Category Archives: personal

Smoking Cigars to the Glory of God

I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight. – Charles Spurgeon

I love good cigars. The taste of a long-filler, hand-rolled premium cigar is, to my pallet, simply sublime.

I enjoy the craft of a good cigar (not the cheap-o machine made dogs). I revel at the opportunity to explain to the uninitiated-but-intrigued the difference between the filler, the binder and the wrapper, and the role each plays in the subtly and complexity of a cigar worth smoking.

I love the experience of smoking a cigar. Like a good meal, a cigar with friends provides a necessarily prolonged time of calm, perfect for discussion and dialogue (I’ve had some of the best conversations of my adult life in the presence of cigars).

And when by myself, the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to smoke a premium cigar is one of the most contemplative, nourishing, reflective, recalibrating sections of my otherwise busy and noisy days. When I’m home, it’s more often than not that I will slip out to my backyard (I do live in San Diego, after all) to relax, unwind, and think about the day—while puffing on a hand-rolled beauty.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize it, but cigars—for me—are one component of a deeply satisfying and sustainable life. And, like Spurgeon, I consider them a gift, assistance to the life I want, and, well: life-giving.

I have, occasionally, been called out on my tattoos by well-meaning Christians completely misinterpreting Leviticus 19:28. A few times, I’ve been asked to remove my earrings, in a church context where they’re considered inappropriate on a man.

But when fellow Christians find out I’m a cigar smoker, the most I usually get–even from those who would never think of partaking—is a disapproving chuckle.

I think that’s because, deep down, most thoughtful Christians realize an anti-cigar stance is a tough one to support biblically.

The most common pushback against cigars, from Christians misusing the Bible, is to reference the “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” bit from 1 Corinthians 16. Of course, this is a good and helpful teaching. It just doesn’t have anything to do with cigars! Paul is referring to sleeping with prostitutes in that passage. And even if we broaden it to a general spiritual principal, there is no significant health risk in moderate cigar smoking (cigar smoke, in case you don’t know, is not meant to be inhaled, and doesn’t contain the nasty—and addictive–stuff found in cigarettes).

The only biblical bit that gives me pause, when it comes to cigar smoking, is the stumbling block question (which makes me a little nervous to even write this article!).

Once, on the pastoral team retreat for a large church where I worked (we had about 25 pastors on our team), my sub-group, including the children, youth, and young adults pastors all had one of our meetings outdoors with cigars. I was the Executive Pastor at that church, and my peer, the Executive Administrator, called me out on it in a meeting we had with the Senior Pastor. The Senior Pastor responded: “I want you to give me one biblical justification for your objection. And don’t even try to use the stumbling block passage; because, if any of our pastors aren’t mature enough that this would be a stumbling block to them, they shouldn’t be on our staff.” I loved that Senior Pastor.

Still, as a youth worker, this is a question, and a biblical principle, I have to take very seriously. While I know that cigars aren’t addictive (any more than food, and certainly less addictive than coffee or Twitter), I also know that the students I work with don’t have the discernment to see the difference between cigars and cigarettes and excessive use of alcohol and a host of other things I don’t want them partaking in. So I use caution and restraint, and I’m careful to be aware of my context.

I’m not trying to convince you to smoke cigars. If you have other regular ways to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation; if you have others ways to enjoy regular, extended quiet conversations with friends; if you have other ways to quietly unwind at the end of a day and reflect; and if none of those things is unnecessarily addictive or harmful, enjoy them. Enjoy them to the glory of God!

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.

