Monday, March 11, 2013

For a Limited Time...

"They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary..."

A couple of nights ago, as Tracy and I were trying to wind down after the kids were in bed, Dead Poets Society came on TV.  It's a pretty good movie, and we hadn't seen it in quite a while and wound up watching the whole thing.  Like all movies it's not without its flaws, but it has some great stuff in it as well.  My favorite part is early in the movie when Professor Keating (Robin Williams) takes his English and poetry class into the hallway to look at the pictures of classes past. He tells them if they listen closely, what they will hear from those of days gone by is "Carpe...carpe diem...seize the day boys..." This has been a common theme in my life over the past few years.  We did an entire series called "Don't Waste Your Life" a couple of years ago.  John Piper wrote a book called that.  Lecrae has a song called that.  Tim McGraw has one called "Live Like You Were Dying." Justin McRoberts has one called "Done Living." Switchfoot almost has a theme across their history of making the most of life and the time you have.  Over the years I've realized it more and more for a variety of reasons, and it is a huge part of me and how I do life and ministry.  It is a huge part of my youth ministry, but also of my life and relationships.  I literally want every encounter with people to be lived as if it is the last time I will ever see them, and to have a chance to leave a positive lasting mark, because honestly to think otherwise is to claim the rightful place of a god in the sense of controlling our own destiny and how much time we have left on earth.

"Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14)

Seeing Dead Poets Society that night reiterated something that's been on my mind a lot lately, a variation of a blog entry that has been swirling around in my head for a while and just hasn't come out, based on a comparable idea. I believe this idea drives me as a youth pastor, but also as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a best friend, as a staff member at a church, as a volunteer at my kids school, and more.  I'm realizing more and more that life is a limited time engagement that we have to make the most of.  We cannot get back the time we waste, the time we don't do what we should have, the time we hold back, the time we let others control what we are doing or should do.  Far too often we allow ourselves to be distracted and held back, and we settle for good, or just enough, surviving instead of thriving.  We conform to others desires and expectations. We allow the perception of others, the traditions engrained into our lives, the mistakes of others, the 'what ifs,' the 'should do/accumulate/be/pretend to be' this or that type things, to hold us back from a fully engaged life with God, with spouses, with children, with friends, with church, with those older than us, with those younger than us, with just about anything and everything.  We pursue a pseudo-dream that's false in the first place and besides that is perpetually just out of our grasp and in so doing, we miss out on the opportunities staring us in the face to live fully and to impact others in a lasting way that makes a real mark.There are a couple of areas this has been really driven home for me lately.

 "Every day is a journal page, Every man holds a quill and ink..." (Life Means so Much by Chris Rice)

First is in student ministry life.  I have now been at my current setting for just under 15 years (April will make 15).  In that time, we've had peaks and valleys, ups and downs.  In this little rural Southern Baptist church youth group, we have seen literally hundreds of students come through over time.  Some once or twice, some for a while and then gone, some for the long haul.  Regardless, the opportunity to impact them for the Gospel and to help them through the journey of adolescence, even if they stick around, is a limited time engagement, and statistically as high as like 88% of them will leave and not come back to church after 18 or so.  That means it's critical first and foremost that the Gospel is shown and shared every time we have them.  It also means we can't waste any outing with them...if you have 200 or 20 or 2, you have to give your best and give the Word as God has given it to you.  But it also means we have to love the heck out of them and they have to know it.  I want them to see that someone cares, someone loves them...because many of them...a lot more than you think...really struggle deeply with that.  If i told you how many kids over the years have talked of suicidal thoughts or even taken steps towards that, it might floor you, and it's not just the ones you might expect (and by the way, it's not just teenagers, I darn near lost someone very close to this).  They need to know that Jesus loves them, but they need to know we do as well. They need to know that there is someone (in you) who believes in them and in what God has for them and loves them unconditionally...EVEN when they make it hard, even when they mess up, even when they wander and stray, even when they try their darndest to BE unlovable. If you have them one time, if you have them for 6 years or more, it doesn't matter...they need to know the Gospel, need to know Jesus, need to know He loves them, and need to know you truly care and love them not just because 'you have to,' or 'it's your job.'  Some of my deepest and closest and best relationships now are with former students...and even current ones. As much as broken, flawed imperfect people like us can, we need to make the most of the time, every time, and leave nothing as potential for regret.  Give your best and lay it all on the table, all on the line, all out there.

"Every day is a bank account, And time is our currency..." (Life Means so Much by Chris Rice)

Secondly, I've talked a lot about the kids at my kids' elementary school lately.  One thing I haven't mentioned is how transient our community is.  Kids (and their families) come in and out of the school (and community) all the time. One day you show up and a kid is suddenly gone, for any of a garden variety of reasons.  In fact, earlier this week we had a bit of a 'scare' when our younger son came home and said his best friend from day one at the school told him he was transferring to another school in the district and wouldn't be back the next day.  Fortunately, we saw him being dropped off the next day and so far that claim was less than true.  Another example...I noticed recently that a second-grader I connected with randomly one day in my journeys to the school because i was playing basketball with my younger son and some of his friends on the blacktop after a snow day the day before and the next two times I was there as well, suddenly hadn't been there the past few times I was up there, and when I asked, they said she had moved.  My older son's class started with 40 (the most  you can have with 2 classes of 20 at our school) as kindergarteners, and as of right now, as 4th graders, there are 22 or 23, small enough that they condensed to one teacher and one class for their final year at the school.  There have been some new ones move in, but that means (factoring in the move-ins) that over half of their original class is no longer there.  I remember how hard it hit me the last week or so of last school year when literally up to 10 kids his age told me they wouldn't be back after the summer.  Fortunately some of them did come back but many didn't.  We only get them for a limited time, and perhaps that's been a driving force for my own increased involvement at the school.  My hope is they see something in a volunteer at the school, as a father, as a dad, as a friend, as a mentor, as a role model, as a minister, and as a Christian, that they remember for a lifetime and that points them to a better life and hope, but more than that, to Christ ultimately. And today I was reminded of how short that time to do that can I was on the playground with my older son, it dawned on me that in a few short months, his class will be gone from that school, dispersed from each other and from us.  Some of those kids are really special to me, and I want to make the most of every chance with them.  So I push swings, play basketball, throw footballs, jump ropes that are too small for me to jump (today) play four square, give countless hugs, pick 'em up, stand out long after I could leave with my kids to talk to and love on the other kids, go to class parties, go on field trips, talk to parents and kids in Dollar General and wherever else, open car doors on cold mornings, get called everything from daddy to Mr Johnston to Mr Alan to just Alan to Andrew's/Bradley's dad, sit and listen, clean up puke (today), carry trays for a kid with a broken arm (today), tie shoes (today), zip coats (today), and whatever else i can and need.  My back hurts and my arms are tired and because of the cold I'm fighting a cold.  BUT IT'S WORTH's ALWAYS worth it.  THEY are always worth it. And maybe they won't remember me for long after this school year ends...but maybe they will...and maybe they'll remember the love that shows and points to a Greater Love.

