jesus-walking-on-water-kinda

the real jesus

Yeezus or Sheezus, whatevs. My own images of Jesus haven’t been much better. Here’s my latest column from Youthwork Magazine (UK), where I unpack that a bit:

The Real Jesus

I grew up in church, a mostly-good kid and all. Sunday School every week from the day I left the nursery. So I heard my share of Bible stories; I heard my share of Jesus stories.

One of my favorites was always the story of Jesus walking on the water. I can still picture—I mean, really, I have the picture in my mind right now—the flannel graph images of Jesus hovercrafting in his pretty blue robe across a glassy bit o’ blue. (Flannel graph, by the way, was the archetypal Sunday school teaching technology back in the day: little die-cut foreground figures—people, boats, the occasional tree—with a felt backing that quickly and neatly stuck to flannel backgrounds with various nondescript Bibleland topographies. My mother-in-law still possesses one of the world’s most complete collections of mint-condition flannel graph paraphernalia. Seriously, her stuff should become the main attraction in a Sunday school museum someday.)

jesus on the water, croppedBack to the hovercrafting Jesus…

In my frozen mental image, Jesus is white and nicely coiffed (seriously, when we reinvented Jesus as white, I’m surprised no one thought to reinvent his hair into a more church-y level of appropriateness—maybe a nice TV-evangelist-combover). And he’s scooching (seriously, “hovercrafting” is the best word I can think of) in the middle of day, across an idyllically calm body of water. Sometimes, in my childhood image, he has one hand raised halfway, about chest-high, in either a sort of blessing, or a casual wave (“Hey, dudes, relax, it’s me.”).

I’m sure that by the time I reached my teens, I knew this flannel-backed image of Jesus walking on the water wasn’t quite accurate. But there it simmered, percolating in my spiritual subconscious.

I’m sure that, during my time at a Christian college and graduate school, I at least knew that Jesus wasn’t white, would have walked rather than hovercrafting, and a few other tweaks. But I didn’t let that spoil my childhood picture.

I’m even sure that after years of being a youth worker and telling this story, I knew that there were more inaccuracies—like the status of the water (I clearly remember a retreat speaker I’d hired doing the single worst rap I’d ever heard in my life about how the boat was buffeted by the ways: b-b-b-buffeted… b-b-b-buffeted.).

But I allowed my childhood image to exist, encased behind psychic Plexiglas in the museum of my mind.

I remember—the experience more than the time and place—finally realizing, well into adulthood and professional Christianing, that the text clearly says the whole water-walking thing took place in the middle of the night (on a stormy night, at that). Of course, that would make a boring flannel graph, since you wouldn’t be able to see anything. And the water: it wasn’t smooth and flat. These expert sailors, the disciples, couldn’t get the boat back into land because a massive wind storm had come up, and the waves were so big they were smashing the boat away from shore (b-b-b-buffeted). This is the water Jesus walked on.

So much for hovercrafting. Now I have to picture the real, dark-skinned, Middle Eastern Jesus, climbing his way through the peaks and troughs of a wild sea storm. His clothing would have been drenched from spray. His hair would have been blown all over the place (where’s a good hair-tie when you need one?). Now the scene looks more like a pitch-black episode of extreme bouldering (on water!), or, like an X Games-at-night rollerblade competition, with Jesus grinding down the “rail” of one wave, hopping to the next, and dropping down into a trough to set up for his next trick.

Crash! The psychic Plexiglas around my childhood image is finally smashed. And now I can begin the reconstructive task of observing the real Jesus.

On a much bigger scale, and with lots more stories, this is part of our youth work task: smashing the psychic Plexiglas encasing teenagers’ false images and ideas of Jesus, whether they grew up hearing Jesus stories in church or not. It’s a noble work of deconstruction and reconstruction. Some might even say “re-imagining”.

While teenagers’ thoughts and pictures of Jesus are from childhood, or from some other phase of their lives, whether they have lots of ideas about Jesus, or only what they’ve heard through hearsay, most of them have some seriously jacked-up ideas about who Jesus was and is, and what he did and does.

Let’s pull the hammers out of our leather youth work tool belts and engage in a bit of museum-image smashing. Let’s lead teenagers on an honest, blunt, even surprising expedition toward meeting the real Jesus.

self centered

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 7

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content

Question: Why is my middle schooler suddenly so self-centered? It seems like she thinks the whole world revolves around her!

This is an almost universal issue with preteens and young teens. Consequently, the frustration parents and youth workers experience is also almost universal! Young teens who were, just months ago, generous and outward-focused turn into themselves and become seemingly obsessed with themselves and incapable of noticing others.

kind of a big dealEverything’s about me!

