Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

I have read several of Donald Miller’s books and I have enjoyed every one of them.  He has a fascinating way of telling stories and sharing his adventures.  This book falls right along with the rest of his books.  But the twist to this book is that he gets to reexamine his life now that a film crew wants to tell his story through a movie!  This causes Miller to think through the stories that have shaped him, and on a deeper level it forces him to come to grips with what really makes a story great!  In dealing with what makes a great story not only does Miller wrestle with the stories of his past but he also leaps into new stories with a sense of adventure.  I was fascinating to hear the stories that he plunged himself into such as hiking the Inca Trail, biking across America, meeting his father who walked out on the family when he was young, starting the Mentoring Project and of course coming to terms with the elements of what is a great story.

Miller opens up with the proposition that “ if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.” (p. xiii).  Does meaning just happen or does it become a reality because we are pursuing meaning in our lives?  He goes on to whet our appetites for what is coming by considering “I wonder if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place. I wondered whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.” (p. 39).  This sounds uplifting and exciting but the reality is that many of us live safe lives that ultimately lead to boredom, cynicism, and negativity. 

Miller goes on to postulate that:

If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as through to say, Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.  I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that: we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants. (p. 59).

God invited us into a great story.  But all too often we are motivated more by living a safe, boring life rather than living into bigger and better stories that can change and transform us into extraordinary people.    

Miller realizes that at times there is an internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit when it comes to living out great stories.  He confesses that “ . . . the Voice, the Writer who was not me, was trying to make a better story, a more meaningful series of experiences I could live through.  At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I’d play the scene the way I wanted. This never worked. It would always have been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story." (p. 88)

So this is not about just going out and living large like you are one of the Jersey Shore members.  This is about living into the story that God has created for you; listening with a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit to sense his leading and guiding within your life. 

Miller goes on to test out this theory with gusto jumping into various stories that push him to the limits.  In the midst of these experiences he came to realize that he was

. . . wanting even better stories.  And that’s the thing you’ll realize when you organize your life into the structure of story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. The more practice stories I lived, the more I wanted an epic to climb inside of and see through till its end. (p. 154-155).

Once you step out of the mundane and meaningless, and instead, enter into a story that is rich with challenge, risk, adventure, something larger than yourself, you experience life in a much different way and you never want to go back.   

But the reality is that many, many times people start out strong in living out a great story and then for whatever reasons give up or “downgrade”.  Miller wrestles with this in pondering why
. . . most people give up on their stories.  They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies.  But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder it their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger.  They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story. (p. 179)

Unfortunately, I have seen this scenario play out all too often.  I am in the middle-age bracket and I have seen way too many friends give into the “mid-life crisis” and abandon their stories for an easier one.  It is sad and heart breaking to watch this play out as many people get hurt in the process. 

It is not just abandoning great stories that is the problem within our culture, but it is also avoiding stepping into a great story.  Miller comes to grips with “ . . . how much our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on television are selling us something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life." (p. 186).  There is so much truth to this when you consider how we in America seem to always be seeking out entertainment and our own pleasure so much that we seem to be oblivious at times to the bigger issues of what is going on around the world.   We settle for the easy life instead of the epic life.  And the fact is, the easy life is incredibly unsatisfactory.  Eventually we wake up and see the meaninglessness of the bubble we have hidden ourselves in. 

Also, so many of us have become afraid of change, conflict, or pain.  We do what we can to avoid any situation that may have some of these outcomes.  But Miller points out that “. . . every conflict, no matter how hard, comes back to bless the protagonist if he will face his fate with courage. There is no conflict man can endure that will not produce a blessing.” (p. 188).  Difficult situations in life have a way of producing blessings if we face it with courage.  Overcoming any obstacles in life will have its rewards.  But when we run away from those difficulties, we lose out on the transformative experience and the reward of overcoming.  

One of my most favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes.  Miller makes reference to it by commenting that “It’s interesting that in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the only practical advice given about living a meaningful life is to find a job you like, enjoy your marriage, and obey God.  It’s as though God is saying, Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help." (p. 247).  God encourages us to join Him in making a great story!  He has given us the ability to love Him and love others in extraordinary ways.  And the fact is, for many of us the big challenge is that this begins with our family: to love our spouses, and love our kids the way that would honor God and help them live into the stories that God has written for them. 

