Mission Trips Summer 2018

I love mission trips. I believe it is a great way to help teens see that there is a bigger world out there that needs our love, compassion, grace and justice. It is so easy for middle class American teens (and adults) to not see beyond their little suburban bubble. Mission trips help to expand their focus and see their place in the world. Now understand that I did not say that mission trips are about “us” going out to help “them” who need us to swoop in and change their lives for the better. That is a poor way of looking at trips of this sort. We are not the “saviors” trying to save the “lost”. The more I do mission trips I have discovered that God is already working everywhere around the world AND He is still working on me and my teens. So the goal of a mission trip is to connect with what God is ALREADY doing in the life of a community and join in the experience. A good mission trip is a spiritual symbiotic relationship where we learn from each other as we serve together with the community.

For quite a while now I have based my model of missions on Jesus’ words quoted in Acts 1:8 –  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus was speaking these words as he was in Jerusalem. Our mission begins in our “Jerusalem”. That would be representative of our own communities, our schools, our places of work and our neighborhoods.

Next Jesus emphasizes Judea and Samaria. These represent communities outside of our primary location. Being that Jesus also threw in Samaria too would also suggest that we need to go into those places that may make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

Lastly, Jesus mentions the ends of the earth. This is a command for Christ-followers to have a global perspective. We begin in our community, branch out to other areas near and far within our own country and we expand to have an international focus when it comes to missions.

With that said, I believe that we had one of the best Summer’s when it comes to mission trips. We took the Junior High teens to a mission on the outskirts of Cleveland, OH called the Nehemiah Mission. This is the fourth time I have partnered with this organization. The Nehemiah Mission used to be a United Methodist Church that was dying. They decided to convert the church into a mission which now runs year-round mission opportunities for all types of groups. Our teens had a lot of different experiences as they came along side of people and ministries that needed volunteers. We were able to serve at a women’s shelter called Laura’s Home, we did some urban gardening helping a neighborhood that was in a food desert, we help a variety of residents who needed some assistance with their homes and we helped with a city park project. What I love about our Junior Higher’s is that they don’t just see these as projects that they need to accomplish but they see it also as an opportunity to develop a relationship with someone and be a blessing to them through work and communication.

The story that really impacted me was that on the first day of the mission project we were told that a group of us would be needed at the women’s shelter called “Laura’s Home”. This rang a bell in my head as this mission sounded familiar to me. I began to remember my early days in youth ministry at my first church we did a project for Cleveland’s City Mission where they asked us to go to this abandoned building and help gut it out. Through the process we learned that this building was going to be renovated to become a shelter for women and children in need. One of those teenagers that was in my first youth group is Jaime. Jaime was one of my favorite teens I ever had the privilege of being one of her pastor’s. If I remember correctly, she was a part of that group that helped to gut the building. As Jaime grew up and went off to college she eventually came back to the Cleveland area and became not only a youth pastor but also an employee of Laura’s Home. As these memories started flooding back to me I began to get excited. I wondered if possibly Jaime was still working there.

As I was connecting all these dots in my head I asked out loud to our Nehemiah Mission leaders who were getting ready to take us to our sites for the day if they knew if Jaime still worked at Laura’s Home. One of the leaders, Michael, seemed to perk up and responded excitedly that not only does Jaime still work there but she was his youth pastor who had a significant impact on his life. Well with that, I excitedly told him that I was Jaime’s youth pastor! Michael’s mind was blown as he looked at me and said, “That would make you my spiritual grandfather!” We embraced and had one of those goose-bump Holy Spirit moments where we realized how I had an indirect impact on this young mans’ life because of a teenager I had the honor of discipling back in the late ’90’s. This meant a lot to me in that I left that church in not the best circumstances. I have often struggled with why God had me go through those negative experiences and whether or not I even made an impact. This encounter at the Nehemiah Mission felt like God smiling down on me and letting me know that there was a lot of good that came from that time in my life.

I then texted Jaime to see if she would be at Laura’s Home at all during the week and unfortunately she was just about to head out of town. But we promised each other that we would definitely get our families together sometime this Summer. So I am looking forward to that.

Then there was the Senor High trip to Puerto Rico with Praying Pelican Missions. Originally we were supposed to go to Cuba, but then Hurricane Maria happened. As the politics in our country had a major shift, many parents were uneasy with sending their teens to Cuba anyhow. Whenever a natural disaster happens I believe that is an open call for the churches to respond. Besides, I was disgusted with how our government was responding to Puerto Rico after the hurricane and as a result I felt even more emboldened that we need to go and help however we can.

