Category Archives: faith

Learning to Listen and Be Present to Others

 

for a number of years, i wrote a monthly “Postcard from Marko” column for Youthwork Magazine in the UK. usually, these mini columns focused on a place i had recently visited and some observation from that trip. but today i was looking through some of these, and found this one. i was challenged and reminded of a few things:

  1. i want my self-centeredness to give way more and more. i want to listen and notice more.
  2. i have noticed some movement in this area of my life over the last year, noticing that with age, affirming and encouraging is coming more naturally to me.
  3. it takes SO little effort, really, to be present to people. and when we do that, we bear the kingdom of god with us, bringing all those resources along with us into that liminal space.

anyhow. here’s the postcard i wrote on 9/11/10:

I write these little “postcards” to you all from, theoretically, places I visit on my travels. But these days I’ve been traveling so much, my most-common place to think about life, faith and youth work is on a plane.

Sometimes my time on a plane is quiet, reasonably isolated (thanks to noise-cancelling headphones), and contemplative. Other times – usually due to a talkative traveler in the next seat – I’m engaged in conversation that brings about a different opportunity for reflection, insight or learning. A week ago, it was the latter of these.

I was on a tiny jet – one of those with 1 seat on the left of the aisle, and 2 on the right. I was on the right, on the aisle; next to me, by the window, was a small-ish older man in a dated suit and tie. As I stood and moved for him to take his seat, he said, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; Can I give you this?”

“Sure,” I responded, taking the small leaflet from him. As we sat down again, I quickly flipped through his personalized tract, finding it to be an overview of, and invitation to, his church that would, were I pretty much any variety of spiritual seeker or church shopper, have completely scared me away.

Before we even left the gate, he launched in with, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; I’d like to talk to you about salvation.”

Annoyed, I put by book down, attached a feigned smile, and said, “Yeah, I’m a pastor also.”

“What kind?”

“Well…,” I paused, shuffling through my mental files of possible responses. But apparently I paused too long. He finished my sentence for me, with a notably disapproving tone: “…I see – non-denominational.” He wasn’t finished.

“Do you know for sure that you’re going to heaven?”

I could see where this was going. Even though I’d told him I was also a pastor, he wasn’t convinced. I assured him of my assurance, but that still wasn’t enough.

“Tell me how you came to salvation?”

I could tell it was a test, but stupidly started talking about the wonderful Christian home I’d been brought up in, rather than the point-of-decision I knew he was looking for.

“But can you remember the actual moment when you made a decision? If you can’t, I’d like to help you with that now.”

I finally convinced him I was already a Christian, even by whatever his definition of that was. He rambled a bit about his church and how he’d been there 48 years. When he paused, I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and turned to my book, clearly communicating, “I am done with this conversation.”

But I couldn’t read. Something was poking my soul, like a child, trying to get attention.   I finally closed my book and gave the annoying child my attention. What came to mind – and I’m sure this was the Holy Spirit – was: “He said his wife died this year, and you ignored him.”

I sighed. Dang. I’m an insensitive idiot. I was so convinced of my spiritual, theological, ministerial superiority over this old, admittedly annoying saint (really, I’m guessing most of the saints were annoying) that I sinned against him.

I turned my headphones off and put them away. Just as the plane lifted off, I asked, “Could you tell me all about your wife?”

He lit up, and didn’t stop sharing about the woman he’d adored for more than 50 years until the plane touched down an hour later.

The Grace of Palm Sunday, part 2

the other day i noticed a trickle of incoming readers to a post i’d written back in 2009 about palm sunday. i clicked through and re-read it. here’s what i wrote back then:

this morning in church, hearing the teaching pastor talk about the events of palm sunday, it struck me how this story is such a clear expression of god’s grace to us. here’s jesus, riding the colt into jerusalem, with everyone all pumped up about “the prophet” coming. they laid down palm branches and shouted hosanna and all that. the buzz about jesus had reached a fever pitch after word of lazarus being raised from the dead in the nearby town of bethany. clearly, this was the prophet moses had promised would come.

and, of course, the whole time, jesus knew what was coming his way in the next week.

