Tag Archives: forgiveness

four teenage moments that resulted in my lifetime of youth ministry (part 4)

at a recent speaking event, i met the granddaughter of a man–the former choir director of the church i grew up in–who had a huge impact on my life and vocation. it got me thinking about the small handful of significant moments that played out-sized roles in my calling to youth ministry.

i thought of four moments, more than any teaching i ever heard or discipleship program or retreat or any other aspect of youth ministry programming, that i can still clearly remember to this day.

in part 1, i wrote about the choir director who invited me to ride with him and his wife in his car, while on choir tour, and the impact that had on me.
in part 2, i wrote about being invited to lunch at my youth pastors’ apartment, and why that was such a big deal.
part 3 was the story of my older sister’s youth director telling me i’d be a great youth pastor someday, when i was in 7th grade. 9 little words that were potent stuff, apparently.

the first two moments were stories of being invited into the world of adults. the third moment was about word of encouragement.

i’m sure there were a hundred or a thousand other moments and words and teachings and appropriate touches and listening ears that had am impact on me. but from my almost-50 perch, i remember four.

weekend at bernieswhen i was in 9th grade, we had a sunday school teacher named fred. nothing about fred was cool. he looked strikingly like the dead guy in weekend a bernies (though that movie was more than a decade away from its release). he was a somewhat boring teacher, and he used a over-arching device to get compliance out of us that, even as a 9th grader, i could see as horribly manipulative: we got points for all sorts of things, and those with at least a modicum of points at some point in the winter got to go to fred’s cabin in northern michigan for a snowmobiling weekend. when i spot manipulation, particularly by a boring, uncool sunday school teacher, i’m prone to rebellion, apparently.

i took a couple friends with me and made an appointment with the Director of Christian Education (our church had a youth director by this point, but he wasn’t over the sunday school program. crazy, huh? welcome to the 70s in churchland). we sat down and told the DCE that fred was weird and boring, and that we demanded to start our own sunday school class, an alternative for 9th graders. amazingly: he said yes (i have no idea if he was giving us rope to fail, skeptical that we’d even follow through, or if he was a pushover, or some other reason).

we started our own alternative 9th grade sunday school class, and actively recruited all our peers to leave fred’s class and join ours. a handful did; but most were slaves to the manipulation of the promised snowmobile trip! (or maybe they knew we were being idiots.)

we lasted three weeks.

then we shuffled back into fred’s class with our tails between our legs, sure he was going to be mean to us by being more weird and more boring, or more likely, to shame us privately or in front of the entire class of peers. but he never once mentioned it. he was — we noticed! — as gracious and friendly and warm and inclusive as ever. in fact, it wasn’t until we came back that we noticed he’d been those things all along.

bracesdid i mention that fred was also my dentist? at my next appointment, he informed my parents that i really needed braces. but, because he knew that my missionary parents really couldn’t afford it, he offered to do my braces for a total out-of-pocket expense of fifty bucks. really.

fred was not a brilliant sunday school teacher. but he showed me grace and forgiveness when i least deserved it. that experience didn’t as directly point me to youth ministry as much as the other three moments i’ve shared in this blog series. but it left an indelible mark on me, one that altered the trajectory of my life just as much as the other three. that mark has, i hope, colored my practice of youth ministry for these 30 years.

youth workers: once again the “moral” is obvious, right? any adult — even those of us who are weird (and/or boring) can impact the lives of teenagers with grace and forgiveness.


not too long ago, my friend todd played and sang john mayer’s song “gravity” in church (he nailed it, btw, including the guitar part). i’ve liked mayer for a while, and totally knew this song; but i don’t think i’d ever really paid attention to the lyrics.

they’re stunning. and so frickin’ honest. oof.

Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down

Oh I’ll never know what makes this man
With all the love that his heart can stand
Dream of ways to throw it all away

Oh Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down

Oh twice as much ain’t twice as good
And can’t sustain like a one half could
It’s wanting more
That’s gonna send me to my knees

Oh gravity, stay the hell away from me
Oh gravity has taken better men than me how can that be?

Just keep me where the light is
Just keep me where the light is
Just keep me where the light is
Come on keep me where the light is
Come on keep me where the light is
Come on keep me where, keep me where the light is

ah, 6th grade boys

awesome small group last night with my 6th grade guys. last week was a bit rough, so it was nice to have a night like this where it seemed we accomplished something (i know we accomplished something last week — we were building a relational foundation for the stuff to come in our three years together. but it’s still enjoyable to have a week where the conversation seems to be about more than farts, guitar hero, girls, and whatever else pops into their heads unannounced).

we meet at my house, in the little “guest house” in our backyard. when the guys were arriving, zach looked in the little kitchen and (seeing the teapot on the stove) asked, “can i make some tea?” “uh, sure, i guess so,” i responded, still trying to figure out if he was kidding or not. he went on to describe how he makes tea for himself every morning, and how he’s somewhat of a tea snob, and really only likes english teas. i decided to join him in a cup, thinking that might lessen the chances that the other guys would tease him. but, instead, it meant that everyone wanted tea.

when it came to choosing vessels to hold said tea, i went for a mug. but zach spotted jeannie’s old teacup collection (i used to buy them for her on international trips, but that ended long ago, and there are about 10 different frilly teacups with wildly variant designs, and they were all sitting on display on the shelf in that little kitchen), and said, “i prefer to use a teacup.” and, as i offered the other guys a MUG, or a teacup, they all wanted to choose a dainty little teacup. i had a green ginger tea, as did my 20-ish co-leader. the guys either had decaf mint, ginger peach, or green pomegranate tea.

we decided it needs to be a new tradition for us, that we have tea each week. one of the guys — bryson, the squirreliest of the group, one of the most wonderfully random middle schoolers i’ve ever met — even started saying “huzzah!” to everything.

we talked about whether a superhero is more really himself (or herself) when he’s in superhero mode, or in alter ego mode. interesting discussion about this, since the superhero mode often comes with a mask. but we all agreed that in a strange way, the alter ego is really more of a mask, and that the superhero is really being himself when he’s being a superhero (this is all stuff from ken rawson‘s book, becoming a young man of god).

we said that we all have this outside “dude” we wear everyday — our alter egos. but the real superhero inside is our real identity. then i mentioned that we’re going to talk about the characteristics of that superhero over the next few weeks.

tonite’s superhero identity stuff was that we are loved and forgiven. we talked about wondering whether a girl likes us or not, and how that can go back and forth depending on the day (or hour, or minute). and we talked about how it’s easy to assume that god works the same way with us — that god loves us one minutes, but when we screw up, god doesn’t. back and forth. then i gave a quick little overview (with the guys filling in some of the blanks) about the old testament sacrificial system, and then about jesus as the lamb. i was surprised, as most of these guys have grown up in the church, that the idea of jesus replacing the sacrificial system of the old testament was a brand new idea to them. “I’ve never thought of that before!” and “No one’s ever told me that before” (which doesn’t mean no one has, of course).

i’d told them we were going to light things on fire later, and they were especially focused and engaged because of this, by the way. so i handed out pieces of paper with crosses drawn on them, and talked about what forgiveness really means in our lives. then they each took a few minutes sitting somewhere on their own and wrote stuff on the cross that they thought god might have a hard time forgiving them for. we gathered on a stone walkway in the middle of the backyard, with their papers wadded up, and stood in a circle. we prayed and thanked god for forgiveness. then, one at a time, we bent over and lit our paper wads on fire, saying, “my superhero identity is that i’m loved and forgiven.” each lit their own, but we watched as they all burned together into a pile of ash.

then we had lemonade and double-stuf oreos.

yeah. 6th grade guys. love it!