The thing that I really like about Praying Pelican Missions is that they tether us to a local church and then we do whatever we can to help that church and it’s surrounding community. We had the opportunity to help rebuild a roof over the patio of a neighbor who lost his roof to the hurricane. Some of our girls helped with a Lady’s Bible study at the church. We helped remove some trees that were down. We helped a coffee farmer who lost everything to the hurricane. He had a million dollar business with many employees all lost to the hurricane. He struggled with whether he should even attempt to rebuild. But then people from the community and the churches, including groups like us from mission organizations started to come out and help him rebuild. Much of what we did was to get into the destroyed greenhouses and tear them apart clearing out the land for future projects. Every day we were there the owner was in tears because we were there to help him. He gave many of the adults a tour around his farm as we were able to build a relationship with him. I went to the coffee farm on the last work day of the week. At the end of our time there the owner asked if we could pray for him. It was a great moment as we came along side of him and prayed for him, his family and his business.

Another big event happened as one of my teenager’s announced in a conversation that she has never been baptized. Now this is unusual in my church context in that most of the teens were baptized as babies and then confirmed their baptism by going through Confirmation when they were in 7th grade. But this particular teenager, Atalie, got involved in our youth group during her 8th grade year. She asked me if she could be baptized on the mission trip on the day that we would go to the ocean. I usually have strong reservations about baptizing teens apart form their families. I believe that this is a significant event in the live of a baby, teen or adult in which their biological family and church family should come along side of them and be witnesses to their commitment to be baptized into the church. So, I expressed this concern to Atalie and told her that in order to move forward with this we would need her parent’s blessing. Well with that, she immediately contacted her parents and they sent a video that expressed their blessing on this step in her spiritual life.  So on the day that we went to the beach, I had the honor of baptizing Atalie. What was unique about this was that my youth group is used to seeing babies baptized through sprinkling and making the sign of the cross on their forehead. This was an opportunity to explain baptism by immersion and the symbolism that comes with this sacred sacrament. I felt very blessed to be a part of this step in Atalie’s spiritual development. I suspect that this is only the beginning for Atalie as she continues to grow in her spiritual life.

With all that said, I can’t stop loving youth ministry and the teens that God has entrusted to me. As I get to serve them, they have no idea how much of an impact they have on me. There are may aspect of ministry that can be discouraging but serving teens has always energized me and help keep my faith alive and active. I am blessed to be their youth pastor. What a great Summer!

Are You Rapture Ready?

raptureexposedI remember my first experience praying to ask Jesus to come into my life. Unfortunately it was not because I was stricken by God’s love for me or impacted by the message of Jesus. Instead, I did it because I was scared shitless after watching an “end-times” movie called A Thief In The Night. This movie took a literal view of the book of Revelation interpreting it in its popular dispensational view that Jesus will rapture all the Christians out of the world and those “left behind” will have to fend for themselves as things go from bad to worse before Jesus decided to fully return to establish his kingdom and send all evil-doers to eternal punishment. I was overwhelmed with the terror and wrath of God and out of fear wanted to make sure I would go to heaven. Of course, growing up with the “left behind” type of theology there were moments of sheer terror when I walked into the house to find none of my family, thinking that God snatched them all up and I was not! But then all of a sudden a person emerged from another part of the house so I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the rapture didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until latter in life that I discovered that the popular dispensationalist view of interpreting Revelation is not even 200 years old. And on top of that, there are other ways of interpreting the apocalyptic passages of Revelation that have been around for thousands of years. Instead of being a negative view of doom and gloom, it was a message of hope to its original recipients. This was not some science-fiction book interpreting our distant future, but instead a letter that John wrote to a specific group of people which applied to their current situation. It was then that I realized that your eschatology can have a big impact on how you think the “end times” will take shape. Some believe that the world is going from bad to worse and Jesus needs to eventually snatch us out of here before things get really bad. Yet others believe that Satan was defeated at the cross and that we have been entrusted with the task of carrying out the Great Commission to advance the Kingdom of God before Jesus returns once and for all.

With all this said, Barbara R. Rossing has written The Rapture Exposed which helps to give some historical background to the various views of how to interpret the apocalyptic passages within the Bible. She exposes the fact that how we look at Revelation can have significant effects on how we look at God’s creation, non-believers, culture, politics and the current nation of Israel. The literalistic, dispensationalist view leads to some very negative consequences that simply do not line up with the rest of Scripture. Rossing calls it a theology of despair, and rightfully so. She also points out that the actual word “rapture” is not even in the whole Bible! She goes on to show the Biblical gymnastics that the dispensationalists need to accomplish to make their interpretation work for them. Instead of looking at the simple message of certain Scripture passages, they instead stretch it to say things that just aren’t there. In her own words, she states that “the hope of the book of Reveation is that God’s Lamb, Jesus, is already victorious and that God’s people will be faithful to the Bible’s vision of life. The hope is that we will follow the Lamb, renouncing all the seductions of imperial injustice and violence, so the threat of plagues will be averted. God loves the world. God does not desire earth’s destruction.” (p. 85).