this is where the grace part struck me: jesus accepted their praise.

jesus accepted their praise knowing fully that they would turn on him within days.

i think i’ve always thought of this story in terms of “them” — those people who would so quickly turn on jesus. today, i was struck by how it’s my story also.

jesus shows me the same grace every time i acknowledge him, every time i choose to follow him, every time i give him praise. he knows that, just like those palm-waving peeps that day, i’ll quickly turn away, betray him (and what he stands for), choose my own way, discredit him, praise myself, or ignore him.

and yet he accepts my praise.

mmm, this is grace.

what really struck me as i read those thoughts, though, was the timing i couldn’t see when i wrote it. this post was written about a month before i shut down my blog and all social media. i was heading into the hardest months of my life, trying desperately (and failing) to keep the ministry i loved from falling apart or being dismantled. and in the end (later that year), i lost my job and parts of the ministry got sold off anyhow. more than 20 people lost their jobs, and a few more chose to leave on their own.

in the wake of that mess, i was lost for a while. i wrestled with god and questioned everything from my own identity to any possibility of a hopeful future to theo-practical questions about god’s goodness. eventually, hope arrived (with the presence of jesus, as it does). (btw: i wrote about this extensively in my book Hopecasting.)

little did i realize on that palm sunday in 2009 that the grace i was reflecting on was soon to become so intensely and desperately needed in my own life.

Anticipating Emmanuel

Advent is all about the Hope coming with the arrival of Emmanuel—“God with us.” But many of us have a less-than-full embracing of Emmanuel.

How come we only talk about God entering into his own creation (which, of course, God did through the birth of Jesus) at Christmas? I mean: I love, love, love the word Emmanuel (am I allowed to have a ‘favorite Bible word?’). It’s pregnant with the entire gospel. That single word summarizes every aspect of Christianity that keeps me tethered when I’m feeling hopeless for the church or annoyed by my brothers and sisters or disgusted with my own inability.

But, treating Emmanuel as a Christmas-only word, well, that’s a rip off. In a sense, it’s as if we pack up Emmanuel with the ornaments and lights, and shelve it for 11 months.

God with us. 12 months a year (not just one). At Christmas we hold expectation of Jesus’ coming. What if we had that same expectation that God could powerfully show up at even the most mundane and ordinary moments of our day-to-day lives? If we truly believe that; if we really lean into that; if we really remember that the power and intimacy of God is with us at every moment; our experience of God will be revolutionized.

Maybe that’s the bottom line of Advent: what’s it look like for you and me–as children of God–to live with an Advent expectancy that God can move powerfully all the year around? Let’s dream big ‘Christmas-sized’ dreams about what God can do with us today and in the coming year. How about a little infusion of hope and anticipation in your faith today? I’m telling you, it’s like an extra serving of Christmas dessert.

Hopecasting excerpt: Exile Island

I’m very excited to be kicking off a 5-week sermon series at my church this weekend, based on my book, Hopecasting. I’m preaching the opening weekend, and am looking forward to hearing how the senior pastor and youth pastor handle the other four weeks. As I started to prep, I remembered that I’ve had this excerpt from the book in my blog drafts for a long time. So I thought I’d get it up and out there! A funny little story from my own pre-teen years.

We all experience exile. And we all want Hope. So if I’m correct that Hope comes to us in exile, why does Hope seem so elusive?

When I was about ten years old, my family stopped by my dad’s office on our way to some sort of church gathering. I distinctly remember what I was wearing that day (brace yourself): white dress slacks, white shoes and a white belt, nicely accented with a maroon dress shirt. I was the perfect picture of a 1970s preteen, dressed to impress.

My dad’s office was in the middle of some woods, but there was a subdivision being built nearby; and what preteen boy can resist the pull of exploring a construction site? I had a friend with me that day, and we asked if we could explore while my parents did whatever it was they needed to do. My mom’s cautious approval came with a clear directive: “Only if you do not get dirty.”