Self-centeredness is a natural fungus on the tree of development. Your preteen might still have a shred of others-focus; but it will disappear soon! The almost-crazy amount of change going on in the lives of young teens (11 – 14 year olds), draws every remaining bit of noticing others in on itself. Almost all young teens (and older preteens) see themselves at the center of the universe.

For example: if you walk across the back of a crowded classroom (or, say, church service), you will try to be quiet as to not distract–but you won’t assume people paying attention and facing the opposite direction are noticing you. Not so with young teens. In the same situation, they’ll assume that everyone in the room is watching them (apparently through the back of their heads!) and evaluating their every move.

This self-centeredness is natural, but that doesn’t mean parents should just ignore it. There are many ways to counter this; but I’ve found that the absolute best antidote is experience–experience that forces their attention off of themselves. Give them experiences serving others in need (through a day helping at a soup-kitchen, or a family mission trip, or other service projects). For a preteen, this establishes a pattern of noticing others’ needs. For a young teen, it can create a small opportunity for noticing that the world is more than themselves (and that will work like yeast, spreading into their worldview).

straightawayEverything’s now!

A related issue is how “in the moment” preteens and young teens seem to live. If you ask their favorite movie of all time, they’ll answer the one they saw last week. They don’t have a sense of the past (and I’m talking about their own past, not anything grander than that!), and often don’t have a sense of the future either.

Think of it this way: as an adult, you’re making decisions on the road of life. And you can look in the rearview mirror and see the long straightaway behind you, including the choices of life. You can also look at the long straightaway ahead of you, and get a sense of what’s to come. But preteens and young teens are on a sharp curve in the road of life (the curve of transition and developmental change). The rearview mirror doesn’t show much; and the front view is a blind curve.

This can be maddening for parents. Ask speculation questions about the future to help your child begin to see more of the road (he won’t naturally do this on his own). Share your own thoughts about the future (as well as the past).

And remember, the curve in the road–with its self-centeredness and “all is now” perspectives–will pass. This is the normal stuff of young teen development; and it’s the plan God designed for your child to go through at this time of life!


By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen.

lost and found 2

book now for the Lost And Found farewell tour!

for their 30th year of performing together (2015), the wonderful and unique band Lost And Found are doing something… interesting: a farewell tour. in other words, they’ve decided to make 2015 the last year of touring for the band.

lost and foundif you’ve ever seen Lost And Found live, you know: the music and is good and fun and meaningful; but the real magic of this band–the reason people love seeing them over and over again–is their live shows. they are one of the only bands i know that can be, and are, equally loved by people in any stage of life (children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged peeps and older folk). their lyrics have the spiritual depth one might expect from two lutheran boys; their songs swing from beautiful and sparse to quirky and riotous. and they engage an audience like no band i’ve ever seen (really, i’m not exaggerating).

so, i could not encourage you strongly enough–if you’re running a youth event in 2015, or want to host a multi-generational event at your church–Lost And Found will be a win for you.

website (speedwood.com)
email ‘em here.
phone number: 419.897-9792

and check out this video:

12 things i love about middle school ministry

a number of years ago i wrote a post listing reasons why i love middle school ministry. and recently, i re-wrote that post as a column for youthwork magazine (in the UK). here’s my list (realize that “middle school ministry” doesn’t mean anything in the UK, so i use their term “11 – 14s” or young teens instead):