"Teach us to count the days, Teach us to make the days count, Lead us in better ways
That somehow our souls forgot Life means so much, life means so much.

Every day is a gift you've been given Make the most of the time every minute you're living" (Life Means so Much by Chris Rice)

I just want to seize the day.  Make the most of every opportunity.  I tell my wife I love her every time we end a phone conversation, every time one of us leaves the house, every night before bed.  I do the same with my kids.  And my parents.  And with some of my very best friends.  I end phone calls and text convos with close friends with I love you.  If there's a problem or I have upset or offended someone I want to deal with it and not let it stay around just beneath the surface affecting the relationship and waiting to explode.  Honestly, I NEVER want to settle for anything less or risk the end coming for one of us with something left undone or unsaid. And on the occasions I fail or forget to do that, it hits me after the fact and I'm miserable.  I just want my life to count.  To matter.  To be more than ordinary.  To be beyond the norm.  To be unusual.  To be different.  To be extreme.  To take risks.  For God. For family.  For friends.  I just know there's more than how and what most people live for. I am obsessive about these things.  And some people may not like it or may not be totally comfortable with it.  And I'm ok with that.  I. Just. Don't. Want. Regrets. In anything that matters, with anyone that matters, with God most of all.  And because life is a limited engagement and periods within life are as well, I want mine to matter...every single one and every single time. Making memories for now and for eternity with those God places in my life. Not allowing conflicts to accelerate and grow and linger unresolved.  I'm not superman.  I'm not a savior.  I never want to come off as being either.  But I don't want to just live.  I don't want to go through the motions.  I want to be more than that and I want to do more than that. Because this life is a limited time opportunity and when my time comes, I want it to count and want to live life and leave life with no regrets.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall,  but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25)

Wherever You Go...

"Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?" (Francis Chan)

In a fascinating encounter when Jesus is taken away after 40 days of being back on the earth, at an event referred to by His followers as 'The Ascension,' Jesus gave a command to His followers.  He told them to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the Ends of the Earth."  It's often interpreted as where you live, then stretching out into your state, country, and to the world.  This year for the first time in a while, I get to be a part of a small group from our church that gets to experience that last part, 'the ends of the earth' part, by going to the Ukraine.  I'm sure there will be more entries about that later as that endeavor approaches, but that's not what this one is going to be about.  I think that the passage in Acts 1 mentioned above can be summarized as a command from Jesus to be His witness 'wherever you go, wherever you are.'  It's about finding your mission field and taking advantage of opportunities to live on mission right where you are, wherever you are, however you can, whenever you can, and expanding from there. In a sense, it is up to each of us to find our specific, personal mission field, where God can and wants to use us, while also not ignoring the other tenets of that command.

"I just want to live, I just want to sing, to make a difference in the ones who believe me.
And I'll do all I can to give you all I have. I'm learning how to live I found my way to breathe Now I just want the whole world to sing with me Sing a beautiful song forever I'll sing On & on, with everything..." ("Everything" by And the Hero Prevails)

I know I've written a ridiculous amount about my journeys at the kids' elementary school recently.  And I always struggle when I do so because I don't want it to come across as patting myself on the back or tooting my own horn or focusing on my own glory or anything close to that.  Earlier this week, I was scrolling through some of the recent pictures I've taken on my phone, especially ones at the school with my kids and their friends.  As I looked at the second of the two pictures at the bottom of this note, a crazy thought hit me. That picture looks nearly identical to any of perhaps even hundreds of pics I've taken over the years of myself or students with kids on our mission trips.  Year in and year out, what happens on our student mission trips, especially in the VBS and Bible clubs we do, is kids get attached to our students, and vice-versa.  A few hours over a few days builds an amazing and incredible connection.  Story after story is shared in our group meetings every  night of how amazed a particular student is that a particular kid that they didn't know latched on to them...and vice-versa.  They tug and pull at your heart.  They capture your emotions.  In a short time, you begin to truly get attached and just want to love on them and spend time with them.  And every year we come back with many incredible pictures of our kids with the kids of the places we are working with, usually with huge smiles, warm embraces, arms wrapped around them, kids climbing on them, laying heads on shoulders, etc. And as I looked at that picture, it dawned on me that if I didn't know better, that picture could easily have been from one of our mission trips.  The brick background shows that it is the entrance of our elementary school, and obviously I (and many of you) know the two kids in it.  But otherwise, it could easily be a spot on image from any of our mission trips, and the image it captures and what is going on and what it says, is exactly the same as those ones from the mission trips...connection, attachment, all of the things I mentioned above.

"Children's ministry or teaching may not be your actual job title, but you are definitely doing both of those jobs with these kids! They are extremely blessed to have you at the school!...Even though the day didn't go as planned, these kids always enjoy you so much! I know having you out there made their day brighter!!!" (Teacher to me this week)

And in that moment, it dawned on this particular place in time, that school is a huge part of my mission field. I don't go in there preaching the Gospel or trying to convert people or trying to get them to come to a specific church or anything like that.  But many of them know or at least find out that I'm a minister, a youth pastor, on a church staff, etc.  But it's not about that at all  It's about representing Christ. It's about showing the love of Jesus in a real and tangible way in every instance when I get the opportunity through my actions when I am there.  Whether it's a smile and a friendly greeting to both kid and parent when I open a car door in the morning, or time in line or at a table in the cafeteria, or time out on the playground wearing this 38 year old out of shape body out doing any of a zillion things that happen on elementary school playgrounds while getting attacked by two zillion kids, or simply talking out there or in the school to a kid/parent/teacher/staff member...every one of those is an open door for me to be a living, breathing show genuine love, interest, investment, involvement and concern for a handful of lives in a short time period while developing relationships.  After all life is all about relationships, right?  God and us, parent and child, husband and wife, friendships, co-workers, etc, is all about relationship.  And in reality, it's not like it takes a tremendous amount of effort.  Most of the time, it simply comes, it simply happens, by being both present and intentional, by being real and authentic, by being someone who is there, who cares, who loves.  And as I wrote in a previous recent note, it's a very limited time to get to do it in.  My heart is aching already over the fact that Bradley's group has a little over two months left at this school and then they will scatter. I want to show them real love and genuine concern, and all the while point them to the one they need while I still can. (SIDENOTE: My heart really broke yesterday on the playground when one of the little girls who has been in Bradley's classes since kindergarten had no idea what I was talking about when I was telling one of the teachers about the foreign mission trip I mentioned above.  At first she thought I said "fishin' trip," and then when I said 'mission trip,' she had a blank look as if she had no clue what that meant at all.  I realize not all 4th graders will know that, but I'm guessing her faith background is minimal...again, a limited time opportunity for me to show Christ by continuing to invest in her and the others there before they are scattered after this year)

