Tag Archives: faith

the invitation of unease

i was reviewing some of my notes from the handful of interviews i’m conducting in connection with writing a book on hope. and i was struck by the profundity of this amazing bit from my friend sam saavedra:

I have a lot of peers who get dissatisfied and equate that with “something’s wrong with me or others” — blaming. But there’s an invitation in this sense of unease. An invitation in that feeling itself, that God is holding something out and waiting for you to step into something new. I’ve always seen my dissatisfaction as a welcoming thing. “There’s something more for you” is great for providing hope!


got some dissatisfaction on this august monday? good. frame it as an invitation: there’s something more for you!

Jesus sauce

i write an every-other-issue back page column for youthwork magazine in the UK, trading months with the insightful leader of soul survivor, mike pilavachi. this is the third iteration of me writing a regular column for youthwork magazine. for a few years, i wrote a tiny column called “marko’s misconceptions.” after it must have appeared that i was the stupidest youth worker in the entire world, given the quantity of my misconceptions, the editor switched me to “postcards from marko,” which included youth ministry reflections from various places i was traveling to. but, in early 2011, we changed it again, to the current back page format. my column is called “Mark: My Words.” get it? ha! oh, those double meanings.

i love youthwork magazine, because — while it’s still a resource of thinking and ideas for me and my tribe — it has just enough “otherness” to provide me a perspective i likely wouldn’t always get from american youth ministry bloggers and writers.

anyhow, for my last column, which posted on the youthwork magazine site a couple weeks ago, i reflected on some recent learning from a sermon i preached for my church. it seems to have stuck a chord. a couple peeps from the youthwork mag staff have reached out to tell me it’s the favorite of the columns i’ve written for them over the last seven or eight years. and, in a first, i’ve gotten a couple emails and messages from readers across the pond, reflecting on the application for their own lives.

so… i share it with you here!

I preached in my church a couple of weeks ago, and was assigned a passage: 1 Corinthians 3. There were two strange aspects of this experience, both of which were good for me.

First, in the thousands of times I have spoken to groups of teenagers and youth workers – and occasionally preached to adults – I could count on one hand those that were based on an assigned Bible passage. Normally, I get to pick; and I pick stuff I’m passionate about, stuff I understand, and (if I’m really honest) stuff that I can make sound really good, so I’ll feel good about myself. Being asked to speak on an assigned passage took me out of my comfort zone – big time.

The second aspect that was strange to me was that I discovered that the primary teaching of Paul’s message in this passage isn’t really the message that I’d taught from it dozens of times before. That put me a bit off balance. Fortunately, I’ve found this the posture in which God does his best work on me.

1 Corinthians 3 starts with Paul’s classic words about needing to give the Corinthians milk, because they weren’t ready for meat, because they were infants in Christ. That face-value message has served me well for decades of speaking to teenagers: ‘You’ve got to grow up and own your faith!’ True. Good. Yes, that’s what Paul’s saying.

The handy thing about that message is that it’s not for me. That good and true message is for other people. Same could be said for the following paragraph, where Paul again blasts the Corinthian church for creating a ‘Paul camp’ and an ‘Apollos camp.’ Good. People, other people, those people, need to hear that. But as I sat with the passage in my off-balanced state, as I spent ten times as much time meditating, researching, reading and praying than I normally would, I started to see a deeper message in 1 Corinthians 3. And, ouch, it was a message for me!

The Corinthians were guilty of adding their own cultural values to the gospel, thinking they were improving it. As one of my friends put it, they thought they could keep their sandwich, wipe off a bit of the Zeus mayo, add a little Jesus sauce, and have a greatly improved sandwich.

Now I was in trouble. If the deeper truth of the passage is a confrontation about treating the gospel as Jesus sauce on top of the otherwise unchanged values of my life, I’m fooling myself if I think I’m improving anything. I’m not fortifying the gospel, I’m tainting it. I’m diluting it.

As an American, I’ve been steeped like a teabag in a value system of individualism, self-reliance, and the ‘human right’ of happiness. I spread a whole heap of Jesus sauce over that mess and convince myself I’m a Super-Christian. But that’s not the gospel, right?

