What I’ve learned these past years

Today is my three year anniversary as youth pastor at Downey First Christian Church. In all honesty, I can say the past three years have been an incredible journey. I decided to blog today about what I’ve learned over these past years.

Time
I think we grow up thinking differently about time. When you’re younger, life goes by slowly, and then suddenly, all of that changes after high school. It’s weird. I’m sure people have theories about this that are very scientific. I don’t. I just think after a certain age we start to realize how short life really is. Anyways, looking back at the past three years, I am still a little dumbfounded and even at a loss for words, at where the time went. It’s actually sort of amusing. If you would have asked me three years ago about my thoughts on time and minsitry, and if three years was a sufficient amount of time, I would have answered “Absolutely.” I was dead wrong. It’s taken three years to break into the culture. It’s taken three years to truly build relationships. Three years is not a sufficient amount of time. This is both a scary and exciting thought. Ministry takes time, and it’s important to take your time when starting out.

Ministry success
I think my idea of what ministry success is has changed as well. I’m pretty sure most of us go into youth ministry with a grand vision and a copy of Purpose Driven Youth Ministry in our hands, and we think we can change the world. Then we begin to realize that every church is different, purpose statements are catchy but don’t produce miracles, and to be frank, ministry can suck some times. (Yeppers, it can) I’ve noticed there are a lot of comparisons made in youth ministry and ministry in general. What was your attendance last Sunday? How many students do you have in your high school group? Then, of course, we all use our numbers to boast and point to our ministry’s effectiveness. Regardless of numbers though, I’ve started to realize that true success in ministry is about relationships. It’s about creating a culture where people find intimacy with Christ and one another, where outsiders feel welcomed to come and explore the message of Jesus. If this can happen in a group of a hundred kids, awesome. Way to go for having that big of a group and shepherding them in discipleship. If it happens in a group of ten kids, kudos once again. You can’t let numbers be the only way to measure success. There are a lot of big churches out there that are doing incredible things in the kingdom. Likewise, there are a number of them who act like they’re hosting the Teen Choice Awards, and Jesus is an afterthought. In our ministries we need to help students live the way of Jesus—feed the poor, welcome in the outsider, and change our world in whatever ways we can.

Facing Opposition
This has been the most fun lesson I’ve learned—the art of facing opposition. Truth be told, it’s definitely tough at first, but then it kind of grows on you. You learn to take criticism, disrespect, and realize you’re still okay with yourself and your vision for the ministry. I know I sill have that “I need everybody to like me” syndrome, but still, I am able to function when people don’t like me. Moreover, I am able to serve them and show kindness even when they are manipulative and demeaning. (Okay, so it still stings a little bit, but come on, there is real progress here!) No matter what, every person in ministry is going to face some kind of opposition. It might be a parent who thinks you’re the antichrist, or a volunteer who has sworn herself to annihilate you within your first three months of ministry. Awe, the list could go on and on. But none of that really matters. Opposition is natural. You learn to roll with the punches and you come out a better leader and more mature person because of it.

Group trends and changes
Youth groups change over time. It seems like with every graduating class, you see certain attitudes and behaviors leave the group—sometimes this is bad and sometimes it’s great! There may be months where you have a lot of new kids coming around. Other times, you wonder if students have friends outside of the church. There are seasons when girls outnumber the guys and times when the guys seem to run the girls out of town. Youth groups, like all things in life, have trends and are constantly changing. I’ve celebrated with our youth group as attendance soared, and new people came to faith. I’ve also embraced our committed students when they were the only ones who decided to join a small group. Change is natural…and it’s a good thing. Churches change over time, and usually this means a youth group will change as well. It’s all part of the process. You have to remain positive and continue pursuing your vision, even when everything feels like it may be falling apart. Realize its part of the change process.

Leaders
Finally, after three years I’ve learned that I’m not Bill Hybels. (And that’s a good thing because that guy kind of annoys me at times.) But that’s okay, because I’ve surrounded myself with a team of incredibly talented and dedicated adults who love hanging out with teenagers and spending time with one another. I couldn’t have asked for more: I get to do ministry with my friends. A youth group or church for that matter should never be about a single person, giving a star performance. A church should be a community, a family that wants to seek God and life together. That is beginning to happen in my youth group. It’s taken three years to get to this point. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth it.

