Category Archives: personal

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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.

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reflection questions for taking stock of your life

back in 2005, just before YS got sold to zondervan, i got sent on a sabbatical. i say “got sent on,” because i hadn’t actually asked for it. but it become apparent to my co-leaders and my boss that i was running on empty. i wasn’t empty yet — i wasn’t burned out. but i was in danger. so they graciously cut me off. three days later (literally), i was in hawaii starting 11 days by myself (i spent a month away from work — 100% disconnected — but the first 11 days were by myself, in hawaii). while this was critical for me, i also think we had a bit of a “this sort of thing will never again be possible after YS gets sold to zondervan/harpercollins/newscorp” understanding that fueled a few decisions like this!

the consultant who worked with our leadership team, mark dowds, gave me an assignment. every day i was to take one of the reflection questions below and think about it while taking an hour-long walk. he was insistent about me walking while meditating on the question. after the hour, i would come back and do some journaling about what i’d thought about, or heard from god. then i’d spend another chunk of time praying.

the whole thing had a profound impact on me. and in the years since, i’ve returned to these questions, and given them out to dozens of others (especially those who are headed out on a saabbatical).

it’s been a while, though. i’m completely loving what i get to do these days. but i have noticed that it’s 5% less fun than it was 6 months ago. i think that’s probably only because adam and i are doing too much, running too hard. we’re making some adjustments right now that i hope will help; but we haven’t seen the fruit of those adjustments yet.

IMG_3520so, when i head to the desert next week for a 3-day writing retreat, i think i’m going to spend some time with these questions again. maybe i’ll even walk a bit.

Where is my life going?

What do I want life to be like in 10 years (remove all fantasy and projection of anything material from your thoughts and get to the substance of life experience)?

What might God be trying to teach me?

Am I growing spiritually? Meditate on the fruit of the spirit (do I love more? am I more kind? etc.).

What moments in life have been the most pleasurable and God honoring? Revisist these times and reexperience them in your body.

What am I most afraid of and what can I discover about myself?

What changes am I going to make in life to be healthier in a holistic manner?

What can I do to relinquish more control in life in order to become more dependant on God for outcome?

What opportunities might this season be presenting me that I am not seeing?

If I was to make the gutsiest choice that could benefit my life and family more what would that choice be?

i STRONGLY encourage you to find a way to prayerfully consider these questions.

my next two months are insane and awesome

dv370009a.jpgtoday starts the insanity. i’m flying to south carolina today. and it’s the first of many, many weekends out over the next two months.

September

27/28: Building U event for youth leaders and student leaders, in Greenville, SC
29/30: UMC district worship night in Greenville, SC

October

4 – 6: JH Journey (junior high event) in Anderson, IN
10 – 13: The Youth Cartel’s Middle School Ministry Campference (actual event is 11 – 13), in Seymour, IN
13/14: The Youth Cartel’s Best Ever Parent Training Ever for Central Christian Church in Carmel, IN
16 – 21: The Youth Cartel’s Open Paris, Paris, France (actual event is 18/19, followed by a parent seminar for The American Church in Paris
25 – 27: Especialidades Juveniles Convencion (spanish YS convention) in Orlando
27/28: The Youth Cartel’s Best Ever Parent Training Ever for a group of churches in Lakeland, FL

November

6 – 11: The Youth Cartel’s The Summit, in Atlanta (actual event is 8/9), followed by a Best Ever Parent Training Ever for the North Georgia Conf of the UMC
13 – 16: Detroit, for the Detroit Youth Ministry Network on the 14th, and a youth ministry training event for Life Church in Canton, MI on 15/16
18 – 20: Youth Ministry Coaching Program in Nashville
22 – 24: National Youth Workers Convention in Nashville

whew! if you’d like to support me through this season, i sure could use prayer! pray for good health, adjustments to time changes, a clear head, a responsiveness to the spirit, and for my family back home!

transformation

i preached at my church a few weeks ago on the topic of transformation. here’s my outline:

Jesus is actively working to bring about restoration to everything broken and tainted – all of creation.