If you have grown up with the “Left Behind” interpretation of Revelation I would highly recommend that you read this book and realize that that view has only been around for a while and the implications of that view lead to a tremendous amount of poor theology. Instead, understood in its context, Revelation is a wonderful message of hope for people who are being oppressed by Empire.

The only thing I would have liked is if this book had a followup chapter on our current day situation with politics and world events. But maybe it is too soon to comment on that. Either way, this is an important book to help understand apocalyptic literature in the Bible and how it should be interpreted. I highly recommend it.

Guns as Idolatry

gunsI have to admit, I grew up loving all types of guns. I was the typical full-blooded American boy. I could turn anything into a gun. Give me a stick, it’s a gun. Give me a pile of Lego’s and guess what I would always create . . . a gun! And then Star Wars came out and I wanted to be Han Solo with a laser gun strapped to my waist. Every young boy is fascinated with guns. But this is the realm of fantasy, whether it is imitating a cowboy, a sci-fi space pirate, a gangster or a cop. My teen years were even more influenced by the way of the gun to solve problems through the cinematic influences of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis. There are no aliens, terminators, Nazi’s, Russian’s, or bad guys that a good gun with an all-American superhero could not stop.

Unfortunately our country is in a moral quandary with the fact that we are seeing more and more actual gun violence playing out in real-life America. It is getting to the point where it seems like every week we are introduced to another news story of someone taking out their grievances by using guns on innocent victims. Whenever this happens it seems like a majority of Americans are broken by the cycle of violence that we seem to find ourselves in. And yet there seems to be a small but powerful segment of America that digs their heals in and praises the 2nd Amendment  despite all the gun violence we are experiencing as a nation. Now I have no problem if someone chooses to own a gun for the purposes of hunting or home protection. But what I am witnessing is that the gun has become a form of idolatry within our country. When the “right” to own certain types of weaponry trumps the lives of innocent victims, I have a problem with that, especially with those who claim to be apart of the community of Christians.

I will be straight up, I have never owned a weapon. I can’t justify it theologically, nor do I feel that I would want to bear the responsibility to own one. With kids in my home and working as a pastor, I see that owning a weapon would be hypocritical to what I believe. First of all, I am not a hunter. I have no problem with those who choose to do so, but this born-and-raised suburbanite could not find the will to kill any of God’s creation. I couldn’t do it. I will leave that task up to people who have a stomach for that type of thing.

Have I ever shot weapons for sport? Absolutely! I have been to gun ranges. I have shot clay pigeons. And I actually enjoy the sport of paintball in that you can actually play games against each other without death and carnage occurring. I grew up on video games with digital guns (especially Goldeneye!), and I loved movies with lots of guns, superheroes and villains.

But there is a difference between fantasy and reality. Our country has a huge obsession with weapons and we fail to see the benefit to having a conversation about how we can best protect the greater good of people and still respect responsible gun owners. We desperately need to have this conversation. Instead, we see the NRA, backed by some of its supporters, constantly raising the warning that the government is coming to take you guns away and destroy the 2nd amendment. This simply is fear-mongering at its worst. And what is the purpose of such fear mongering? To sell more weapons. The NRA played this card all throughout the Obama administration. Any suggestion to talk about gun violence and gun safety was always met with cries that they are coming for your guns! Now that our own kids who are victims of gun violence are speaking up they are being called out as terrorists and liberals.

I have heard tired and lazy arguments to blame everything else other than the easy access we have created within our culture to be able to get any type of weapon you want. It’s video games! It’s the entertainment industry! It’s medications! It’s mental health! It’s the breakdown of the family! It’s because we took God out of the schools (which actually is HORRIBLE theology of God’s omnipresence)! We want to blame everything else other than the fact that we have ridiculously easy access to weaponry that is designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time.

