What’s Next? Romans 12:1-2

Confirmation Weekend, April 22-24, 2022

Now that we are completing another year of Confirmation, a year that was not interrupted by a global pandemic, the question comes up “What’s Next?” Once you have been through the process of Confirmation, what comes next? Have you graduated from church, and now you don’t have to go anymore? No! Absolutely not! You are saying yes to your baptism, yes to faith in Jesus Christ, yes to salvation, and yes to the church. You are now becoming full members of the church. With membership comes responsibilities. We do not approach the church with a consumer mindset, thinking, “What is in it for me?” Instead, we approach it with an attitude of “How can I contribute to the greater good of our church and community?”  What gifts do I have to contribute to the church, and how can I plugin?

Today I want to look at two verses from the letter to the Romans. Paul is the author of this letter, and he is writing to Christians in Rome in anticipation of him being able to visit eventually. We will find ourselves in chapter 12 but let’s consider all that Paul has written up until this point. In fact, he starts chapter 12 with a “Therefore,” which throws us back to chapters 1-11 as building up to this point in the letter. Chapters 1-11 can be seen as teaching the Romans the basics of the faith. He begins the book by stating his thesis:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Paul then outlines how humanity is lost in their sins, and no one has the ability to save themselves. All are guilty of sin before God. Then, he explains how salvation comes only as a gift from God through the work of Jesus. Once a person is established in the faith, the Holy Spirit comes into them to transform them to be more and more like Jesus. We are adopted into God’s family, and there is nothing at all that can separate us from the love of God. God is constantly working in our lives to make us more like Him.

With all that said, Paul’s letter builds up to Chapter 12 with a big “Therefore!”. He is essentially saying, “Now that we know all of this, What’s next?”

Paul says in verse 1, “I urge you, brothers”! This Greek word translated as ‘urge’ is a strong word that admonishes, encourages, and exhorts the readers to do this! This word was used in classical Greek to exhort troops about to go into battle.

He then addresses this exhortation to his brothers. This would be seen as anyone who considers themselves believers in Jesus. This is seen as a bond connected to our faith. We are brothers and sisters in the faith. This part of the letter is being directed specifically to Christ-followers.

Before Paul gets to his exhortation, he gives us two things to motivate us to follow through with what he is about to say. He says,

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy.

It is in fully understanding that our salvation is totally seen as an act of God’s mercy towards us. We were lost in our sins, and there was no way for us to save ourselves. Instead, Jesus came to defeat sin and death once and for all and provide the only way in which we could be justified before God. When we fully understand the mercy of God, this becomes the greatest motivator to live into a holy life. Paul is totally in awe of how merciful God is towards us.   

The second motivator in this passage is seen in his statement:

This is your spiritual act of worship

Paul is telling us that what he is about to say is a reasonable and rational response to all that God has done for us in his mercy. And when we do this right, our life becomes an act of worship. What we do, who we are, becomes an act of worship.

So, let’s get to it! What do we have to do in light of God’s mercy and as a way to live a reasonable life of worship to God? 

Paul urges us to:

Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

In his commentary of the letter of Romans, the late John Stott comments on this by saying that “No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract, and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies.”

Our faith is an embodied faith! Our bodies matter, and what we do with them will speak volumes about what we really believe. We cannot say we believe all this stuff about Jesus and not allow it to impact our bodies. We can not separate the spiritual from the physical. Our faith will impact the physical reality we live in if we are serious. To try and separate the spiritual from the physical has been seen as a heresy throughout church history. Yet here we are in the 21st century, still doing this very same thing. We compartmentalize our faith to the spiritual, then we act and behave however we want in the physical world at home, at work, and in our lives.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus offered himself as a dead sacrifice so that we could be LIVING sacrifices. Dead sacrifices are a one-time event whereas a living sacrifice is a lifetime event. Therefore, we continuously get to be living sacrifices with our lives as an expression of gratitude for God’s mercy. When we do this, we become holy and pleasing to God!

So, the question becomes: How do we offer ourselves as living sacrifices? Paul touches on this in verse 2. He makes two statements. One involves a negative action, and the other involves a positive action. He says:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.

What is the pattern of this world? It is to live in active sin and rebellion against God and his creation.