IMG_386712 Things to Love About Young Teen Ministry

  1. Young teen ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that this is not merely a holding period until the good stuff of older teen work.
  2. 11 – 14s are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation: 11 – 14s, in their decision as to whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking the question, “Do you like me?” Older teens complicate it more by adding, “Do I like you?” And university students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question, “Do I like what you stand for?”
  3. They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery, or sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle teen years. This is a wild ride of unpredictability, of course, and can feel very scattered and capricious. But there’s willingness—even desire—to try things that makes young teens prime for creative and participatory youth work.
  4. The wonder of abstract thinking. 11 – 14s are far from experienced with abstract thought. But the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). And they’re dipping their toes in the water, checking it out.
  5. The process of doubts and faith development. Tied to the development of abstract thinking, young teens are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development, and should never be shamed or shut down. Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from childlike, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith.
  6. They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Young teens regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations (often different than I expect). The unpredictability of 11 – 14s keeps young teen ministry fresh and untamed.
  7. Parents are still involved. Sure, there are plenty of older teens with involved parents. But there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years, as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation, or a misguided understanding of what it means to give their teenagers independence. We know that parents have a significantly larger shaping role in the lives and faith of their teenagers than we do; so this higher level of parent involvement creates an easier path to coming alongside parents, partnering for greater impact.
  8. They have more time than older teenagers. Yes, young teens are busier than ever; but they still have more time and availability than their older peers. Mix this in with their #3 above (their willingness to try anything), and you’ve got a potent pot of “let’s do stuff!”
  9. Most are not yet jaded. 14 year-olds can start to get a little jaded (some of ‘em). Older teenagers—holy cow—can wear cynicism and “been there, done that” as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit. But most young teens possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism, and a naiveté that looks a lot like hope.
  10. They’re passionate. I love the “all in” attitude of most 11 – 14s. It’s not only their willingness to try things (mentioned in #3 above); they’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice, the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is: they’re passionate about things that, often, they won’t be passionate about in two months or two years.
  11. They’re forgiving. When you mess up, or have an off night in your teaching, or plan a lame event, or say something dumb, young teens are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask for it). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.
  12. They’re fun! Young teens keep me feeling young (not so easy at 50 years-old). They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Young teens remind me, regularly, of what a joy-filled life should look like.

if you agree with me on at least most of these, then you need to join us at the third annual Middle School Ministry Campference. the earlybird registration price (and $50 bonus back of free stuff and campference munchies) runs out in two weeks, on june 30!

my-tribe-square

golf club

being a middle school guys small group leader is like being a mediocre golfer

last night, all the small group leaders from my church’s youth ministry had an end-of-the-school-year thank you dinner and wrap up. the high school and middle school leaders ate together; but then we slit off into separate ministry groupings to debrief the year a bit. here’s a little pano of our middle school small group leaders, minus about 5 or so who couldn’t be there last night (you can click on it to see it bigger, if you’re so inclined):

IMG_4421

the main thing we did was share stories (i’m a BIG fan of this, btw, as stories communicate all sorts of embodied truth). once the ball got rolling, everyone had something to share, and there was a beautiful sense of “i am not alone.”

i was, by far, the oldest one there (there are a couple other leaders my age, but they weren’t at the meeting). and i was also one of the only leaders there with more than a few years of experience. but, honestly, this was one of the hardest years of middle school ministry for me in a long time. i shared with our team that i really struggled, second guessed myself, and wondered what was going wrong. i vacillated between being completely stoked about my guys and being completely annoyed by them. my group was too big, and too impossible to focus, and too easily distracted (yes, more than normal for middle school guys!), and too quick to speak on top of each other (almost constantly).

as i was about to share with the other leaders last night, a metaphor for my experience of being a middle school ministry volunteer this year jumped into my mind:

i used to be a golfer. like, i used to golf about 2 or 3 times a month. i read articles about golfing. i bought golf clubs. i tried out new courses. and, yes, i even watched golf on TV (and played a lot of tiger woods golf on my xbox).

but i was never a good golfer. at my best, i was a mediocre golfer. i probably would have had to triple-down on the number of times i played in order to see a difference in my game, and i wasn’t willing (or able) to do that. so, consistently, my golf games looked like this:

approximately 10 – 20 shots in a row would totally suck. i hit the ball too short. i shanked it. i putted past the hole and right off the green. i lost it in the woods or the lake. i topped it, hard, and the ball dribbled forward about 10 feet. occasionally i even completely whiffed–swinging my club with focus, intention and expectation, but not actually connecting with the ball. somewhere between the 7th and 12th bad shot in a row, i fairly consistently had the same sorts of thoughts enter my head or exit my mouth:

this game sucks.

why would anyone subject themselves to this? and i’m paying for this! what is wrong with me?

this game is impossible. or at least, this game is impossible for me.

there is absolutely no enjoyment in golf beyond the cigar in my mouth and the beer waiting for me in the clubhouse.

but, then: deep into my discouragement and disillusionment and fatalism and plans to quit, i’d hit a chip shot onto the green and it would drop in the hole. or i’d somehow hit a fairway wood just right, and by some miracle, it would perfectly curve around that tree in the middle of the fairway and catch the leading edge of a downward slope, adding 50 feet to my shot.

and when i hit one of those shots, well, i couldn’t stop then! i either had to take another shot to see if i might be on some sort of streak of brilliance (or i’d suddenly become a fantastic golfer, somehow), or i took another shot because i just didn’t care, since i was basking in the joy of what had just occurred.