When I look at my values through the lens of scripture, rather than looking at scripture through the lens of my values, I’m exposed. (Your cultural values might be slightly different, but they’re no less purveyors of subterfuge when it comes to the gospel.) And, as a youth worker, the next thought has to be ‘Uh-oh. How often must I be slinging travel packs of Jesus sauce to the teenagers in my midst, propping up cultural values and making them look “Christian-y”’? Ick.

I want my life to be formed by the otherness of Jesus more than the values of those who are, as Paul calls them, merely human. Wait – scratch that: I’m already formed by merely human values. So I need to be re-formed.

Only when I’m honest about and aware of the cultural values that seduce me, the ones that are so much a part of who I am, can I hope to resist them. Only when I’ve stopped, or at least started to stop, grabbing for the Jesus sauce to make my values seem good and nice, anointed even, only then can I hope to see clearly enough to stop handing out free samples of Jesus sauce to the youth in my church and community.

finding real hope, part 2

ok, yesterday i posted about my fairly long-held belief that much of the american church has forfeited a real understanding of hope, trading it in for a cheaper version: optimism. i’m an optimist — i like optimism. but optimism and hope aren’t the same thing.

my a-ha came in the middle of a port-au-prince street, one month after the haiti earthquakes (two years ago), when i realized the joyful worshippers dancing around me understood hope in a way i never would — because of their loss.

i’ve come to see — through reading, study, observation, reflection — that dissatisfaction and hope are two sides of the same coin.

and i’ve been working on a little model (really, an early version of this is laying dormant in a book proposal i pulled together a year ago). here’s the current version:

let me unpack that for ya.

i’m coming to see that real hope (or, the best version of hope?) starts in exile. exile is that place of being separated, lost, excluded, disconnected from our true selves and “home” (which i mean in the broadest sense). in my own life, i most often experience exile in a self-imposed way, when my choices cause me to veer away from a path of who i really am (and who i was really made to be). exile can be externally imposed or internally chosen. it can be conscious or subconscious. it can be somewhat literal (including a geographical component), or be a full-blown reality not humanly observable.

in that place of exile (IF we want to experience hope), we have to experience dissatisfaction. this is the piece of this model that’s most unique, the bit that some might want to push back on. frankly, it’s somewhat counter-intuitive: to think that dissatisfaction is a necessary precursor to authentic (and biblical) hope. and this is the bit that flies in the face of the “happy face” christianity that suggests hope is optimism. most churches have no place for genuine dissatisfaction. we tend to promote a “get over it” or “let go and let god” cheapness that diminishes the very holy sense of dissatisfaction.

this is one of the reasons i love youth ministry, and one of the reasons i have such great resonance with today’s 20somethings. teenagers and today’s young adults are wired for dissatisfaction! they’re not content with the world the way it is; and that’s often the flashpoint of hope.

but it’s not enough to be dissatisfied. if we want to experience hope, we need to engage in honesty amidst our dissatisfaction. specifically, we need a ruthlessly honest cry out to god, an expression of our need for salvation, an articulation of our longing — our desperation — for something more, better, more true.

cue the jaws music.

because it’s in these tender moments of honesty that our real fears rise up. in the model, i’m trying to preset fear as a semi-permeable wall — threatening to keep us forever in our place of exile and dissatisfaction.

  • what if god doesn’t show up?
  • what if god doesn’t give a rip?
  • what if the salvation god provides is not the salvation i want?

but, if we can set aside the voices of fear (an act of honesty in and of itself. and maybe this is where faith really comes in — faith is what allows us to push through the wall of fear) we just might arrive at a new place, a place that’s best described as an intimate dance of longing and hope.

see: hope doesn’t quite exist on its own. there’s implied longing. hope has that ‘all is not yet perfect’ vibe to it. but there’s a confidence in real biblical hope, and it reframes the longing.

we can see this pattern in dozens of biblical stories:

  • the exodus (seriously, just trace the steps)
  • the exile
  • the bleeding woman
  • even the words of jesus on the cross

so: what are the implications for us? let’s talk about that tomorrow…

the miracle of baby sea turtles

a few weeks ago, max and i were on oak island, in north carolina (where i was speaking at a great camp). the shoreline of the island is a sea turtle sanctuary, and there are signs posted about the stiff penalties for messing with the turtles or their nests.