Instead, Paul exhorts his readers, telling them:

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Once again, this embodied faith begins to act itself out by changing how we think. It is a renewing of the mind. We don’t give in to the anger, divisiveness, and hate that is encouraged in our culture and politics. We don’t give in to conspiracy theories that only stoke fear and hate of others. We are to be different. We are to be people of love and grace and mercy. We are to embody a new way of living that ought to attract and inspire others because it is so antithetical to the ways of the world.

In fact, the Greek word for transform is the word from which we get metamorphosis. We are to completely transform ourselves in the same way a tadpole transforms to a frog, a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, or Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk! What once was, is no longer. We are now a new thing. We are transformed. How? By the renewing of the mind. How we think matters. What we think will act itself out in our behaviors.

When we go through this process of changing how we think and behave, in light of God’s mercy, Paul then goes on to say:

Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

This is what should be driving our thoughts and behaviors, doing all we can to align our will with God’s will. So the question becomes, what is God’s will for my life?

If we had time to go through the rest of this chapter, you would see Paul encouraging the Roman Christians to make room at the table for all believers. Exercise your spiritual gifts in the context of the church. And to genuinely love each other. He also tells us to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. In fact, we are supposed to take this so far as to love everybody, including our enemies.

So, my encouragement to our confirmands and all the believers here is that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, seeking to align ourselves with God’s will for our life. The way we do this is to be actively engaged in the church. We need to discover our spiritual gifts and use them for the greater good of the church and the community. Confirmation is not a graduation from the church. It is an initiation into being a full member of the church. Get plugged in. Get involved. Find out how God has designed you to be a blessing to others. Don’t give in to the hate and anger that is so prevalent in our culture right now. Instead, live fully into being kingdom people right now! Let’s create a youth group and a church that helps us transform to be more like Jesus in our minds and in our bodies! Let us become a people defined by our love and care for each other.

          So, What’s next? There are a lot of opportunities for you to get involved. Serve in children’s ministry, connect to a small group in the youth group, and participate in mission opportunities, including Summer mission trips. Find what makes you passionate about God and his creation, then pursue it! My hope for you is that you discover what God’s will is for your life and that this gives you direction in your schooling, including your pursuits, after you graduate from high school.

          Adults, I ask that you lead by example. Think about what you are watching, what you are posting, and what you are doing, and make sure that you are not conforming to the patterns of this world. Instead, actively pursue ways in which you are transforming yourself by the renewing of your mind; to think and act differently that speaks more about the love and mercy of Jesus in your life. You have a responsibility to the youth and children of this church to show us how to embody your faith in real life. So please be actively pursuing God’s will in your daily lives, for yourself, and for future generations to continue the kingdom work here at Epiphany.

          Alright! Are you ready to be confirmed in the faith?

A Follow Up on Young Life

Dear Youth Group family,

As many of you are aware this past week I wrote a post about my frustrations with Young Life over my 25+ years in youth ministry. I admit it was a rant and I never ever thought anyone would actually see it. I may have a handful of people ever read something from my blog in any given week. It is mostly videos I made for the youth group during our COVID year or my sermon transcripts.

Well, my post went viral. I got almost 1,000 hits on it in two days. I will admit that I felt like I have reached my limit with Young Life in that I have always felt like we are constantly competing against each other. I have had teens have to make a choice between our Summer mission trip with Epiphany or Summer Camp with Young Life; Church retreat or YL retreat. If there is one thing you need to understand about me is I hate to put our teens in a position where they have to pick one over there other.

I lead a network of youth leaders in our area that meet together for lunch every month for encouragement, support, and planning so that we can all work together. We have done combined events at Grand Sands and Castle Skateland just to name a few things we have done together. The Cru (formerly Campus Crusade) person for Loveland is always there and works with our calendars so that we do not overlap. There is a lot of cooperation so that we can all work together and support each other.

Needless to say, I have never felt this way about Young Life so I called them out on it. Now, I will admit I was angry when I wrote it, and maybe I should have given it 24 hours to think about it and wordsmith it a little better. But on the positive side, this post did generate a lot of good conversations. I talked with others who shared in the frustration as well as others who did not relate to what I had to say and had more positive experiences with Young Life and their local church working together. I have also had great conversations with some of our own teens and parents at Epiphany. But the most positive thing I have seen out of this is that the director of Cincinnati Young Life contacted me and we went out for lunch. I was able to share my frustrations as well as invite him to our network so that we can have a more positive relationship with one another. I apologized for my tone but he understood what I was trying to say. We left on good terms. I also told him I would take down the post.

