The Penn State Scandal, from a Youth Leader’s Perspective…

11 11 2011

To say that I’m horrified, sickened, and utterly appalled by the Penn State scandal that’s hit the news in the last few days would be an understatement.

Rarely do I feel compelled to personally respond to a woeful tale of news. But as someone who works with young boys and girls on a regular basis, spends time studying their psychology and understands how  fragile they are at this critical time in their lives–and has some idea of the extent of the damage that sick adults have inflicted on these kids will undoubtably cause–I can’t keep quiet.

I don’t have the desire to yet again sully the minds of good people by dredging up the details of horrific tale of heinous crime, cover-up, negligence, and unbelievable arrogance. Nor do I have the experience or degree necessary to analyze this like the legal experts and psychologists out there , who can articulate and explain much better than I can.

So I’ll speak from my gut, as a youth leader.

My heart absolutely goes out to the boys and families who are enduring humiliation, betrayal, and attempting to recover from the abuse of men that the world lifted up as heroes. I pray for their future, their ability to forgive, heal, and recover–but I know they can never forget what has happened to them.

I feel sick when I think about all the ways that the adults in this situation failed to protect innocent children. If this doesn’t demonstrate the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, I don’t know what does.

It’s hard for me to fathom what went through the minds of those who realized that such atrocities were taking place with their co-workers, and how they justified not stepping in to call the police and pursue this doggedly until the appropriate people got locked up in jail. To be a program director or the president of a university, and to hear a hint that even smacked of sexual abuse of minors and to do nothing but bury it? And to honestly think that no one would ever find out?

I can’t possibly imagine walking into a locker room, witnessing abuse with my very own eyes, and not being sure about what to do. It’s unbelievable that a grown man could go home and eat dinner, get up in the morning and go about his normal daily habits without even pausing to consider what a fragile ten-year-old boy was going through at the same time. And to call daddy and ask for advice, instead of doing what was right and calling the police?

And to have your grown son call you for advice on this issue, and to not call the police yourself? To sit by and proudly watch your son succeed in his career by covering  up and protecting criminals–who continue to commit horrible acts on innocent young boys?

What’s more, I can’t believe the college students at Penn State who are rallying and rioting for this so-called “legendary” coach. Do these students have no semblance of right and wrong? Or are they so self-focused and arrogant (and likely intoxicated) that they can’t understand what evil has been committed here? (Hey, Penn State–ever take a history course? Young adults rallied and rioted like this for another guy–er, I think he went by the name “Hitler”? Ring a bell as another mistake that people once cheered for?)

Stories like these–and my ill-fated story of being attacked at Disneyland, which you can read here— sure illustrate how depraved our world is.

At the same time, it saddens me to hear things like I heard on the national news yesterday, as one expert talked about parents and students being wary about the adults in their lives. She cautioned against adults who talk to and hang out with youth, who spend time seeking to understand kids, who know what kids are into, who attempt to be a listening ear and caring adult to young people.

It’s not that I disagree–it’s just that she described me (and every other youth leader, pastor, Big Brother or Big Sister, and counselor) out there. And despite all the negative news about leaders and adults who do screw up, there are a lot of us faithfully working with kids–not because of some sick fetish or inner inadequacy or inability to grow up and get a “real job”–but because we know that investing in this upcoming generation is the most important thing we can do for our world.

In this horrific scandal, the “good adults” were the ones to distrust…the ones who twisted the truth and blatantly chose the path of no responsibility…the ones who looked out only for their own selfish gain and paid no attention to the lives of helpless kids. Only time can tell what sort of an effect that these fallen heroes might have on the way this entire generation of kids grows up to trust, behave, and believe.

And really, who can blame them?

Let’s instead pray that this generation rises above this sort of behavior and can set a better example of moral integrity, justice, and honesty to their children.

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7 Observations about Today’s Middle School Kids…

8 11 2011

I’m still recovering from our annual confirmation retreat, which was a few weekends ago.

Yes, still recovering. I’m old. My 26-year-old self can’t pull those all-nighters like I could just a few years ago in college.

