Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Trip Down Memory Lane

I just spent the past four days at my parents house visiting with my family. Oddly enough, my wife did not join me for the trip because she needed the time to herself to fill out teacher applications. So I left with all four of my children on Thursday afternoon until Sunday night at the home I grew up in.

Now, this is what I want to know, is it just me or is there anybody else out there who has a hard time going back into the town you came of age? As I would drive around and pass by my high school, and the community college I spent my first two years of college at, and the bar I frequented (as a college student! Mind you, the Ohio drinking age was 18 at the time!), I could almost sense the brooding, angst-ridden, rebellious, sarcastic person I was in my late teens calling out to me.

But it wasn't just walking down memory lane recalling a lot of old feelings and pain from my past. It was also seeing what the town I grew up in was turning into. There were pockets of Elyria that seemed to be doing well (the Lorain County Community College seems to have quadrupled in size since I was there in '86, and a new Olive Garden is about to open) but overall I was shocked by the way much of the town has degenerated. Roads everywhere were awful. What used to be a fine dining establisment called Mountain Jack's has now turned into a strip club which is right next to the Holiday Inn and in the parking lot of the local mall. Talk of budget cuts and staff cuts where heavy in the air at the church my parents still attend. The local paper was pushing the issue of opening casinos in the state to be a quick fix for the economy. Afterall, it was estimated in the article that Ohioans spend about 1 billion dollars at casinos just over the boarder in all the surrounding states. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that many of the good jobs that were in the North have either headed overseas or down South and West. So is it fair to prey on the down-and-out economy that many Ohioans find themselves in order to justify gambling? (I know, that is another topic for another day.)

It just seems whenever I go back to my hometown, my old-self is waiting there at the boarder of town ready to meet back up with me and help me recall my feelings, thoughts, anger and frustration of an earlier stage of growing up. Maybe it is because I work with teens all the time so when I go back into the environment of which I grew up as a teen my mind instantly compares and contrasts what I see today with teenagers as with what I went through.

Why did Jesus say that a prophet is without honor in his hometown? I am sure that those who watched Jesus grow up had a hard time seeing him as a prophet and that there is a lot of truth to this angle of what Jesus was saying. But is it also just as equally hard for the "prophet" to fully be who he is as an adult when he steps back into the town he grew up in? It is interesting how Jesus seemed to fully be who he was in every context except his own hometown. Now, was it all the fault of Jesus' audience? Or maybe, just maybe, Jesus had a real hard time going back into that context of which he grew up in, seeing the changes, having his mom talk to him like he is a teenager again, hearing about who has died, seeing those who had so much life and vitality when he was a child now plagued with old age, seeing locations that had significance to him through the stages of growing up - the highs, the lows, the pain, the elation. Just a thought.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

It is hard to believe where the time goes but I am coming up on completing the fourth decade of life and beginning a new one. As is typical with the last time this happened 10 years ago, I go through a massive time of introspection on all that happened over the past 10 years - the good, the bad and the ugly. I take a good hard look at who I was at the beginning of the last decade and who I am now as I look forward to the next decade.

Reflecting on the Past 10 years:

The Good - My youngest child was born in 2001. My health has been good. I am still in youth ministry and feel stronger than ever that I am right in the middle of God's calling for my life. My marriage is maturing and strengthening. It has simply been amazing to watch all four of our children go through their early years during this decade. I am serving in a mainline church and happier than ever. In my youthful arrogance I used to consider the mainlines as an aging dinosaur that is growing more and more extinct. Now, slightly embarrassed by my past ignorance, I am pursuing ordination within the United Methodist Church and I don't know if I ever would consider going back to a non-denomination or Baptist church. If God slams and opens doors I will follow His lead wherever.

The Bad - I have had two very painful experiences at the expense of churches I was formerly employed. But through it all, in hindsight, I definitely see the hand of God leading me exactly where He wanted me to go, for the exact amount of time I was needed, and then He put me in a new situation that fit the skills, talents and abilities that He has given me. I was never the type of person to hear the still, small voice of God telling me it was time to move on. He needed to slam a hard, steel door in front of me and open a new path in which He shoved me towards in both cases.