One of my favorite music groups, Shane and Shane, has an amazing song called "The One You Need" that has been a special song to me for a while for many reasons, but has hit me HARD lately both with some of my youth as well as some of the kids at the school. It's written for the guys' young daughters, but it hits home for me as a secondary (and often primary) father figure to so many kids in my youth group and the school both. Its chorus recognizes that as much as we want to give to our kids, we can't be the Ultimate thing they need, that can only be found in One Person.  It says, "I wish that I could be your everything, be the one to give you all the things you need, sometimes I'm gonna let you down.  There's Someone that if you just believe, He'll be your hero like he's always been for me, darling Jesus is the One you need."  The two kids outside of my own that I've most connected with both have crazy family background stories and are being raised by amazing people who are not their biological parents, but who are doing incredible jobs with them.  My newest close connection at the school is a fourth grader who has moved elementary schools four times and has a less than ideal family and otherwise upbringing, and has been described by both her teacher directly and also indirectly by another parent as 'the sweet little newbie who is affectionate and in need of lots of attention.'  When I'm at the school there are quite a few kids that call me some variation of dad, daddy, my daddy, etc (and some step-dad, grandpa, uncle, etc, haha, oh the minds of young kids!). Some of them have good dads; some have no dad; some have bad father examples.  Regardless, I have a fatherly type role among the many when I'm there who can point them to the ultimate Father. I can't do everything for them, but I will do what I can and point them to the One who can do so much more and can fill and fulfill their ultimate needs.

"This is my call I belong to You, this is my call to sing the melodies of You. This is my call I can do nothing else I can do nothing else." ("Melody of You" by Sixpence None the Richer)

This week I got a little extra time at the school because Bradley's class had a "Good Manners Lunch" one day and earlier that day when I was helping unloading kids I was told "You should come help with it," so I did.  It was a blast serving them, and afterwards, they got a little recess time because theirs had been taken with the luncheon.  SEVERAL of them, when they found out I was going outside with them and the counselor who was giving them that time, literally lit up.  Others found time that day out on the playground to tell me what they were gonna wear the next day because it was Spring Picture Day (even though I'm a guy, I guess they like me enough they thought it'd interest me, haha!). When I was unloading the kids earlier that same day, I made a point to compliment many of the ones in Bradley's class as they got out dressed up all spiffy, which made them light up.  I also went back to their room to pop in and see the whole class all dressed up, which made their start of the day.  Every time I'm there with Bradley's group, multiples of that class ask me and/or their teacher if I can check them out and they can go home with me. When I'm outside with the car riders every afternoon, one of the kindergarteners asks me literally every day if me and the boys can come home with her (or sometimes she simply tells me, "you're going home with me!").  On Monday, as I was leaving, she asked me, "When are you coming to play with me?" and then lit up when I reminded her I come on Wednesdays.  A mother of a kid in Andrew's grade told me one time recently when I was unloading kids that they had been reading a book with her daughter and one of the people was named Alan.  Her daughter said, "Mom, we know an Alan," and the mom looked confused, and she said, "You know mom, 'the funny man,'" which is her nickname for me.  Two kids in Bradley's class have literally fought over my nametag the past two weeks when I've been a way that's humorous but also almost sad at times. And all of this type of stuff happens outside of school and church too... I see kids from the school with their families at the nearby Dollar General nearly every trip I'm there at a non-school time, and when I do, I get mobbed and attacked, and can't hardly do what I went in to do nor carry on a conversation with anyone for them and my own kids. We were at an Upwards basketball game last weekend and one of the moms of a kid from our church who goes to the school too told me her daughter peeked into the gym, saw us and went back out and said "Mom, I saw Andrew playing, and I saw Alan and Tracy too." I'm a sucker for helping outside, even in awful conditions. A couple of more examples and I promise I'll shut up.  On the day I came to unload kids, the temperature wasn't bad, but the wind was blowing like crazy, and as I walked out, the counselor was walking in, and she realized what I was doing and said "I could just hug you right now," because it meant she and the principal didn't have to brave the cold to do it.  Yesterday, as I came back into the school with Bradley's class, after a rough day for seemingly most of that class on the playground, his teacher said, "You don't have to leave if you don't want to," and it was honestly tempting for me, especially given the downer day it had been for many of those kids, but it was a Wednesday and those are long and busy days for me with youth group.

"The world is not interested in hearing from the church that there is a better way.  They need to SEE a better way." (Mattie Montgomery)

I give all of the above to illustrate what just a simple intentional investment does.  It's the simple things.  It's simply taking the time to give of yourself, of your time, of your energy and resources.  It's simply listening.  It's simply loving.  It's simply caring.  It's showing someone they matter to you. Right now, this elementary school is a big part of my mission field.  It's funny, sometimes, your 'ends of the earth' may just be right around the corner, right down the road, in or near your own neighborhood.  What are you gonna do about it? I wore a t-shirt we got from the national youth workers convention a few months ago that says "Beyond My Church" on it...that's the kind of faith I want, one that goes beyond Sunday and Wednesday and into the real world and into the lives and mess of those we encounter.  Are we willing to do so? Are we willing to fully live, truly live, go beyond the norm, go beyond the motions?

"Every man dies, but not every man lives..."

Capital Kings, Twenty-One Pilots, Young Oceans, Young the Giant, And the Hero Prevails, Plumb, The Slide Brothers, Red, Drew Holcomb and the NeighborsCourrier, Graham Colton, The Last Royals, Eyelit

Imitation is the Sincerest Form...

...of child-raising?  More and more lately I'm realizing my kids REALLY watch and pick up on what we do and are shaping their own persons in part based on stuff they pick up from us.  This is nothing new in one sense...I mean, I'm not dumb (stop the thought right there!), I have always known it was that way, but I've seen it more and more lately.

