Category Archives: faith

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.

childlike

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
as the boys who made the hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
when I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
and I want to be everything sometimes too:

childlikebut I don’t tell the grown-ups; because it is sad,
and I want them to laugh just like I do
because they grew up and forgot what they knew
and they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!”

–Delmore Schwartz (quoted in exuberance, by Kay Redfield Jamison)


hey, youth workers: don’t get so caught up in the frenzy of summer programs that you forget to be childlike.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

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.

verbalization, adventure, and getting boys to do stuff

i have a genderalization i sometimes throw out in parenting seminars:

teenage girls make friends and find their place in their world through talking; teenage boys make friends and find their place in their world through doing stuff together.

sure, there a plenty of exceptions. and this doesn’t mean that girls don’t learn from doing stuff, or that guys don’t need verbalization. it’s simply a basic tendency. it’s why teenage girls can share an intimate moment of verbal sharing and instantly be BFFs. it’s why a teenage guy can play video games with another guy, pretty much not talk about anything (at least not anything intimate or vulnerable) and consider that the perfect foundation for a friendship.

we youth workers know the importance of getting teenagers talking. i’ve been really challenged in this area by the work and words of amanda drury, who The Youth Cartel had speak at a couple events in 2012 and 2013. it has caused me to say such questionably strong statements as:

for teenage faith development, verbalization of faith is more important than accuracy.

but what about guys and doing stuff?

i have, on more than one occasion, challenged a father (more than one father) who’s troubled by how he and his son seem to be disengaging. i’ve challenged these dads with a simple, but radical, idea: splurge and take your son on a BIG TIME international adventure trip. do something and go somewhere you would never do on a “family vacation.” do something where you’re pushed, both to being personally stretched, and to relying on one another.

i’m saddened by how few (none?) of these dads have ever exercised the will and courage to take me up on my suggestion.

that’s part of why i LOVED this short film by casey neistat. admitedly, casey is an adventurer. so he’s more accustomed to these things. but his son owen wasn’t an adventurer. really, this is very much worth the 20 minutes to watch (both for the story itself, and for the principles you can see at work).

dads? what sort of shared adventures are you willing to embark on with your son?

youth workers? amidst the critical value of creating space and an environment for verbalization, how can we embrace the importance of getting guys to do stuff (and maybe verbalizing in the middle of that)?

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 1

i’m starting a new series of occasional posts with this one. i’ll probably post about one per week or so. but these will be a random tidbit of input for parents of pre-teens and young teens. if you’re a youth worker, feel free to copy and paste these into a parent newsletter or email (though i’d appreciate a credit line), for forward them a link.

young teen doubt 1Welcome to the World of Doubts

A nervous set of parents met with me. Tears came quickly. Judy, the mom, spoke in-between honks into her tissue: “Johnny, our 7th grader… [honk!]… he’s always been such a good boy. And he’s always loved Jesus.”

The dad nodded.

Judy continued: “But the other night at dinner… [honk!]… Johnny said, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a Christian anymore.’” [honk!]

A big smile broke out across my face.

Their faces made it obvious they were somewhere between confused and offended by my grin. So I explained:

Questioning and examining (usually called “doubting”) Mom and Dad’s faith system, or her own childhood faith system, is a necessary part of early teen faith development.

Did you catch that? Parents (and plenty of youth workers) are usually threatened, even frightened, by their kids’ doubts. But teenagers who don’t go through this process will reach their early 20s with a stunted (childish) faith!

Let me back up and explain a bit more fully.

The Task of Discovery

Stephen Glenn, a psychologist who published a bunch in the 70s and 80s, developed a helpful little timeline (I’m modifying the ages Glenn suggests to account for our current context). He said the first few years of life are all about “discovery”. The next few years (4 – 7, roughly) are all about “testing”. And the years from 8 – 10 are focused on “concluding.”

Then a shift of seismic proportions–-usually called puberty–-comes along like massive storm waves crashing against a sea wall made of chalk or sandstone. Wave after wave, erosion takes place–erosion of all those nice pre-teen conclusions. And the cycle begins again: 11 – 14 are years of “discovery”; 15 to 20 year-olds tend to focus on “testing”; and those in their 20something years (now called “emerging adults”) shift to forming conclusions.

Can’t you see that in your young teen? They’re in the midst of a massive adventure of discovery. That’s why they want to try everything–four sports, three clubs, five friendship groups, a new hobby or collection each month. They’re trying to gather data about the world, about how people interact, about values, about reactions. And, about what it means to be a Christ-follower.

So wrestling with “what do I believe?” becomes a wonderful question for young teens to ask. That doesn’t mean we fan the flames of their doubts (“I can’t believe you still believe that!”). It means we come alongside them in their doubts, rather than interpreting those questions (that data collection) as a real rejection of faith.