I am also aware that the post got forwarded to many of the teens involved in Young Life and Epiphany, while the post was meant for Young Life. Let me make this clear: I am in no way asking our teens to choose between Young Life or Epiphany. I just don’t want to put them in a position where they have to choose one program over the other. I want to create a program that gives them the opportunity to do both if they so choose.

With that said, I hope this gives you some context and clears the air so that we don’t have to address “the elephant in the room” this weekend. I hope this email helps and if you would like to talk with me I am more than available to meet with you: parent and/or teen. Feel free to reach out to me at 513-600-4790.

Epiphany teens: I love you! You know that. I only want what is best for you. I just don’t want you to have to choose between two good things when we can work together so you can do both. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I apologize if I upset any of you. That was not my intent.

Scott Russ

Senior High Trip to Clendenin, West Virginia 2019

Clendenin 2019

On June 21-28, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Senior High youth group went to Clendenin, WV. for our Summer missions trip. The story in Clendenin was very similar to the events in Rainelle. In 2016 there was catastrophic flooding that significantly impacted the town. We were there to help continue the efforts to bring restoration to the town in some small way.

We left for Clendenin earlier than usual. Instead of arriving on Saturday we arrived on Friday so that we could participate and help with the town’s Homecoming Festival. This is a festival that celebrates the hope and restoration the town has experienced since the flood. During the festival we did a variety of things from going on rides, hanging out at concerts, eating fair food, running and serving in a 5K race, serving at a hot dog stand that had A LOT of traffic, and walked in a parade. All the funds that we raised went to the local United Methodist Church. We also learned what a WV hot dog consisted of. It is a hot dog with coleslaw and chili on it. It is actually very, very good! We also had an incident when one of our teens had an asthma attack after running in the 5K race. We took a little trip to the hospital and everything turned out well.

On Sunday we attended the Clendenin United Methodist Church. It was a great experience. The message was really good and the pipe organ was amazing. The people were really kind and receptive to our team.  In the afternoon we headed out to a home in which we were invited to go swimming in the river. We had a lot of fun.

The work days were split between three sites. The first sight was an old church building damaged by the flood that the Praying Pelican Mission bought to renovate into a mission site for teams to use as their home base. We had a team of teens work there to do cleaning, dry walling, painting, and yard work.

The second site was a home that needed a lot of help to restore it. The teens did a lot to clean out the home and put a lot of the belongings into storage so that we could get into the house and do a variety of things such as cleaning, painting the shelves in the kitchen, put in a new bathtub, some basic plumbing, electrical and dry walling. The teens accomplished a tremendous amount of work at this house but it would need more teams to complete the job over the Summer.

The third site was a home out in the country that also needed a lot of help. At this house we were able to clean up a big trash pile that was in their yard, rip out the flooring in the living room and replace it with plastic covering, rip out the counter and sink in the kitchen and replace it with a new one, and put a temporary covering over a corner of the house that had a lot of damage to it.

Overall the teens did a tremendous job of working well together and doing a lot of work. I received a lot of complements from our Praying Pelican leaders on the work ethic of our teens and adults. I can say enough good things about them.

Some of the fun things that happened during the course of the week was that we celebrated two birthdays! One with a cake and one with donuts! We had some new adults and teens with us as well as our Senior Pastor and her husband so it was important that we teach them our classic games we play. There was a lot of Euchre going on too. The week was capped off with a very physical game of hockey using pool noodles for sticks.

On Thursday we went white water rafting with ACE Adventures. We went down the New River Gorge at a different spot that the previous trip with the Junior High. We were able to go down the part of the river that had Class 5 rapids. Everyone survived! We had a few who fell out of their rafts but made it back to safety just fine.

Our last night was very memorable as many of the teens shared how God has been working in their lives throughout the week and how they were going to apply what they learned as they head back home. I always emphasis that mission is an attitude that we instill within us everywhere we go. It is not just a one-week trip out of the Summer. We need to be missional everywhere we go. Our Seniors said their parting words as they are about to begin a new chapter in their lives as they are about to head off to college. Many of the other teens shared from their hearts how God is working through them.