we had a rare opportunity to see two baby sea turtles make their trek across the beach to the ocean. it was an experience of god’s creation max and i will never forget.

a little background info (which we got from the turtle rescue peeps who were present):
– mom sea turtles come on shore in the middle of the night, dig a hole in the sand, and lay their eggs — dozens of them. then mom buries the “nest” and crawls back to the sea.
– the babies have a 1 in 1000 chance of making it to the ocean. even if they hatch, and do so at a time when others are also hatching (which, collectively, gives them the ability to dig up through the sand to the surface), foxes and other predators really like them some baby turtle num-nums. and, even if the baby turtles make it up and don’t get munched, they can easily get lost, head the wrong direction, and not make it.
– once the boy babies make it to the sea, they will never again set foot on land. the girl babies will only set foot (or flipper) on sand again if they make it back to lay eggs. but only 1 in 10,000 make it back to lay eggs.

so you can see why, with all of that up against them, it makes sense that there are volunteer “sea turtle rescue” folk who help the process along. they walk the beach every morning, looking for new nests (which they can find because of the track made by the mother). if the nest is still intact (and hasn’t already been assaulted by a fox or some other predator), the volunteers put a cage around it to protect it. every evening, other volunteers check the nests. and, after the appropriate gestation period, the volunteers assist the babies in making it to the sea.

now, they can’t just dig up the hatchlings, and carry them to the ocean. just as helping a butterfly out of its cocoon will rob it of the strength it needs for survival, baby sea turtles must make the trek to the ocean on their own. so the help the rescue people provide is in setting up a little runway of sorts — side rails to point the way, and smoothing out the sand. when max and i were watching, most of the eggs had already hatched, and the volunteers were doing their final step of digging up the nest, counting the hatched and unhatched eggs (which they report to some university), and seeing if there are any hatched babies who didn’t make it to the surface. they found two of these little ones when we were there, and set them at the beginning of the “runway”.

one of the little guys (or girls) got disoriented about halfway to the ocean, turned around, and started heading in the wrong direction. the volunteers explained that you can’t shine a light (or use a flash), as it will damage their eyes; but a red light will not hurt them, and they’ll head toward it (hmmm, baby bulls?). luckily, my little iphone flashlight app lets me change colors; so i set it for red, and the volunteer held it close to the sand on the ocean side of the disoriented hatchling. he quickly turned around and scurried in the right direction.

they are SO tiny — about 2 inches long. and they will get so freakin’ huge. watching them scuttle along the sand is an amazing snapshot of god-given instinct, fragility, and — particularly — persistency. it’s a little hard to describe why this would be so emotional to watch. the best word i can come up with for it is BEAUTY. it was not a significantly different feeling i have than when i have stood in front of the monet water lilies in paris, at the musee l’orangerie; or when i looked at my own perfect little babies; or when i stared into bryce canyon this past summer. there’s something about true beauty, in whatever its form or presentation, that both reflects god’s values and creativity, as well as connects with an image-of-god-part in me.

when the babies reached the smooth, wet part of the sand, they took off. they were already moving quickly (for their size). but with the scent of the ocean in their noses, they seriously busted a move. the remains of a wave, gliding with its last few inches of momentum, caught them in a half-inch of water. and their little flippers took off in hyper-swim mode, as if to say: this is what i was made for; even though i’ve never been here, i know this is my home.

i almost cried when they swam beyond my sight — propelled way more by the receding current than by any effort of their own. i swallowed hard, and wore and irrepressible smile on my face.

beyond the experience of seeing such a rare and stunning beauty, i think i connected with this experience for other reasons. you don’t have to look very deeply into this description to see all kinds of allegorical connections to our human experience. bottom line: i am that baby sea turtle over and over and over again.
i have so many natural predators.
i have so much opposition, and need help.
i can so easily get lost; and without others to help me dig out of the nest, i’m in trouble.
when i’m provided a runway, it sure is helpful, though i’m likely unaware of its provision.
i benefit from help, to be sure, but need to struggle myself if i’m ever going to learn and grow.
i can sense ‘home’ (my core identity, in christ, and joining up with the kingdom of god) when i’m close to it.
when i get caught in the trailing edge of the surf of the kingdom, i move more fully into my intentional design, whether i fully realize it or not.
when i’m in that zone, i usually think i’m mostly moving under my own locomotion, and am rarely fully aware of the “intentionality” of the surf.