For instance...they are both becoming bigger sports fans.  Why?  Because mom and dad are.  I've always been a bit of a sports fanatic, and fortunately I married someone who is nearly as big of one or at least nearly as interested in them as I am (and sometimes more so/more competitive, haha!).  They have been the (main) reason we have gone to Cardinals baseball games the past couple of years.  We had gone a couple of years in a row, but they have started asking to go, so I think we have been 5 years in a row.  They also both are more interested in watching sports on tv than they used to be.  I'm not sure either will be, at least as children, as interested in that as I was, but they like to watch Cardinals baseball, Razorbacks football/basketball/baseball, and random NFL, MLB or NCAA sports a lot more than they used to.  When games are on, they ask who is playing and who we are (rooting) voting for.  They're both eagerly anticipating the beginning of baseball season, asking how long until the Cardinals start playing.  They both like baseball and football attire as well. Both played soccer, Andrew played basketball, Bradley has started playing basketball every day at recess at school and says he wants to play next year, and Andrew is playing baseball this year.  We have all kinds of inside and outside baseball/soccer/basketball/etc games, sometimes creatively formed.

Another example is in the area of music.  They love a lot of the music that I like and have played for them.  They are big Needtobreathe and Shane and Shane fans.  They like a lot of the newer worship stuff we've used recently in youth group..."One Thing Remains," "Holy (After All)," and several Gungor songs.  They are almost as big of fans of Plumb, The Lone Bellow, and Twenty One Pilots as I am right now...and watching them get into the Twenty One Pilots stuff has been AWESOME.  There are many others as well, but it's so cool watching them develop this way.

Another example...over the past few months, we have watched the entire series of Cosby Show and Boy Meets World, and are on season 5 of the 6 of Fresh Prince, as well as have watched both seasons out of Family Matters.  Each of these pre-dates them by many years, and are treasures from our childhood (and sidenote, WAY better than any modern comedy, and by modern I mean any since those really, ha).  They have REALLY gotten into them, to the point that sometimes when I'm not planning on watching them, they want to watch them and tell whoever isn't in there at the time all about what so and so did in the latest episode or season.  It's been a lot of fun to watch them with them and hear them laugh and get into them and talk about them.

I also realize they watch how I treat Tracy and vice-versa.  They watch us as we take them to church and things like that.  They watch us as we interact with them, and show them how much they mean to us by what we say and what we do and the time we spend with them and make for them at home and outside of it in their extracurricular activities and at school and elsewhere.  They see in us whether family and marriage and parenting and time truly matter.  They also watch how I treat the girls in our youth group and the girls at their school and that sets a model and example for them. They hear us ask about their day at school...and return the favor for us by asking in return "how was your day dad?"  Things like that are sweet to see develop in them both.

But the biggest area I've seen this is in our faith.  Both boys have made commitments to Christ.  The experience of leading them both to faith in Christ was amazing and something we treasure.  Getting to baptize both kids is the greatest honor a minister-parent can have.  Seeing them get excited about church on Sundays and Wednesdays is exciting for us.  And it's not just their kids stuff either...they are excited to be with the students in the youth group before and after Sunday and Wednesday stuff and just love being at the church period.  They see the importance of God and faith and church already.  That doesn't mean they won't have bumps in the road along that path, but it's awesome to see at 9 and 6.

Recently a few things have really driven the 'imitation'/'they're really watching you' thing home.  Things they've done and said both at school and at home or in the car have blown me away.  I'm including some examples in the pics at the bottom of this, but I wanted to comment on a few of them in closing.

*Before Christmas, Bradley gave me a piece of paper that said, "You are a hard worker for our church. Have a happy day. PS Merry Christmas."  To think that at 9 he sees that, blew me away.  Ministry life, what we do, how much we invest, what we put into it, what 'work' is like, etc, is often misunderstood. But it floored me to get that from him. (I will caveat this point however by admitting that tonight Tracy told me they asked her something about my job vs hers, implying hers was more of a real job, but oh well!)

*Around the same time, Andrew brought home a writing assignment from school that said, "When I Grow Up..." and they could fill in whatever they wanted and draw a picture.  He filled it in with "When I Grow Up...I will be a youth pastr (sp) like my dad," and drew a picture of me (or him?) speaking to people sitting out in a crowd.  Again, blown away, realized they watch closely.

*Andrew also has come home with a writing assignment/picture last year in kindergarten where he drew out his pending was very detailed and very cool.  He also came home not too long ago with a picture of Jesus on the cross (with blood dripping down), and it said "Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He had to do it because God had to make him."  That was his free choice writing assignment in a 1st grade class at a public school...he shared the Gospel.

*Today, Andrew told me he wanted to go to the Christian bookstore, so he could buy a Christian book, so he could highlight in it as he reads it.  I do that, in case you wondered where that came from.  I read a lot...I have a massive ridiculous stack by my chair right now...and I highlight like crazy.  Wow.

*Finally, this past week, we were in the van on the way to soccer practices.  Bradley said "Dad, there's three things I think I might want to be when I grow up.  One, an inventor.  Two, a comic book writer.  And three, maybe a youth pastor."  Literally as soon as Bradley got it out of his mouth, Andrew said, "YEAH, I AM gonna be a youth pastor like you." Again. Blown. Away.

Huge responsibility? Yes.  Watch what you say and do?  Yes.  Worth it? ABSOLUTELY.

"And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1, NLT)
"Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice." (Philippians 4:9)
"We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate." (2 Thessalonians 3:9)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Inconvenienced and Interrupted...

"Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans...In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps." (Proverbs 16:3,9)
Ever have one of those days that nothing went the way you anticipated or saw it play out?  Usually those are pretty bad days, eh?  The car won't start, the kid has to leave school sick, your drier needs repair, you lock yourself out of your house, etc.  I've had plenty of those, several recently.  But yesterday I had one of those days, in a good way.  It showed me that if I'm willing to roll with God's plan, even if it means things don't go the way I had envisioned, that by being intentional with situations and people, it can be a rewarding and fulfilling in ways I don't necessarily plan or expect.  Allow me to explain...

Friday is my day off during the week.  When I was newer in ministry, I failed to take advantage of that.  Because Tracy was still in school or at work, I would wind up going in and not taking the day off.  When my kids came along, I started doing a better job of that, as it was 'dad day,' meaning they were at home with me during that day.  At first, I still felt like I needed to try to get certain things done, but quickly I realized that would waste the time with the kid, even if he was an infant at the time. Fast forward...they are both in school now, and that was a change, going to having NOBODY home again.  A little over a year ago, I began meeting regularly with my closest youth minister friend, something we found we BOTH desperately needed, and most Fridays we spend several hours over coffee/breakfast/lunch, or some combination of those, talking life, church, ministry, family, whatever else.  It has been WONDERFUL for both of us. Often, we will be interrupted by one of a couple of people we've gotten to know, Doug, my 71 year old friend I've written about several times before, or a much younger friend of ours who has found us several times and just wants/needs/likes to talk to us.  Sometimes that is at the expense of our time together, but we've found it's worth it and rewarding.

