercy.

So I have hope. I have peace, like I felt Sunday morning, I know that I will grieve and I personally don’t fear it anymore, I know it is coming and I welcome it, trusting that Christ who bore all of my burdens bears them still.

When Jordan died, I raged against the very God who knit me together, who held me close to his chest as I soaked him with tears and curses and voiced all of my grievances, believing they were falling on deaf ears.

And though I am at a place in my life and my faith where I do not need answers to be sure of God’s well, God-ness, he has so graciously given some of the answers my heart has asked for in groans and hushed sighs.

The main one: Where are you in all of this, God?

His response was simple: Stephen, I am right here. With you.

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If you’ve made it this far, thanks. These are unfiltered thoughts, they may not make a whole lot of sense all jammed together. But I’d ask that if you are a believer, please pray for the family of Charlene. And please pray for my Mother. My heart breaks for her as I have lost a best friend. I know what that’s like and it isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy. May God bless you all.

Here’s a song that came on my iPod as I drove to my hometown yesterday. I thought it was appropriate:

When You Were Young (or, when you were a Myspace kid)

I did something awful last night.

Just truly horrible.

I looked myself up on Myspace.

You remember, the clunky, minimalistic-until-you-loaded-it-down-with-gaudy-html-layouts-and-glittery-graphics website where every early 2000’s high school student’s self esteem rose or fell with the amount of comments left on their latest mirror selfie?

The infamous pc4pc bulletins and heinous chain letters that always found their way into your inbox. And if you were an emo kid, you did everything in your power to let everyone know it.

That Myspace.

While Facebook can be accused of much  of the same kind of self-promoting drudgery and high school stupidity, Myspace was THE social media of my childhood.

So, I opened the page, rembered my highly embarassing aol email adress/password combo and went to work digging through my early high school years.

Much to my surprise, Myspace has changed significantly, pandering now to those who would like to combine Facebook and Spotify and pilfering their profile music from YouTube videos it so conspicuously plays in the corner.

There was an option to download your classic blogs and I clicked the button, curious about what I said in my earlier years. I wish I hadn’t.

It only came up with one blog, and I distinctly remember writing more than that, but I’m glad I only read one. Below is what I wrote. And I want you to read this in the most angry, dramatic voice you can muster.

I’m tired. Worn out. Done trying.

I’m ready to go to college and get on with my life.

I’m ready to get a life.

I’m tired of foolish people in high school chasing void passions.

I am called to something greater.

God help me seize that.

Help me change the world!

To all the void-passion-chasers: You fail. You do not offer any lasting meaning. Your hedonism will ultimately destroy you. You cling to false truths and wear them like a sash. Well, your stupid sash will burst into flames. But don’t worry, it won’t reach your heart, because you don’t have one.

Sex.

Money.

Power.

The Achilles heel of our society. You will die in your lust for more. And I pray to God you find the way out before it’s too late.

The way is Jesus.

You can scoff all you want. It won’t change the truth.

I may be burned out, but I’ll never deny my Savior. He is mine. I am his. And this love is greater than anything you’ve experienced in the throes of ignorance and death.

I am narrow minded.
But Jesus said that the way to God is Narrow. Only through him. Not through anyone else. Not through John McCain, not through Barack Obama, or Ralph Nader. Not through any meaningless medium of communication or false god.

The false gods are in the dust. They DIED. They didn’t come back. Their kingdoms were severed forever in the bloody agony of their falsehood.

My Jesus didn’t stay dead. He’s ALIVE. And stronger than hell.

He said that if you would just believe in him as Lord and Savior. That he is the risen Son of God, and repent of your sins that he would SAVE you from eternal damnation.

Try to argue.
Try to say it’s not logical.
I don’t care.
IT is the only truth that will fix us.
Don’t buy into my lifestyle, but receive my Jesus. He is the only hope.

Your arguments will fail, because they are void. Meaningless. When passions are of the world, it goes to hell with the rest of the world.

Salvation lies within

IT IS ALL ABOUT JESUS.

I’m burned out, yes. But my Savior is true. He is love. He is EVERYTHING.

These, my friends, are the ravings of a kid in the throes of a confusing adolescence who loved to make zealous dramatic statements and write in colorful metaphors, and who fervently (if it isn’t obvious) listened to his share of Christian Death Metal.