God is good
Looking back over the past three years, I can genuinely say this has been a good ride and I’m excited for more. We’ve started a movement. It’s not a movement of thousands, or even of hundreds. Nevertheless, it is a family of people wanting more of Jesus in their lives, and desiring to see his kingdom built on this earth. There have been moments where I’ve doubted God, and even more moments where I’ve doubted myself. However, even in these moments of confusion, God has been faithful. This life and this thing called ministry…well, it’s all good because God is good. He continues to surprise me and fulfill His promises. I pray for many more years of exciting ministry, partnering with the Spirit and seeking His direction. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of ministry, we need to remember that at the end of the day, God is still God…and He is always good.

Hang Loose

A few weeks ago my wife and I vacationed on the beautiful island of Oahu. I specifically use the word “beautiful” because when you’re in Hawaii, you can’t help but notice how stinking picturesque it is there. While I was there, I had this ongoing epiphany about every five minutes, where I would turn to my wife and say “Can you believe it!? We’re in Hawaii! Who else in the world is experiencing this beauty!?” Then she would turn to me and say “Well, everyone else on the beach right now.” I guess that was true

I’ve been a fan of the “island life” since our honeymoon two years ago in the Caribbean. I absolutely love the tropics—the water, the wildlife, and the people are simply amazing. It literally is paradise. One evening on our vacation we decided to attend a very authentic luau. Okay, well it was specifically for tourists, but still, it felt pretty authentic. During the evening, our luau guide taught us something. He told us that in Hawaii, there is a presence, an attitude, a way of dealing with life called the “Hang Loose Spirit.” Undoubtedly, most of us have seen the “Hang loose sign,” (very similar to the Rock N Roll hand gesture), shaken from side to side. Hang loose promotes a sense of belonging. It is a welcoming gesture to be who you are and to not get too uptight about life. In the Caribbean it was the saying “No pressure, no problem.” In Hawaii, it was hang loose.
I like the idea of being calm and chill in life. No pressure. No worries. No need to try and impress anyone. Just hang loose. It made me think about how often I live more to please others, and how I still find myself fearing rejection. I tend to live with umpteen amounts of pressure and anxiety. I don’t find the hang loose spirit in my life. I find the super-uptight-very tense-spirit instead. And truth be told: that is not how I want to live.

Above my toilet, next to the latest copy of National Geographic and the Handbook for Ministers Wives (Yep, a handbook) is a book entitled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. It’s a small book, almost like it was made for the sole purpose of bathroom literature. Nonetheless, it’s a great read. It’s sort of like taking the concept of “Hang Loose” and writing a book about how it applies in everyday life. As you read the book, you start to realize that many of the things that cause us stress and pain are the very things that really don’t matter. The guy, who cuts you off on the freeway, although he may be a bad driver, is not worth get upset about. Choose to hang loose. The spilling of the coffee all over your white shirt; sleeping through your alarm clock; even the words of a friend that come over as harsh and bitter, do not forever alter the course of your life…you just need to hang loose.

I was looking through my journal the other day and I found a page where I had written “Don’t turn molehills into mountains.” Don’t let the little things in life, alter the big picture things. In John 16:33 Jesus says “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” Jesus reminds us that life will never be easy and never be without frustration and pain. However, He has already achieved the ultimate victory through the cross. Perhaps the cross not only allows us to be victorious over sin and grant us eternal life, but also gives us the ability to hang loose. It creates a different perspective on life. I can spend my time, worrying and fretting over the most infinitesimal detail that goes awry. Or, I can accept life for what it is. I can choose to hang loose, no matter what comes my way.
There is power in a choice. We can choose to take a little piece of paradise and carry it with us. We can Hang Loose.

There will be dancing in heaven

I’m not an art guy. I wish I were because artists are cool. It really is not fair because half of the men on my mom’s side of the family paint and sculpt, and ooze artistic creativity and swagger. The last time I tried to paint, I really wanted to do a good job and follow proper painting instructions. So I spent about an hour searching in my closet for the right supplies. My wife asked what I was doing and I told her “the paint can said, “for best results, to use two coats.” (I know, I know… it’s cheesy. Get over it.)