Earlier this month, I spent my beautiful fall weekend running a huge retreat for our 7th and 8th grade students, at a camp about an hour and a  half away from our church. I spent pretty much the entirety of my waking moments meticulously running through checklists, transportation arrangements, schedules, songs, props, and handouts…not to mention constantly giving direction and instruction, problem-solving on the fly, breaking up rowdy fights between 7th grade boys, hugging crying girls, speaking and teaching, checking in with leaders and musicians and tech people, shouting through a megaphone, and acting as liaison between our group and the camp staff (translation = every time a kid wanted to go shoot arrows at the archery course, I had to stand and supervise to make sure no one came home missing an eye).

It was a great weekend. I managed to get about three whole hours of sleep each night in my room of non-stop hyperactive girls, I only got hit in the face with a dodgeball twice, and only one student dared pull a prank on my water bottle.

I use this time, each retreat, to scrutinize each wave of students. I love to learn their culture, their norms, and their group’s personality, as well as what they struggle with, what they need, and what they’re growing up to be.

Here are 7 of the observations I made about this particular generation of students:

  • We are, without a doubt, seeing the impact of strictly scheduled kids who are completely immersed in technology. Kids don’t really know what to do with true free time. These kids are so used to being told what to do, every second of their day, that they don’t understand how to think on their own or structure their free time at all. They also wouldn’t stop asking about the schedule. It’s clear that they are used to keeping their own schedules and knowing what’s happening each day, and even though we told them “not to worry about the schedule”, they did.
  • I think these kids crave a release from their technological world. We don’t hear many complaints about it not allowing cell phones at our retreat anymore, whereas it was a constant complaint just a few years ago. Kids seemed all too happy to be away from the “stress of keeping up with Facebook and their texts from friends”. I just wrote an article about this at my youth ministry column at thESource, if you want to dive into this topic more here.
  • These kids are more noticeably distant from adults and older teenagers. Even our high school students, who helped out as leaders at one of these retreats for the very first time, noticed this and commented on it. Our middle school kids were polite, but distant. I wonder if this is a reaction to the fact that they are constantly ordered around by adults, with their highly structured teams, clubs, and other organizations—and deep down, maybe unknowingly resentful that these adults don’t care enough about them to force them to unplug, take downtime, and quit the activities that they can’t mentally and physically keep up with.
  • This group of students is losing the ability to read and write at the level that should be standard for their age group. Many was very rudimentary in their ability to think critically, fill out answers, and spell. I know this is the generation that is the techie generation, and it’s clear to me that using autocorrect and not learning how to write things out by hand is eroding their ability to spell, construct sentences, and even their handwriting itself. I fear for their college professors–and the future of literature.
  • Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The old adage I’ve heard that a student has about a minute of undivided focus for each year old they are (so, about 12-14 minutes at a time for these kids) seems to be shortening. They want everything instantly, and they get antsy even if they have to wait in line for something. They lose focus in the amount of time it takes to hand something out to their group.
  • I think these kids are absolutely dying for individual attention. It’s a trademark of their age, of course, but it seems like even the smallest amount of personal, one-on-one time just completely lifts them up. One really cool thing we did this year was have all of our small group leaders pray individually with kids, while we were doing our closing worship service—so each student there was prayed for personally by an adult. Many kids were crying, even though most of the adults spent only a few moments praying with them. I wonder if this is another effect of them feeling like they are over-programmed and expected to produce results in most everything they do—that simply by having an adult love them, without expecting anything from them in return, is something they aren’t used to.
  • At one point, when I told the entire room that we had had a prayer team of 80 people (including 60 teenagers who had gone on the retreat before), praying for them by name for the entire month of October, I saw jaws drop open. I think the idea of being a part of something that’s a legacy is something that’s important to this group–which makes perfect sense, because the technology they’re so used to is so temporary that they crave something that lasts for a long time. Kids were coming up to me and telling me they were excited to get to pray for this group when they became teenagers, and many were asking me if they could come back to the retreat as teen leaders in the future. I think this wave of kids will be very interested in their personal genealogies, and will be captured by the idea of being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

All observations aside, I need to add one purely emotional statement that comes straight from the gut:

I love these kids and leaders.