Not that I disagree with some of the statements I made back then. All the stuff about Jesus being better than the worthless pursuit of self, I absolutely echo those in my early adulthood. But there was such a rage behind my words, the result of a whole lot of passion, but no wisdom or experience to temper it. No understanding of relationships and loving people in spite of their sin. No desire to see Christ heal the broken, just the desire to see him as righteous judge.

And sadly, this venom wasn’t just something I articulated on Facebook. I was very much the same kind of person I wrote about in my last blog. I didn’t love those people enough to engage them with anything but bitterness.

So I may feel the same way as this post in principle, but not in action. I wrote that seven years ago, before Christ helped me to be passionate and wise. Back then, I would’ve thought myself wise. I believed I had all the answers that no one else had. I shunned the teaching of Proverbs 3:7, which says “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.”

I thought myself wise, had no fear of the Lord, and ran towards evil with every spiteful breath, all while pretending I was God’s gift to the planet.

In all of my social awkwardness and selfishness, God was nowhere to be found, though I spoke of him often.

And though I look back on my adolescence and don’t see a lot of love, seeds were in place to start growing. In the years to come, God would answer my prayer. As misguided as I may feel I was, I did have a relationship with Christ, and he was beginning the process of healing back then. He was making me less bitter, he was calling me to minister to the very people I raged against.

I said, “I am called to something greater.  God help me seize that. Help me change the world!”

This was three years before God spoke to me through a prisoner in a dusty chapel in South Carolina and solidified my calling into ministry in a miraculous and unexplainable way.

It was five years before God taught me through the overwhelming pain of losing a close friend that the only way to change the world is to pull yourself out of the way and let Christ do his restorative work, and let him ready your heart to be his tool to aid in doing it. Before he taught me that he can and will put you where you need to be for him to change the world, even if it’s just the world of one person.

The God of the Universe took the time to kindle the blazing fire in me and temper it with wisdom. Because fire can’t be fire if it’s lacking warmth. 

God did and is still in the process of teaching me how to wield the truth as a key to unlock doors, rather than a sword to cut off heads.

In seven years, I haven’t stopped using metaphors, but lets hope I’ve started being a bit more tender in the way I speak.

emo kids need love too?
Here is me circa 2008, or what I like to call “my Myspace years.” I really liked looking moody. I also liked Photoshop.

On a side note,

If you’re reading this blog, thank you. I am so grateful to see people interact with my thoughts. Most of the time, this is word vomit, and to see your comments letting me know that my words have reached you ears and made you feel something, whether you agree or disagree with them, means the world to me. I may not have a big platform, and my words are a whole lot less important than the work Christ is doing in each of our lives, but I’m grateful for the chance to engage.

Three Things Student Ministry is Teaching Me

Recently, I posted a series of tweets about some of the things that my job as a youth minister has taught me. And those things have been on my mind a lot lately.

timthumb

I’ve been involved youth ministry in some form for the past 5 years or so, whether volunteering or interning, and finally, calling it my vocation. And in that time I have seen all kinds of beautiful moments and heartbreaking moments and days when I want to throw in the towel and days I wish would never end. So, calling it a mixed bag is an understatement. But even in the hardships, God has been present and taught me more about himself.

So, without dragging the introduction out any farther, here are three things God is teaching me through Student Ministry.

1. To do youth ministry is to be both a student of culture and of counter-culture simultaneously.

If there’s one thing I find myself learning constantly working with teenagers, it’s that the culture of adolescence is constantly changing. I’m only 23, far from the “in my day, we used to” talks so prevalent among the elderly, so there is no reason that the vernacular should be so different in middle/high school after my 4.5 year college stint. Oh, but it is.

For example, this summer I took my group to camp. The preacher for the week was your typical high energy, loud guy who had a severe addiction to Cheerwine and Pork Rinds (he said so himself.) He was speaking at length about being the salt of the earth. An innocuous statement in and of itself. And then he used the phrase “Salty people make you thirsty.” That’s when I look over at one of my youth, and she is horror stricken. Just absolutely mortified by what he said. I had to ask her later what was so bad, and that’s when she told me what both of those words “mean.” To that, I say “teenagers are weird.”

But things in a highly technological and “social” society are always changing. Trends aren’t just represented by unspoken social morays and hairstyles and things of that ilk, but pop up on-line in places like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. The constant conversation that never stops is no farther away than your tablet or smartphone. And while our kids are fluent in that sort of connectivity, so many of us (myself included) are behind. And we wonder why we are seen as “out of touch.”