Miller concludes with recognizing that “We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.” (p. 248).  Miller tells a lot of fascinating stories about his own adventures in living into his story and breaking out of the boredom he found himself stuck in.  But the reality is that we are all a part of a grand story that we have learned about through Scripture.  The very story of Jesus is the ultimate, most epic, most transforming, and incredible story of all.  And the truth is that we are invited into that story.  It is not a story of safety and comfort and security but instead it can be a story that will cause pain, discomfort, and insecurity but all too often it is just that kind of situation in which we see our need to trust even more in God and depend on Him to help us live through our stories with courage, honor and integrity.  And in the midst of living into these kinds of stories, we will grow a deeper, richer faith, and our relationships will have greater meaning and depth. 

As a youth pastor I would love to see more and more teenagers believe this with all of their hearts.  If that happened I think that they could have the power to change the world.  There would be less drug and alcohol abuse, less teenage pregnancy, less self abuse and suicide, etc., etc., etc.  Young people with a compelling vision from God and a solid belief that they can make a difference could be just the thing to turn this world upside-down in a really good way.  Every time I read Donald Miller he makes me want to kick myself because I wish I could have lived my single years like he did.  To seize crazy opportunities and pursue them with courage in a spontaneous way that only a single person can get away with!  But I am living into the adventure that God has called me to now and that is to love my wife, raise my kids in the love of Christ, and create experiences for a bunch of teenagers at my church that help them create compelling stories that help them live into a dynamic and active faith.  I don’t believe in an easy, spoon-fed Christianity.  BORING!  It is a fun adventure that I am on right now!  But some day my kids will be raised and I just might run off with some friends and hike the Appalachian Trail, or bike across America for some great cause, or move to Africa with my wife and find another completely insane adventure that will make me feel like God’s very own Indiana Jones!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: The Language of God

I grew up in a faith that often derailed evolution as an atheist view of how the universe came into being.  It was the godless scientist who wanted to eliminate all traces of a divine being as the source of creation.  Therefore, we must go the other extreme by reading into Genesis a very literal interpretation, some would even say a scientific interpretation, of the creation of the universe.  In The Language of God author, scientist and Christ-follower Francis S. Collins tries to bring a synthesis to evolution and Christian belief.  Collins was involved in the Human Genome Project that mapped out the “language of God” within human DNA.  In his experience as a scientist he wants to bring an end to the creation / intelligent design / evolution debate by exposing the strengths and weaknesses of these views and then concluding how evolution and Christian faith must be compatible if we accept that all truth is God’s truth. 

            Collins understands that there are some very strong personalities that have taken positions on this debate as a reason to “prove” their faith.  Atheists have stated that to accept evolution one must be atheistic.  Some evangelicals have made creationism a tenant of their faith were to question it is to question your own faith.  But Collins explains that science has its limits.  He states that the “ . . . DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral law and the universal search for God.” (p. 140)  Science helps us to understand our world but there are things that go beyond science that point to a God who loves us. 

            Collins also argues that science is not the enemy of religion.  He says that “ . . . the idea that scientific revelations would represent an enemy in that pursuit is ill conceived.  If God created the universe, and the laws that govern it, and if He endowed human beings with intellectual abilities to discern its workings, would He want us to disregard those abilities? Would He be diminished or threatened by what we are discovering about His creation?”  (p. 153). These are really good questions to wrestle with.  I have often struggled with what I believe when it comes to the origins of life.  I have read some of the leading atheists who use evolution as a basis to bash religion.  But I have also sat in “creation science” classes were I felt like all it was, was a knee-jerk reaction to evolution.  In both cases, a person is starting with a specific belief system and then forcing the science to say what they want it to say.  So I have often been very hesitant to take a firm position in this debate.  Ironically, Collins started out as an atheist and it was through his pursuit of science that eventually led him to faith in God.  And it was this faith that brought an explanation to the things that science could not prove, and also a greater appreciation for what he discovered through the sciences.

            Collins takes on the main proponents of atheism, creationism and intelligent design to arrive at the conclusion of theistic evolution or better yet a term that he prefers “Biologos”.  So here are my favorite quotes!