Yesterday, for one of the rare times over the past year plus, we weren't able to meet as such because of prior obligations on each of our parts, and because of the weather we weren't able to reschedule Thursday like we have at times.  My younger son's class (actually the two kindergarten classes as well as the two first grade classes) had a field trip to an educational (pirate-themed!!) concert.  I volunteered to go...I'm a sucker for doing things like that with my kids and at/for/through the school, as I've written about previously. I figured there would be a lot of parents going, because the trip was just 25 minutes away or so.  It turned out that there were only two other parents who went, so I was definitely glad I did, because 65 K-1st graders was a lot for four teachers to handle. The program itself was just ok (Andrew told me five minutes into it that it was 'boring!' although most of the kids got into it), and the bus driver was not only late, but had no idea where he was going (they actually held off starting the program for a few minutes for our group to arrive).  But the trip and experience were a blast.  Before we left, I had gotten there early and since the bus was late the teachers were a little worried.  I wound up having good conversations with the school librarian, a good friend of Tracy and myself for a long time before we had kids in the school.  When we left, I stayed as the last one on the bus making sure everyone else got on, both at our school as we were leaving as well as when we left the program to head back, which meant I was stuck with whatever seat I had (my first school bus ride in probably 20 years?!), which meant I didn't get to sit with Andrew like we had discussed because he was in a full seat (three 1st grade boys).  That meant I sat with a random kindergarten boy I didn't know who made weird animal sounds on the way there, and one of the kindergarten teachers on the way back, with one of the first grade teachers behind us on the way there and in front of us on the way back.  It could've been an inconvenience, but it turned into something very cool.  Some of my kindergarten buddies were sitting in front of me on the way there, and that was fun to interact with them, and one was sitting behind me on the way back, and started changing lyrics to one of their songs to put my name in it.  And the conversations with those two teachers were really awesome...they could've held back because a random male parent was riding the bus but I know them both fairly well and have lots of my little buddies in both of their classes. So they talked openly with each other, and me, about some of the kids and that always is cool for me to hear bigger  picture stories that help me know the kids when I'm around them, and also about their own lives.  Maybe it sounds silly, but it was cool. I also got kicks out of the kids as they were in line after the program by going down the line saying 'duck, duck, duck...goose!'  I also got some laughs as I made them 'pay' me to get back on the bus...I would say 'alright, you have to pay your bus fee to get back on,' and that required either giving me five or a hug.  I just wanted to help make the most of the day and the trip, for them and for myself.

When we got back, it was way past lunch time for the kids, so they herded them directly into the kitchen. I realized that my older son and his group was still in post-lunch recess.  So I went out on the playground with them.  As I came down, Bradley came over to me because he wasn't feeling well. He wound up sticking it out for the rest of the day, but it was nice for him to have dad there to pamper him a bit.  A few of the others came up to me too, including Sarah, my biggest buddy at the school, and also the brand new fourth grader I mentioned in the last entry.  Sarah wanted me to do her homework she was stuck with at recess (she said, "you're my daddy, you're supposed to do stuff like this," and I said, "If I'm your daddy then the best thing I can do is make you do it yourself," haha.  The new girl, who had asked me earlier in the day (before the field trip) when she saw me if I was gonna be at their recess today and was disappointed when I had said no, was excited...she tried to take my sign in sticker (a ritual that goes to Sarah every time) and gave me a hug when I left.  It's cool that in just being up there a little in the three weeks she's been at the school that it's already gotten where she trusts me and likes me like that.  The class wound up going inside for the last few minutes and watching Magic School Bus for the last few minutes because it was so cold outside, and when the recess was over, Sarah asked as always if she could go home with me, and Bradley tried again to get me to take him home, although he wanted to stay for library which was literally in the middle of the rest of the day...he wanted me to take him home then and bring him back for library, then take him home again.  Haha.

When I left the school finally, I met a new friend who is one of the heads of a new ministry in our area, targeting the homeless and oppressed.  I went to get a t-shirt and wound up getting to talk for a bit (standing outside in frigid cold constantly blowing wind without a jacket on, stupid me!) about their ministry and what they are doing and how God is working.  It was so awesome to hear their heart, based on the passage about leaving the 99 to find and help the 1 (search facebook for The Russ Bus for more info).  They are challenging people of faith to "find the one" and to do something about it. Between that and the similar ministry we've been blessed to be a part of, and the local faith-based coffee shop making a difference, there is some cool new stuff happening in our area. After this, I ran by another coffee shop to grab a hot drink to take home and drink as I read...and I never made it home to do that.  After I had ordered and was headed into the store, I realized Doug was sitting in the corner on his computer.  I went over and said hi to him and wound up talking for 15-20 minutes or so.  For those uninformed, Doug is the 70+ year old ex-military man I have almost NOTHING in common with who I connected with nearly a year ago and LOVE being 'interrupted' by to have conversations with about a little bit of everything.  He is a master storyteller and one of those older guys who knows a little about and has stories for what he knows about literally everything.  I would've spent even longer, but his phone rang, so I left.  In the store, I ran into a casual acquaintance who is going through a rough time and was looking for a book to help. I could tell he was hurting, but he doesn't know that i know what I do about his situation, so I tread carefully but tried to be a friend without letting in on what I knew.  When I left there, I was headed home and then wound up instead stopping by to see my Friday meeting friend who on his day off was having to man the desk and the phone at his church anyway, and wound up having a great time of convo even though it wasn't our usual Friday time.  I love having friends like that, where even if it's short, it's great and worth it every time you talk or hang out.  By then it was time to head to get the kids at school, and I had been gone pretty much all day.

Here's my point...almost none of that was planned.  Almost none of it was how I saw my day playing out, or what a normal Friday is.  If I had been tied to a massive schedule or a plan, I would've missed out on most of it. I'm not dissing schedules or routine, but increasingly, I'm realizing that if I want to be effective, and fulfilled, in ministry, I can't be tied to extremes in schedule and routine and plans.  I can't be unwilling to be interrupted.  I can't see people as interruptions, ever (and the several middle of the 3:00, 4:00 in the morning text conversations I've had over the past year or so with my best friend prove that I hope). After all, God laughs at our plans, right? (see Proverbs 16:3, 9). But if we are willing to be flexible, malleable, and moldable, if we are willing to face interruptions not as inconveniences but as new opportunities, like Jesus did in multiple cases during His time on earth, we will find doors of opportunity to walk through and see God's hand as He provides opportunities to know and experience Him and show Him in our real world daily life with others. It's up to us to see that nothing happens as coincidence in God's eyes, and that everything can be an opportunity He can use, in our lives as well as in the lives of those we are around. It's our job to see and jump through those doors and let Him handle the rest. It's our job to be there, and to show them we will care and love and listen and let God take care of the details of what He does with it for us or for those around us.
"Can you see me I’m barely holding on, Can you love me before pointing out my wrongs
You don’t know me or what I’ve been through You don’t know me but you act like you do
I just need a friend or a shoulder to cry on And God if you love me please hear my song."
(Aaron and Andrew, "Don't Tell Me About Your Jesus")

Thursday, February 21, 2013

For Future Generations...

