Once again, this is a blog post I wrote for the church I work at, but I manage to talk adolescent social anxiety, ghosting, and Johnathan Livingston Seagull all in 500 words so I’m pretty proud of it.
As I mentioned, I don’t just blog for funsies, but also for work! Here’s a post I did recently about teenagers and the core of Christian identity. And Henri Nouwen. Obviously.
Over the past 2 weeks I have read 2 of Henri Nouwen’s better known books: In the Name of Jesus and Life of the Beloved. I read them in very different places of life, thinking about very different things – but I needed them both.
In the Name of Jesus is Nouwen’s book on Christian Leadership going into the 21st century. He lays out the temptations of leadership, the cures, and the practices to help you get there, its a a-b-c/a-b-c/a-b-c structure. The temptations – to be relevant, powerful, spectacular, are a fascinating starting point for Nouwen because they are not particularly malicious temptations. A non-Christian reader would find this a deeply strange book because it is a powerful refutation of every other leadership book on the market. A simple 150 pages reminding you that Jesus never asked you to be a great leader, and if you will lead in his name, you must lead like him. I would recommend it for people going in to ministry roles. I would suggest it as one to revisit every so often. Nouwen’s language is simple and clear and straight-forward. It is hard to misunderstand him, even if occasionally we might want to.
I read this book in two sittings. The first was from 3-5 am on a Wednesday. Tortured by anxiety that wouldn’t let me sleep, anxiety from the very leadership Nouwen writes about, I found his words true but unpleasant. A reminder of how far I was from where I wanted to be. Nouwen can be like that.
A week later, I read Life of the Beloved on a plane flight home. It was Christmas Eve. My husband napped on my shoulder, as did most of the other passengers on the 7am flight. If In the Name of Jesus coincided with my restless anxiety, it seems only fitting that Life of the Beloved was a book I opened to the sound of slumber of everyone around me. Nouwen wrote the book to a dear, non-religious friend, trying to explain what it means to be a spiritual person in a secular world. The core thesis is this: You are the Beloved. Everything else hinges on you believing that. He (always so structured, I love that about him) orients the book around the four verbs of the breaking of the bread: taken, blessed, broken, and given. The book moves slowly but powerfully through the four movements, and is laced with the heartfelt urgency and compassion of a man trying to explain to someone he loves that he is so much more than this secular and cruel world tells him he is. This book is almost unbearably gentle, and kind. It whispers compassion in every page. Its a powerful, intimate thing to read, and one which I will hold on to.
So my Christmas was framed by a conversation with my dear friend Henri. First with his confrontation of how my anxiety was so clearly not what God wanted. How all I could hear was all that I was not. And then a soft voice, telling me, as much as I was willing to believe, that I was beloved.
I’ve had some friends ask that I keep posting about what I’m learning in seminary and in my new world of youth ministry. I’m excited to! However, between writing curriculum, talks, and papers for seminary, I already write a lot. So I’m going to be intermittently sharing things I wrote for other purposes. I hope it is useful for people in the youth ministry community, or at least fun for my mom and 6 friends that read my blog.
Here’s the talk I gave to middle and high school students, on Oct. 9 on 2 Timothy 2: 8 -15, which was pulled from the lectionary. Disclaimer: this was written for 12-17 year olds, and I am not an early church scholar.
The other day, I saw an article online about the “Instagram Bible” – talking about how teenagers today most often see scripture quotes in cool fonts over scenic pictures in nature. People use a lot of different verses for these, but they’re all basically the same bent: trust in the Lord for He is good, sing praise to the Lord of all creation, my soul finds rest in God, etc. You know, instagram-able stuff. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating and loving the words of scripture, isn’t there something we miss out on when we take verses so radically out of any socio-cultural, historical, or even narrative context?
Don’t we think that by cutting and snipping and sanitizing the Bible, we’re not making it more, but less? The Bible is not a collection of fortune cookies stapled together, but a collection of works by different writers, editors, and genres, assembled together over thousands of years, and shaped by all of the contexts of all of those time periods.
So before we talk about today’s scripture – I want to spend a second zooming out and talking about context.