The Ugly - During the last transition from one church to the other I had two situations that pulled me back into BOTH churches that I had to leave. The most recent church had a father of two of my teens commit suicide. I immediately went to the home to minister to the family. I knew in that moment that regardless of whether or not a church recognizes you as a pastor, God's calling to you is permanent, with or without a church home. During that exact same transition, while mourning the lost of a youth group and church family I fell in love with and trying to step forward for the sake of my family, I had a former student from the LAST church that "let me go" who just committed suicide. The family requested that I do the funeral. Needless to say, I was not in a good mental state for this. But then, when it comes to the suicide of one of your teenagers, what youth pastor is mentally prepared for this? Through God's grace alone, I was able to help both families even though I was rejected by the church establishments that represented those families.

In the category of ugliness, I was also pulled into two depositions dealing with a lawsuit against the first church I worked for. I should also state that this is the church I grew up in. I had to answer questions I did not want to answer for the fear that it might hurt people I care deeply about. And then I had to endure a full day of the church lawyers discrediting me. It was not a fun day but I got through it. And as a result, I believe that my relationship with my brother-in-law (a.k.a. my lawyer) deepened through this experience.

And the final ugly thing of the past decade has been this war. It has been hard to watch some of my teens' lives become shattered as a result of the effects that this war has had on them and their generation. I don't like it one bit.

Top 15 Things I am Looking Forward to in the Next 10 (God willing):

1. My own kids coming through the youth ministry!

2. Possibly staying at a church long enough to see the fruit of students taking their faith to college, becoming married, and raising families of their own, of which maybe, just maybe, some of their kids will make it through the youth ministry before God takes me home!

3. Tattoos (no matter what my wife says)

4. Ordination

5. A new Government without a Bush or Clinton! Please.

6. At the end of this decade, 3 kids in college! The only thing that scares me about this is how fast the past decade flew by and if that is any indication for the next 10 years.

7. Developing a relationship with an orphanage in Namibia, Africa

8. Finally affording some real family vacations!

9. Caring for my parents as they age gracefully.

10. Running a (half) marathon.

11. The Emergent Church rattling the cage of the establishment church and breathing new life and thought into the modern day church.

12. Christians transcending politics and believing in a God so much bigger than the Republican party.

13. The next Indiana Jones movie! And others????

14. The TV show "Lost" finally becoming found.

15. SpongeBob fading into obscurity.

It's a wonderful life! Really. With scars and all!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Week Reflections: The Elusive Chase

As is typical with the beginning of most school vacations, my older kids all went off to spend the night at their friends homes. Normally we like to have the home where they can invite their friends over and have fun sleep-overs but our house is but a tiny house for a family of six and when you have a house full of excitable pre-teens who find it fun to stay up to the wee hours of the night . . . well, let's just say there really is no escaping the madness. So off they go and I've got some time with my youngest son during the weekend.

We woke up on Saturday morning with excitement in the air! The potential for Easter Egg insanity was upon us. We had access to not only one, but two massive Easter egg hunts! If all goes well this could rival Halloween in less the amount of time! Well, off we go to the first hunt at a water park called the Beach. When we arrived there were hundreds of kids with literally thousands of eggs covering vast tracks of land. Ben magically weaved his way through the barrier of adults standing ready to watch the stampede. He was in the front of the crowd and ready to go. The countdown began and then off they went. The sea of kids moved as quick as dogs after a cat. Eventually the kids began to turn around to find their parents. Ben finally found me and much to my surprise, he held up his basket and with a smirk on his face he pointed out that he only managed to get one egg! This right here demonstrates a huge difference between Ben and my other kids. They would have walked out of the park with a huge amount of eggs leaving a path of destruction behind them! Their competitive nature would not have permitted them to find and hold onto only one egg. Out of shear curiosity we opened up the egg wondering if maybe the he got a golden Wonka ticket of sorts. As he opened it up, we saw that he got a temporary tattoo for "The Beach". The scene from the movie "A Christmas Carol" flashed through my mind as Ralphie got his magic decoder ring and with excitement decoded his first clue only to discover "It's just a damn advertisement!" Well, Ben was not disappointed as there was also a petting zoo to enjoy.