"So I won't bend and I won't break, I won't water down my faith, I won't compromise in a world of desperation. What has been I cannot change, But for tomorrow and today, I must be a light for future generations..."
" When we pulled up and she saw you, she said 'There's my Mr. Alan!'" (Mom of a kindergartener buddy of mine)

 "It's nice to meet you...I know all about you, even today when I picked her up she said 'I just love Mr Alan.'" (mom of another kindergartener buddy of mine)

"Even the little one was pointing and saying look when we drove around the corner and saw you were out there unloading the kids." (mom of a 1st grader buddy of mine, about her 2 year old)
I've had this blog entry in my head for a while but have waited to write it.  This school year, tremendous doors have opened for me to spend a lot of time at the elementary school in various contexts.  And it has been a blast, and provided a lot of rewarding and fulfilling moments for me.  In some ways, it's changed my perspective on a lot of things ministry-wise that help me with ministry to teens, college students and young adults even.  Don't get me wrong, I don't have any desire to be a children's minister or anything like that. I respect the heck out of them, but my ministry gifting and calling is youth and older. But I see tremendous opportunity to make an impact, spiritually and otherwise, with younger kids long before they get to my area of specific ministry.  The opportunity to set an example, to be a positive male role model, to be a father figure, to model Christ in my actions, to care, to listen, to love, to show attention, to provide hope, is a priceless opportunity for me right now a mission field of sorts for me.  Our school has a volunteer program called Tiger Paws, which is a variation of the national Watchdog Dads program to encourage men...fathers, grandfathers, etc, to spend time at the elementary schools volunteering, doing whatever they can whenever they can.  For me, it's a weekly trip to my sons' lunches/recesses, and lately a weekly journey of helping unload kids on cold mornings.  Occasionally it involves helping in a classroom or at a holiday party, or on a class or GT field trip, or after school helping load kids back into cars.  Yesterday, it involved helping in the chaos of getting kids into cars in the snow/slush/sleet event that made for parents coming slightly early to pick up kids and spread over a 30 minute period or so instead of the usual few minutes.  They put me to work when I come...but usually I volunteer and am glad to do it.

At our school, there is one male, a janitor, and he's great, but he has a very specific job and that's the only male around the school on a regular basis.  In general it is a lower middle class school, a very working class school.  I know most men cannot spend the time at recess, lunch, in the classroom, loading and unloading kids, etc, that I am able to, and I don't say that with a sense of pride, but rather with a sense of humility. I love being able to do it, and am thankful to my ministry situation that I am able to do so and it not be seen as slacking off or doing other stuff, but rather as part of ministry life and investment in the community and in the kids.  We have a number of kids from church in the school and others who have been to our VBS and Fall Fest and other stuff, but it's not about that, or about even getting them INTO our church.  If that happens, cool.  But my deep desire is to model what a Christian male, a Christian father, a Minister, a friend, a real genuine person who truly cares and is for real, and let God do what He wants with that in the lives of the kids and their families and give them hope for something more, for someone who loves them, for Someone who loves them. Anything beyond that is residual and icing on the cake.  I hope they remember a goofy old guy in flight pants and hoodies and tshirts and shorts and ballcaps who spent a little time playing basketball and four square, throwing a football as far or high as I can, kicking a soccer ball, playing imaginary baseball, walking the track, sitting in tables with seats way too small for this sized body, pushing a countless string of swinging kids, giving a few hugs, getting a few laughs, giving countless smiles, and that those things point to something and Someone more. I get called Alan, Mr. Alan, Mr Johnston, Andrew's dad, Bradley's dad, and even just 'dad,' sometimes even by those who have their own dads but look at me as 'another dad' figure or whatever.  I get literally fought over, called 'mine,' hear kids say 'let me sit by him, let me hug him, let me love on him,' get asked if they can come home with us or we can come home with them, get asked to come to literally almost every class during inside recesses or Christmas/Valentine's parties, and a lot more. Honestly at a time when ministry life can be increasingly discouraging and difficult, it provides a little sunshine in my week and hopefully theirs as well. I'm super thankful to God for the opportunities, but also to the school staff who are so encouraging and thankful when I come and encourage me to do so; and to the kids, who ask me all the time when I will be back; and to the parents I've met and gotten to know who get it and enjoy having me around too.  It's such an amazing opportunity and one I don't take lightly at all.

I want to close with a few words to paint a bit of a picture of what it's like and of some of the kids I've gotten to know, just to try to make this a little more real instead of merely vagueries in a long windy note.  Thanks for reading.

*The 4th grader in my son's class who has been my buddy since kindergarten, who has an amazing single mom who is an awesome nurse and who adopted her and has done incredible, but no dad and calls me dad, even to the school kids, and asks every time I'm there if she can go home with me and Bradley when I am leaving. She takes my sign in sticker every time I'm there when I'm leaving, and she even gave me an awesome Valentine at the kids' Valentine's party. She also gave me a silly band middle of last semester that I still wear and never even take off.  It's been on almost exclusively for probably 3 months at least.

*The 4th grader who every time I'm there asks me something sports related...sometimes about whatever I'm wearing, sometimes about specific teams for whatever is the current sport, sometimes about whatever sport he and my kids may be playing out on the playground or in a local league.

*The 4th grader who has some story to tell me every time I'm there, often about something he and Bradley have done in GT or in class.  Sometimes it's a competition, but it's all in fun.

*The brothers who are closer to my younger son's age who if possible would have me throw a football with them every day and love showing me their sports skills.

*The kindergartener I just met a month or so ago but who clings to me every time I'm there and after school.  The first time she was around me, she told me 'i don't live with my mommy because she made some bad choices.'  I've since met her family that she lives with and gotten to know them just a bit and the bigger story for what she was telling me about. She is precious and told her 'mom' yesterday in Dollar General that she wanted me and my kids to come home with them.

*The kindergartener I didn't know before but met the second week of school, the first week I went up there, when she asked me to push her on the swings, and who clings to me when I'm there as well.  I've since met her mom and developed a very cool relationship with this solid Christian woman.