Why I’m Traveling to Easter Island With My Son Today

in the last several years, i’ve found myself in conversations multiple times with a dad of a high school guy who’s asking for input about how he should address the growing gap in their relationship. of course, some distancing between a high school guy and his dad is completely normal, developmentally.

funny example from the healthy relationship i’m blessed to have with my son — an exchange that took place while i was backing up the car and he was in the passenger seat:
Max: “You can back up further.”
Me: “No, there’s a bush.”
Max: “There’s tons of room!” (Then, continuing in a quiet affected voice, to no one in particular:) “I’m disagreeing with the male role model in my life because I’m an adolescent trying to establish myself, my identity and my power.”

in one of the earliest of that series of conversations with dads, i made a suggestion: you and your son need an epic adventure together. the idea took shape in my mind in the midst of me describing it: i’m not talking about taking your son on a ministry trip (or business trip). and i’m not talking about a night out. i’m talking about prioritizing something of a splurge in terms of time and cost. travel somewhere together where neither of you would likely go on your own. create an epic shared memory where you’re stuck together for a number of days without any other relationships to default to (spouse, siblings). the combination of epic-ness/adventure and quantity time will likely be massively fruitful. (i’m convinced that parents — especially dads — need to adopt a mindset that quality time only occurs in the midst of quantity time. you can’t really schedule quality time.)

since i articulated that idea in that conversation, i’ve repeated that advice a half dozen times to other dads. honestly: i don’t know if any of them took my advice.

but: even though my relationship with my son (who’s now 18 and about to leave the nest) is really wonderful, i decided a couple years ago that i should take my own advice. max and i started talking about what our epic adventure could be. my rules for myself on this were:
– this trip can’t be combined with a trip where i’m working in any way
– this trip would ideally be to a location neither of us had ever travelled to before
– max has a 51% share of the votes on where we go

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 11.42.03 AMfor a couple years we’ve talked about going to iceland. but once we settled on spring break of his senior year for the trip, we ruled out iceland (too cold in march!), and started considering locations in the southern hemisphere. somewhere along the way, i mentioned the idea of easter island. after a ton of research, we agreed, and made our plans.

easter island is one of the most remote inhabited islands on earth. we fly to santiago, chile (where we’ll spend 24 hours on each end of the trip); then we fly five hours straight west of santiago to get to easter island. easter island has an extremely unique history — it’s the story of a culture that was thriving, with well over 15,000 residents. but due to a bizarre story of seemingly bad choices involving competition between chiefs to construct massive statues (some call these ‘tikis’ — their official name is ‘moai’), every last tree on the island was cut down. then the topsoil completely eroded. along the way, the population ate all the indigenous animals. all of this led to a societal collapse, almost to the point of cultural extinction (they got as low as 111 residents in 1877). today, there are roughly 5000 permanent residents of the island, with a little over half being descendants of the original rapa nui people.

easter island moaisi have the advantage of airline miles. so max and i can get to santiago and home without flight cost. our cost, then, included reasonable flights from santiago to easter island and back, and humble accommodations with a partial kitchen that will allow us to avoid eating out the whole time. and the splurge i chose was booking private tours of the island (which seemed so preferable to being on a tour bus with a bunch of other tourists!).

because of my work, max has had the somewhat uncommon benefit of traveling to lots of cool places with me. he’s been all over the US and canada and mexico. and he’s been to haiti, peru, guatemala, england, and new zealand. but those were all ‘my trips’ where he got to tag along. this trip is OUR trip, only.

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?

my 2014 travel year, by the numbers

IMG_4820

  • Trips (not including personal stuff): 31
  • Stops (some trips had more than one stop): 46
  • Airline mileage: 144,742
  • Flight segments: 141

IMG_4876

  • Train segments: 1
  • Nights in a hotel, camp, conference center or guest bed: 124
  • US States visited (not including layovers): 17 (CA, MI, GA, MA, CT, PA, NJ, SC, OH, WA, NC, AL, CO, TX, TN, VA, IN)
  • Foreign countries visited: 3 (England, Canada, Belize)
  • Car rentals (not including a couple in-town rentals): 34
  • Car rental Days: 86
  • Nights stuck in a layover city due to missed connections: 4

