Fields of Gold


Every once in a while you hear a song that speaks to a deeper part of you. Words aren’t enough to describe the feelings; you just know something is happening in your soul. One of these songs for me is Fields of God. This song is a little old school, so I will attach a link for you to check it out–Fields of God. The song was written by a creative, English gent named Sting. I like Sting. He has one of those unique voices that you couldn’t copy, even if you moved to England to develop an accent, and owned a karaoke machine. He is one the few artists that can take me to another world when he is singing. Regardless of what I am doing, I get lost in his music. Besides his incredible voice, his songs tell stories.

A couple years ago I was heading to Arizona with my wife and family, driving across the desert to her aunt’s house in Prescott. Not to bash on the AZ, but I’d visited several times before and left unimpressed. I even wrote a poem below:

Arizona

It was hot

There was sand

There were cacti

And Steve Nash

Arizona

We’d been driving for what seemed like forever in road trip time, and I was cramped in the back of a mini van… and my legs were restless. (I’m pretty sure I have some mild form of restless leg syndrome.) To say the least, I was ready to be done with the road trip thing. I decided to get lost in some tunes. I put my headphones on, closed my eyes and let the i-pod do its magic. After some time, the song Fields of Gold started to play. Around the same time, our minivan traveled around a canyon of some sorts, and to the right side I saw fields of yellow grass, gracefully bowing to the wind. The cinematography was impeccable, almost like it was a movie. I had a moment in the back of the mini van, listening to Sting, watching this field of gold sway to the rhythm of the music. Arizona was beautiful when Sting was singing to me.

This memory stuck with me for some time. I was reminded of it recently when I went to Barnes and Noble. Inside the everything-is-only-$5-section, I found a book written by Sting, explaining the meaning of many of his songs. Immediately, I turned to the index and found Fields of Gold. I turned to the page to read the lyrics, and Sting’s brief commentary. He said he used to watch tall, golden barley stocks sway in the wind in his countryside home in England. He said it was poetic, like the sky was telling a story to the golden barley field that it would never forget: earth and sky participating in a great love affair, touched by the heavens. I believe the song is about more than Sting’s affinity for agriculture; it’s a tale of love.

The mystery of love is that the heart has the capacity to give it and receive it in great quantities. Moreover, love has the capacity to change people. One of the peculiarities of love is the propensity of it to come and go. In this journey of life we love and lose, and give and take. Heart-break occurs and futures change. It’s almost like the inevitable pain of young romance, prepares us to love more deeply and more truly one day. It makes you wonder, though, if there could be a love affair so pure and so strong that it gets trapped somewhere between heaven and earth.

At my wedding, I watched my beautiful bride walk down the aisle—our eyes, fixated on one another. We danced at our reception, swaying to the music, caught up in the story of us. I had a great uncle and aunt who attended the wedding. They’d been married for over 50 years. The entire guest list cheered wildly when they were announced as the longest married couple in the room. Everyone loves a good love story because it points us to something deeper than the temporary. Great love stories never go to the grave; they live on in our world, reminding us of its great gift.

One of the lines from Fields of Gold describes the sun in the jealous sky. That line has always haunted me. I know my days are numbered, and as the Bible says, my life is but a blade of grass, a vapor that will quickly vanish. After a few years, my body will decay and disappear. Give it a few more years and my pictures will slowly come off the walls of family and friend’s homes. My memory will be relegated to a cardboard box in someone’s garage. But I believe a part of me will live on—that part of me that beheld love. I may pass on many things to those who come after me: old t-shirts, a guitar, a few dozen books…maybe even one of my Star Wars Pez dispensers. But the only truly meaningful memory I will leave behind is the memory of love. Hopefully, those who knew me best will remember my love and that will bless them. No matter how jealous the days will be of my life, how short my life on earth may be, a part of my love will never be forgotten. That is the part of me that will live on years after I’m gone. Love is the gift we can all leave behind.

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.