Like I said, I’m not an art guy but I saw this painting at the Getty museum in L.A. The painting is entitled “A Walk At Dusk.” (It is pictured here on the right) I liked it so much I bought a print of it and have I hanging up in my house. The painting shows a man standing next to a grave, with a new moon forming in the sky. The artist was trying to show the balance, moreover, the interrelationship of life and death. This man is staring down upon death in the grave, while the new moon representing life, shines down from above. Life and death wedded together.

Death is a subject we tend to shy away from. In our minds, death represents the end; it is the unknown, the final frontier. As Peter Pan once famously said “Death is the only great adventure.” Our life on this earth is but a dash, a sprint to the finish line that is over as quick as it started. The Bible says that our lives are like a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes (James 4:14). Or that we are but blades of grass, surely fading fast (Isaiah 40:6). All this talk about the brevity of our existence doesn’t make me want to jump up and down for joy. Honestly, there is a part of me that is saddened by this reality. Furthermore, there is a part of me that wants to prolong life as long as possible. I still have so much I want to do and see and be. Death seems to put an end to our pursuits.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one (whether it be prematurely or even after a long life), the sting and pain of that loss is real. Our family and friends do their best to comfort us with reassuring words and promises, but the truth is we just miss that person. Perhaps, we find ourselves living with certain regrets about the final moments we shared with them. Maybe we ask a number of questions: “Did this person know how much I truly loved them? Did I miss my opportunity to say what I really wanted them to know?” I know this for a fact because I’ve asked myself these same questions. And every time I revisit these questions, the sense of loss comes back. There was a part of me that seemed whole when this person was with me, and now, I feel empty. I tend to see a great disparity between life on earth and existence elsewhere.

But what if there was another way to understand the passing from life on this earth onto the next? What if we could see death and life like more of a connection? I say all of this from a position of faith. I believe when I die, that is not the end; rather, it is the start of a new, eternal existence in heaven. That gives me hope. Moreover, I am able to accept that the reality of heaven is a constant reminder that life, death, and the afterlife are all connected.

If there is such a connection between life on earth, death, and life afterwards, then when someone dies, they never truly leave us. There is just a little bit of a delay before we will see them again. I often think about my grandma who passed away when I was in college. It was a trying time for me, because I felt a lot of regret. I wondered if she knew how much I appreciated her and loved her. The last conversation I had with her was over the phone, hours before she passed away. I miss my grandmother tremendously. It will be six years this September since she passed. She is gone from an earthly perspective, but her words and her presence are still very much alive in me. The memories and lessons she gave me will never be forgotten.

I realize that there is no way to make someone feel less pain when mourning the loss of someone they loved. And there shouldn’t be. There is only a different perspective that says death is not goodbye, nor it is not the end of the story. Recently, I spoke with one of my students who just lost a loved one. He told me how this person was always there for him. She was the kind of person who would listen to his jokes, take him out for ice cream, and even listened to his favorite music when he shared it with her. One of his fondest memories was that they used to dance together. It didn’t matter the genre of music be it rock, dance ballads, or even heavy metal, they just danced. As we were sharing memories and he was telling me about their affinity for busting a move, I couldn’t help but think, “She is still dancing with you. She is not really gone, but still here.”

Revelation 21:4 says “[In heaven] there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” I take that to mean that there will be a lot of people celebrating and dancing in heaven. (Except disco. I’m pretty sure heaven will not have disco.) To me, that is a beautiful picture of the connection between life and death—an existence that carries on after grave. It’s like that song in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “In time, we’ll be dancing in the streets all night.” Even though our dance on this earth will eventually come to an end, we have to remember to keep dancing….all the way to heaven.

It’s a love story

I have a confession to make. Okay, here it goes: When I’m listening to the radio and a Taylor Swift song comes on, I don’t change the station. Sometimes I even turn the volume up…but just a little. She has a song called “Today was a fairytale.” And if I can be vulnerable and honest, I like it. I think it is full of the kind of youthful idealism we need more of: fairytales, true love, and romance in high school. It’s great.

I mention all of this because it is spring and love is in the air. There is a breeze blowing through, dropping particles of romance and candy-coated butterflies that will later end up in our stomachs. It is the season for proms, weddings, and the Marriage Ref, all here to show us this wonderful thing called love. We talked last week at church about love and sex, and a lot of good conversations developed from it. It really made me think about how love applies to our youth group.