IMG_4905

my bucket list, end o’ 2014 edition

i am a person not short of longings and daydreams. and i collect experiences like others collect trinkets. so it should not be a surprise that i think ‘bucket lists’ are fun. in fact, at the first meeting of each new cohort of the Cartel’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program, i have participants give us a little glimpse into who they are by sharing 3 bucket list items: one they have done in the last few years, one they’d like to do and probably will, and one they’d like to do but probably never will.

so, i’m gonna put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were) to list some of my own. some of these were already in place; but others i’m making up on the spot.

in no particular order:

  1. continue to visit one new country, at least every other year. i’d love to visit one new country per year, but that’s not always reasonable. however, i have 2 (and maybe 3) on deck for 2015 already (Italy, Spain, and maybe Jamaica). i’m at about 41 or 43 countries visited so far, and i’d certainly like that to cross 50. 75 would be nice.
  2. visit the two remaining states i have not been to (Vermont and Idaho), merely to complete the 50.
  3. vacation with my wife in Italy for our 30th anniversary for 3 full weeks (this one is likely, for 2016).
  4. write a handful of books for the broader christian market (meaning: not youth ministry or teens or parents). i have my first–Hopecasting–releasing in march. how it does will greatly determine whether this is a one-and-done item, or a broader impact and new area of growth for me.
  5. grow The Youth Cartel to a sustainable place where i’m less necessary. i imagine about 5 or 7 staff, a fun office, ongoing creativity and impact, and the ability for me to play an active role without being so busy.
  6. bucket list

  7. be involved in raising up a couple UH-MAZE-ING next leaders for The Youth Cartel–people who are WAY more talented than me and WAY more likely to instigate a revolution in youth ministry.
  8. be an 80 year-old middle school ministry volunteer, if i make it that long (in life, that is, not in ministry).
  9. speaking of being less busy, i would love to scale back but still be meaningfully involved in youth ministry and Cartel-y things, post 60.
  10. move to a house with an ocean view.
  11. have a cabin in the mountains where i can retreat whenever the heck i feel like it.
  12. a harley. or a vespa. (yeah, i know those couldn’t be more different; but i’d love them both and realize that’s absurd.)
  13. get asked to speak in chapel at my alma mater.
  14. paint. (i loved this back in college, and would love to revive it when i reach that partial retirement mentioned above.)

and then, all the more noble things that don’t quite qualify as bucket list items, like launching two independent and passionate adults (who are currently teenage and young adult), loving my wife better, and stuff like that. but, yeah, those aren’t really bucket list items.

how about you? what’s the item on your list that you might actually do, one day?

A Happy Teenager is a Lame Parenting Goal

a publisher asked me to write a short parenting book yesterday. and my teenage son is out of town this week on a class trip (and my 20 year-old daughter is away at college): so we’re getting a taste of empty nest. those factors mashed up to bring to the surface some thoughts i’ve had percolating for a while.

A Rant:

holy cow, so many parents have absorbed, like sponges, the misguided idea that the goal of parenting a teenager is for the teen to be happy.

happywith that goal in mind, they become obligated to parent with a set of behaviors and practices that misfire and don’t get them to their (misguided) goal:

  • “sure, i’m your parent; but i really want to be your friend!”
  • “i want to protect you and keep you safe, free from any scratches or dangers.”
  • “unless it’s in an area where your exploration will give you happiness, then i want you to have that.”
  • “oh, you made a really bad choice? i don’t like that you made that choice, but i’ll remove the consequences, because they would make you unhappy.”
  • “you’re too young for responsibility. you can think about that stuff when you’re an adult. i’m sure you’ll magically become responsible at that point.”

A Concession:

but i have compassion for parents of teenagers. and, as a parent of a teenager and a 20 year-old (who i refuse to consider a teenager), i hope you’ll have compassion on me.

i am regularly bombarded (as are all parents of teenagers) with the message that my teen’s happiness should be my goal. i’m told that my teenager’s happiness is my measure of success. i’m told that i’m a BAD PARENT if:

  • i don’t remove consequences to bad choices.
  • i don’t give my teenager everything s/he wants.
  • i give him or her meaningful responsibility and expectation.

really, it has become downright COUNTERCULTURAL to parent teenagers with any goal other than an obsession with their happiness.

i’m convinced that a big part of this is because the american dream has changed.