anyhow. i have thought of those little sea turtle babies many times since i was given the gift of meeting them. helpless, really, but destined for a large and long existence of non-rushed swimming in the ocean. mmmmm. i want the kingdom-of-god allegorical equivalent of that.

who do you want to be?

my good friend brian berry (also the youth pastor at my church) has been wrestling lately with time, balance, priorities and future. it’s a good wrestle (even though it may leave his hip out of the socket, as good wrestles can do). he and i chatted at some point of the importance of not only looking at to-do lists, opportunities and responsibilities, but starting from a place of values.

brian took a swing at this and developed a stunning summary of his values that blows me away. seriously, i got a bit choked up reading it the first time (and have read it several times since), because it’s so beautiful. i encouraged him to post it, as an example to others. he’s done that, with the title “who i want to be“.

brian came up with five core values, then created a short list of actionable clarifications under each one. his five core values are:






i couldn’t more strongly encourage you to read it, and consider something similar for yourself. i think an exercise like this is so critical in our goal-obsessed american church culture.

retreating with the sinners

several years ago now, a few guys and i started meeting once a year for something like accountability. i say “something like” because i’ve found, over the years, that there’s a very limited sense to anyone’s ability to hold someone else accountable. maybe it would be more accurate to call this group a “support group”, or a “kick each others’ butts group”.

we fashioned ourselves, originally, around an older group of men we were aware of who met in a similar fashion. they called themselves the notorious sinners (yaconelli was in this group). so, we called ourselves the ‘young notorious sinners’. these days, we usually just refer to it as ‘yns’, since the youngest guy in the group is well into his 30s.

our format depends completely on each person’s willingness to get honest about what their year has been like, what areas of life they’re struggling with, and what areas they’d like input on. each guy shares for an hour or so, and that is followed by a time of questioning, and finally by recommendations. we’re pretty ruthless with each other, but it’s all done in a context of complete safety and encouragement.

we usually have 8 guys, but 3 couldn’t make it this year, which really sucks. but the 5 here – we’re in a funky rented home in desert hot springs, california, out by palm springs – are a unique, wonderful and mixed lot. one is a film-maker from toronto, one a internet start-up guy from atlanta, one a musician and episcopal priest from cleveland, one a marketing guy from san diego, and, well, me. all 5 of us have been in the group for a number of years, so there’s history and a deep understanding of each person’s themes and struggles. and, while we stay somewhat in touch through the year, there’s something very cool about meeting once a year, and reviewing where we’ve been and where we’re going.

so i’m here ‘til friday, and expect lots of laughter, some shared pain, a few tears, and a healthy helping of insight.

thoughts on my 6-month anniversary of being laid off

the other day i was thinking about my lay off from youth specialties (really, from zondervan, in reality), which i don’t do as often these days. i happened to be looking at my calendar at the time, and thought about how it was october 19 when the shoe dropped. and, i was struck by the realization that today is 6 months. already. that surprised me.

it feels more like 3 months.

i spent a little time with current ys-staffer adam mclane last night, and, as is normal, we talked about ys and what’s going on in that world. they’ve moved offices (again – we’d moved to a new place last june). and there are only a handful of people there. and, i was once again struck by the reality that this new, or different, ys is moving on.

and so am i.

there’s no question that i miss so much of my old role. i miss the people i worked with (and am so lousy at that staying-in-touch-when-life-is-busy thing). i miss the buzz of a busy workplace, hearing laughter, wrestling with things together. i miss the working-together collaborative way we were trying to do things around there, particularly with the ys leadership team. i miss being part of a team, and leading a team. shoot — i even miss meetings (because our meetings were usually fun, even when we were dealing with tough stuff).

but here’s what i know today: if i were offered my old job, i wouldn’t take it.

in my first month, all i could really feel was the pain of what felt so horrible. there was anger and loss and anxiety and insecurity and sadness all smashed up into a nasty little ball of mush. but the dominant emotion was hurt. i could go into my head, and look at the piece-parts that added up to the reality, and knew that i wasn’t a failure. and i knew that the people who really knew the whole story didn’t see me as a failure. but my emotions still screamed, “FAILURE!”; and i was awash in a mostly inescapable feeling that the world out there was screaming the same thing.