After Jesus dies and is resurrected, he tells the disciples to “go out and make disciples of all nations” and then ascends into to heaven. The Holy Spirit comes in the Pentecost, and the disciples can now speak all languages, perform miracles, cast out demons, etc. They go around, spreading the good news of Jesus, and the church grows like wildfire. Things are going according to plan.
Then, in 57 ad, about 25 years after Jesus died, a new Roman emperor takes over, his name is Nero. Nero, looking to consolidate his rule as emperor, seeks the fledgling church as an easy target. Persecution against the early church intensifies. Church leaders are thrown into jail, and killed, church meetings go underground. The church is scattered, frightened, and unsure. This can’t be what Jesus wanted? I thought his kingdom was coming? I thought that his word was supposed to spread all over the earth?
Paul is back in prison, but this time its different. In his earlier imprisonment, he was treated as sort of a guest of honor, but now, he’s in chains, in a dungeon, where even his closest friends struggle to find him. He knows he’s not going to make it out of this one. He knows he’s dying.
I imagine the letters being read, I imagine the people of the church gathered in someone’s house, by night, so they wont be discovered. I imagine one person standing up front holding a candle close to the letter to read it out loud to the group
“Guys, guys! Be quiet, hush, its from Paul, its a letter from Paul! “… Dear church in Ephesus, stop with all your internal fighting (yeah, Carol. Oh come on, you know its about you, please) support and build up each other…”
I imagine a young guy standing in the back of the room. He’s nervous, shifting his feet, not really listening. His name is Timothy. Paul has chosen him as his successor to lead the baby church. He’s not an obvious choice, he’s young, and timid, and inexperienced. But there weren’t a whole lot of other options. He’s received a special letter from Paul, addressed just to him. Timothy doesn’t know it yet, but that letter is the last recorded writings of Paul before he dies.
I imagine Timothy’s hands shaking a little as he opens the letter. What’s Paul going to say? Is he getting out of prison soon? Does he know how they’re going to avoid getting stamped out by Nero? Does he have a plan?
My dear son, Timothy…
Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David. This is my good news. This is the reason I’m suffering to the point that I’m in prison like a common criminal (in chains). But God’s word cannot be imprisoned (God’s word is unchained) . This is why I endure everything for the sake of those who are chosen by God so that they too may experience salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. This saying is reliable:
“If we have died together, we will also live together.
If we endure, we will also rule together.
If we deny him, he will also deny us.
If we are disloyal, he stays faithful”
because he can’t be anything else than what he is.
It’s an encouragement. Paul, dying in a prison cell, uses his last letter to send Timothy words of encouragement.
Paul says, “this is my good news.” That Jesus is resurrected (v. 8), God’s word is unchained (v. 9), we are part of the story (v. 11), and the glue that holds it all together? God can’t help but be faithful because God can’t help but be God (v. 13).
Paul’s message to Timothy is essentially this: ‘I know you’re young and scared and you feel like the world is coming down on your shoulders. I know you’re afraid of being a disappointment and you don’t know what’s ahead, but have hope, be brave, Timothy. God can’t help but be God. I know it all seems like its falling apart but God can’t help but be God, God can’t help but be faithful to us, have hope.’
This letter, at its core, is a message of hope. Paul’s hope is not in himself, or even in Timothy, but in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s hope is not that Timothy will do everything perfectly, or even that they’re even going to see their situation get any better, but that God is perfect regardless.
Paul knows he’s dying but writes words of hope regardless.
Can you imagine Timothy? Can you imagine him looking around the room nervously? As they finish reading the letter to the whole church, eyes gradually turn towards him. People are chattering, they know that he’s the chosen successor of Paul, and he got a special letter! What did it say? Was he coming back? Did he have instructions on how to escape this nightmare? Can you imagine him slowly stepping forward, looking at his feet. What was he going to tell them? What was he supposed to say?
I believe that hope is the bravest form of faith. Maybe I picture Timothy so clearly because I also struggle to hold onto hope. I can imagine he was scared. I would have been scared too. I’m scared when I speak to my church now, when I speak to teenagers and say, “hope.” I can’t imagine how Timothy felt, especially in a context when he had so little to be hopeful about.