Even with the kids’ wild dodgeball-chucking energy, and that twinkling in their eyes that indicates that they just poured a cup of sugar into my ice water, and their insistence that we stay up “just a little bit longer” to tell stories in our room late at night, and our leaders’ good-natured assistance with pranks, stealing creepy dolls out of rooms when no one is looking, and hiding candy bars in their Bibles…they make retreats like this a blast.

And now, for the first time in weeks, I can relax…and leisurely sip my sugar-free water.





Surfers, Simple Living, & The Future of My Generation

30 08 2011

I learned something new about myself last night:

I shouldn’t watch surf movies with my husband before going to bed.

Hm. When I say it like that, it seems to imply that I had an unfortunate liquid-related incident in my bed last evening. That’s not the case.

To be a bit more precise in my explanation, I shouldn’t watch movies that portray a relaxing, nature-embracing, simple-living kind of lifestyle–one that seems to be favored by most surfers. Because after watching only fifteen minutes of a surf documentary about a surfer and rock climber who took six months off of “real life” in between jobs to explore the world on a sailboat, I was ready to sell everything I own and buy a boat and sail out to Easter Island, like these two did.

Fine–if I’m being honest, I want to hang on to my jewelry, handbag, and art collection. Oh, and my iPhone. That’s it–everything else can go.

It’s interesting, really, to think about living such a simple lifestyle. I think it’s one that my generation will eventually embrace.

I read voraciously, and love studying generational theories (I can thank my program director, Dr. Ross, for introducing me to this topic in college!). From what I’ve read on my own generation–the “Millenials”, or “Mosaics”, as we’re sometimes called–it seems that we’re the most egocentric and entitled, but informed and socially-minded generation in history.

We constantly post status updates about ourselves on Twitter and Facebook (and have the gall to think that anyone actually cares what we’re eating for lunch), a Wikipedia article about anything under the sun is accessible to us at any moment, and we dabble in thousands of different interests at once.

At the same time, however, this is the generation that rethought new ways to contribute to the welfare of the underprivileged, as evidenced in companies like TOMS shoes. We’re the generation that invented a way to make a contribution to others via text message donations, whether it be starving children in Africa, AIDs relief efforts, or donations to help earthquake or tornado victims. And we think nothing about spending extra on bottled water or kitschy t-shirts, if it helps others.

We’re also under more pressure and balancing incredibly heavy expectations, compared to any other generation in history. I feel dizzy when I think about the pace of my day-to-day schedule–and it’s nothing compared to the bevy of activities I was handling in high school and college. 18-hour days crammed with multi-tasking every moment until my head hits the pillow at night have been a constant since I was fourteen.

And it’s only gotten worse, as I look at the students I work with. They simply can’t keep up with their increasingly demanding schedules.

You know what sort of comments I’m hearing from today’s teenagers?

“I hate texting. I hate keeping up with everyone all the time and always having to respond to them. I hate that stupid dinging, that tells me that someone wants to talk to me. I wish I could just get rid of my cell phone for good.”

“I’m so over Facebook. I’m sick of watching everyone pretend like they’ve having the time of their lives, all the time. It’s just a brag-book. I hate it.”

“Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be Amish? I mean, to just live simply and provide for yourself and not worry about anything else? It must be great.”

I’ve read that every generation rebels against their parents’ generation. It seems to hold true–the Baby Boomers definitely stood for the exact opposite of everything that their parents embraced and instead turned to mystical influences, free love, and relaxed and fluid lifestyles. And, in turn, their children chased status and wealth and stability in their careers. Just look at the rise of labels and Wall Street in the 1980s alone–that gives you a picture of what they craved.

So, what will our generation rebel against? What will we look like in the future, and how will we affect the world?

Maybe, as history unfolds, it will prove me wrong. But I think that this fledgling generation will give up status and wealth and success in favor of living more simply.

I think we’ll rebel against our frantic childhoods, crammed chock-full of piano lessons and football practice and student council meetings and find our stride in embracing just a few activities we really enjoy as adults.

I think we’ll see more and more people giving up the idea of owning a massive home and a closet full of designer clothes, and living like the surfer and rock-climber in the documentary I watched last evening–where, instead of saving money to splurge on tangible “status items”, they’ll choose to invest in intangible experiences like traveling the world on a boat.