Off we went, fully intending to keep the white pants white.

hopecasting.coverOn the construction worksite, we found a mostly-frozen-over mini-pond of awesomeness. A muddy area had apparently been partially flooded during the winter months, and was actively thawing on this springtime Detroit Sunday. There was a large ice island in the middle, with a bit of a causeway leading to it. Of course, I quickly found myself planting a stake (literally) in the ice island and claiming it for the motherland. Only then, amidst the revelry of conquering, did I notice that the causeway had disintegrated after I’d crossed to the island.

I panicked. Do I stay out here on this ice-island, maintaining the whiteness of my clothes and the purity of my intentions to behave as instructed? What other options were there? I didn’t want to be on the island. But both staying put and doing anything else seemed to only have tragic outcomes.

I felt a shift under my feet. At first, I thought the island might be breaking into pieces; but instead, the whole berg was slowly sinking under my weight. Brown, muddy water started flowing over the edges toward my outpost in the middle.

My friend was trying to help, I’m sure. But when he pushed a large, floating wooden door toward me and yelled, “Use this as a raft,” neither of us were thinking very clearly. Needless to say, I took a mud bath that day.

I was on that exilic island by my own doing (our exiles are sometimes, though not always, due to our own choices). But I quickly wanted out. In my panic, I jumped for a promise that couldn’t deliver.

When we’re in the midst of the pain of exile, Hope can seem impossible. We’re desperate, and therefore highly susceptible to the lies our culture tells us about how to extricate ourselves.

Really, since an influx of Hope is about opening ourselves up to the influx of God’s presence, the enemies of Hope are wolves in sheep’s clothing, encouraging us to retain control.

We humans have developed myriad ways of keeping God at arm’s length during our times of exile. We buy into these false solutions because we believe they’re less risky than completely opening up to a faithful confidence that God continues to author the story.

Growing in Faith for Youth Ministry

my most recent ‘epilogue’ column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) is out. here’s what i wrote:


My church has just launched a capital campaign. It’s not sexy; but it’s needed. Several years ago, the church’s landlord (we were leasing space) informed us we could move or buy the place, as they had plans to level it and sell it to a condo developer. We stretched and believed and gave and somehow, by God’s grace, bought the property (of course, a bank now owns a major portion!).

But now, the place is sort of falling apart and needs major infrastructure improvements that go way beyond our budget. So we’re asking people to pray, “God, what step of faith do you want me to take?”

I was at a leadership meeting about this campaign recently, and one of our pastors shared about the three steps he and his wife were taking as they considered the commitment they would make. He outlined three steps:

  1. What might we be able to do?
  2. What can we add as a sacrificial stretch goal?
  3. What portion can we add as a step of faith?

A few days later, I was sitting in a room with 50 North American leaders of youth ministry organizations. As I looked around the room, I was discouraged by how un-diverse the group was. I noticed that it was almost exclusively white, and almost exclusively male. I also noticed that it was almost exclusively old. I thought to myself: How is this group of old, white men—myself very much included—holding onto control of our ministries and getting in the way of younger leaders (and women, and people of color)? How could we change that? How can I change that?

In that moment (whether it was a prompting from the Holy Spirit or a result of the cheesecake I’d just devoured), that 3-step giving approach came to mind, and I quickly wrote it down on a pad of paper. As I reflected, I gave myself a mental pat on the back, acknowledging that I’m already attempting, in some ways, to give platform, opportunity, and voice to youth ministry leaders who aren’t old and white and male. That’s the first bit: What might I be able to do?

But when I looked at my scribbled notes, I was challenged by the other two bits: What might I be able to do as a stretch goal? And, What can I do on top of that as a step of faith?

Now, a few days later, I’m still ruminating on that. But I’m also seeing that this process could be helpful in more contexts than capital campaigns, as was clear to me from my application on the issue of getting out of the way and making room for non-old-white-male youth ministry leadership in my sphere of influence.

My a-ha: this is an approach to growing my faith (belief in action) in any area of my life! and this is an approach to growing my faith in the practice of youth work!

I’m thinking now of Nate, a 13 year-old guy in my small group. Honestly, the guy is a challenge. He’s not intentionally destructive or disruptive; but his ADHD, immaturity and…well…oddness make him exasperating when our small group is trying to have a conversation about pretty much anything.