…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

Why don’t we experience constant growth? We block the process.

Tweaking is not Transformation

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

What holds us back?

  1. Seductions
  2. Lack of understanding and practice when it comes to Spiritual Discernment
  3. Internal Voices of Resistance
  • Voice of Judgment (“Transformation isn’t necessary”)
  • Resource needed: an Open Mind
    And [Jesus] said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

  • Voice of Cynicism (“Transformation isn’t possible”)
  • Resource needed: an Open Heart
    Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

  • Voice of Fear (“Transformation would mean I’d lose something”)
  • Resource needed: an Open Will
    So do not fear, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:9-10a)

So, what should we do to experience transformation?

  1. It’s all about posture. Position yourself invitationally for transformation.
  2. Learn to Discern.
  3. Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

  4. Exercise Curiosity toward yourself. What are your Voices of Resistance? What’s their “positive intent”?

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

marko at 75and here’s audio. but, for some reason, it starts about 5 minutes or so into the sermon. i began by showing this doctored photo of myself at 75, and talked about how, since i’ve recently turned 50, i’ve been thinking a bit more about my next 25 years (assuming i have them). i talked about how one of the worst things i could imagine would be to be the same person at 75 as i am today. then i started talking about how my parents have been such a great example to me in this area, and in the midst of that description, the audio picks up:


(or, you can click through here if you’d rather download it)

getting caught up!

man, i have been a lousy blogger lately! i’ve had such limited bandwidth lately, and just haven’t found time to blog. hoping to get back in the saddle this week.

so, what have i been up to?

my last couple sporadic posts were the week of my 50th birthday. but that was a crazy week in itself.

IMG_4250i’m completely stoked that The Youth Cartel is working with World Vision (and, particularly, the 30 Hour Famine team) on a variety of initiatives. one of the ways we’re working with them is to lead the development of a couple additional engagement programs for youth groups. the first of those (which i can’t reveal much about yet) kicked off may 21 – 23 with a three-day program development retreat. i handpicked a half dozen brilliant people i knew i could rely on to bring passionate collaborative input and deliver on various aspects of the program development. i rented a house on top of a mountain (roughly in the san diego area), and we spent those days dreaming, praying, wrestling and planning. we came out of those days with an amazing plan that i’m completely pumped about (both in terms of how it will impact american teenagers, and how it will impact vulnerable children on the other side of the world). now we just have to write and create the whole thing by september 1! yikes!

IMG_4272the day after i came home from that retreat, a few friends and my family planned a really fun 50th birthday party for me. we had about 30 people for a great evening of laughter, food, cigars, and a pretty hilarious marko-roast. tic long was the emcee, and was clearly in his element. good friends from past and present (including a few who came in from out of town) blessed me with their presence and words.

then, after a weekend of recovery, i headed off for a couple weeks in new zealand! what a fantastic trip. the first weekend, i spoke at two youth ministry conferences: one for youth workers on the south island and one for youth workers on the north island. it was a fairly blistering pace, since i spoke multiple times at each event, and flew down to christchurch and back up to auckland in the midst of it.

IMG_4302then, after a day off, i headed out on a ferry to an island off the coast from auckland, where i lead a four day coaching retreat for youth ministry leadership from 4 different denominations. they had never gathered like this before, so it was an incredible honor to get to lead, encourage and challenge them. we stayed at a gorgeous house overlooking the ocean, graciously given to us by a husband and wife who believed in what we were doing and wanted to invest in these leaders.