I think this generation will care more about connecting with friends and family than having thousands of friends on Facebook. They’ll give up the concept of texting dozens of people at once, and will instead choose to share their lives fully with a select few.

I think this generation will give up the idea of conformity in a corporate-based world, and will instead celebrate diversity as they unite in their beliefs that we’re all out there to help each other. Don’t forget–we’re the kids that grew up with teamwork ingrained in our very souls from infancy, as we ran laps together for soccer practice and shared Valentines and cupcakes with everyone in grade school. Individuality will be less important, because the overriding idea will be that we’re all one big team. Hence, the passion for social justice and the idea that we should take care of everyone on this planet.

I think our short attention spans will influence everything around us, from television shows to literature to trends. But I think we’ll enthusiastically bounce from one thing to another, and a plethora of newness will spring from our generation, as people throw themselves into something they truly love and are inspired to do, no matter what sort of paycheck it affords them at the end of the month.

Of course, the inevitable outcome is that our children, someday, will rebel against us.

And thus, the chain of history continues.

To paraphrase one of the insightful comments I heard from the surf movie I watched last night, “The greatest lesson in history is that men never learn from the lessons of history.”

I think these surfers definitely had that right.

And if they had that right–then maybe they’re right about this whole “live simply” idea.





Don’t Judge the Savior By the Screwball…

17 03 2011

(Author’s Note: This post is part of a multi-author blog site called “The Question”, where a variety of authors will be blogging about a sole topic. To check out the site, please go to whygrudge.blogspot.com or facebook.com/The-Question)


It’s the epic question that, provided you had the right answer, could land you a multi-million dollar book contract and enough speaking engagements to last you a lifetime.

The problem is that I don’t suspect that there’s merely one answer to this taxing question: why do people have a grudge against Christians and the church?

The implications of the answers affect each one of us, as Christians. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves—do we really want to know why we’re so disliked?

To put it in another perspective, isn’t what we’re asking here tantamount to the nerdy dweeb asking the most popular kid in school to bluntly list out all the reasons why he’s not cool?

Quite simply, one of the biggest reasons that Christianity isn’t popular is that we’re soldiers stranded in a hostile enemy territory.

Jesus himself tells us in Luke 12:51, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” The world we live in has little patience for our standards of life. They don’t understand that our philosophy isn’t “every man for himself”, but instead “love your neighbor as yourself”. In a culture obsessed with freedom and success, the idea of submitting and laying down idols seems downright stupid.

And worshipping someone you can’t even see? Ridiculous.

For a year in college, I lived with a roommate who wasn’t a Christian. She was so clueless about Christianity, in fact, that when she watched “The Passion of the Christ” for a mandatory religion class assignment, she paused halfway through the scene of Jesus being whipped mercilessly and asked me, “They don’t kill this guy in the end, do they?”

My roommate observed my behavior as a Christian for an entire year. She asked me questions about why I would get up early on Sunday for church, or why I would waste time reading my Bible when I could be hanging out with the boy I had a crush on down the hall. When I finally convinced her to come to a campus chapel, after months of praying for the opportunity to get her in church for the first time in her life, she sat in mute silence, her face stony. She never came to chapel again.

I valiantly tried my best to point out all the benefits to my life as someone who had a relationship with Christ, but she wasn’t won over by my best arguments. To this ultra-hip, beautiful girl who had everything in the world going for her, she didn’t have the slightest interest in giving up her wild weekends and changing her lifestyle to live a life of obedience and thankfulness for her Savior.

Ultimately, my former roommate became a Christian five years later, after she hit rock bottom in her life. It wasn’t until everything in her life was shaken that she finally realized how important Christ really is.

I think that’s part of it, truly. Our lives are so comfortable and convenient, so fast-paced and chaotic, so distracted, that we forget that we need a Savior. In fact, we’re not entirely convinced that we have anything we need to be saved from. Sure, maybe we screw up every once in a while—but me? Deserve death for my disobedience? Nah.

Sometimes we don’t even realize that our lives have an ending point—and a future home after death—until something earth-shattering forces us to recognize our own invincibility.

And maybe, if we’re being honest, we don’t like to be reminded that we’re invincible. Perhaps we resent the fact that Christianity points out the weaknesses we want to hide, the secret flaws we want to pretend don’t exist in us, and the fact that we, too, will someday cease to breath and will die.