So, being that I have never gone through the process of actually owning any type of weapon, I propose the following if it is not already law:

  1. Buying a gun should have a process that is similar to getting a driver’s license. One should have to get a license to own a weapon. I understand that this is the case but there are still loopholes in which people can buy weapons without going through this process. Recently a news story showed an underage boy trying to buy cigarettes, alcohol and pornography at a local convenient store and got denied in all three instances. But then they took him down to a gun show where within minutes he walked away with a high-powered weapon. He was a 13 year old.
  2. Which brings me to my second point, the age of owning a gun needs to go up to 21. Now that we better understand the brain development of teens, and their ability to be impulsive without thinking thorough the consequences of their actions, we should not be providing them with weapons that kill. Give them time to develop and grow. They need to earn the responsibility to own a weapon.
  3. When a teenager causes a death that was influenced by being under the influence of alcohol the parents are held responsible if the alcohol came from their home. I am tired of mindless parents of school shooters having no clue that their kid was into said violence. This is not responsible gun ownership or parenting. They need to start bearing the responsibility for the actions of their child/teen. Having high-powered weaponry easily available to their kids is the height of irresponsibility. We hear a lot about “law-abiding” gun owners but let’s talk about RESPONSIBLE gun owners instead. If your kids uses your guns to shoot up a bunch of innocents then you lost your responsibility to own guns and you should be held accountable for the consequences.
  4. There needs to be a national gun registry. We need to be able to track where weapons have come from and hold those people responsible. The government already knows what vehicles I own and apparently anyone can pull up a CarFax to know the history of my cars. Why can’t this be done within the context of weapons?
  5. The CDC needs to be able to study gun violence. Why would we not want this? And the bigger question is why would the NRA prevent this from happening? The more we know, the better equipped we will be to tackle this plague of gun violence within our country.
  6. One should have to have a certain amount of recorded training in order to own a weapon. My teens have to go through 50 hours of driving experience with a licensed adult in order to qualify to take their driving test! Why can’t we require this type of training before one can own a gun?
  7. I am tired of our politicians being owned by special-interest lobbies, in this case, the NRA. The NRA bears some of the responsibility for where we have found ourselves because they stoke the flames of fear that people are trying to eradicate the 2nd Amendment and do all they can to prevent legitimate research that would help us know more about when, where and why gun violence is happening. We need to vote out politicians who accept money from the NRA and ignore the voices of those who voted them in. I have not found one quote in which someone wants to eradicate the 2nd amendment. I want gun owners to be responsible and not cave in to the constant fear-mongering of the NRA. Is it just me, or is it not so obvious that this constant fear-mongering helps to sell more guns which benefits the gun manufacturers? Someone is becoming ridiculously rich off all this fear mongering. Why do people cave into this so easily? Is it just plain ignorance, gullibility, or naivety? There is no doubt in my mind that we have experienced a “dumbing-down” in America. Have we just become that stupid that we do not see when we are being played?

And finally, the most disappointing thing I believe in all of this is that the church is not the leading voice in wanting to stop this carnage. We as Christians need to speak up louder against gun violence. This is a BIG pro-life issue! It is the height of hypocrisy to act so sanctimonious about life in the womb but ignore lives affected by gun violence. If you believe that there is a real devil who is out to destroy God’s creation then you have to see that he is celebrating our idolatry to weapons and reveling about each loss of life. The Bible teaches that he has come to kill, steal and destroy. If you are defending the current state that we find ourselves in you can not claim to be following the way of Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who told his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, and to bless those who curse you. He was the very one who took on all the violence directed at him on the cross and defeated all his enemies through love, self-sacrifice, non-violence and resurrection. We are encouraged to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”. We are supposed to be ushering in a new way of life as a community that is radically different from the status-quo, yet the modern-day American church has unfortunately become a mere reflection of our culture. We have allowed empire worship to trump Christ worship and we don’t see the difference between the two.

I have been a youth pastor all my life. I am grieved beyond words for the kind of country we have created for our kids. We have been in a perpetual war ever since 9/11, we are spending ridiculous amounts on our military while Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water and Puerto Rico doesn’t have full power. I honestly believe that we have become more of a reflection of the Biblical state of Babylon than the mythical “Christian nation” that some still believe. It is time we stop hunkering down to protect our “rights” and begin to break out of our selfishness and lust for power, and start thinking about what is best for the next generation of kids growing up. It is time to take our eyes off of the idols we have created and focus back on our kids who are dying. It is easy to read the Bible and be horrified that the Israelites got to the point where they were literally sacrificing their children to the god Molech. But I fail to see the difference between that and where we are at right now. We have more innocent Americans who have been murdered by gun violence within our country than service people in the line of duty! That’s just crazy and should be a big wake-up call for our entire country but especially the Church!

So if you are a Christian and a gun owner, I would encourage you to advocate for sensible gun laws and consider what is best for the greater good of humanity. Think about your own children, think about your local schools, think about your communities. Every mass shooting has the same response: “I never thought it would happen here!” Why do we have to defend our rights until the violence comes to our own communities? Let’s come together as the body of Christ and be the kingdom that we are called to be and shake off the dirt of the Empire that we are entangled in.

Lord have mercy on this nation.

Scott Russ

Stories of Homelessness throughout America

I just finished Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. This book details a journey that lead Mike to spend several months of his life living on the streets of major cities throughout the country. Mike states that according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the United States has more than 3.5 million homeless people at any given year.