How Should Parents Respond?

Don’t freak out. When you hear doubts squeaking out, take a deep breath. Thank God that your budding teenager is still willing to verbalize this kind of thing with you. A strong negative reaction will teach your child that she shouldn’t share in the future.

Exercise curiosity. Young teens rarely have the self-awareness to verbalize their doubts in helpful and constructive ways. We have to look beyond the presenting evidence for the question(s) forming in the background. And we have to ask.

Encourage verbalization. In other words, talk about it! Healthy dialogue is often all that’s needed. Ask questions, rather than preaching.

Share in first-person. Your pre-teen or young teen will “catch” more from your life than from your words. When you do choose to share words, try not to be too prescriptive (“Johnny, what you need to do is this….”). Instead, share from your own life. Respond to doubts with your own story, including your own doubts (past or present).

Pray. Isn’t that one obvious? Your child is going through the most formative and tender years in faith development. Talk to God constantly!


Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, a veteran youth worker, and a parent of a 20 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son. He speaks frequently to parents, and is the author or co-author of six books for parents, including A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, A Parents Guide to Understanding Social Media, A Parents Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating, and Understanding Your Young Teen. With his own “apprentice adults,” he co-authored a book for teenagers: 99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents.

photo in need of a caption

yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve had one of these.

someone’s going to get ticked at this one, i’m guessing. just know that i’m not suggesting that jesus didn’t walk on water! there. geez (us).

9780991005024-front-1000but, really, i’m all a-twitter (in the old meaning of that word) with anticipation for what weirdness and wonder you’ll come up with. need a prize to prompt ya? fine. how about a copy of morgan schmidt’s MUST READ new book, Woo: Awakening Teenagers’ Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus. it officially released this week. here’s what kenda dean said about it:

Morgan Schmidt is a snappy and relatable writer. But above all, she is a prophet blessed with a winsome honesty that sneaks up on you as you’re planning your umpteenth mission trip and whispers: “Recalculate.” For Schmidt, being human boils down to desire; and youth ministry that’s honest is about desire too—the desires of youth for God, the desire of God for them. With Woo, Morgan Schmidt joins a new class of practical theologians taking aim at the false gods driving the youth ministry industry, and she restores our focus—and our hope—on young people’s God-given desire to become, belong to, and worship as the body of Christ. Woo completely won me over.

so there. youth worker, if you ever asked yourself WWKD? the answer is clear: she would read this book.

winner gits one.

ok — whatcha got for this beauty, sent to me by an old friend and former middle school ministry volunteer, dr. matt carlson? (click on this bad boy for a much larger image.)

jesus walking on water, kinda

CONTENDERS

Jesus clearly brings out a large quantity of comments, both here and on facebook. here’s the best of the best, from my admittedly subjective and skewed perspective:

Othy
…and this was the scene in which you could tell that the producers spared no expense for the special effects in the “Son of God” movie.

Dave Wollan
Oh you of little hands

Cash
“During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
That was when I made you carry me
So that I could walk on water
And you could learn your lesson.”

David Hanson
Ancient “Chicken Fighting.”

Dan Jones
Miracle Whipped.

Josh Jones
The lesser known, 13th disciple – Aquaman

Lauren Christian
“Oops. Wrong lake.”

Jason Buchan
the disciples practicing their human video for their next outreach in Galilee.

Klint Bitter
“Jesus, dude, two words: under. Wear.”

and the winner is…

i have to admit, i was hoping for a good Son of God movie line. so i’m givin’ it to Othy, for “…and this was the scene in which you could tell that the producers spared no expense for the special effects in the “Son of God” movie.”

congrats, Othy — a copy of Woo is coming your way!

The Best Life

i’ve had a book about Hope percolating in me for almost five years. i’ve had a publishing contract for the book since last summer. i finished a draft of it about 6 weeks ago and sent it off to 6 readers (including two “theological readers”). last week i spent 3 days in the desert making corrections and tweaks based on feedback from the readers. and on saturday, i sent it off to the publisher. even if the book only sells three copies (me, my wife and my mom), this was a major deal for me, writing a book that expresses something deep from my soul, and not just my head.

here’s a tiny snippet from the last chapter…

The Best Life

The age-old existential question that has haunted philosophers and college sophomores for a very long time, is some version of “Why am I here?” Jesus gives us some fodder for consideration in what has become my favorite Bible verse:

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10b)

Remember: When Jesus says “they” in this verse, he’s talking about you.

Contrary to what one might assume by observing Christians in America, Jesus did not say:

  • I have come that you may get into heaven.
  • I have come that you may leave this lousy place one day in the future.
  • I have come that you may get serious about religion, finally.
  • I have come that you may experience your ship coming in.
  • I have come that you may know who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
  • I have come that you may stop disgusting me so much.