But why, too, are people so opposed to Christians themselves?

Being a Christian, I’m not sure if I can answer that for the “other team” accurately. But I suspect that maybe we find people hating us so much because, well, we’re kind of lame sometimes.

A Christian shirt I actually own...

We wear our pithy Christian shirts. We listen exclusively to our Christian radio stations. We read our Christian books with ridiculous titles, we drive our cars with silly bumper stickers, and we frequent Christian establishments.

Do we ever intentionally look at the bubble of safety we’ve created for ourselves to live comfortably within, and think that maybe we’re not meant to live solely in this zone? That maybe God called us to live out in the world and witness Him to people who don’t read Christian magazines and listen exclusively to Chris Tomlin?

As hard as we try, we’ll never be anything like Jesus. Yet we walk around proclaiming to be His earthly representatives. Unfortunately, when we yell to the world, “I’m a Christian!” and then screw up—as we so often do—we’re representing Him poorly.

Imagine a secretary who proudly claims to represent her boss so well…yet she continually forgets messages, doesn’t return phone calls, loses important receipts, chews out other employees, and bungles one business deal after another. Isn’t that sort of like what we Christians are doing to God?

I hate when I hear a band do a cover of a song from another popular group. Sure, it’s technically the same song—and sure, they can hit all the notes—but at its core, it’s merely an imitation of the real thing. And really, that’s what we are, as Christians. We are merely an imitation of Christ—not Jesus himself.

Sometimes we’re a pretty darn lousy imitation, too. But just as you can’t judge a horrible rendition of a song and give up on the original tune because of the blockhead cover artist, the world shouldn’t judge Christ based on our failed attempt to represent Him.

Somehow, I suspect our mission needs to be getting ourselves out of the way and letting the Holy Spirit shine through us as unclouded as He can. To share that, as Christians, we’re not perfect–but even as the fact that counterfeit money is circulated in the world doesn’t detract from the real money that’s out there, our weak imitation of Christ doesn’t truly represent who He is.

His kindness overflows. Ours does not.

His love is endless. Ours is not.

His forgiveness is limitless. Ours is not.

We are human. He is Almighty.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to realize how far we really are from Christ’s perfect love, and to honestly show that gap to the world. It’s only when we’re actually open to the stinging truth of our own failures and shortcomings that we can admit our own infallibility and our desperate need for a Savior.

Because really, that’s the beauty of our faith in a nutshell: in our deepest shame and our biggest mistakes, we can be forgiven and renewed and given a future we don’t deserve through the grace that Christ offers us freely and unconditionally.

And when we, as His earthly representatives, can be candid about this—maybe we’ll encounter a world more likely to sympathize with us.





“This Moment Is Unlike Any Other Time In History”

1 03 2011

Recently, I was chatting with my husband about literature. The conversation occurred when he stood looking at my office bookshelf, which is quite tiny and so crammed with books that I can barely pull one out without ripping my fingernails off.

Would that count in a worker’s comp lawsuit?

If so, I better note all those papercuts I get from doing mass postcard and letter mailings, too.

Tyler gazed over the titles of my books, and said to me, “Some of these books are probably the life’s work of some of these people. Do you think that their life’s work–their legacy in ink–matters to anyone else?”

Good question.

I think the real question is whether or not a book can truly transform your life. If so, the hard work and sacrifice to write the book is definitely necessary.

In my humble opinion, my life truly has been impacted by literature. I’ve been deeply provoked, challenged, comforted, and inspired by countless authors. In fact, I’ve written to a few authors over the last few years and told them how much their books have meant to me. I’m convinced that some of these authors and I would be kindred spirits if we actually knew each other.

One such book that has impacted me is Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith (I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for a review).

Holy cow, people. If you read one book this year, make it this one.

And trust me, I’m quite the book critic. I don’t highly recommend any old book–only the truly outstanding ones.

Lyons writes brilliantly and clearly, with honest passion and intensity as he tackles a complex subject: the future of Christianity in the upcoming generations. His optimism and belief that the younger generation desperately wants to be a “force of restoration in a broken world” and is embarking on a revolution to rebrand the name “Christian” as something that stands for authenticity, truth, beauty, and intelligence resonates completely with what I’m seeing in the world of young Christians around me.