Mike began his journey by first finding a traveling companion. Sam signed up for the challenge and off they went to their first big city, Denver. They spend about a month in each city they travel to. This gives them time to acclimate themselves, and figure out how to find basic resources for themselves. They go from Denver, to Washington DC, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego. These two catalogue their journey as they panhandle for food, make friends with other homeless people, encounter danger, dehydration, hunger, and rejection from others. They both come to terms with the safety and security that we all try to strive for so that we would not normally ever have to come in contact with homelessness. Their experience helped to humanize those that we typically ignore or dehumanize.

Scripture became real to them as they were reminded that Jesus led by example in caring for the poor, the sick, the diseased and the sinner. They also realized the importance of taking care of peoples’ basic needs instead of just preaching at them. They understood that they needed to see the image of God through the homeless just as much as anyone else they would encounter.

Mike and Sam had quite the experiences with different types of churches and missions. Some where positive and some where not. It was hard to read some of the stories of churches behaving badly toward the homeless. But it was also a reminder that of all the places that a homeless person ought to find help it should be a church or mission that claims the name of Jesus.

The final chapter of the book details Mike and Sam’s assimilation back into their “normal” lives. They soon realized that their experience changed them forever. They quickly became uncomfortable with comfort. They began to see how many in the church have an easy time enjoying the blessings that they have but forget to share their resources with others. When you lack nothing and have just about everything you want, that in itself becomes a trap that can close ourselves off to the needs of the world and our ability to help. Also, they realized that on the streets they learned what it meant to really depend on God to help meet their basic needs. And finally, they discovered that if you truly understand how much God loves us while we were still sinners, we would be more intentional about sharing his love with others, even in the little things: a smile, a drink, some food, recognizing someone’s own humanity and dignity. We are not supposed to be about our own feel-good, warm-fuzzy religiousity but instead we are supposed to go out of our comfort zones and love others just as Christ has loved us.

Another great resource to help understand poverty is A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne.

Mike Erre and the VOX Podcast

I guess you could say that I am a Mike Erre fan when I admit that I have listened, to date, to all 119 episodes including his 9 part series on sex and marriage. Mike used to be a pastor of several churches in California up until he believed that he needed to come back to the great state of Ohio to care for his mom. He currently resides in Columbus. A bonus would be that he is a big Buckeye’s fan! In fact his 119th podcast I thought was morphing into a sports podcast, which, either way is fine with me.

I love Mike’s take on modern day Christianity and his willingness to ask questions, wrestle with topics and the way he gets you to consider other angles. He is never afraid to wade into touchy topics, nor is he not afraid to call out someone else’s poor theology and choices, but always in a gracious and kind way.

Now for the negative: 1) why do you hate on us coffee people, Mike? You are missing out on God’s beverage given to us with grace and love. 2) All you drink is Coors Lite? GROSS! That’s like preferring your water from the toilet. Expand your palette and try a hearty IPA or Lager! You would have so much more respect if you broadened your horizons with your morning and evening beverages!

Overall I love this podcast. My son learned about Mike at college and encouraged me to give his podcast a try. I did, and with the first few episodes I was hooked. I was especially excited when Mike turned out to be a keynote speaker, via Skype, at a conference I attended out in California this past Fall. When you are listening to Mike you can tell he knows his stuff and he isn’t afraid to challenge different views with wisdom and grace. I don’t necessarily agree with him on everything, especially beer and coffee, but he is enjoyable to listen to and he gets you to think and consider different ways of looking at topics that impact the Christian faith. The fact that he records his podcast in his house means that, every once in a while, you have the added bonus of family interruptions which are awesome.

The Very Worst Missionary

This was a fascinating memoir written by Jamie Wright who shares her life’s journey that led her to becoming a missionary. What is captivating about her story is how she deconstructs the idea of what it means to be a missionary and the reality of what is actually happening. Evangelical Christianity has a tendency to put those called to be missionaries on a very high pedestal. But through her own experiences and her honesty, Jamie recalls the dichotomy of what she could portray of herself on the internet as a missionary and the reality of what the experience was actually like. She is honest about her own experiences, her own shortcomings and mistakes, and what she observed about the missionary culture in Costa Rica. She pulls back the covers on the evangelical church’s culture and how it emulates missionaries. Jamie describes how she went with great expectations to change the world but instead found out that the reality of her experience did not match up. With brutal honesty she started a blog titled Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, where she doesn’t hold anything back but begins to critique herself and her experiences with missions. Anybody involved in any type of mission work needs to read this book but be ready for some hilarious stories, “salty” language and some harsh truths that critique our modern day concept of missions. If the rose-colored glasses of your Christian faith are smudged and cracked from your experiences with church or missions then this book helps us to be honest with ourselves and the reality of our brokenness, individually and as a church.