When my wife was in first grade she wrote a poem about love. The reason I know this is because her best friend found a box of her old poems and read one of them at our wedding. Truth be told, she had a lot of great poems that she wrote in first grade. She had a poem about inviting dogs and hamsters to her birthday party, and another one about her disdain for cats. Her best poem though, was the one she wrote about love. In one of the lines from her poem she wrote: “I love LOVE. When I fall in love, it will be forever.” Now, between you and me, I think she might have plagiarized that last line, but still, there is a blatant truth sticking out—she loves love! When I heard that poem, I thought, “Well, who doesn’t love or at least really like love!? Love is great!”

Love is something we’re all pursuing either intentionally or inadvertently. Ingrained in all of us is a desire to obtain love or at least what we think “love” is. It is difficult to articulate or define love. At best, we just summarize it with vague, poetic descriptions or describe feelings like warmth, tingling sensations, upset stomachs, and so on. But love is more than all of that, isn’t it?

I love that Scripture begins with God sharing a vision for love with his people. In Genesis 2, we see that God has created the universe, all the animals, the flora and fauna, and he has created Adam. God gives him a task; a little job to keep him busy. God tells Adam to name the animals. Adam is like the first zoologist. He is Jeff Corwin on steroids. I wonder how long it took Adam to name the animals. Perhaps it took him a few years or a few decades. Eventually though, He begins to feel lonely. He feels tension. He has a desire to find beauty and to celebrate in it. He longs for love. While naming the animals he is beginning to realize that there are no other creations like him. He is probably a little anxious, but he has no need to worry… God has a plan. (And maybe God has been planning this all along and was just letting Adam sweat it out a bit and live with the tension.) God decides to create Eve. When Adam sees Eve he says: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” I envision Adam is sort of like a Looney Tunes character at this point. His eyes are popping out of his head, his heart pounding, his jaw dropping as he says “Hubba hubba, bow chica bow wow.” His longings for a mate are now fulfilled. His love is now able to be experienced. After years of waiting his desire is now met.

The Genesis account is a beautiful glimpse at why God created love. He created it to be shared in joyful and jubilant commitment with one another. It is something to be held near and dear, and also something to wait for. Many of us though, have rushed into love too quickly or perhaps we’ve yearned so very much for love that we’ve given ourselves away, only to feel lost again, realizing we didn’t find what we were searching for. Instead of attaining God’s best, we’ve settled for a replica of God’s true picture of love, only furthering our own pain and isolation. We’ve lived with the tension and felt the loneliness. Ironically, the very things our world has said will bring us love, have only led us further away. Whether it is sex, numerous relationships, or a combination of the two, we haven’t given our hearts what they’ve truly desired. God has given us love as a gift; and it is a gift worth protecting and fighting for.

If love is a great thing, it definitely is worth protecting. People who study animals say that if a tiger and a lion were to get in a fight, the win would be automatic for the tiger. Lions are fierce and agile fighters, but tigers are, well tigers. It would be like a lightweight boxer stepping into the ring with a heavyweight—really no contest. The tiger is a stronger opponent. He is bigger, faster, and more aggressive. One on one the lion wouldn’t stand a chance. The funny thing, though, is that lions do not typically hunt alone. They hunt and fight in packs; tigers on the other hand are lone rangers. If this made up jungle fight scenario was changed a bit, and it was a pack of lions versus a pack of tigers, the lions would win. The lions know how to fight together; they have strength in numbers. A pack of lions would defeat the tigers no question.

I think we can live our lives one of two ways: as a lion or a tiger. We can live as a lone ranger and do okay for sometime, or we can be a lion and live in community, knowing that we need each other. God’s ideal for love is an amazing but difficult thing to attain. Let’s face it—we need help from one another. We need to help each other in this fight. We can stand firm, united as one, pursuing God’s best. Or, we can live our lives in the shadows, avoiding the help we so desperately need, and letting the world continue to dictate our thoughts and feelings towards love.

We all love love…because we were created for it. God’s gift to us is the gift of love for Him and for one another. It is quite beautiful and it is worth pursuing and finding in Him alone. God created love for us to experience in the same Adam experienced when he met Eve. It is up to us, however, to fight for it. To find God’s ideal, we need to give ourselves for it. Like Adam, we need to fight through the tension and wait for what God has in store. We have to realize that our love story is worth it.