IMG_4322after that retreat ended, i headed off with my good friend (really, she’s like a sister) tash mcgill. we headed north to her family’s bach (the kiwi term for a cabin, though this one was more like a beach house). we had a few days of chillaxing, conversation, good food, and a bit of sightseeing along the coast. i got smacked with a bad head cold; but it was otherwise a really wonderful weekend.

now i’m home (actually, i’m in the LA airport as i’m writing). can’t wait to see my family, though my oldest child is now gone for the entire summer working at a camp. this week i have two online coaching groups, and a TON of work to get caught up on.

man, i am a blessed dude.

control and release

recently in one of my coaching groups, we were talking about our propensity to try to control. i see this in so many of our youth ministry approaches: an attempt to control the outcomes.

one of the participants asked me for a definition of control, and i responded with this: minimizing variables and maximizing efficiencies for predictable outcomes.

yup: i’m so prone to doing that in my life. and it’s pervasive in american church culture.

today in the mail the latest copy of youthwork magazine arrived from the UK. and i’d forgotten that i’d written my last “epilogue” column (which they call Mark: My Words. ha! get it?) on this same subject. here’s what i wrote:

Open HandsA month ago I was struggling–obsessing, really–with my income. Being self-employed can have that impact. In my three and a half years of self-employment, I’ve yet to have a significant financial problem; but that doesn’t keep me from freaking out from time to time. I look at my little tracking spreadsheet, and my mind starts to wander down completely useless and unhelpful pathways.

I’m not going to have enough money.
How will I pay my daughter’s university fees?
What if this is the beginning of the end?
We’re going to be living in the gutter soon!

But here I am, a month later, realizing that God provided, yet again. It wasn’t one of those dramatic stories I’ve often heard of an anonymous envelope of cash in the post. Instead, it was through the most regular and mundane of provisions: some projects I’d been working on came together.

And I was reminded of a connection that I’ve learned many times. I’ve been speaking and writing a bit on the subject of biblical hope lately. And one of the points I always make is that hope isn’t something we can make. I can’t bear down and try harder and suddenly have more hope.

Instead, hope (not optimism!) is a gift from God. Hope comes to me, usually in the midst of suffering, dissatisfaction with the way things are, and an honest cry out to God.

When I talk to teenagers about the fruit of the Spirit, I try to make a similar point. we don’t choose to be fruity. Fruit is a result of a life connected to the Spirit. It’s a gift, really. And our all the effort in the world, even with the correct leverage, won’t suddenly result in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Effort might give me hemorrhoids, but not much else.

There’s so much I try to control. Finances, hope, and spiritual fruit are only three of a very, very long list. And I think I’m learning that my open hands toward God–a position of release and request–is the stance that ultimately gives me what I truly long for.

This is true in every aspect of youth work also. So many of our youth work efforts are about control. We try to control the behavior of teenagers. We position ourselves in an attempt to control church leader’s opinions of us and our work. We control programs like lab scientists, as if the perfect mix of this and that will necessarily result in engagement, attendance, compliance and spiritual growth.

But, ultimately, we all know that it’s God who brings about transformation in the lives of teenagers, not our crafty talks or hipster songs or The Best Game Ever.

So then: what role do I play? I mean: I’m supposed to do something, right? Whether in my own interior life or my family’s well being or the spiritual formation of the teenagers in my ministry: I’m not just supposed to sit and wait, believing that God will do something, right?

That’s the tension there for me. Part of me believes that a little more sitting and waiting on God is exactly what’s called for, and just might be the antidote to my ongoing forays into control and manipulation.

But I also believe that God invites me to play an active role. I get to participate!

I need to be reminded that my active participation with God looks like me being the kid with the weird lunch at the miraculous feeding of the 5000.
Could Jesus have fed the crowd without the kid’s participation? Sure.
Was the kid necessary for the will of God to happen that day? Not really.
Would the miracle have happened were it not for the kid’s involvement? We don’t know.
But we can be confident about this: that kid would never have been the same. You know he told that story to his grandkids.

My personal finances. The hope in my heart. The fruit of the Spirit in my life. The spiritual growth of the teenagers in my charge. They all beckon with the same invitation: Step up, open up your hands, release control, and give your “lunch.”

it’s january, but emmanuel is still with us

my most recent back page column for youthwork magazine (UK) came out a few weeks ago (just got my physical copy that swam all the way over from england). i wrote it in december, soaking in all that wonderful pre-christmas warmth and cheer and spirituality. but i knew the readers would read the column in january. so:

The Festive Spirit

At a recent youth ministry training event I spoke about what real change and transformation looks like for a Christian. Somewhere in the middle of the talk I commented off-handedly about how I feel like it’s only been in the last three years that I’ve begun to experience the Holy Spirit, rather than merely acknowledging, understanding, or conceptualising the Holy Spirit.
A friend of mine wrote me two weeks later: ‘You said something to the effect of “I didn’t really discover what life in the Spirit really meant until the last few years.” What changed for you? I imagine you as someone who seeks God deeply and honestly. I was taken aback by that statement. I wonder if that is something that can help me in my own walk.’