Now, I won’t pretend I don’t know what a hashtag is to make my point, or that I am ignorant of certain slang prevalent in youth culture, but sometimes I still have trouble keeping up. So, to be faithful to the calling Jesus has given me, I need to be a student of culture. I need to know what’s going on. YET, I also need to understand that while we are to be in the world, we are not to be of it. (John 17:14-15) I also need to take lessons from Jesus and fully embrace the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus.

What that means is to understand that the call of Christianity transcends social trending, it is beyond the values of an ever changing world, it teaches me that better than knowing what’s going on is loving students relentlessly.

The most poignant example I have of this is my youth leader growing up. Her name is Mollie and she is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. She is also what some would lump into the “elderly” category. We’ve had many conversations over the years and still talk from time to time. When I helped her and volunteered in college, she always told me about how it bothered her that she couldn’t connect with the kids the way they needed it, but that she loved them so very much, and hoped they knew that. And I promise you, they did.

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What we say about the character and person of Jesus does not change, no matter how many things in this world do. How we represent him by loving the people in our lives, the students in our ministries, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, that is the core of our preaching of the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, not how #relevant we are. And that is what makes all the difference.

2. Youth ministry is, to borrow from Paul, becoming all things to all people that I might win some. 

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul tells the Corinthians that he has “become all things to all people.” I was confronted with this verse in college at a time when I was having an identity crisis, trying to grasp how to speak to people about my faith, and mourning over the fact that, simply put, I talked way to much and didn’t listen to anyone. A dear, dear friend told me to become all things to all people and didn’t explain that a whole lot, and I still struggle with completely understanding what that means.

But I have seen it lived out in Mollie’s life and in several other key influences in my life. I have seen people sit with me and cry with me and pray with me, no matter how I had hurt them. I have seen people whom I had nothing in common with sacrifice their time and listen.

Conversely, I’ve also seen people react strongly to others and completely shut down the conversation when they say something shocking. Like when I took a group to a Christian music festival with rappers and rock bands and other stuff and the other chaperone panicked when the rock musicians came on and left. The kids were appalled at her, and so was I.

I will never understand when someone says they have a heart for kids and refuses to step into their world to reach them. Most of the time, you can “be all things to all people” by simply listening to them and not acting shocked when they do something you don’t agree with. Kids need a kind of love that stands firmly on the truth, but doesn’t react in a harsh, judgmental way. They need a kind of love that puts aside it’s own expectations and preference for the sake of the Gospel and their growth in it. A kind of love that says “come as you are and meet the one who can give you life.”

Love patiently, kindly, and see what comes out of it. See whose life is forever changed because you exhibit a mercy like Christ. Be all things to all people.

3. Any hope of success cannot be defined in the way the world defines success, but must be a complete trust in the person and work of Jesus.

Finally, it has been a recurring theme for me the past several months to doubt whether or not I was being effective in this ministry. But what is effectiveness? Is it a youth group of 100 kids, all behaving perfectly and never struggling? Is it the unwavering support of an entire congregation and a deep understanding of what your ministry is and what it does? Is it ushering that large youth group to get saved and start winning all their friends to Jesus in a 5 month period?

To put it simply, no.

First of all, this is not MY ministry, this is God’s ministry. When I answered the call to ministry on my college campus 4 years ago, did I just take what God have given to me and make it something great? No, I surrendered my will to his. I said “God, I trust you way more than I trust myself, and if you want to use me for something beautiful, it’s not mine, it’s yours.” When I sat with kids who poured out their hearts and truly wrestled with God’s overwhelming grace, was I doing it because I wanted to be successful? Not a chance.

I did it because its what I am called to do. Not to make me a good person or earn right standing before God, as if pastoring a megachurch somehow makes you a better Christian. No, I fully believe that I have right standing before God because of Jesus and Jesus alone. Nothing else is needed.

I would rather be faithful than successful. At the end of my life, do I want to be known for being successful or for being true to my calling? At the end of my life do I want to be known for anything? While, I struggle with those implications, I can tell you one thing, at the end of my life, I care a whole lot more about Jesus being known than me.

And that’s why I surrendered. That’s why student ministry, and all of the challenges within it, all the struggles I still face, is a worthy prospect.

And that’s what I’m learning. I think all of these things apply to way more than student ministry. But this is my experience, this is where God has placed me and I intend for my life, my vocation, my calling, to be an act of worship.

And my prayer for you, no matter where you find yourself, is the same.

Let my life be your song, Jesus.

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