What might I be able to do about Nate? Well, so far, I’m trying to be patient. I’m disciplining myself to not shame him, or make him feel anything close to rejection. I’m making sure the other guys in the group don’t make fun of him. All of that is my reasonable and important response.

What more could I do, as a sacrificial stretch? Dang, it’s clear I need to do something any good youth worker should do (but I haven’t done): I need to spend time with Nate. I need to build a relationship with him outside of the group. I need to pursue him.

And then, for the increase of my own faith and—hopefully—Nate’s welfare also: What can I add as a step of faith? In order for this to have teeth, my action has to be beyond my ability, beyond my normal practices, beyond my desires. This extra portion needs to be action that will reveal God, rather than revealing Marko. This third portion takes my past the limits of my own imagination and competency and resources. Honestly, I don’t have an answer for this yet (though I have a sense that praying that God develops in me a genuine affection for Nate is a piece of it). But I’m praying about it, asking God to show me that step (or steps) of faith, and to give me the courage to act.

Where do you need more faith in your youth work? Start by considering your rational, measured contribution. Add to that a stretch goal. Then, on top of all that: consider the step of faith that takes you beyond yourself into “Only God” territory.

Hopecasting excerpt: The Happy Police (A Hope Enemy)

a selection from Hopecasting:

As someone who’s spent thirty-three years in youth ministry—the majority of that with middle schoolers—I’ve certainly experienced my share of embarrassing ministry moments.1 But most of them have centered on malapropisms or other verbal blunders. Only a handful of times have I experienced the sort of embarrassment that made me angry.

I was a rookie junior high pastor at a large church in the Midwest. Our aging outreach and evangelism pastor, a wonderful and gracious man, held massive sway in the church due to his history and alignment with the church’s values. So when he told us all about an “opportunity” to host an event to evangelize business leaders in our community, the other pastors went along with it.

The event centered on bringing in a known motivational speaker who happened to be a Jesus-y person in private. Though no one on our leadership would have used the term, we were going to employ
the classic bait and switch approach to evangelism. Youth ministries have done this for decades, so I’m quite familiar with it (“Come for the haunted house! Then we’ll trap you in a room and scare you into heaven!”). Full disclosure: I wasn’t that uncomfortable, at that time in my maturity and spiritual journey, with a bait and switch. But I still felt it should be handled with a bit of finesse.

I’ll call the motivational speaker Bobby W. Clark, which is not his real name. He has long since passed away, so my purpose in telling this story is not to denigrate the name of a dead privately Christian motivational speaker but to illustrate our confusion about Hope and optimism.

The W in his name—whatever it stood for on his birth certificate—was part of his schtick, and he went by Bobby “Wonderful” Clark. As I would come to find out, he was a very minor celebrity who’d been working the corporate pump-’em-up circuit longer than I’d been alive. The plan for our church’s event was this: Host a nice dinner in a hotel ballroom, with the opportunity to hear this Wonderful business speaker. Guilt our church members, particularly those with influential business roles, to invite (persuade) multitudes of business associates to attend. Slip in the gospel. And, BAM, more business leaders in heaven!

I wasn’t in business. I didn’t have business associates. But my wife did. She was a low-level but professional employee at a natural gas trading company (yes, fodder for lots of jokes about “natural gas” in my junior high ministry world). So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I pressured my wife to pressure her business associates to attend this Wonderful opportunity. And a few of them, very reluctantly, came along.

The food was good enough. But good old Bobby: well, let’s just say the operative word in that phrase was “old.” Seriously, I think he came out of retirement for this gig so he could afford another golf trip to Florida or something.

I have two extremely groan-worthy memories of that night, even though it was well over twenty years ago. The first of those memories was the root of my anger-tinged embarrassment. Bobby’s bait and switch was just the worst I’d ever seen. After offering literally three minutes of business-y clichés (shorter than his introduction by the evening’s emcee), he launched into a horribly hackneyed and manipulative presentation of the gospel complete with a simultaneously high pressure and confusing prayer of salvation. My wife and I were both horrified. Our church had traded on her friendships with colleagues and given them nothing more than a caricature of their worst assumptions of what the night might contain.