Here’s how I responded:

‘Yeah, I don’t mean to say I was unspiritual or anything prior to a few years ago. I just think that I mostly saw my faith as an intellectual pursuit that outworked itself in my actions. But I didn’t ‘get’ the role of the Holy Spirit. I felt broken in my departure from my last ministry position, and wondered so deeply if I would ever have any value again (sounds dramatic, but that was the state I was in). It was then that the Holy Spirit broke through that in a powerful and affirming way, starting me down a new road. It’s not been a complete ‘charismatic renewal’ or anything. I’ve just grown in experience and practice and believe that God actually speaks to me. That is what has reformatted my understanding of the Spirit’s role in leadership.’

I’m only sharing that exchange with you to set the table for this: I think we have had (and I have had) a less-than-full embracing of Emmanuel (meaning ‘God with us’).

It’s December as I write this, and I’ve been reflecting on that interchange above, and what God is doing in my life. But while I’m unavoidably Christmassy right now (I’m even listening to Christmas music as I type this!), I realize you will be reading this in the decidedly non-festive post-Christmas months.

jesus in mangerAnd here’s where my mind went (or was lead): 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.

For me, that mirrors how I treated the Holy Spirit for most of my life. ‘There you go, Spirit – you’re a good theological concept, and I have a high appreciation for you. Now, it’s time to get back into your storage box until you’re called for again.’

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 the Holy Spirit will be revolutionised.

Maybe that’s the bottom line of this whole thing: what’s it look like for you and me – as children of God, and as youth workers – to live with an Advent expectancy that the Spirit 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 anticipation in your faith today? I’m telling you, it’s like a booster shot of Christmas pudding.

jeannieo

in september of 1983, near the beginning of a 2-year break i took between my sophomore and junior years of college, i walked into the lobby of michigan oven company with my drafting portfolio under my arm, ready for a job interview. the receptionist was cute, and i was fairly convinced our flirtation proved my charm (she later told me her only impression was that my suit looked dorky).

flash forward to january 4, 1986: we got married.

yup: 27 years ago today, i felt my knees buckle when jeannie appeared at the back of the aisle. she still makes my knees buckle. and i love her more than my 22-year-old self knew was possible.

here’s jeannie and me, looking very young, while visiting universal studios in california, in the summer of 1985.

marko and jeannie.1985

2012 in review

marko 2012seriously, it was a great year. a busy year. even frenetic at times. but a deeply good year.

this being my last blog post of the year, i thought i’d take a few minutes to look in the rear view mirror. as this post goes live on my blog, my wife (jeannie) and son (max) and i will be in the air on our way to london. this is a very unique thing for us, spending christmas in london! i’m 49 years old, and i have never spent a single christmas season in any location other than detroit, michigan, with my family and jeannie’s family. jeannie has never had a christmas away from her parents either. my two kids (liesl is almost 19, max just turned 15) only know christmas with extended families in detroit.

but liesl is on a gap year trip. she and her friend stephanie spent the last three months in ireland (and the month before that in england). on january 3, the day after we fly home, liesl and steph fly to india for three more months. so we splurged. we cashed in a boatload of airline miles and booked jeannie and max’s tickets using those. a london youth worker friend of mine found an extremely gracious family to give us their home for free while they’re traveling over the holidays (we’re “cat-sitting!). we even have a little side-trip planned to wales, and another british friend hooked us up with friends of his who are letting us use their welsh seaside cabin for a few bucks to offside utilities. it’s still a splurge — considering food and fun. but it seemed worth it. and i can’t wait to see my little girl.

oh, and potential robbers: we have house-sitters at our place. so don’t even think of it.

now, for that look back.