Lyons states, “I believe this moment is unlike any other time in history. Its uniqueness demands an original response. If we fail to offer a different way forward, we risk losing entire generations to apathy and cynicism. Our friends will continue to drift away, meeting their need for spiritual transcendence through other forms of worship and communities of faith that may be less true but more authentic and appealing.”

Preach it, brother.

Through statistics, stories, and personal reflections, Lyons weaves together a gem of a book that hit the nail on the head so many times that I literally stopped and pumped my fist in excitement in a few places…however endearingly nerdy that may sound to actually admit.

Fine, I may have a bit of a geeky streak. Proof? I was in marching band, love musicals, and adore art history.

Counterproof? I hate Star Wars, Star Trek, and video games.

Let’s get back on track.

Lyons gets it. He has his finger on the pulse of young Christians. He knows what he’s talking about.

One of the most compelling chapters in this book was where Lyons explained the different types of Christians and the way they generally interact with the world. I read through the entire section, and started getting worried–none of these descriptions fit me. “Am I a total misfit?” I wondered.

Lyons then went on to describe what he calls “the restorers”:

“I’ve observed a new generation of Christians who feel empowered…They have a peculiar way of thinking, being, and doing that is radically different from previous generations. Telling others about Jesus is important, but conversion isn’t their only motive. Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love.

I call them restorers because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness. They recognize that the world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, but they believe that the process begins now as we partner with God. Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe others will see Christ through us and the Christian faith will reap a much larger harvest.

They are purposeful about their careers and generous with their time and possessions. They don’t separate from the world or blend in; rather, they thoughtfully engage. Fully aware of the seachange under way, they are optimistic that God is on the move–doing something unique in our time.”

It’s amazing, really–not only that Lyons described me and many of my young Christian friends to a “T”, but that Lyons echoed a sentiment here that I’ve been preaching to my middle school and high school students for a year now: God is doing something unique in our time.

Trust me. This is a must-read. It will challenge and inspire you, and give you hope for the future of our faith.

You can always judge how much I truly liked a book by how vigorously I wrote my notes in the margins. I circle, highlight, draw arrows, write my reactions and observations, and disagree with the text all the time–and leafing through, you can see just how much I wrestled with the text and therefore let it saturate my brain.

Guess how jam-packed the margins of this book are?

You got it: full.





Don’t Judge a Gangsta by His Gold Teeth…

12 01 2011

I got a darn good lesson in humility recently.

Tyler and I finished up a vigorous round of shopping–which I absolutely loved and he absolutely hated, incidentally–with a trip to Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant we both love. I was digging into my burrito bowl when the door opened beside our table and the scariest-looking gangsta I’ve seen in a long time came traipsing in.

This dude was intimidating. Seriously.

He was a very large African-American guy, wearing a gigantic leather coat about three sizes too large for him. His jeans were sagging down around his rear end, his dreadlocks were crazily out of control, and his flat-brimmed hat was twisted sideways at just the proper angle (it’s an art, really. It’s a shame I haven’t mastered it myself).

What really marked him as a gangster were the humongous gold pendants and thick gold chains he had hanging around his neck.

I’m no expert, but I’d venture to guess that when your gold pendant is actually larger than a hood ornament on a car, it can aptly be described as “bling”.

I know, I know—how do I know all this slang?

I proudly thank the ghetto flashcards my parents got me as a joke a few years ago.

Incidentally, I once unintentionally left those flashcards on my coffee table when a friend’s sibling was visiting from downtown San Francisco. I didn’t know it at the time, but this sibling was most definitely from the roughest ‘hood in the city and regularly hung out with gangbangers and drug dealers—I now understand why she laughed so hard as she shuffled through the cards, alternately reading them and looking at me shuffling through my iPod’s classical music playlists.

And really, I do listen to rap occasionally–it’s not all Beethoven. Once, I even made a feeble attempt at learning to beatbox and made a recording on my friend’s cell phone answering machine.

I digress—as usual.

Lovely. Your dentist would be so proud...