Collins on atheism

The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins’s claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.” (p. 165)   

Science cannot be used to justify discounting the great monotheistic religions of the world, which rest upon centuries of history, moral philosophy, and the powerful evidence provided by human altruism.  It is the height of scientific hubris to claim otherwise.  But that leaves us with a challenge: if the existence of God is true (not just tradition, but actually true), and if certain scientific conclusions about the natural world are also true (not just in fashion, but objectively true), then they cannot contradict each other.  A fully harmonious synthesis must be possible. (p. 169)

Collins on Creationism:

Many believers in God have been drawn to Young Earth Creationism because they see scientific advances as threatening to God.  But does He really need defending here? Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist? The greatest physicist? The greatest biologist? Most important, is He honored or dishonored by those who would demand that His people ignore rigorous scientific conclusions about His creation? Can faith in a loving God be built on a foundation of lies about nature? (p. 176)

. . . by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology. Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time. By attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science, it widens the chasm between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, just at a time where a pathway toward harmony is desperately needed.  By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, Young Earth Creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents.  But it is not science that suffers most here.  Young Earth Creationism does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. (p. 177)

Collins on Intelligent Design:

. . . scientifically, ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity.  More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer that to the hard-nosed scientist.  ID is a “God of the gaps” theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . .  Furthermore, ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life.  For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image. (p. 193-194)

Collins on Theistic Evolution:

I do not believe that the God who created all the universe, and who communes with His people through prayer and spiritual insight, would expect us to deny the obvious truths of the natural world that science has revealed to us, in order to prove our love for Him. In that context, I find theistic evolution, or BioLogos, to be by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives. This position will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries. It is intellectually rigorous, it provides answers to many otherwise puzzling questions, and it allows science and faith to fortify each other like two unshakable pillars, holding up a building called Truth. (p. 210)

Collins’ Conclusion:

It is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit.  The war was never really necessary. Like so many earthly wars, this one has been initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished. Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible. So let us together seek to reclaim the solid ground of an intellectually and spiritually satisfying synthesis of all great truths.  (p. 233-234)

Overall, this has been a great book to read.  I have slowly let go of a literal interpretation of Genesis ever since seminary.  It was there that we were shown how Genesis 1 and 2 were never meant to be taken as science.  It followed more in the vein of poetic literature.  Also, we were introduced to several other creation stories from other cultures and religions.  And then the kicker was studying the Hebrew and understanding the ways that this passage can be interpreted.  To force Genesis 1 and 2 into a very literal interpretation make the passage become something it was never meant to be. 

But I also struggled with evolution.  I became very comfortable with the concept of intelligent design during the 90’s.  But as Collins explains, current scientific progress has done serious damage to many of their claims.

Another area I really struggled with was the outspoken atheists who used evolution as a bully pulpit to attack religion.  It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to any who vehemently attack our faith. 

But to finally read someone who tries to synthesis religious and scientific truth so that both fields of truth are respected, honored and compliment each other was refreshing. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wrestles with the issues of creationism, intelligent design and evolution.  Collins is respectful and kind to all views but he does pick apart the weaknesses in the creationist and intelligent design views while advocating for the overwhelming weight of evidence that supports theistic evolution.  I would recommend that you read this with an open mind and a deep respect for a man whose life has been immersed in the sciences.  This is not an atheist blowhard or a crazed fundamentalist.  This is a believer in Christ and a brilliant scientist in his own work.  It is a great read.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 6

A Perfect Day at Cedar Point!
Day 6 consisted of us waking up, packing our stuff, and heading off to Camp Sandusky.  Once we arrived at the camp ground we got settled into the cabins that we would be spending the night in.  And then once all was situated, we headed off to Cedar Point!  And boy did we have the absolutely perfect day for Cedar Point.  It was a little warm but not bad.  It was so much fun to take a large group of teens of whom, many have never been to CP.  I promised them that if we could all stay together, I would take them on a roller coaster tour de force.  We had a few coaster-haters with us.  When we got to the Maverick I dragged one of them in line with me convincing her that this was an easy ride.  Of course, I have never been on this ride since it was relatively new but I knew that it didn’t break any records for being the tallest or fastest.  But once we road it, it ended up being a lot more intense of a ride then I ever expected.  In fact, this became the one ride that we went back a second time before we left the park that night.  We hit them all throughout the course of the day: Mantis, Raptor, Magnum, Millennium, Gemini, Maverick, Skyhawk, Dragster.  We had such a fun time together. 