*The 1st grader who I was around in Andrew's class last year but is in a different class this year.  Every time I'm there she literally jumps on me and says 'hoooold me,' haha.  I met her dad a couple of weeks ago at a kids birthday party and also a few days later at Dollar General and that's been cool.  She is also possessive and literally fights off other kids when they try to get close to me if she's hanging with me, haha.

*Andrew's three closest guy friends at the school, two in his class and one in the other 1st grade class, who come up to me every time I'm there for some combination of hugs and playful hitting at me.  I love those three boys and that they are his closest buddies.

*The sisters who moved here from California with their mom after their dad passed away.  They've grown attached to us and invited us to their birthday parties and we went.  They also are among the ones who want me to see/know new things and wanted me to meet their grandpa and others as well.

*The six girls and boys latched on to me when I was outside on the playground before Valentine's parties last week, to the point I literally couldn't walk to get down to the playground.

*the line of 10 or so boys and girls on the swings that same day that when I tried to stop for a couple of minutes to talk to the mother I mentioned a few lines back, she was laughing so hard because there was a constant squealing for me to get back over to them to swing them...ALL of them...a constant "ALLLLANNNN...," or "MR ALLLLLAANNN...," or "MR JOHNSTON...," calling me to come swing.  It was crazy but funny.

*the girl in Andrew's class who for the first half of the fall annoyed me because she clawed me every time she saw me and thought it was funny, but then after enough times of me saying 'stoppp,' she changed suddenly to hugs and clinginess instead of  claws.

*the kindergartener whose mom was in my youth group some a few years ago, who was painfully shy at first but surprised even her mom the other day in Dollar General by lurching for me when she saw me coming down their aisle.

*the new girl in Bradley's class who has only been here a couple of weeks and only been around me a couple of times when I've been there since she has been at the school,  but yesterday out on the playground in the snow/sleet mix stayed with me and Bradley 90% of the time, and today asked me if I was gonna be out there again and was disappointed when I said no, then when I left today tried to claim my nametag.

*the kid in Bradley's class who always playfully acts like she doesn't like me, but then will ask me to push her on the swings, and who broke her arm Tuesday, so when I was there Wednesday, I offered to help her carry her tray in the lunch line and open her crackers and milk...and it both surprised her and also made her day.

*the fourth grader who was painfully shy when we met her several years ago, and still isn't overly outgoing, but will just mosy up to me and stand and talk and watch and listen as the others play foursquare or basketball and gripe and whine about what's going on or whatever.

I could honestly go on and on...there is a lot I've left out...but i hope the point is made.  I've made a zillion memories, for myself and hopefully for them.  I know this entry got long, but It's just something that's been on my mind and needed out.  Thanks for reading and thanks for being in my life.
House of Heroes, Carbon Leaf, Arcade Fire, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Elevation Worship

Friends are Friends Forever?

 "Bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find..." "Well I got no friends today, and I wonder if tomorrow will be the same. But I know, no matter what I do, Jesus I will always have a friend in You..." (From "Grinnin in Your Face," and "Got No Friends," Two songs off The Fourth Wall album by the Vespers)

I haven't written anything in a while. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I wont get into that here. Maybe someday. I've been thinking a TON lately though about friends. It's not that I've never thought about it before, but lately, in recent weeks especially but really over the past couple of years, I've realized just how important and significant it is to find and be a true friend, as God has given me some awesome new friends and strengthened some of my closest friendships in ways that we TRULY do life together. I think I do a decent job of being a true friend, but I've often struggled with finding that type of friend. That isn't to say I've got it all figured out and nobody else does, just that, perhaps because of beneath the surface type insecurities, or perhaps because it's really how it is, I've just often struggled with thinking people matter to me a lot more than I do to them, that the investment and friendship is more important to me than the other person, that they are more important to me than I am to them, etc. Maybe that sounds stupid to some of you, and I'm ok with that. I'm just being honest. Part of it, I realize, is the difference in my life and that of most people my age, etc. In case you haven't noticed or figured it out, life in ministry is a LOT different than what people who do 'normal jobs' and have 'normal lives' experience. And it makes our lives a lot different than most people's. What we do, what matters, who we are around, what a 'normal' day consists of, etc, is a lot different than most of our peers. And while it isn't always this way, it can produce periods of loneliness and disconnectedness. I went through a pretty long period where I realized that after my wife, I couldn't claim to have any particular person as my 'best friend.' (Let me sidenote that by saying that my two best friends in high school/college are still VERY CLOSE friends, which is awesome) Thankfully for the past couple of years that's changed and I have that now. "There's something about a best friend that no one can replace." (Topanga to Corey on Boy Meets World)

I've been thinking a lot lately about friends, friendship, my own friends, etc. And wanted to share a few thoughts about that I guess. Friendship involves risk. It is messy. It brings with it the potential of tremendous hurt and pain. But the pay-off is some of the most amazing feelings of connection and love and purpose. When we were in Atlanta this past summer, the pastor we worked with at Church on the Street was talking about what they do there. He made this statement, specifically talking about the relationships they are developing there, but I think it applies to any relationship and any friendship: "Friendship is dangerous. If you find out there's suffering you have two choices. You either quit the friendship and get into the fray and enter into their suffering with them. Friendship is messy." (Andy Odle from Church Under the Street) We have the choice of stepping into the mess with the friend or bailing on the friendship basically. It hurts to get into the mess, to really step into someone's life with them, for good or bad. But I can honestly tell you it's worth it. I'm not anyone special but I have been in this exact place with friends and it hurts but if the relationship is real, it hurts out of a desire to do more, to help more, to point to Jesus more. We step into the fray, into the mess, and help plug the hole with the person, standing in the gap and walking the journey willingly with them. Thankfully, I can say this is how my closest friendships are, in both directions. CS Lewis said this: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one; lock it up safe in the casket of selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” - C.S. Lewis The alternative to stepping into the mess, quitting the friendship, is to become cold, heartless and selfish. To give up on people when they are struggling, suffering, or messy, is one of the more selfish things someone can do. To do the opposite, to enter the fray, is one of the most selfless things, and is worth it. "The best friends are those that truly know us and are willing to do everything they can to make sure we know Jesus." (From The Source for Youth Ministry)