Anyway, I kept an eye on this thug as he waltzed into the restaurant. I noticed him check out an attractive young woman in line, and he grinned to show off his gold teeth.

Now, there are a few levels of bad boys in my book: wannabe, small-time thug, and gangsta.

This guy was most definitely gangsta.

It could be because I love to watch television shows about criminals, or it could be because I’m probably one of the most cautious people I know—but I’m always highly attuned to everything around me at all times. And when someone walks into a room and seems like they could possibly be a threat, I watch them like a hawk.

So, I kept my eyes on Mr. Gangsta. That way, I could be the first to react if he decided to pull something—you know, start throwing guacamole across the room at innocent victims, raiding the tortilla chip drawer, whatever it is that gangters do to cause mischief and mayhem.

What I noticed, however, actually taught me an important lesson about judging people.

My eyes were so drawn to Mr. Gangsta that I barely noticed the short man beside him—a man in mismatched clothing and shoes too big for his feet. He shuffled in and stood a little too close to the thug decked out in all the bling. He kept his head down and didn’t say a word.

When they finally sat down at the table across from us with their food, I understood why.

The short companion was severely mentally handicapped. And when Mr. Gangsta sat down, I noticed that he had a lanyard around his neck along with a photo ID, identifying him as the handicapped man’s helper.

As they sat down together to eat their meal, Mr. Gangsta was the most attentive companion I’ve seen in a long time. He refilled the man’s drink, fetched him napkins and silverware, and carefully watched to make sure he didn’t spill anything. I couldn’t hear anything they were saying to each other, but Mr. Gangsta laughed frequently and showed off his gloriously gold teeth often.

In short, he appeared to be completely contrary to the rough-and-tumble thug I had originally assumed he was.

I learned an important lesson: just as people shouldn’t judge my bright clothes, blonde hair and blue eyes and think that’s the whole me, neither should I judge a gangsta by his gold teeth.

Now, the crooked hat and bling, maaaaaybe….





The Future of Our Faith–A Return to Simplicity?

6 12 2010

Yesterday, I experienced a glimpse of heaven on earth–which prompted me to seriously ponder my faith, the spiritual state of our world, and the future of Christianity.

And no, this wasn’t because I successfully survived wearing high heels for over twelve hours without my toenails falling off in sheer protest.

I took two of my musical students to the Cathedral Basilica in downtown St. Louis, a breathtakingly beautiful monument created entirely out of mosaics. If you live anywhere in the Midwest and want to see something that rivals the grandeurs of Europe, this is the place to check out. I’ve been inside nearly a dozen times, and each time I’m stunned into reverent contemplation. It’s incredible.

We went to enjoy “Christmas at the Cathedral”, a two-hour concert extravaganza featuring two choirs, a handbell team, an organ, and an orchestra. I had been wanting to go to this concert for two years, and couldn’t convince any of my friends to go until I finally found some fellow (albeit young) music-lovers this year who are just as captivated by music as I am.

I was swept away by the beauty of the music, the strings and brass echoing hauntingly through the massive stone walls. I marveled, with tears in my eyes, as the choir sang an a cappella version of “Silent Night” from the transepts. And, when the entire crowd stood at the very end of the concert to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” together with the organ, orchestra, choirs, and handbells triumphantly blasting, I literally choked up and couldn’t even utter a sound.

Listening to the pure voices resound through the crowds as they sang classical Latin and Italian hymns and simultaneously seeing the lights shimmer and glint off the magnificent and intricate mosaics transported me back to the medieval times–a time when God wasn’t my “homeboy” or a plastic action figure on my desk, but the Creator who imbued man with the ability to create, dream, and act in ways that couldn’t help but glorify Him.

Back then, the Bible wasn’t an application on our phones–it was a life-giving message of hope in an otherwise dark and dangerous world. And back then–without the myriad of useful objects that have cluttered our lives and distracted us to the point that we can’t have a meaningful conversation with anyone for even a few minutes–people had time to contemplate how grand God actually is.

In our present day and age, I think we’ve become too familiar with God–too comfortable with treating Him like He’s just another buddy. We paste Him on shirts, erasers, and lunch boxes. Athletes and celebrities occasionally throw Him an obligatory “shout out” and a generic, politically correct (and thus totally bland and meaningless) statement about how they “believe in Him”. We create nicknames and fan clubs of Him on Facebook, and mock Him on South Park.