            After our time at Cedar Point, we headed back to Camp Sandusky, crashed for the night, and then made our trip back home!  Overall, this trip was a huge success.  We had many teens go for the first time with our youth group.  So this was a significant trip to help bond a new group of teens for the new school year.  I missed several of my Seniors whom I have had several mission trip experiences in the past with but I knew that most of them were just busy transitioning into the next stage of life and it’s time for a leadership shift in our youth group.  This trip helped us to achieve just that. 

Things that we learned from this trip:

1.  Once again, I really need more adult guys to come on these trips.  I was the only guy on this trip.  I thought I had another coming with me but it was at the last minute that he was unable to come due to unforeseen reasons.  But unfortunately I did not have a Plan B.  For the health of our team and the diversity of leadership we need more adults to attend these trips.

2.  A mixture of experiences was a very good thing.  We had days that involved hard work and others that involved relationally connecting with people.  Having a variety like that helped all the teens to discover what type of service really got them excited.

3.  I loved having more control over the design and implementation of the trip.  For the teens to take an active role in making decisions, crafting worship, and putting together devotionals I think helped grow them spiritually.  We could have gone with a mission organization that had all of that together for us already with a higher quality of preparedness, but I believe that giving teens, especially Senior Highers, the opportunity to lead themselves actually has a greater impact on them.

4.  Experiencing the culture and interacting with specific people are a big part of any mission trip.  It was exciting for me to introduce them to some of the culture of Cleveland and to meet specific people who have been heavily involved in ministry to that area or have been ministered to through these important ministries that we supported. 

5.  The greater the challenge, the more our teens would rise to the occasion.  Easy jobs were always completed quickly and efficiently.  But if you give our teens a job that was challenging they would always work hard to accomplish it. 

6.  Cedar Point was the perfect way to end a mission trip!  I loved taking the team there. 

7.  With maturity, comes rewards.  Our Senior Highers are very, very trustworthy.  When teens come across this way it is so easy for me to trust them with greater responsibility and reward them for their hard work. 

8.  It is always fun to see what happens with teenagers when left alone in a spiritually challenging and friendly environment.  Many good conversation, spontaneous worship, group counseling, and depth to friendships occur on these kinds of trips.  

What an awesome week!

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 5

            This was our final full day at the Nehemiah Mission.  We got ourselves up and moving with the anticipation of not quite knowing what our assignment would be for the day since we were done with all we needed to accomplish at the City Mission.  So we were relying on the leadership of the Nehemiah Mission to give us jobs to do.  Jim is the head guy that runs the mission.  He had two sights for our teams and we ended up doing a lot of hard work!  My team went over to an elderly lady’s house.  She has let her house get out of control so much that the city of Cleveland wanted her to clean it up.  Our job was to paint her porch and clean up her backyard.  I got a team of boys going on the porch and then went to go see what the backyard looked like.  It became apparent to me right away that nothing has been done with this backyard in years.  Many of the bushes have grown to be as large as the trees.  In fact the teens got into an argument as to whether or not these were trees or bushes.  I assured them that we were dealing with bushes that have not been trimmed in a long time.  All of the bushes and trees connected at the top to form almost a cave-like feel in attempting to get to the very back of the yard.  So the hedge trimmers were set aside for a chainsaw instead.  I took a chainsaw to the backyard attempting to level all of the bushes and tree branches that were out of control.  We hacked down a ton of foliage.  Several hours were spent just bundling the branches in 2 foot length bundles.  Also, we spotted a lot of poison ivy in the backyard.  We tried our best to keep our distance but eventually several of us realized that it was a hopeless cause and chances are we will suffer.  The good news is that to my knowledge, I don’t think anyone got any reactions to it after the trip. 