Why the Shift?

for centuries, the american dream has promised that if you work hard, you can possess the good life. this dream has morphed, to be sure, in its definition. the shift is located in our collective desire of what we want to possess. even as recently as thirty or forty years ago, the good life was primarily about property ownership, with a side helping of possessing relationships. that might be a little snarky, but the image of a poor immigrant, dreaming of one day owning a piece of land, or a home, and raising a family while applying oneself to “a good day’s work” was as clear as a norman rockwell painting.

my paternal grandparents lived this dream. maria and rudy separately left germany in their middle teenage years, steaming toward the american dream on a ship. both headed for detroit, where each had cousins or siblings who had recently put down roots. eventually meeting and marrying, they lived the life one can imagine them dreaming of as they had one foot on the gangplank and one foot on the ship leaving europe.

rudy spent his life as an electrician for detroit edison (now called DTE energy). they had a simple but comfortable home, raising a family of three children (my father included) in ann arbor, michigan. at retirement age, they did what retirees were supposed to do in those days, moving to clearwater, florida, and a massive retirement community where she could fill her days with ceramics classes, and he could fill his with golf.

by 20th century standards, they lived the american dream.

but the 21st century has a different set of values. today’s american dream is about possessing happiness, not property. material things are still a major part of the picture (maybe more than ever), since the assumption for many is that “stuff” will provide happiness.

but increasingly, today’s young adults, and thirty- and forty-somethings, are less interested in property possession and raising a family, and are more interested in a variety of other perceived happiness producers: fun, travel, adventure, meaning or significance, community, and freedom (not freedom to own things, but freedom from being anchored to anything).

The Result:

how’s this parenting approaching working out for us, by the way?

teen languagelet’s see… i’d suggest these results:

  • adolesence is extending faster than pinocchio’s nose. young adults don’t know how to take responsbility for themselves because they’ve never been given responsibility.
  • teenagers and young adults are increasingly being treated like children. this certainly does damage, and is darn close to abusive.
  • teenagers are no happier than they were a decade or two ago (prior to this absurd pendulum swing).
  • parents are not experiencing more satisfaction in their roles. in fact, more parents feel like failures than ever.
  • basically: everyone loses. no one is getting what they actually want.

time to take stock and consider a redirect, i’d say.

The Better Goal:

i believe the goal of parenting a teenager is independence. in other words, i’m more interested in raising adults than “raising kids.” sure, we’re not ultimately made for independence; god made us in his own image, wired for interdependence. but the dependence children have on their parents needs to shift during and after the teen years, with young adults both moving into interdependence with other people and their parents. so: i’m sticking with “independence” as a parenting teenagers goal: my kids have to experience healthy independence from me (and my wife) before they can choose another alternative.

to that end, i continue to wrestle my own internal insecurities, pressure from our culture, and fear of failure, to practice these commitments:

  • i will not treat my daughter or son like children. i will view them and think of them and treat them as apprentice adults rather than living the last few years of childhood.
  • i will be err on the side of giving freedom for decision making (which is not the same thing as disengaging, or abdicating). i will create clearly articulated boundaries within which glorious amounts of freedom and decision making can be exercised.
  • i will not remove the consequences of bad choices, even if the consequences will be challenging and a threat to happiness (and even if the consequences are a major inconvenience to me).
  • i totally dig my daughter and son, and love spending time with them; but i will neither fool myself into thinking i’m their peer, nor expect them to include me as a peer.

i’d love for my daughter and son to be happy (in case you thought i was suggesting the opposite). and i think they generally are happy. it’s just not the goal of my parenting. and it shouldn’t be yours, if you want to see your teenagers grow into healthy adults.

ok. who’s with me?


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.

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.

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.