Back when I worked in Northern Thailand, I had a case where the client was 12 and around 5 months pregnant. (I’ve talked about her, and her baby, before in this blog, so this may sound redundant). I did my job. I mean, I did what I could. We got her set up at part time school, took her to doctors appointments, tried to get her parents the vocational support they needed to make a stable enough income that she would be safe from further exploitation. The legal team prosecuted her case successfully, but her abuser was sentenced to one year of probation. But this was a situation where it all seemed pretty hopeless, nothing I could do was enough. I felt like Timothy left to lead a fledgling church with no instruction and no way out of the desperate situation they were in. On February 9th, 2015, she had her baby, and she named him Daniel.
Daniel. Daniel who was thrown to the lions and survived, Daniel who survived the furnace. Daniel who, right before he was thrown into the furnace said ‘my God is strong enough to deliver me, but even if he does not, he is still God.’ Even if He doesn’t deliver us from this furnace, even if I die in this jail cell, He is still God. I will still have hope.
I was so busy worrying about all the ways I was inadequate, that I almost missed a 12 year old mother and a baby named Daniel who turned 20 months old last week. I was so busy worrying about all the ways that I was trying to do a good job, to bring hope in a hopeless situation that I almost missed the inexplicable truth that hope was already there. A 12 year old trafficking victim was the Paul to my timothy, calling from struggle like I couldn’t know – saying this is my good news: Jesus is resurrected, God is truly unchained.
Hope is the bravest form of faith. Hope like a baby named Daniel, hope like a dying man in a prison cell. And sometimes, we the Timothys, need those who seem like they should have the least hope of all, to remind us to be brave.
I imagine that Timothy shook out his hands, and stepped up in front of everyone, and said “this is my good news” even knowing that hard days lay ahead of them.
We are called to lead the church, to be the church, to sing hope from jail cells and say “this is my good news – Jesus is resurrected, God is unchained, and we are part of the story, even if we’re not sure why. Because God is God and he can’t help but be faithful to us”
I imagine as Timothy said it, he started to believe it. We may not see how things are getting any better (he may not rescue us from the lions den, from the prison cell) but we are called to hope regardless, because God cant be anything but God is. And God is good, and powerful, and bringing the kingdom on earth. And that is my good news.
I was out at lunch with my husband after church last weekend, and I noticed that he was wearing the same outfit he had worn on our first date. The oxford shirts and j.crew chinos he lived in while we were in college, had be gradually swapped out for the graphic tees, flannels, and jeans that fit in better at the video game studio he worked at now. I noticed, with him back in those clothes, that he looked exactly the same as he did more than 4 years ago when we got together.
“You know, today you look just like you did on our first date.”
He paused, looking at me. “You look… not older, but more mature? … no… more…. What’s a softer word for ‘grizzled’?”
We laughed. I wasn’t offended, just left wondering – was it the scar I got on my face last year from a nasty spider bite? Was it the weight I lost, that made my cheek and jaw bones harsher? My short hair? My tragus piercing? I knew it probably wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t push him about it, but I can guess that, if I had, he would have probably said it was something behind my eyes. Something in the way I snapped my fingers compulsively when I was nervous. I didn’t do that when when I was 20 and falling in love with him.
When I started my job about 6 weeks ago, my boss asked for a photo he could put on the Instagram to introduce me. I picked one of me at a coffee shop, taken by a good friend of mine, right before I left for Thailand. I had used the same one for my CYMT (center for youth ministry training) bio. At least five people told me I didn’t look anything like my picture. I don’t know what to tell you, people, its a picture of me.
But this post isn’t really about me reconciling looking vaguely different. Its about reconciling feeling vaguely different. On a meta level, looking back through the past two years of this blog is a case study in the transition through post-adolescent idealism, culture shock, disillusionment, adjustment, re-entry trauma, and into a new version of normal.
Some months to process (probably not enough) and re-entry counseling (definitely not enough) have been the keys to letting me begin to see how to really live in the reality I’m in now, as a youth worker, seminarian, and wife, without trying to smother the truth that I have also lived in a completely different reality.