Still Christian

I just recently read a great book by David P. Gushee entitled “Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism”. It is a story that details the authors’ personal journey through modern day evangelicalism as a leading Christian ethicist. This book details the story of a educator who found his roots in the conservative church but over the course of time found himself on the outskirts of the evangelical world. The book details the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist denomination as well as the evangelical quest for political power through the election of Trump. Eventually the author comes to terms with supporting the LGBT community through his essays detailed in his book “Changing Our Minds”. Gushee also highlights the negative reactions he got from his tribe over this change of heart.

I really enjoyed reading this book because many of Gushee’s insights into modern day American evangelicalism resonated with me and the journey I have been on since I was a child. I would highly recommend “Still Christian” to anyone who has journeyed through conservative American evangelicalism and finds themselves asking questions, having doubts about what they are seeing from their church or denomination, and struggling to keep the faith. As a side, I would also highly recommend “Changing Our Mind” for anyone interested in following the steps that led one of the leading Christian ethicists of our time to have a better understanding about LGBT people and how the church should respond to them.

Reflections on My 40’s

Every time a new decade of life comes and goes it causes me to reflect on how the past 10 years have gone in relation to previous decades and what I have to look forward to in the decade ahead.

As I look back on the last 10 years I would have to say that this was one of the best. I absolutely enjoyed watching my kids grow into their teenage years and go through the youth group. I was nervous with my first-born when he entered into the youth group in 7th grade but he got involved and seemed to enjoy it most of the time! Same with my other three kids when the time came for them to enter into youth group.

Now that is not to say that Shelly and I didn’t have some difficult moments trying to raise teenagers. Oh we have some stories to tell. It just wouldn’t be fair to my kids to detail those moments in a blog. But the fact is, I think that, in my own fallenness and dysfunction, my choice of parenting did more good than harm. I am proud of how my kids are turning out and how they are thinking and perceiving their world and their faith. I really enjoyed watching Zach play football, the girls play lacrosse and cross county, and Ben being in show choir, cross country, volleyball and being an all around theatre geek like I was in high school. I also have had the pleasure of leading all four of them on some amazing mission trips which I believe have really impacted their lives. And finally all four of them went through Confirmation and were baptized here at our church.

I would also say that this was a great decade for our marriage. I feel like a lot of rough edges I had have definitely softened. Either that or Shelly has learned to put up with me. But I think that the both of us have grown closer to each other through the process of raising kids. And this is a good thing because as a youth minister, I have seen way to many marriages break up once the kids left the house and the couple realized they really didn’t have much of a relationship. That’s not true of us. I have also seen pastors’ kids completely walk away from the faith. In God’s mercy and grace, my kids seem to still maintain a strong faith.

Another thing that made this decade special is the fact that I have been at the same church through it all. Once again though, we as a church family have certainly had our up’s and down’s. I have had the opportunity to work for one of the best pastor’s in my career and also for one of the most “challenging”. The church has had some really great moments and some that where just bad, but through it all we stuck together, learned from our mistakes, and through all of our ecclesiastical dysfunction we are still being used by God in incredible ways. We have had a handful of senior pastors go through our church and just about everyone of them seem to think it is a great idea to get the youth pastor to act like an idiot in front of a camera to promote their next event or sermon series. I am beginning to wonder if I need an agent. In all the video’s I have been in I have had the honor of being Donald Trump (Apprentice skit), the Mayhem guy from Allstate, Superman, among many other skits, videos and special appearances. One of the best moments was when I was supposed to be a disciple at the last supper with the senior pastor being Jesus. Congregation members would come into the room and they would be served communion once we did a little “Jesus talking with his disciples” drama. The only thing was that, after doing this so many times the pastor started to break character when he would make eye contact with me and I could tell he was getting a case of the giggles. I know, not the right context for that to happen, but it happened. We pulled it together and finished the night.

And how many times can I say that I love what I do! To be able to be at the same church for over 13 years now and see a youth ministry grow and develop has been awesome. I owe a lot of what I have become here at this church to the senior pastor who hired me. He found me when I was ready to give up on church ministry as a career and he helped me rediscover who God created me to be. In the process I became an official United Methodist youth pastor. I have really enjoyed the opportunities I have had to work with teens and the best adult volunteers to raise up the next generation of Christians. Every year I mourn the loss of another great Senior class but get equally excited when my new batch of 7th graders come into the ministry!