but that feeling, once i got past the initial shock and pain of the corporate process in which i was let go, slinked away and was replaced by a combination of hope and sadness of loss. hope, for sure; but combined with a reality that i was losing people, experiences, and things i loved that would never return, never be the same. in the last few months, i’ve been charging forward on many new projects and opportunities. and it’s deeply good. other than some ongoing anxiety over whether or not what i’m currently doing will be sustainable in the coming year(s), i’m generally excited about what’s on my plate, about being home, and about the diversity of stuff i get to play in these days. even my increased travel has not been an issue (as it was in the past), since, when i’m not traveling, i’m home (and not going to an office for 10 hours a day). i occasionally feel a bit lonely and isolated, sitting here at my little desk; but i realize it’s the flip-side of the “i just need some time alone” feeling i used to have. and my relational tanks are pretty full these days, with the great people-stuff i get to be involved in.

i’m feeling a little melancholy today, particularly as i write this. but that’s rare these days. mostly, i’m pressing into what the week has to offer. in the last 10 days, for example, i got to speak to parents about teenagers, teach youth workers in guatemala, spend a day at home getting caught up, which included writing a couple magazine columns and a book chapter, conduct a 1:1 coaching time with a youth worker, connect with a non-profit i’m doing some consulting with and move that project forward, spend two days with the 9 youth workers in my youth ministry coaching program, and travel with my son to baltimore to speak to a couple hundred junior highers. what a freakin’ great week!

i’ll be coming to both youth specialties conventions this fall (in san diego and nashville) and doing a few seminars in each. i know the time there will be awkward for me at times, and i’ll feel a bit lost at times. but i also can’t imagine a place i’d rather be. well, other than, like, a beach in tahiti or something, or, ya know, heaven.

dancing in the streets of port-au-prince

i posted, a few times, about the day we were surprised to find people dancing in the streets of port-au-prince. but ian robertson, our videographer, just finished up a little video of that day. and watching it, all the emotions come flooding back: surprise, joy, longing. i pray that the people of haiti are still finding reasons for hope and joy in the midst of their ongoing pain. i pray that we americans (and canadians, and brits, and others) will not forget them, or get weary of hearing about their need.


(blog note: i’m going camping with my family today, and a few other families, in yosemite. we’ll be there until thursday. i’ve not “spring camped” before, and am nervous about freezing my butt off. today and tomorrow are supposed to be ok, with highs around 60. but by wednesday, it’s supposed to be raining/snowing with a high of 38 and a low of 25. that’s not tent camping weather in my book. sorry, i don’t have any blog posts lined up for while i’m gone — so none ’til i get back. later!)

two more haiti videos: suffering and hope

as our haiti team videographer, ian robertson, passed along two more videos from our trip, i was struck by how they captured the suffering/hope dynamic i’ve written about here so many times since the trip. they only take a few minutes to watch, so i’d encourage you to catch a more visual glimpse of this suffering resulting in hope reality than i can paint with words.



i keep hearing from youth workers and other church leaders who are putting together trips to go. and that has me stoked. i’ve become firmly convinced, in the last decade or so, that our best missional living occurs when we find where god is already moving, and join up with that movement (rather than trying to create our own). one way you can do that is by checking out options with adventures in missions, here.

the relationship between suffering and hope (talking about haiti at my church)

the church i attend was in a sermon series called “god-o-nomics” (a play on freak-o-nomics), really about what faith looks like in financially difficult times. days after i returned from haiti, i was chatting with our teaching pastor, ed noble (who i’ve known for more than 20 years, and was my boss in omaha a couple decades ago). after hearing some of my stories, he had this sense that what’s happening in haiti, and what i experienced there, was a hyper-version of the topic for the final sermon in the series, which was about “both struggling and being ok.”

so ed gave up 20 minutes of his sermon time to interview me about our trip, and how it connected with this topic.

people really connected with it, and i was pleased with how the whole thing connected with our own experience in tough times (even though the magnitude is clearly very different).

here’s a link to the mp3 of the sermon (my part is the first 20 minutes or so). and here’s ed’s blog post about it.