But my second memory of that night is the reason I tell this story. Bobby had a signature move. Really. Like, no one else could do that move without someone saying, “Hey, that’s Bobby W. Clark’s move!” I think there’s a little twisted part of me that admires anyone who has a signature move. Except…

Bobby’s signature move went like this: he would say something like, “I’m Bobby Clark, and I’m here to tell you that Life is Wonderful!” When Bobby said this last phrase (which he said multiple times during his talk) he would kick one long leg (he was really tall) high in the air. It was a bit startling the first time you saw it since it’s not a common movement for a man in a business suit.

But remember, Bobby was old. And his signature move required a bit more coordination—even athleticism—than Bobby possessed by that night. The first time he attempted the kick, right after he was
introduced, there was a long pause between “I’m here to tell you that life is…” and “wonderful,” with the leg kick. It was like he had to coax his body into action. On his first attempt, he only got his leg partially up in the air, and stumbled to the side. The audience silently willed him to move on, but he was not going to leave without executing his signature move.

It took him three tries. But he got it. And with newly reinvigorated confidence, Bobby busted out the leg kick three or four more times during his talk, rivaling even the Rockettes.

happy cageMr. Wonderful was selling us a very, very subtle lie that even he likely had no awareness of: pretending you’re happy makes life better. The core of Bobby’s motivational schtick was simple: choose to be happy, select the perky option, pretend that nothing’s wrong, ignore your pain, and you’ll be more productive and garner success.

I like happiness. Nothing wrong with that. And I generally agree with the sentiment that Life is Wonderful. But leg kicks and smiles won’t close the gap between the life I’m living and the life I long for.

Several years ago now, a little book called The Secret sold millions and became a runaway New York Times bestseller. The essence of The Secret was simply this: visualize the positive future you want for yourself, claim it to be true, and it will come to be.

And while Christians might have chafed at that message (for good reasons), we have all too often taught a version of the same. Sure, we spread a little Jesus mayo on that self-actualization sandwich. We say it’s God who brings the blessing, not our own efforts at positive thinking. But really, what we’ve often taught (and thought) is only a tiny shade different: our positive thinking allows God to bless us.

this kid (reflections on my son leaving for 4 months)

my son max is just over 17 years old. he’s a junior in high school. and i am just blown away by how awesome he is.

i mean, his humor and quirkiness and musical passion and curiosity are all aspects of the joy he brings to our home and to others. but it’s his heart for others–particularly for those in need–that brings me pride and wonder.

i know this could sound like bragging. maybe it is. but i see this all as cause for thankfulness, not cause for self-congratulation. here are a few things he’s been involved in over the past few years:

as a junior higher, max started participating in a ministry loosely connected with our church, called Hope for the Homeless. every friday night, for about a decade (they have never, ever missed a week–and that consistency has been the secret sauce), a group of people from my church make sandwiches, then head downtown to hand them out to homeless people and engage in relationships. because of the consistency, the ministry has been been much more about humanizing people than about the sandwiches. when max started participating, they didn’t have other junior highers involved. it was all high school and college students, and a few adults. max went weekly for years, and still goes occasionally. the result is that max knows homeless people in san diego by name, and they know him. he knows their stories. when we’re downtown, they call out to him.

IMG_5691a little over a year ago, max started a ‘social justice club’ at his tiny private high school. it morphed into something else, and max isn’t currently leading it; but one of his first actions was to get his classmates to join him in sponsoring a World Vision sponsor child. to this day, max collects funds and manages that relationship and support (i have never helped on this at all, financially or otherwise).

when it was time for max to phase out of being the drummer for our church’s preteen ministry, he took it upon himself to raise up replacements. he coached, taught and encouraged a couple young drummers. one of those is now a freshman in high school and max’s back-up as the drummer in the high school ministry worship band.

max has always had a heart for haiti (even before the earthquake). he went with me on a Praying Pelican Missions trip to haiti a couple years ago, which ramped up his passion. last year, max was part of a month-long trip to haiti to put on a music day camp designed to give dignity to restaveks (haitian child slaves). he organized a small benefit concert to raise funds. and he worked to procure dozens of donated instruments.