If you would like to see the trip journal that was created by our Praying Pelican leaders just go HERE

If you would like to see more pictures in a Google document that you should be able to add to if you would like then just go HERE

If you would like to see all the White Water Rafting pictures taken by ACE Adventures just go HERE

Overall this was another great trip with Praying Pelican Missions. I would highly recommend them to any youth group. I love that they connect you to a local church. There are a lot of benefits theologically to this in that we are always an extension of the local church as we go out and do missions. Our leaders were amazing. In the small world we live in I found out that our trip leader lived in the very towns I lived in as well as played football with my wife’s cousin. Our team bonded really well with the Praying Pelican staff. I love leading these teens and seeing their spiritual development over the time they have been in the youth ministry. Many of these teens have been with me for a long time. Their spiritual growth and work ethic are amazing. I would take them anywhere, locally, nationally and internationally. They inspire hope for the future of the church!

The Positives of Youth Ministry

WRAYM-front-coverThere is enough negativity out there directed at youth ministry that when I saw the title of this book I knew I just had to get it! Mark Oestreicher has been in the “business” for quite a while now. I have aged in my ministry to youth following the career and writings of Marko. And just about anything he has written on the topic of youth ministry has been very thought provoking and enlightening.

Marko begins his book by pointing out the importance of youth ministry in stating that “The church is called (see: the New Testament!) to share the gospel and grow disciples, to be the presence of Christ on earth. In a world where youth culture exists, this simply must include adults who are cross-cultural missionaries, willing to embody the gospel into that cultural context.” (p. 24). So the question becomes, how can we do this effectively?

Marko continues his book by expanding on 6 values that great youth ministries embrace. The first value is The Long View. “the humble youth worker knows and lives a ministry approach that actively practices faith in God to transform lives, knowing we are powerless to change hearts.” (p. 49). This is vital for youth pastors to understand. Sometimes we want to see results now as an affirmation of the time you spend ministering to youth, but we must realize that we need to be patient and faithful in what God has called us to do, trusting that the Holy Spirit, in his timing will bring to light what that teen needs in her/his life. All we can do is plant seeds. It is up to the Holy Spirit, in his timing, to grow those seeds. Marko goes on to explain that “As much as we might try to control the beliefs and behaviors of teenagers, we’re powerless to transform lives. That’s God’s role, not ours. Of course, I don’t desire that any post-youth grouper walk away. But their stories and their journeys are not mine to control. All I can do is be faithful in the here and now while trusting God for each teenager’s future. The Long View leans into humility, trust, and hope.” (p. 54)

The next value is the Power of Small. Marko’s point here is that what really works in youth ministry is “a caring, Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.” (p. 57). No matter how big a youth ministry might get, there is power in making sure to break it down into small groups. Youth ministry needs to be relational. In a large group context it is hard to do that; but to break that down into small groups where real relationships and dialogue can happen helps in the process of developing faith. In a small group a teen is known, recognized, loved and is given a voice to share about their lives and their faith journey.

The third value is the Role of the Holy Spirit in you and your ministry. It is important to make time to listen and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your ministry. Now this is not to say throw out any planning and organizing and just “let the Spirit lead”. I have know people like that and the irony is they go to the same scripture references and tell the same stories as a lack of their preparation. Marko states that “your best youth ministry will never come from excellent brainstorming; your best youth ministry will always be the result of stepping into God’s dreams for your ministry.” (p. 68). God has plans for our youth ministry and it is important to be aware of that. You want to be on the same page in which the Holy Spirit is leading. We are being invited into a much bigger plan and purpose we could ever imagine. Listen, pay attention, and be open to the Spirit’s leading and prompting.

The forth value is Integration over Isolation. Marko says that “we’ll see long-term faith more often when we work to decrease the constant ghettoization of teenagers and help them find meaningful belonging in the life of the church.” (p. 73). Some people have reacted to the isolation of youth ministry by stating that youth ministry is unbiblical therefore banishing it from their churches. I think this is a huge overreaction. It is important to have a place specifically for the youth but we must also look for ways to integrate them into the life of the larger church. Let teenagers get involved in other areas of ministry through the church, sing in the choir, play in the praise band, attend the main services. At our church we close down the youth Sunday morning class on every 5th Sunday so that we can go down and attend the worship service together. If we don’t do this, then church will seem foreign to them when they graduate out of the youth ministry. They will be less inclined to integrate into the life of a church away at college unless it looks and feels like youth ministry. That is not healthy. Integration into the life of the larger church is important. They need to connect with other generations. To strictly separate each generation within the church does not help anyone. It is important to help integrate everybody on all levels.