I had lunch with a friend last week who was working at the IJM office in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, while I was in Chiang Mai. She had come to visit Thailand as a visa run while I was working there, and we had reconnected at the re-entry retreat in Washington this past winter. She just moved to Fort Worth, and we met at a Thai restaurant to catch up. She said something that has stuck with me.
She said, “You know, everyone wants the year with IJM to be black-and-white, like it was this amazing vacation where I met these great people and got to do really cool stuff, or it was horrible and dangerous and traumatic. But, like.. it was both, you know? Its a gray year, you can’t have one without the other. Its just more complicated than people get.”
She is so right. I loved my year in Thailand, I am so grateful, it taught me measures of mercy, grace, joy that I could have never learned another way – I saw some of the most beautiful places on earth, and probably of the 10 most exciting days of my life, Thailand is responsible for 8 of them. But I also saw and experienced things I will never be able to fully process or understand. I walked hand in hand with trauma and violence and death day after day after day. I will never have as much faith in my emotional resilience, mental health, or my own sense of justice as I did once.
As a small example: at some point fairly early on while I was in Thailand, I started to become very uncomfortable around children. All the children I worked with, and talked to and about, were victims of sexual violence and exploitation, and my healthy boundaries mutated into an deep-seated aversion. I intentionally maximized the amount of physical space between me and children I interacted with, I avoided eye contact. I’m sure it was some coping mechanism to make being constantly surrounded by horrible abuse more tolerable. But when I came home, I couldn’t turn it off. A friend of mine had a baby and people were passing the baby around to be coo-ed over. I felt my hands sweat and my feet shift, I intentionally stepped out of the group before the baby was passed to me so I didn’t have to make up a reason why I wasn’t going to hold her. The truth, that every time I was around children, my brain filled with all of the child abuse images I had seen, and testimonies of assault I had transcribed, seemed like it would hurt the joyful mood.
A couple weeks ago, a woman I work with’s 3-year-old grandson came into the office. I stood in the door of my office, trying to create a little space between us without being weird. The little boy looked up at me and smiled and waved. And the knot in my chest loosened. He was ok. He was just a happy little kid. I sat back at my desk. He came in and stood in my office and talked about spaceships and star wars and who knows and I talked to him. I listened. And my palms weren’t sweating, my mind was clear. He was ok. And so was I. He grabbed my hand to show me something and I realized it was the first time I had been able to as much as hold hands with a child in over a year. Earlier this week, our neighbors came over for dinner. They have a 3 and 6 year old who are so sweet. The 3 year old girl climbed in my lap. And it was ok, good even. I had volunteered at a nursery in high school, I had always loved being around little kids. I had kind of assumed that I would never be able to enjoy being around them again. But I was wrong. It just took time.
So what’s a softer word for grizzled? I am more than I was before I left, but I am also, in some way, less. I am now a couple months into what is truly the next phase of my life, and this phase will probably shape me in just as powerful ways as Thailand did if I’m willing to move on and really step into it. And I finally feel like I am. I will tell the teenagers I work with tales of Chiang Mai, of operations and of elephants, but I will also tell them about growing up in Tennessee, about college in Ohio, about my lovely and quirky husband. I will never really have as “normal” a story as some of the people around me, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still my community, it doesn’t mean I don’t belong here.
God didn’t give me these experiences that I might be tormented by them, that I might carry them around like an unspeakable secret, but that I might use them to help others to understand Him in a new way, that the hallelujahs might be multiplied by others who hear and recognize His hand in the story. And, maybe more importantly, He will give me other stories too. Ones even more amazing than the ones already written.
So, this is probably the last post about Thailand. It will come up again, I’m sure, but its time to set my eyes forward instead of back. The season for processing, grieving, and remembering is ending, and the next season is truly beginning. I will not miss the new song being sung because an older one is still stuck in my head.
Thank you again to everyone who’s come with me this far. As they would say in my all time favorite show (The West Wing) — What’s Next?