            While we were working hard on bundling, there were many neighborhood kids outside in their front yards trying to escape the heat by starting a water fight.  It was fun to watch the water fights escalate.  Eventually one of the small kids made eye contact with me and I motioned with my eyes to throw water at one of my teenagers.  The kids got the hint that that would be a great thing to do and everyone would have a good sense of humor about it.  So they set their sights on Tyler and went after him first.  Then the attacks kept coming until just about everyone was wet.  And it was cold water too!

            As we cleaned up our sight and began to get ready to head back to the Nehemiah Mission, our elderly lady we were helping came out to talk with us.  This is when she approached me and said, “I didn’t even know that people like this even existed anymore.”  This floored me.  I asked her if she had any family and she said no.  She never married or had kids.  Just before we left we took the opportunity to gather together in a circle and lift her up in prayer.  She was really moved by our teens and all that they have done to help her out.   It was awesome.  The other team did a lot of similar type work cleaning and painting someone’s property that needed help.

            That evening we had another special guest speaker: my dad!  It was fun again to introduce him to our youth group.  He spoke heavily on stories related to missions, but then he wrapped it up with a challenge to live fully into what God has called you to do.  He did a great job.  He was very impressed by our teens and adults that he got to meet.  Afterwards some of the teens were laughing at how similar I was to my dad in mannerisms, speech patterns, body image, etc.   

Once he left we had our final group meeting to process the entire week and how it will affect our lives back home: our family life, our school life and our church life.  This is always a very critical part of the mission trip to help the teens realize that the purpose of a trip like this is to establish new ways of looking at our lives.  It is NOT about doing a mission for one week out of the Summer and then forget about it until the next adventure the following Summer.  Instead, these trips help to instill habits and behaviors that can help us to learn to serve in every context of our lives.  It was a really good night. 

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 4

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
All of us went to the Laura’s Home for the entire day.  We began by getting ready for a big cook out and a fair for the kids.  I took on the task of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers with the hopes that I would be inside and out from the heat.  But unfortunately they took me and my guys right through the kitchen, out the back door, and into the blazing sun were there were two grills.  So we fired them up and got the burgers going.  Some of the other teens were busy filling up water balloons, setting up play stations, a face painting station, and preparing other food.  Once all the food was cooked, we all lined up for our lunch and went out to the pavilion and ate lunch together.  Lisa and Deb did an amazing job in connecting with many of the moms who were staying in Laura’s Home.  They got to hear some pretty intense stories that were difficult and heart-breaking at times.  Our teenagers played for a long time with many of the kids.   They had all kinds of fun things set up for the kids to do. There were also a lot of prizes for the kids and they all had a lot of fun throughout the entire day.   This gave many of the moms an opportunity to have a break from the constant presence of their kids and just talk with some adults.  Of course since there was water, eventually most of the teens and kids ended up wet.  A sneak attack came towards me and I tried to react quickly, but not quick enough.  I got soaked.  We all enjoyed the relational opportunity to minister to women and children who were going through rough times in their lives. 

After we were done with our time with the kids and moms at Laura’s Home we headed back to the Nehemiah Mission to get ready for an evening activity.  We headed out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!  This was a great night!  There are 7 floors at the Rock Hall so we started at the top and worked our way down.  On the top two floors there was a large exhibition dedicated to Bruce Springsteen.  It was very cool.  Of course I almost blew a gasket when one of the teens started to get bored and asked me, “Who is Bruce Springsteen anyhow?”  I started to have my doubts wondering if the teens would have liked going to the Lady Gaga concert in town instead of being at the Rock Hall!  But in reality, we all had a good time even if rock music was not your preferred style of music.  I was personally surprised by how small Springsteen’s jacket was that was on display.  He is a small guy. 

            After checking out all things Springsteen we went to see the U23D movie that was being featured at the Rock Hall.  It was truly an amazing experience on many levels.  First of all, the 3D quality was amazing.  It felt like you could reach out and touch Bono, or that you were actually floating right above Larry Mullins banging away on the drums, or that you were right in the audience with the rest of the crowd cheering on the band.  The spiritual aspect of the concert was deeply moving too.  They performed many of their songs that had strong spiritual themes.  Bono preached for justice and love and tolerance.  In many ways it was the most emotionally moving concert film I have ever seen.  This is of course coming from someone who has grown up with U2 and has loved their music.  Some of our teens were lulled to sleep by the melodious sounds of Bono and Co.  But the way I see it, at least they got it on a subconscious level. 