It’s a pretty revolutionary promise, really. Jesus wants you to experience a full life. That’s his verbatim explanation for his time on earth.

Why are you here? To have a full life.

So, what’s a full life, then?

I’m convinced, from scripture, observation of hopeful people, and my own experience, that a fullness of life burns most hot when I follow in the footsteps of Jesus and give my life away, bringing Hope to the hopeless.

As my more self-focused longings are filled with the pigment of Hope, they start to shift. Since Hope and longing are dancing the Tango, a shift in one shifts the other. My Hope increases, and my longings turn outward. My longings shift and my Hope needs a power boost.

This is the full life. This is the life we were invented for. This is God’s dream for you, a continual broadening of your longings and increase of Hope, put into action.

Zydeco Mass

my family attended an amazing, joy-filled Zydedo Mass eucharist service tuesday night with some friends, at st. paul’s episcopal church in san diego. it was an absolutely beautiful and unique worship experience. i captured some of it in short videos and photos. here’s a taste:

my family and a friend (not a video):
IMG_3919

the processional

reading of scripture:

reading of the gospel (not a video):
IMG_3931

“dance your offerings to the front”:

eucharist/communion:

the washboard player was one of the only people who didn’t seem amused; but he was awesome in his own curmudgeonly way (not a video):
IMG_3936

the recessional:

experiential, joy-filled worship, man. couldn’t all our churches use a bit more of that!?

Jean Valjean and the sparking of hope

here’s a little snippet of the writing i’ve been doing in the desert this week. this is the intro to the 8th chapter of the book (which is about hope). this chapter is tentatively called “Jesus, the Hope-Giver.”

My favorite Broadway musical is Cats.

That’s a lie, actually, and a glimpse into my strange sense of humor. Seriously, the percentage of normal, well-adjusted guys who love Cats has to be terribly small, right? Sorry if I’ve offended you. Sort of.

My favorite Broadway musical is Les Misérables. But to be honest, I prefer the film versions, because I can focus on the storyline more, not being distracted by the theatrics and staging. I was more upbeat about the 2012 version with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway than many people I know. And I was two-thumbs-up about the 2000 version with Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich. But my favorite version of the story, by far, is the 1998 (non-musical) version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and a pre-Homeland Claire Danes.

I think the reason the 1998 version of “Les Mis” is my favorite is because it contains one of my all-time favorite scenes in any film, ever. It’s a scene in all versions of Les Mis, but none capture it quite like the 1998 film version.

You can skip reading this paragraph if you’re a Les Mis groupie, but to make sure everyone is on the same page: Les Miserables is the story (written as a book, by Victor Hugo, in 1862, and widely considered one of the best novels of the 19th century) of Jean Valjean, a peasant who steals a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child and spends 19 years in prison for the crime. After his release, he breaks parole, and his hunted down by a law-obsessed police inspector named Javert. There’s much more to the story, of course. It’s an exploration of law and grace, loyalty, transformation, and redemption.

jean valjeanMy favorite scene occurs fairly early in the film, when Jean Valjean is first on the run for breaking parole. Turned away from multiple inns because his yellow passport marks him as a convict, Valjean is taken in by the town’s priest, Bishop Myriel. During the night, Valjean steals the rectory’s silverware. But he is caught, and policemen return him to and the silverware to the rectory to refute Valjean’s claim that the silverware was given to him, enroute to what will clearly be a return to prison.

Here’s the breathtaking scene. When the police ask the Bishop if the silverware is his, he responds that it was the rectory’s, but that Valjean is correct in stating it was a gift. As the police release Valjean and turn to leave, the Bishop continues, saying that Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. Valjean’s face reveals confusion, and the Bishop re-iterates that the valuable candlesticks were part of the gift.

Pulling Valjean aside, Bishop Myriel quietly says, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”

The scene is powerful to me (and thousands of others) on multiple levels:
• I am Valjean (and so are you). I do not deserve mercy, but have been shown it countless times, by my God and by people in my life.
• The “measure” of mercy is over the top: not only forgiveness, but a double-portion gift.
• This is a clear picture of Jesus, particularly through the lens of the Bishop’s final comment.
• As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live like this, to be a dispenser of this style of mercy, which I find simultaneously life-giving and completely counter to my instincts.

And the scene is a powerful picture of hope’s arrival. Valjean heads into the rectory courtyard, held by the policemen, completely without hope. Full of fear and absolutely demoralized, days out of exile and about to be returned. He leaves with a kernel of possibility starting to crack open in his heart.

This is Jesus, who shows up in the midst of our confusion and pain and fear, and surprises us with hope. Other than the fact that Valjean would not be returning to prison, the immediate circumstances of Valjean’s life are still difficult. But his imagination is sparked, a dream of a new potential, hope and longing commencing the Tango.