in light of all this, the tiny nonprofit hosting the music camp–called Gabriel’s Promise–asked max to be their marketing manager. to this end, max has sought out coaching from a friend of ours who’s a marketing consultant.

this year, in preparation for the second music camp, max has seriously ramped it up on the benefit concert. he put together an informational packet about Gabriel’s Promise, met with the manager of one of the top music venues in San Diego (called Soma), and got them to agree to host the benefit. he recruited a half dozen of the top local music acts to perform. he worked with a designer through fivver to get a design and poster, started a facebook event, and recruited a team of high schoolers to be something of a street team, promoting the event. he shot short videos with the bands to promote the event. and he’s working to sell the thing out.

this is where the challenge entered.

with max’s desire to work in global development, he has felt it would be good to get a better handle on spanish (he takes it in school, but is FAR from fluent). so: two weeks ago, an opportunity came up for max to do a 2.5 month foreign exchange in peru. in many ways, it’s perfect: max’s class is going to peru for a class trip (sort of a service trip combined with a trip to machu pichu). the opportunity was to stay after the class returns, attending a sister school of his own. that meant no additional flight costs. but it also meant max would have to miss the benefit concert he has poured himself into. and he would miss the final months of fun with his many friends who are seniors (mostly his church friends). these are big losses for max, understandably. but he’s making the choice (with encouragement from us, but not pressure) to do what’s best for his long-range goals.

as a result: max leaves in a week for four months. the first three weeks will be his class trip; then he’ll stay in peru for 2.5 months of foreign exchange, living in the home of a peruvian classmate who will live with us for three months next fall; then he flies directly from peru to haiti to participate in the music day camp for child slaves. we won’t see him until the very end of july (when he plans on quickly turning around and working at a camp for a couple weeks).

i can barely imagine how much we’re going to miss him (i leave for new zealand tomorrow night, so today and tomorrow are my last days with him). with riley away at college, max is the center of much of what happens in our home. and he brings a significant amount of humor and joy to our daily lives. it’s going to rough for us (and i’m sure, at times, for him). i’m pretty sure that he’ll come back to us quite different (mostly in good ways, but there’s some loss in that for us also).

but, dang, i am so proud of him. godspeed, son. your dad loves you.

FRIDAY NUGGET: What You Do is Not Who You Are

I spin plates. I’m really good at it. Do you know what I mean? I have so many tasks and projects and ideas that demand my attention and focus: they require that I keep reaching toward them, giving them a little spin, to keep them from crashing to the ground.

Someone once asked me if my concern was that I wouldn’t know what to do if one or more plates crashed to the ground. But that’s not my issue. The issue for me is that I’ve often not been convinced I would know who I am, in a deep inner-life sort of way, if the plates no longer required spinning. After all, plate-spinner has become an identity.

Maybe, like me, you’re a youth worker. You passionately pour yourself out into the projects and people of youth ministry. But that’s not who you are. Do you know that, at a deep level? Do you know that you are so much more than what you do?

I’ve been on a long journey to separate “who I am” from “what I do.” Or, as a wise person said to me, to turn both “who I am” and “what I do” over to the transformational, redemptive work of God. So, if you hear a loud ripping sound coming from San Diego, you can assume it’s me. Want to join me?

Optimism helps in a sprint, but Hope is needed for a journey

In high school, my parents grew weary of the multiple ways I was finding to abuse their Volkswagen Bug. They issued an ultimatum that I would lose driving privileges for a time if I had another infraction. So I totally panicked when my buddies thought it was hilarious to somehow completely fill the inside of the car–all the way to the roof–with the tiny styrofoam pellets you find in bean bag chairs (or could find, back then).

I drove around the church parking lot with the doors open, allowing the styro-bits to create their own weather pattern. Then I pumped quarter after quarter into a self serve car wash’s industrial
vacuum, making sure I sucked up every single last piece of evidence.