            Once the movie was over we check out the rest of the museum.  We saw the displays from “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” Tour; large displays on Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, The Who, and many, many others.  There were a bunch of interactive displays to discover the influences of certain bands, to hear the best rock albums of all time, to see clips from those who have been inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame, and many others.  It was such a cool experience.  We also took a group photo of us superimposed on the cover of Rolling Stone.  It is very cool!

            As we left the Rock Hall we went to go see the sun set off of Lake Erie.  It was a gorgeous sight.  To see the reflection of the sun off of the water with all the colors is just a breathtaking experience.  And then when you turn around you can see an amazing view of the Cleveland skyline. After just chilling out enjoying the sights for a while we then got hungry and wanted some dinner.  We headed down to a nice area in Lakewood that had a bunch of restaurants.  We tried to get into a local place call “Melts” but they were too crowded so we walked down the street and found a Chipotle and Five Guys.  So the team split up between those two restaurants.  I went to Five Guys.  We goofed around and had a lot of fun that night.  It was an enjoyable night as a youth group.

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 3

Jaime and her son
Today we flip-flopped the teams.  I took the other group down to the City Mission.  Lisa and Deb took the other team down at Laura’s Home.  Both teams did a lot of outside work.  On the downtown property there are a lot of trees!  Many of the branches were quite long and needed to be trimmed back.  There were also some dead branches that needed to be taken out.  So we attacked the trees!  This brought back memories of the Junior High trip last Summer were all we did was eliminated Honeysuckle.  But this job was not as brutal.  It was a relatively easy landscaping job.  At one point we got Mitch up in a tree to try and get at some branches and this provided an easy target for many of us guys!

At lunch time the teens got to hear some of the same stories from the men living in the City Mission that shared yesterday.  It was powerful. 

Once we were done, we headed back over to Laura’s Home to get the rest of our team.  The teens there spent time disinfecting all of the toys in the kids rooms and helping with many of the flowerbeds and spending time with the kids.  We got to meet some of the kids and let them know that the next day we were all going to spend the day with them.  They were excited and looking forward to it.

That evening we had a very special chapel time as a group.  Our teens lead us in worship and then Jaime Buxton spoke to the teens.  Now let me remind you that Jaime came through my first youth group.  She did a phenomenal job in telling her story of growing up through high school, college, single and married life and how God has impacted her through all of the stages.  She was very vulnerable in explaining how it was very easy for her to live in two different worlds in high school: her “party” life as a popular cheerleader and her “religious” life as a youth group member.  She talked through how those two worlds eventually collided and she realized that she had to make a choice between those two identities.  She described how she finally committed herself 100% to follow Christ.  Since then, God has used her throughout college, and as a missionary in Belize and now as a youth pastor and social worker in Cleveland

I have always wanted to get Jaime to speak to the youth group but I always knew that her life was to crazy to be able to get away and come down to Cincinnati.  So this was a dream come true for me.  She also brought her husband Sean, their son who is 3, and 2 of their youth group girls who apparently wanted to know if we had any cute guys.  I did not hear the verdict on that mission but I am sure there was moderate success in their opinion. 

It was a good day!

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 2

The 2010 Senior High Mission Team
We were off to a good start on our first full day on the mission trip. After breakfast we had the president of the Nehemiah Mission give us a talk about the history of this church and how the East Ohio Conference turned this church into a mission site for people to come and make an impact on the city of Cleveland. He told the Nehemiah story and how it related to him and his staff as they have seen Cleveland fall apart and God has challenged them to rebuild the community and help restore hope.  It is always awesome to here about someone’s passion that God has laid on their heart. 