THAT, my middle school ministry friends, is what this past year of leading an 8th grade guys small group felt like for me, a 33 year veteran of middle school ministry. there were absolutely stunning moments of beauty. flashes of insight. spaces of deep honesty and vulnerability. DMZs of listening to each other. absolute god moments.

there were less moments of awesomeness than there were moments of annoyance; but there were just enough to keep me from quitting.

and here’s the litmus test for me: i stop and think of each guy’s face, picturing him in my mind’s eye. and i pay attention to what i’m feeling. and i can honestly say that for each one of them, my internal response is “oh, man, i love that kid! he is so awesome. i have so much HOPE for his future.”

so, yeah, i’ll take another small group next fall.

process

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 6

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes

processProcess Trumps Content

This is a very important issue for parents to consider, especially with the current trend toward a college-prep emphasis in school culture. School curriculum often teaches toward test scores. Even Christian schools, who are rarely involved in state testing, often focus on cramming content with an eye to college acceptance.

Many churches take a similar approach: load young teens with info during this formative age, in hopes that it will “stick” and become a guiding force in their lives.

Unfortunately, this is quite misguided.

Just prior to puberty (around 9 or 10 or 11 years old), your child’s brain does a wonderful thing: it grows an abundance of new connections. Like a massive infiltration of tree roots grasping for earth, these new connections between various parts of the brain open up a world of possibilities.

However, these new connections are only that: possibilities. There is no good way to use them all. So, those connections that get exercised and used end up forming a dominant part of the brain’s function through the rest of life. And those connections that are used less, well, they actually disintegrate during the teenage years!

What does this tell us? It’s essential that the young teen years be about learning how to think. Process, “what if”, and “why?” are critical. Discovery is the best learning mode (for spiritual learning or academic learning). If young teens exercise this part of their developing brains, it will positively impact their lifelong thinking, their spiritual growth (after all, spiritual stuff is abstract), their emotional health, their relational maturity, and their desire to continue growing and learning.

So, make room for “why?” and “what if?” Those are questions of speculation (a brand-new, but wimpy, ability for young teens). Encourage discovery. Don’t be threatened by questioned values and boundary-pushing. This is the best stuff of early adolescent brain development!


By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen; and go into detail on teenage brain development (not only for young teens, but teenagers in general) in A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains.

ride the lobster

photo in need of a caption, kidmin edition

yeah, we need a photo in need of a caption this week, i think. it’s been a while. and you guys (well, those who bother to enter!) make me laugh.

this time around, i’m gonna give away a complete set of The Youth Cartel’s newest downloadable curriculum Viva: Known. these four sessions focus on learning about the character and mission of Jesus through his conversations with those around him.

ok — plenty of youth workers have some responsibility for children’s ministry also. so let’s call this the kidmin edition of photo in need of a caption. whatcha got?

ride the lobster

CONTENDERS (the best of the best!)

Mike
Stop playing with your food.

Scott
Anybody got another quarter?

Chris Wyatt
Ten years before her first pot. Ten minutes before his last.

Kevin I
Tryin’ to catch me ridin Nephropidirty

Diane Jones
Let us pray for the new youth leaders.

Richard C Mobbs
Thanks, mom. Couldn’t pop 25 cents for the ride outside the supermarket.

Chad Inman
The next Sea World controversy…

AND THE WINNER IS…

once again, a tough call and a close race. but the one that actually made me LOL, literally, was Diane Jones’ “Let us pray for the new youth leaders.”

congrats, diane! you win!

optical illusion triangle

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 5

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions

optical illusion cubeWelcome to the world of paradox!

If you have a preteen or a young teen living in your home, you gain a whole new appreciation for the concept of paradox. These wonderful kids completely embody every meaning of the word. In so many areas, they seem to be both one thing, as well as the polar opposite! (This can be quite maddening, and paradoxically, quite exciting!) It’s all about transition, baby.

Here’s a list of a few you might notice:

Young teens can be incredibly trusting, but will only listen to someone who’s honest and transparent. Young teens (and especially preteens) often don’t have the jaded skepticism of their older teen brothers and sisters. They are very willing to trust–a wonderful characteristic that shouldn’t be missed. This time of life is, in many ways, a last-stop refueling station into the long desert drive of adolescence. Take this opportunity to build on that trust, to show that your word is good.

At the same time, they are beginning to develop a more adult sense of the baloney-detection. If you want to be an example to your young teen, if you want to continue in a role of impacting their lives (in a positive way, that is), it’s essential that you do so through a commitment to honesty and vulnerability. This can be pretty tough, even threatening. When you’re wrong, it’s crucial that you admit it. If they sniff out insincerity or hypocrisy in your or your words, you’ll quickly lose your place of leadership in their lives.