More than anything, I am stunned that the God who inspires people–no, who designed people to rise up and sing, paint, dance, speak, live and love beyond their own limits–that He could possibly care about someone as insignificant as me.

It’s an ignorant and shameful idea that we can mock Him and treat Him so condescendingly and lightly. He’s not my “homeboy”–He’s beyond comprehension.

It’s an unspeakable privilege that I am even blessed to pray to God, let alone claim to be His follower.

English pastor F. W. Robertson once said, “One thing, and only one, in this world has eternity stamped upon it. Feelings pass; resolves and thoughts pass; opinions change. What you have done lasts–lasts in you. Through ages, through eternity, what you have done for Christ, that, and only that, you are.”

Lately, nearly everything I’ve read and heard about is pulling up obscure passages from the book of Nehemiah. It’s uncanny, actually–that so many unrelated sources and people are all pointing me back to this simple book.

In short, Nehemiah’s fellow countrymen, the Jews, were living in the rubble of the once-powerful city of Jerusalem. This broke Nehemiah’s heart, and he began praying for God to work mightily on the Jew’s behalf. He started planning for rebuilding the city, and as he served King Xerxes as a cup-bearer (a trusted position), the king asked him why he was so downcast. Nehemiah jumped at the opportunity to share his thoughts, offering a well-planned solution for rebuilding Jerusalem. Xerxes agreed to supply him with the materials he needed, and eventually Nehemiah inspired the people to rebuild the city–despite plenty of opposition. The gates were completed in an incredible 52 days.

Nehemiah left the city and returned after 12 years to find the walls sound, but the people in moral decay. I was thrilled to highlight Nehemiah 13:25 in my Bible: “I argued with those people, put curses on them, hit some of them and pulled out their hair” (boy, I guess I’m doing just fine with how I handle those rowdy high school boys!) Eventually, Nehemiah reestablished true worship and sincere prayer, and encouraged a cultural revival which led to the people actually reading and listening to the Word of God.

Maybe this is where God is leading His church today–another revival, a step away from the shallow, technology-obsessed, discontent world we’ve let take over our lives. Maybe the future of our faith is a return to the simple majesty and wonder that the early Christians had for their Savior.

I’m currently reading Mark Batterson’s book, Primal. In his opening chapters, Batterson says he took a trip to Rome and embarked on an underground tour into the catacombs of an ancient church, which were hidden under layers of church buildings that were topped off by a cathedral–as was the Roman habit, to build on top of preexisting buildings, century after century.

He writes, “As I tried to absorb the significance of where I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if our generation has conveniently forgotten how inconvenient it can be to follow in the footsteps of Christ. I couldn’t help but wonder if we have diluted the truths of Christianity and settled for superficialities. I couldn’t help but wonder if we have accepted a form of Christianity that is more educated but less powerful, more civilized but less compassionate, more acceptable but less authentic than that which our spiritual ancestors practiced.

Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has evolved in lots of ways. We’ve come out of the catacombs and built majestic cathedrals with all the bells and steeples. Theologians have given us creeds and canons. Churches have added pews and pulpits, hymnals and organs, committees and liturgies. And the IRS has given us 501(c)(3) status. And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But none of those things is primal. And I wonder, almost like the Roman effect of building things on top of things, if the accumulated layers of Christian traditions and institutions have unintentionally obscured what lies beneath.”

I’ve talked to a lot of unchurched people about Christ in the last several years–probably upwards of 100. And when I really think about it, their opposition to Christianity usually isn’t Christ–it seems to be an opposition to what Batterson aptly described, “the accumulated layers of Christian traditions and institutions”.

Maybe our best hope for the future is to strip away these layers and reveal the raw majesty of God, the Almighty Creator who fashioned neurons and cells in the tiniest of organisms. To show people the passionate love of Jesus, who didn’t worry about being inoffensive and politically correct, but who truly embraced everyone. To share the power and creativity of the Holy Spirit, which equips and empowers average people in incomprehensible ways.

Maybe our generation needs its own Nehemiah…