This was also the decade of dogs! I never grew up with pets so this was a new experience for me. While my kids where going through their teen years dad was not as cool as he was when they were little ones. But with dogs all that changed! I felt like the superhero coming home again! The dogs always celebrate loudly whenever any of us come home, but to this fragile dad ego, it took on a more special meaning. I have one big, lazy dog named Abby who would sprint out the door if no one was paying attention. My little dog named Buckeye thinks he is a tough guy. Whenever I take them out for walks, Buckeye would always bite the leash and hold it as if he was walking me. He would also fight against the leach demanding his emancipation. I think that is why he tried so hard to act like he was walking me instead of me walking him.

Throughout this decade I feel like I finally got the edge on my depression. I really wrestled with this quite a bit until my doctor got the right combination of meds that have helped me feel completely normal. But it wasn’t until my mid-40’s that we figured this out. Funny story: we found the right type of medication to work but a certain side effect that we discovered was that I started to put on a few pounds. So I just stopped taking the medication cold turkey. It was a very small dosage so I didn’t think stopping would make much of a difference other than bringing my weight back under control. Uncharacteristically, after a few days had passed and the effects of the medication wore off, I spent four very melancholy days crying about anything and everything. At a certain point my reasonable wife said to call my doctor back and get back on that medicine. Wouldn’t you know, I have felt great every since.

This is also the decade of watching my kids grow with excellent grandparents on both sides of the family. Shelly and I are blessed to both have parents who, through good and bad times, are still together and are healthy. They have all been a real positive influence on my kids. I never knew my biological grandfathers so it means a lot to me that at least these old Boomers have had a wonderful impact on my kids growing up.

Overall it has been a great decade. I am especially glad that there was so many positive influences in helping me and my wife to raise our kids. As I look to my next decade, God willing, I hope to see what kinds of careers my kids will fall into and how God will use them. This decade Shelly and I will become empty nesters. We have two more years of high school with Ben then he will head out. Of course college students have a way of coming back home for some time so the empty nest may not be just two years away, I know. I am really looking forward to the next decade to see what God has in store.

Moving Mountains – Mark 11:12-25

pexels-photo-976917.jpeg          Ever wonder about that passage where Jesus tells his disciples that if they pray with enough faith they can tell a mountain to throw itself in the sea. Pretty strange, huh? This scripture passage suggests on the surface that if we pray with enough faith for a mountain to be moved and thrown into the sea, it will be done!

Now, if you choose to stay home on any particular Sunday you can turn on your TV and see multiple so-called-preachers who will twist this passage to turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus who, if we just pray with enough faith, will give us all we want. Make no mistake, these are NOT biblical teachers. Many of them can be categorized as prosperity preachers. I believe that the Bible refers to them as false prophets. They teach that God wants you to materially prosper and give you everything you want if you just name it and claim it!

I knew a lady at a previous church who had a husband who was dying of cancer. She attended a church with similar teachings who told her that if she prayed with enough faith, God would heal her husband. Well, in a short amount of time her husband lost his battle with cancer. The wife was perplexed. She prayed with faith for her husbands’ healing and he passed away from the cancer. What happened? She went back to the preacher and asked him why God allowed her husband to die of cancer when she earnestly prayed with faith for his healing. The pastor had the audacity to tell the grieving wife that it was her fault because she did not have enough faith! She then walked away from the faith for years.

In order for us to best understand this passage we need to back the lens up and see the bigger picture of what is going on. If we look at the beginning of Mark 11 we see that Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem on a donkey as his followers praised him. This is the triumphal entry that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Let’s pick up the story at v. 12.

Mark 11:12-14

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Now on the surface, this appears to be a scene in which Jesus is having a bad day and in this one instance uses his power to curse a tree! Very, very strange. But we need to keep on reading to understand the context. So let’s continue with v. 15

 Mark 11:15-19

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

Jesus entered into the temple and saw people who have turned it into a marketplace which he called a “den of robbers”. He called out those who were financially taking advantage of those who wanted to come to the temple to offer sacrifices. These people were being hustled for their cash. Jesus also made two points here that we need to highlight.

First of all, he said that “My house will be called a house of PRAYER”. He is emphasizing that this is supposed to be a sacred space for people to come and communicate with God through prayer. This is a spiritual discipline that is repeatedly taught all throughout the gospels and the teachings of Paul. We are to be a people of PRAYER.

The next point is that this sacred space is to be a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS. The nation of Israel had a way of feeling exclusive and exceptional when compared to the other nations. We know that many of the religious leaders were looking for a political messiah to overthrow Rome and establish his kingdom with power. They did not expect Jesus and his revolution to be of a spiritual nature. Jesus came to establish salvation not only for the nation of Israel but also for ALL THE NATIONS. Jesus had a much bigger agenda of inclusion and love that would involve all people.