The fifth value is Embracing the Role of the Parents. In this Section Marko points out that we youth workers need to listen, communicate, equip and involve parents. I couldn’t agree more. It is important for us to come along side of parents and be a source of encouragement, and love, recognizing that the parent is the number one spiritual role model for their teen, not us. This isn’t to say, as some churches have done, that we throw away youth ministry in favor of family ministries, expecting parents to be their teen’s “youth pastor”. Parents need help and having other adults pour into their teens’ life is invaluable. But we must understand the importance of the parents. We should regularly communicate with them, we should honor them as the primary role to their teen, we need to equip them to be great parents, and, as I have always done, use them within the youth ministry! Get them involved! They are the best resources I have in my ministry.

The final value that Marko lays out is in the area of Contextualization. He states that “In an age of splintered youth culture. great youth ministries have discerned an approach to ministry that is wonderfully unique to their context. . . . The best youth ministries are always weird. They have a high degree of self-awareness about their uniqueness, and they celebrate them.” (p. 95). The fact that my current youth group has a plastic mascot taken from one of the three wisemen in a nativity set and we call him Hoku and he goes on almost every trip with us I think shows off our uniqueness and weirdness! Anyhow, it is important to know your context in the particular community that God has put you in. In the 4 churches that I have served at in my lifetime, each had a very different cultural context and my approach to ministry changed and adapted to their needs.

A final thought that Marko closes out with is that “A youth ministry anchored in faith believes that God is at work.” (p. 108). There are a number of books out there that will tell you what is wrong with modern day youth ministry. Some are very good books that we need to read and wrestle with. Some are just bad. But overall, if you want to have a great youth ministry you can’t go wrong with incorporating these six values into your ministry. Marko leaves us with a great foundation to build a successful youth ministry.

Where Does Science Fit Into Faith?



Whenever I read something form Andrew Root, I know it is going to be deep and I am going to learn a lot. His latest book “Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science” did not disappoint. Andrew begins the book with a story about a youth pastor and his teens who ask some deep questions about trying to relate faith to science.  Andrew makes the case that Science and Faith are not diametrically opposing fields. Instead he shows how Faith sometimes oversteps its boundaries by forcing the Bible to speak for Science, and how sometimes Science oversteps its boundaries by making Faith claims. So Faith and Science are not opposed to each other but they can not take over one from the other. Instead, Andrew Root sees a significant overlap where Science and Faith can learn from each other.

Andrew makes a case for theistic evolution throughout the book. He shows how Creationists are forcing science into the text of Scripture and misreading it for how it is supposed to be interpreted. But he also shows how some scientists use their field to make comprehensive faith claims that overstep what science is supposed to do. Andrew also shows how many of the sciences were birthed out of Christianity as Christ-followers wanted to study different aspects of God’s creation and discover how it expands and complements our faith.

Andrew also tackles an interpretation of Genesis 1-2 in light of other pagan creations stories that Israel would have been familiar with. Israel took these stories and crafted their own which showed a personal God who wanted to have  a relationship with us as opposed to a Zeus-like god who created humanity to serve the gods.

Much of what this book tries to do is show how, with a proper understanding of what science and faith are about, they can complement each other. Too many teens are taught the Bible as if it were science, only to leave for college, take their first Earth Science class, and walk away from the faith seeing many of the contradictions that they were brought up to believe as “Science”. We need to have a better understanding of the sciences and how they can help us have a stronger faith. And we need to allow our faith to speak when considering what we can learned from the sciences. Throughout history there have been several times where the church believed something as fact because of how they were interpreting certain passages in Scripture only to have science show that that particular view was wrong. An example was that many believed that the earth was the center of the universe and everything else revolved around it, until Galileo came along and proved that the Earth actually revolves around the sun. This rocked the world of the church and it caused them to eventually rethink how their theology speaks to the truth of the cosmos. I believe we are in a similar time where science has discovered that the earth has actually been around for billions of years and we have evolved over time, yet there are those in the faith community who oppose that based on their view of a literal translation of Genesis 1-2.

This was a fantastic book and I would highly encourage anyone who is curious about the relationships between faith and science to read this. If you are a Young Earth Creationist my bet is that you won’t like this depending on how firm you are in interpreting Genesis 1-2 as literal science. But this book may help you to see a different perspective in how faith and science can live in harmony with each other and actually complement each other.

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!

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.