All was well, I convinced myself, for a few weeks. Then, the first cold day of the fall arrived, unfortunately, when my dad and I were in the car together. The windows fogged up. As we drove down a major road, my dad reached over and turned on the defrost fan. On a Volkswagen Bug, the windshield is almost vertical, and the defrost vents point straight up. How was I to know that they were filled with thousands of patient, hiding, styrofoam balls, which engulfed the inside of the car with a blinding snowstorm?

You can convince yourself for a while that optimism will get you where you want to go. But eventually, optimism will be found out as limited. Optimism will fall short. Optimism’s great for a short sprint, but Hope is needed for a lifetime journey.


This is just a li’l tease, a snippet from Hopecasting: Finding, Keeping and Sharing the Things Unseen. it’s currently at the printer, and should be available in just about a month or so.

(click for a slightly larger and more legible cover image)
hopecasting full cover

Redwoods & Lighthouses

my “epilogue” column in Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. i wrote it while on vacation in big sur, california, in july. here’s where my mind went…

I’m on holiday in Big Sur, California as I write. It’s on the central California coast, and is known for it’s massive sea cliffs and stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s also known for its California redwood trees. Redwoods, in case you don’t know, are massive trees. They can be up to 350 feet tall and 20 feet wide. And the older trees around here are 2000 years old.

IMG_4586The place we’re staying on holiday is in a deep canyon; our cabin is pressed in on all sides by redwoods. Yesterday, I sat outside for a while just enjoying the majesty of these colossal sentinels. And, as is common for me, my mind started wandering to how what I was viewing had connections to my life.

First, one can’t stare at a Rrdwood tree (or a sunset, or any number of other natural wonders) without having a sense of God. Majestic beckons our hearts and minds to reflect on God. Atheists struggle to find words for transcendent moments like this, compelled by a sense of something good outside of themselves, but not having language for it.

People default to faulty-but-aspirational language about “the universe,” ascribing volition and moral will to the earth or all that is. It clearly has an otherness, this sort of beauty. But so many of our attempts to describe it fall short, because, sitting in the dappled sunlight at the bottom of a stand of redwoods, I feel something personal in their presence.

I’m not suggesting that the trees are God. I’m suggesting that I am experiencing, as you would if you were sitting next to me, a liminal space that naturally carries so many of the characteristics of the Creator that I can’t help but sense the Creator.

As a youth worker, it’s critical that I put myself in these spaces on a regular basis, that I am reminded of this sense. I’d even go as far as to say that right now, looking at and contemplating the redwood trees, a full 9 hour drive from the teenagers I work with, I’m actively doing youth work. In fact, this is important youth work. Cultivating my spiritual vitality is some of the most important youth work I ever do.

But there’s another level of reflection I’m drawn to, one that’s more metaphorical and less literal: in youth work, I’m called to be the redwood tree.

I’m reminded of my horrible youth work failure, at about 20 years old. I’d just come from almost-and-accidentally breaking a girl’s neck while attempting an attention-getting pied piper move, when an older youth worker sat me down. He said something very close to this (he said this in love, but he was blunt):

You’re really failing at this so far! You’re trying to be a lighthouse on wheels, following the teenagers around and constantly beaming out “notice me!” But they don’t need or want that from you. They need you to be a lighthouse on a promontory, stationary and dependable. The light from a lighthouse isn’t used for prying or invading or exposing; it’s a faithful reference point.

So, lighthouses and redwood trees–sorry for all the metaphors there. But looking at these redwood trees, words like faithful and dependable and steady and constant take on bark-covered life. These trees show the scars of abuse and fires; but they remain steadfast. Storms have raged and glorious days have passed by. But these trees, they are persistent and relentless.

I’d like to be that kind of youth worker. I’m not interested, anymore, in putting on a good show. And, frankly, I’m not interested in trying to replace the Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, exposing faults. But I dream of being a youth worker–an agent of Christ in the lives of teenagers–who could be described as I’ve described these Redwood trees: dependable, faithful, persistent and relentless.

And just as these California redwoods are a reminder to me of a personal Creator, providing a transcendent sense of God’s majesty, I pray that I will be a youth worker whose steadfast reliability reminds teenagers of the One who created them and loves them, the One my life points toward.