Then we headed off to Laura’s Home which is a ministry of the City Mission in Cleveland. It was awesome to go to the Laura’s Home. About 9 years ago I took my youth group in North East Ohio to this very building when it was bought by the City Mission. We helped to demolish the insides of the building so that they could begin making it into a mission for homeless and hurting women and children. So now fast forward several years and here is the mission in full swing with a large staff and a lot of ministry going on. Also, one of my students from my first youth group was a full time staff member helping to make an impact on the children who come through this mission.  It was great to see Jaime and to see all that she was involved in at the mission.  I was really excited to introduce her to the teens. 
After that we split up the team into two groups and I took one of the groups to the City Mission site that was directly downtown. We were told that the City Mission is right on the 21st most dangerous intersection in America in the 7th most dangerous city. This site primarily took care of men.  At the City Mission we met a guy named Bob who was a really nice guy that helped line us up with jobs around the mission site.  We did a lot to make the outside look really nice: yard work, weeding, cleaning, taking care of dead plants, etc.  During our lunch break Bob got two of the men at the mission to come and share their stories. It was very powerful for the teens. These men shared how they ended up here at the mission and what God has been doing in their lives to change them around. Their former life and their current life were seen in very stark contrasts. They both emphasized how they wish they could be young again and make the right choices instead of the path that they lived out.  They let the teens know that that just one bad choice can forever alter their lives.  They need to be smart, follow God, and make good choices.  J.R. said that at 53 years old he is just now beginning to put his life back together.  He has just about ruined all relationships with friends and family and is just now trying to rebuild relationships with his grown children that he neglected throughout their childhood.  Toby told the teens that he has lived more than half of his life in prison because he stole millions of dollars.  But even with all the wealth he acquired, he was never satisfied until he came to know God. He challenged the teens to stay focused and follow Jesus.  He shared how someone in prison began witnessing to him and through that relationship he came to know Jesus.  Now he would like to go back and minister to other guys in prison.  After lunch we did some more work around the mission and then headed back over to Laura’s Home.  

At Laura’s Home the other group did a lot of similar stuff taking care of the outside of the facility. Some of the boys got the privilege of playing Wii with some of the kids.  I also got to see Jaime’s office and catch up with her a little bit.  

We wrapped things up in the afternoon and came back to the Nehemiah Mission. We had a Chicken Parmesan dinner and then one of the other guys at the mission gave a devotion. He emphasized how we are bringing hope to the hopeless just like Jesus did in his ministry. 

After that we headed off to Huntington Beach in Bay Village.  We had a blast together swimming.  It was a beautiful night.  It was slightly cloudy so the sun would peek in and out of the clouds.  You would see some amazing clouds lit up by the sun; the sun breaking though the clouds sending down beams of light onto the water; little pockets of rain out on the water.  There was also a lot of wrestling, dunking and Marco Poloing going on.  We had fun.  We returned to the Nehemiah Mission and had our team meeting. The worship team lead us in music and then we talked about how we were impacted throughout the day.  In the midst of doing odd jobs there were some interesting stories of interacting with people and hearing what God is doing in their lives.   The teens are getting along great and having fun with each other.  It is awesome to see how God is using them already to grow together.

Cleveland Mission Trip: Day 1

The Nehemiah Mission
Well we spent about 4 hours straight up I-71 on our way to Cleveland.  We saw a lot of classic cars and Ohio motorcycle gangs on the road for some reason.  It kept it interesting.  It was also a beautiful day to travel.

We found our destination called the Nehemiah Mission.  It is a church that is set up for missions work throughout Cleveland.  It is an older building that has been renovated to host groups as large as 50.  The downstairs is the kitchen, cafeteria, bedrooms and showers.  The rooms that the teens are staying in are large bunk style rooms.  There are 2 showers for each gender!  So the 5 minute rule has been put into effect.  The rest of the building has a nice classic sanctuary, a basketball court on the second floor, and more bunk rooms.

When we arrived we found out that we were early enough for a hip hop worship service that was scheduled for the evening.  It was awesome.  Very different than what our teens are used to but it was great.  Then the pastor of the church, who looks a lot like a 20 year old version of TobyMac, preached a great sermon about blocking out all the noise in our world so that we can listen to the One True Voice.  He did a great job.  I was jealous of his coolness.

We ate dinner, had a leaders meeting, had a team meeting and established all the rules, plans, and procedures for the week.

I am excited about the week.  I am also a little anxious.  I really want this week to go well for our teens and for all those we serve.  I am also really excited to take them out to have some fun in North East Ohio. We have a great team of teens here.  About half of them have done trips with me before and the other half are new to this type of experience. 

Well, it is close to lights out time and I would like to feel a little clean before I go to bed.  And I do want to get my sleep tonight.  So until tomorrow . . .