They’ll catch less than you’d think, yet they’re savvier than you’d expect. This is a tricky one, but so true! Because the life of a young teen is all about change (physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological), they have a huge tendency toward “in-one-ear-out-the-other” behavior. You’ve certainly experienced this! You explained to your daughter why a certain behavior is a bad choice, and two weeks later, she seems to have no memory of that discussion. Often that’s because she really doesn’t have a memory of that discussion!

But at the same time, young teens are developing a very savvy ability to see through charades, to understand when they’re being marketed to, and to be aware of consequences. Often what happens with kids this age is that they are savvy enough to understand a situation, but not enough to apply it to their lives.

They want to be treated like adults, but have the opportunity to act like children. This has enormous implications. They’re caught in an in-between world. They know where they want to go: they know they want to be treated like adults, to have more freedom, to make more decisions on their own, to not be treated as if they were 4th graders. It’s important to talk to young teens with an adult voice, and to begin the move to a come-alongside perspective.

But at the same time, they are still very much children, and need the opportunity to act that out, without pressure to grow up too soon. A girl may move out of her childhood music choices, but still love to play with Barbie dolls. Allow her to live in that place. A boy may desire to sit at the adult table at family gatherings, but still keep a childhood stuffed animal on his bed. Don’t rush them into adulthood, but don’t treat them like little kids anymore either.

Some are prototype young adults, while some are really children, and most are both. The reality is this: it’s not that the young teen living in your home is either a child or a young adult (with some magic line being crossed at some point); it’s that she’s both, at the same time. Young teens aren’t just in-between, they’re in an overlap zone–childhood remains, while they’ve already stepped into the young adult world.

Living with paradox isn’t easy! But it’s not only the reality of the young teen years, it’s somehow part of God’s wonderful design for this transition to healthy independence and adulthood. Have fun!

neon steeple

Crowder’s Neon Steeple (win a copy!)

crowder

thanks to the live streaming on itunes radio (available through today only), and then thanks to the record label who sent me a copy of the album in the mail, i’ve been listening to Crowder’s new album, Neon Steeple, almost nonstop over the past week (a few little breaks to listen to the new Coldplay album and the new Conor Oberst album). the album releases on itunes, and everywhere else, tomorrow (tuesday, may 27).

neon steeplei realize i’m biased, since i’ve loved Crowder’s music for a long time, and even more biased because i like him as a person. but it almost doesn’t matter which new direction david goes with his music: i love it musically, and love it lyrically. this album is, unquestionably, his most eccentric and eclectic, ranging from bluegrass and old-timey church songs that johnny cash could have sung, to alt-pop worship, and even a couple tracks i can only classify as “dance” numbers. neon steeple is the baby that marcus mumford and emmylou harris and johnny cash and hank williams and king david (the psalmist) and someone representing alt-pop (maybe the xx, or–OOH!–the ting-tings) would have, uh, birthed together. that just got weird; but, again, i love eclectic.

if you want the same old vanilla christian easy listening, this is not your music. but if you want honest lyrics, unwaveringly god-focused (as Crowder’s songs have always been), with a wild variety of musicality that leans to the down-homey (lotsa banjo, baby), you’ll be a happy listener.

and, i have two copies of the deluxe edition of the CD (17 tracks!) to give away. in the past when i’ve given these away, i’ve gotten a ton of comments, because i made it easy on you (which made it hard on me); so i’m going to inverse that equation this time around. if you want one of these FREE CDs, you must write a haiku about Crowder. that’s right: three lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. i’ll pick the best two, email you for your address, and your CD will be mailed to you.

i mean, Crowder put quite a bit of creative energy into creating this baby, so a little creative effort on your part seems warranted, right?

whatcha got?

winner, winner, crowder dinner

hey, nice job, peeps. fun entries.

i’m sad to be forced to not consider a handful that don’t fit the required haiku form (3 lines, of 5 syllables, 7 syllable, and 5 syllables, in order). some of you don’t quite get that, or just didn’t care!

hands down, the winner is absolutely Rob, for his brilliant three word

Virtuosity
Interdisciplinary
Pogonology

(for those not in the know, “pogonology” is “the study of or a treatise to beards”)

the second winner was more difficult; but i’m going with Chuck’s for sheer randomness and absurdity:

I met Crowder once
He smelled like freedom and steak
No wait, that was me

thanks for playin’, everyone!