After that we held onto the hope that the next Easter egg hunt would produce a much more bountiful treasure! Two hours go by and now it is time to leave for the local park! I knew a secret parking spot that is rarely used, and sure enough, no one was parked there! Then we walked down to the park. As we got closer I noticed that lack of people and the few that I did see were walking away from the park! Much to my demise, a sign was posted that stated the egg hunt was cancelled due to the flooding from the previous weekend. SO! TWO hunts with only ONE egg! Ben surprisingly had a good sense of humor about it. I took him down to the local dollar store to buy up some candy. By the way, the tattoo only lasted two days!

Happy Easter to all and enjoy time with your family! He has Risen!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Holy Week Reflections: The Senior Pastor is No Jesus!

Okay, I know what you think. Is this going to be a youth pastor rant against his Senior Pastor that will eventually lead to his own demise. No! Not at all. Here is what happened:

It is Maunday Thursday and our church set up a creative "Journey to the Cross" experience all throughout the church. We went as a family which means we travel through the experience fairly quickly. I had no ideas about what the worship team was going to set up other than just a few hints here and there as I was at work on Wednesday and Thursday. As we went through about half of the "experiences" we were directed to the chapel. Without thinking to much of anything I entered in and immediately saw that the room was set up like the Last Supper with the Senior Pastor, Doug Damron, frozen in place in the "Jesus" spot. Now understand that Doug is the first Senior Pastor that I have worked for in which he is actually younger than me. He has yet to get that elderly wise mystique that you think of when you see older clergy types. Doug and I have been friends since high school. So with that in mind when I caught his "frozen Jesus" expression out of the corner of my eye I instantly got the giggles. My fear was also that he caught onto this and he was going the same direction as me. Now there were 12 of us around the table so, yes, there are other people from the church who are thinking that we are in the room with the Senior Pastor and youth pastor of which I am trying to remind myself that I have an image to uphold, although somewhat more relaxed than the Senior Pastor, as a member and employee of the church!

Anyhow, I sit down and immediately stare really, really hard into the plate that is right in front of me. Then as I sensed the corners of my mouth wanting to curl up I wrapped one of my hands around my mouth. My brain is going a thousand miles an hour "Don't laugh, don't laugh, don't laugh, think job security, this represents the last supper of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was going through intense agony at this moment". All of a sudden, I heard Doug crack in his voice. My brain started to question if he was doing such a superb piece of acting in which he was embracing the emotions of Jesus on that night, or maybe, just maybe, he picked up on me and was getting the giggles too. I wanted to look. I wanted to peak. Maybe if he was really portraying Christ is such an intense way I would be able to shake off the small eruption in my lungs that wanted to burst forth. Or maybe on the other hand, if he was going the same direction as me, I was worried that if I looked at him and we made eye contact, I envisioned both of us bursting out in laughter and then soon after that making "Will Preach For Food" signs and hanging out together on intersections.

Luckily, I was able to gain my composure and appreciate the experience without ever looking at Doug. I snuck out of there and went through the rest of the stations without any problems. I kept all of this to myself of course because I had no idea of what Doug was thinking and I certainly did not want to implicate myself as being irreverent because I really like my job and the church I am serving at and I would not want to endanger that in any way. But within an hour after the event was over, I got a call from the Senior Pastor! He was ranting at me about making him smirk and break character. Of course I told him I wasn't trying to and I was too afraid to look at him knowing that I would lose it and destroy the whole atmosphere of the event. I told him that I heard him waver in his voice and I wasn't sure if he was portraying anguish or if he got a case of the giggles too. He confirmed that he was about to laugh and he was trying with all his might to hold it in. Luckily, we never made eye contact or it would have been all over for the both of us.

The "Stations of the Cross" is a beautiful thing! Really! I just wasn't prepared to see Doug in that context and didn't see it coming. The Worship team did a fantastic job with all that they did throughout Holy Week. I apologize for my brief moment of irreverence that came over me.