So let’s pick up our story and see what happens with Jesus and his disciples after the temple incident.

Mark 11:20-21

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

Now we have to ask, “What’s the deal with the stinking tree?!?” We need to look at the tree event as book ends to the temple incident. Jesus saw a tree that looked good on the outside. It was healthy and was full of leaves. But as he got closer up to it, it had no fruit. Then he addresses the Israelites at the temple who, on the outside looked like a beautiful temple, but on closer inspection, they were not producing the fruit that they ought to, which is being a house of prayer. The tree was a type of symbolic parable of Israel. If they were not going to be producing spiritual fruit like they were supposed to be doing, then judgment was coming. I believe that Jesus was foreshadowing the coming destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans. So instead of being a house of prayer for all the nations, they took an Israel First stance and to hell with everyone else, especially Rome. The tree represented the nation of Israel who would be judged for not bearing the fruit that God intended for them.

Now, this is not just about Israel. We need to realize that Jesus has established the church to be that very house of prayer for all the nations. And this is how Jesus tells his disciples to pray. Let’s continue reading from Mark:

 Mark 11:22-25

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Is Jesus saying that we can literally move mountains if we just pray hard enough? Well, being that Jesus never actually carried out that type of miracle, I don’t think so. But the tree representing Israel became an obstacle to Jesus because it did not produce the fruit it was supposed to. Therefore Jesus removed the tree and instead, empowered his disciples to carry out the task of taking his message out to all the nations!

Now Jesus does say we can remove mountains if we pray correctly. What exactly does he mean by this? I believe that he is telling us that if we want to be a part of God’s program of being a blessing to all the nations we need to overcome the metaphorical mountains that stand in the way. The mountains that prohibited Israel from being a blessing was pride, arrogance, nationalism and an attitude of exclusion. As a church we must be aware of the mountains that prevent us from seeing the “other” as an enemy and learn to be a blessing for all people, for all nations, and even for those whom our government would consider enemies. We have a responsibility to pray to remove these mountains and to be a blessing to everyone. Even if it also means forgiving others.

So how does this apply to us?

The first thing related to our IDENTITY. The most important thing that you must understand is that if you have put your faith in Jesus then you are a child of God. This trumps all other ways that we try to find identity. You are a child of God!

The second application relates to PRAYER. And as a child of God we have a responsibility to be in conversation with God through prayer. Our prayers cannot be self-serving, looking to take advantage of people, and about our own materialism and our own ego. We must pray for all people to come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ and that His Spirit would remove any and all boundaries that are holding back people from coming to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our salvation is not a private, exclusive deal between you and God. It is more of an opportunity for us to invite others to be a part of this awesome family of God. We are to pray that God would remove those mountains, those barriers that prevent us from inviting others in to the church of Christ, and prevent others from seeing the blessings that are connected to being a child of God.

And the final application is that we need to be producing SPIRITUAL FRUIT. One day we as believers are going to have to give an account for our lives before Jesus. And if we learn anything from the fig tree, it’s that a true follower of Christ is one who is producing spiritual fruit with their lives. That would involve what Paul talks about in Galatians 5 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. But in the context of this passage, it also would include that we are a people of prayer who want to take the message of Jesus Christ to all the nations. That we love others. We care for others. We reach out to the hurting. We pray for our enemies.

So find your primary identity in Jesus. Yes you are a son and daughter, brother or sister, a student, an athlete, a performer, a musician but all those thing pale in comparison to the fact that you are a child of God who loves you. And He wants to be in conversation with you through prayer, and He wants you to be a blessing to all the people you can: those who are easy to love and those who are hard to love. And we are to smash down barriers through prayer that stand in the way of reaching others for Christ.

So knowing this should help you to look at your school differently. Your job. Your sports team. Your show choir. Your band. Be the light in the world that God has called us to be which is supposed to be attracting people out of the darkness and into the light.

Are you ready now to claim your identity in Christ and take ownership of your faith that your parents and the church have raised you in?

Are you ready to begin your own journey of being in conversation with God through prayer and Bible study?

Are you ready to open yourself up to God to use you to be a blessing to others and help remove barriers that prevent others from knowing him?

If so, then let’s do this!

I’m back!

Well after reading the book “Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done” by Jon Acuff I was inspired to actually start something I have been thinking of for a while. I used to blog quite a bit back in the day. But needless to say, I have gotten away from it. Raising four teenagers can take up a lot of your time, and hobbies tend to slip away. So Acuff’s book inspired me to get back to writing again. If you are interested in any of my earlier stuff you can go HERE. I also have a YouTube channel HERE. Many of my videos have to do with ministry and family. Feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. I hope you enjoy!