IMG_2995family

we haven’t had such a significant year in our family life for a long time. highlights:

  • in the spring, liesl got accepted to a couple of the colleges she’d applied to, and declared for university of redlands (but deferred for one year).
  • in june, max graduated from middle school.
  • a day later, liesl graduated from high school.
  • the day after that, liesl left for a summer job at a camp.
  • at the end of the summer, jeannie finished the two years of course work for her master’s degree in psychology.
  • in early september, liesl left for 7 months in england, ireland, and india (with a few weeks on the front end of immigration hassles and plan-adjustment-panic).
  • that same week, max started high school.
  • a week later, jeannie started her practicum (basically an unpaid 3/4 job, counseling in the domestic abuse section of a community services agency).
  • toss in a wonderful family vacation in washington state during spring break, a family wedding in detroit in may (liesl and i went), a family wedding in colorado at the end of july (liesl, jeannie and i went), and a nice august week with friends at a home in lake arrowhead, california.

in many ways, i feel like i was the family member with the least eventful year (which was probably a nice change for all of us!)

personal stuff

i doubt i will ever again publish as much as i did in 2012:

beardy, decemberin addition to that absurd glut of books, i wrote three columns on middle school ministry for Youthworker Journal, 6 columns for Youthwork Magazine (UK), and probably another one or two articles i’m not remembering.

i also had about 28 speaking engagements, including:

  • youth worker training events in five countries
  • youth events across the US
  • and a nice handful of parent training seminars

at my church, i continued my weekly leadership of a small group of middle school guys (now 7th graders). i preached once in “big church,” and was involved here and there in other ways.

oh, and my beard got its own personality, as well as it’s own facebook page and twitter feed.

The Youth Cartel

since adam had just joined me in the last few months of 2011, 2012 was really a massive year of growth for The Youth Cartel. it really felt like it went from me doing my little stuff, to being a real start-up. we’re running at about 110%, and just hope that the two of us don’t become limitations to continued growth.

the year included:

  • three events: Open Seattle, the Middle School Ministry Campference, and The Summit, all of which were big wins and so much fun.
  • the launch of The Youth Cartel publishing line. we’d gone way down the road with multiple publishers about doing this as a partnership, but in the end, just decided to run at it ourselves. we released four titles this year: Good News in the Neighborhood, The Youth Cartel’s Unauthorized Dictionary of Youth Ministry, Masterpiece, and Leading Up. each was a labor of love, and would not have happened without a team of wonderful friends and editors and great authors.
  • photo (6)

  • late in the year, it was obvious that we were getting over our heads on the publishing thing, and added anne jackson as our very-part-time managing editor. she’s allowing me to breath.
  • our email lists have grown to over 3000 youth workers. these include product and event lists, as well as the popular YouTube You Can Use and Cartel Culture.
  • we’ve seen steady growth on facebook and twitter, which has been fun. and our fledgling blog made it to #14 on the list of top 25 youth ministry blogs.
  • we developed amazing partnerships with a whole bunch of great organizations. they are such an encouragement to us.
  • we loved serving a bunch of consulting clients. many of these are adam’s babies, and focus mostly on web development and social media help. but others — from biblica to world vision to thomas nelson publishers to a couple denominational groups have been shared efforts.
  • we launched our online store, and have been pleased with the traction so far.
  • the Youth Ministry Coaching Program had an amazing year. i had cohorts of youth workers meeting in san diego, nashville, winston-salem, and san antonio. and i lead a custom version for a handful of staff at a church in detroit. this month, i launched two beta-test groups of a new online version. and in early january i start a new nashville cohort.

i’m sure i’m leaving some stuff out. but that’s the bulk of the stuff for The Youth Cartel in 2012.

in summary

yup. it was an amazing year. i’m thankful to my god. i’m in love with my family. and i’m deeply happy and full of hope.

ok, 2013: bring it on!