I am now 3 weeks into my job as the Associate Director of Youth Ministry for a large, downtown, DFW-area church. Although I was objectively qualified for this job, and have learned a lot more already, I will admit that I have spent a fair amount of my time feeling sort of lost.
I tried to ease in, checking my natural proclivity to burst into situations as a tidal wave of unsubstantiated self-confidence and enthusiasm that usually leaves me having to apologize and course-correct within a couple weeks. On that front I think I’ve done decently well, listening and trying to fit into the already-established dynamics and culture. But other than, ‘try not to be annoying,’ I haven’t really had much of a strategy in any of this. Around February, I felt a call to youth ministry. I’ll admit I responded with something more like ‘Ok, Jesus’ than the Magnificat. I did all the right things. I got a youth ministry job, I’m going to seminary, I’m reading the right books.
But when I sit with my cohort of youth ministry newbies in my training program, or read these books, and they talk about not burning yourself out in the first couple years so that you can have a 20 year career with your ministry, I find myself scooting back a little in my chair. I’m not sure I’m a “youth ministry person” – I’m just a person who happens to be doing youth ministry right now. Just like when I worked at IJM, I wasn’t a “anti-trafficking person,” that was just what I was doing right then. Yeah I mean, when I heard this call, it sounded like it was for life in ministry, but I’m not sold. This isn’t all I’ve wanted to do since I was kid, like some of the people in my program, or my boss.
But these teenagers have made my easing, my halfhearted commitment, challenging. Within my first week, wonderful teenage girls poured out their heartbreaks and brokenness into my hands, not because I had said the right thing or established the right environment, but simply because God decided this was what he wanted to use me for. So I met them with open hands and absolutely no motive or agenda. Not because I’m selfless or my motives are pure, but because I simply hadn’t been there long enough to even decide what my agenda was.
‘Ok, Jesus.’ I thought to myself on my exhausted drive home from spending time with these girls.’You clearly did call me here. So here I will be.’ I thought of Old Testament prophets and kings, who heard the voice of God and said, ‘I will go, but only if you go with me.’
I feel lost because I have no idea what version, or fragment of me is right for this. I have changed and grown so much in the past two years that I’m not longer sure what I even bring to the table. The nineteen and twenty year old me that first confidently barreled into youth ministry is long gone. I can’t rely on the skills learned or strategies developed then any more than I could rely on ones learned out of a book. They’re equally irrelevant.
At our program orientation, our director wrapped up a session by assuring us “if you fear you are inadequate, don’t worry. You definitely are.” But Jesus is so much greater than our inadequacy. Grace comes into own in our weakness. The message of our lives is told through our weakness.
So I’m 3 weeks in, and plagued with inadequacy, lukewarm commitment, and lack of direction. But Jesus has already used those broken places, using inadequacy to keep me humble, my lukewarmness to keep me constantly evaluating myself and everything around objectively, and even my lack of direction has quieted my ruthless ambition and made me a more honest and present sister in Christ to those around me. My story is not one of the superstar youth leader, but of a broken sinner, a follower of Jesus, who for the time being is blessed to join what God is doing here.
I will watch with wide eyes and a hungry heart to see what Jesus does next.
Youth ministry may be one of the only professions that has settled into the pattern of handing over total responsibility for running an organization to young people just out of college. Far too often, anxiety, not wisdom, drives us. – Sustainable Youth Ministry
Sustainable Youth Ministry was one of those books recommended to me by three separate people before I read it. I will admit when I got the third recommendation, from my boss-to-be, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. The issue is not the content, I am about to start a career in youth ministry, and I have experienced the incredible burnout rate of youth workers first-hand.
The issue is the author. I don’t have a problem with Mark DeVries, in fact, quite the opposite. Mark joined FPC Nashville, my home church, in the 90’s as the youth pastor, and only officially retired in the past year or two. He was the man I met when I was on my first youth retreat at 12, the one who coached me through my sermon on youth Sunday at 18, who was my boss when I interned at the church at 19, and who performed my wedding two months ago, at 24. I worked for, or with, all 3 of his children. He introduced me to International Justice Mission, the organization I used to work for, and founded the youth ministry training programming I’m in (the Center for Youth Ministry Training, CYMT). He is the one who first encouraged me to go into ministry in the first place.
Can you even imagine the “of course” laugh I had when my boss-to-be told me their youth ministry uses Youth Ministry Architects, the coaching service Mark started? When he recommended the book he said, “You should read Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, you know him, right?” Yes, we’ve met.
All of that is to say that I can, in no way, give an objective analysis of this book. I leaned a lot from it, but I was most captivated by comparing the pitfalls and successes described in the book to my own youth ministry experience, having not only crystal clear mental images of the leaders and programs he described but also understanding Mark’s behavior by hearing it describe his own why.
As a part of the youth ministry at FPC Nashville, my peers and I were always vaguely aware that we were always part of some experiment. By the time I was a teenager, Mark was rarely involved in the day-to-day of youth ministry, but often seemed much more like the man behind the curtain, the wizard handing down wisdom. Don’t take any of this as a criticism of the man, he is very wise and kind and has been a huge influence on me and many of my peers, but I have one pretty fundamental question about his ability to put what he wrote in this book into practice.
The whole concept of Sustainable Youth Ministry is that its a handbook on building long-term youth ministries that aren’t built around cults of personality, but can continue to build and thrive after the youth minister moves on. From an outsider perspective, Mark’s perspective on this issue seems well-founded, he made a fairly seamless, gradual, transition out of leadership at FPC Nashville. But I am not an outsider.
I did a summer internship in 2012 leading high school mission trips, and when people found out I was from FPC Nashville, the most frequent comment I got was, “that’s Mark DeVries’s church, right?” – never mind that not only was Mark not the senior pastor at our church, he was actually only working there part-time. I spent some time working as the receptionist at FPC Nashville early this year, and I got at least 3 or 4 calls a week asking for Mark DeVries, despite the fact that he hadn’t had an office there for over a year. And when I trained my replacement, an outsider, I had to explain to her that Mark could reserve any space he wanted, no he’s not on staff, but he doesn’t need to fill out a reservation form, and no one needs to approve it.
While Mark was the youth pastor, his son, his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s best friend, his daughter, and at least three other guys who grew up in his youth ministry were on full-time staff. And when Mark finally phased out completely from being the youth pastor, his son took over, having just graduated from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Mark also went, where our senior pastor is on the board of trustees, and which is a founding partner of CYMT. I think its worth considering that Mark’s unspoken secret ingredient in the recipe for sustainable youth ministry is a pipeline of people trained in identical schools of thought as you, who want to work for you, and follow your lead.
Adam DeVries is a friend of mine, and don’t take his family connection as a knock on his qualifications. He is a gifted, daringly compassionate, wise man who I absolutely adore spending time with, and who has done amazing things for FPC Nashville’s youth ministry. But I sometimes wonder if he could be an ever better pastor somewhere else, where he isn’t constantly surrounded by people who look at him and expect him to be his father. Mark warns against the pervading anxiety in youth workers. You try taking over for a legend in your field, and who happens to be your father, and see if makes you a little anxious.
You can imagine that its hard for me to look at our youth ministry and see how it serves as a model of a style of youth ministry that is not centered around the youth minister. While Mark is not there on the day-to-day level, the youth ministry, and sometimes the whole church, feels like it operates in his shadow. That’s not to say he’s not a wonderful, benevolent, influence, he definitely is, and he has built a great program that gets along fine without his management. But it still invokes his name. FPC Nashville’s youth ministry is sustainable in the sense that Mark has managed to establish the continuation of his legacy into the next generation.
So I don’t know. I love Mark, I think he’s a legend for a reason. There’s a lot I did learn from this book, Mark’s discussion of playful detachment in petty issues, and of emotional health and creating climates of friendship, are not only all useful advice but things I can point to as difference-makers in my own experience of youth ministry under his leadership, but the hand-off that is so central to this book? I’m just not sure it ever happened. Mark lays out his model for having workers, contractors and architects, and how shifting strategic responsibility to the architect provides continuity when the workers come and go, but doesn’t address the question of himself, the architect.
How does an architect leave?