True friendship celebrates with the other person when things are good, as well as suffering with them when times are difficult. Jonathan was like this with David in 1 Samuel 23:17. In essence, he told David, "I will serve you, I've got your back. I rejoice with you in your success. You've got what was really mine, what I wanted, but God had something else planned. More power to you, I choose to celebrate with you, my friend, and I will always have your back." That last part is huge, the part about having the other person's back. I have saved texts from my closest friends of promises to stand with me through anything and everything and always listen and love, which for me is a huge part of true friendship, including one from a few days ago that said "I'm glad I can help share the burdens and walk this journey with you." True friendship never leaves friends behind either. In Ice Age Continental Drift, there is an interaction between a couple of the characters that goes like this: "Thanks for coming back." 'What do you mean?' "Someone once told me you don't leave friends behind."I can honestly say that I'm at a place with my close friends of being like that. I've had interactions with some of my closest friends where something happened and they said something along the lines of "I don't blame you if you don't want to be my friend" and I have to shut them up, because those are NOT the moments you leave someone behind but rather the dark moments are the ones where we need someone to walk the journey with us and hold our hands through it. "Respect those who make time for you in their busy schedule. But love those who never even look at their schedule when you need them." True friends clear their schedule for the friend in need. The best thing Job's friends did for him was sit with him and listen and love and be present. I've been able to do that at times and just be with, spend time with, friends in need and have had friends do the same for me. True friends, the best kind, are selfless and make time for you as often as possible and especially when you truly need them. They realize that merely being there for you, presence, listening, loving and caring is a huge part of being a real friend. I have promises i cherish from my closest friends saying things like "I'll always listen and love, I promise, life is crazy but I don't mind sharing it with you," and "I'm here for you if you need ANYTHING!," and "Hang in there. I have been and am right now where you are..I love you, my brother, and I can't wait to see what unfolds."

I want to close with a couple of recent thoughts that have driven all of this home hugely for me. A couple of weeks ago I preached at our church. Outside of my wife, four of my closest and truest friends as far as how they fit all of the above descriptions, etc, do not go to our church. That day, all four of them showed up HUGELY for me. One drove an hour and a half to surprise me and hear me preach, even though we hadn't seen/been around this friend in a long time. Another messaged me that morning before I preached, then again that afternoon to see how the morning one went and again the next morning to see how the evening one went. Another called me that afternoon to see how the morning one went and again the next day to see how the evening one went. And the fourth, despite being extremely sick, messaged me that morning to send prayers and well wishes, and then again that night to see how it went. Each of the four I just mentioned also went out of their way on my birthday to make sure they were among the first to wish me a happy birthday, and one cleared time to celebrate with us that night. It may not seem like a lot, but all of the above meant the world to me, and reminded me yet again how amazing my truest friends are and what they mean to me. I said this on a facebook status a couple of weeks ago, but I truly believe I am at a point where I would do what Jesus said in John 15:13, "Greater love has no man than to give his life for his friends." I can say with no conceit and true honesty, I would do that for these people as well as my family. And that makes the friendships amazingly special. Thanks, God, for reminding me I'm never alone, not just from Your promise to always be there yourself, but also because of the amazing friendships you've given me. And to you my reader, don't be afraid to find and be a true friend, to show but also tell people how much you love them and what they mean to you. I promise it's worth it.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

"There's still time, All that has been devastated Can be recreated
Realize We pick up the broken pieces, Of our lives
Giving ourselves to each other...ourselves to each other
To rest our head on, To rest our head on, To rest our head on
Who's got my back now? When all we have left is deceptive,
So disconnected, So what is the truth now?
Tell me the truth now...Tell us the truth now..."
The Avett Brothers The Once and Future Carpenter album; The Vespers The Fourth Wall album; Mumford and Sons Babel album; The Lone Bellow self-titled album; The Decemberists The King is Dead album; The Lumineers self-titled album

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Intentional Intentionality

It's amazing what a little bit of intentionality can do.  Before I get to the specific examples I want to share, let me give you some general ones.  If you want to improve your relationships with your family, don't depend on them to do it, intentionally work at it from your end.  If it doesn't succeed, you tried and that's about all you can do and all you can control.  If you want to improve at the piano or sports, work intentionally at doing so.  If you don't, you probably won't improve by osmosis, but if you do, the chances are pretty good through intentional work and practice and repetition that you will improve, perhaps significantly.  If you want to get to know God better and improve your relationship with Him and strengthen your faith, spend time with Him intentionally.  If you want to improve your grades, concentrate and focus more in school and spend a little more time outside of school studying and working at it.

Now that I've set things up, let me discuss what I really came here this morning to write about.  A common recurring theme for me lately has been the idea of intentionality.  This plays out in many ways, but especially in two, which I'm gonna write about later, is in observing and noticing people and making an effort with them, even strangers, in public places.  Case in point, my writings back in the spring semester with Doug, the 70+ year old guy with very little in common with me that I somehow have connected with through something as goofy as him being a Cubs fan and seeing me wear Cardinals gear in a coffee shop.  I ran into Doug again for the first time in MONTHS last week, and that's gonna be the subject of a later note, but it was awesome to see him again. The other way the intentionality thing has played out is through my involvement and activity at the kids school.  Because of my job and some of the awesome freedoms it affords me, I have been able to become very involved at the school.  I pick up the kids 4 of 5 days most weeks, and I have started going up there once a week to eat with the kids and go out on the playground with them.  Through these things as well as being able to help out in various functions at the school last year and into this year, I have had the opportunity to seek out and develop intentional relationships with teachers, staff, students and parents of the kids in the school.  This has honestly developed into a huge passion for me of late.  Three recent events from the past couple of weeks reflect the rewards of intentionally developing these relationships with people through the school.

Example of my favorite kids at the school besides my own is a little girl my son's age who I have known and connected with since they were in kindergarten.  I've written about her before and may again soon.  Over time, I've also developed a good relationship with her mom and am starting to with her younger (4 year old) brother.  I've invited them to VBS and things like that before, but at the beginning of this school year, the mom asked me about our church because the small church they go to has nothing for her kids...she told me there is her 10 year old and 4 year old, and the next youngest is 22 or so.  So she is looking to perhaps get them somewhere where there is more for the kids.  Until a couple of weeks ago that was the extent of that conversation, although I knew she was serious at the time.  That week, I saw them in Dollar General, and when the daughter saw me and my kids she came over to us, hugged me and turned to her mom and asked if they could go to church at our church that weekend.  Mom said maybe, and I sent her the info and invited her, thinking it was a great week to do so because it was our "Back to Church Sunday" event with a big cookout and fun afterwards.  They came, all three loved it (said so), and should be back.  But even if they don't come back, it was still awesome to think that because of our intentional relational connection to them, they initiated the conversations about the church without my having to be pushy, and came and enjoyed it.  I don't want to seem like that was the goal all along of the relationship development, because it's not.  If anything, I'm overly the opposite extreme in NOT trying to be pushy about stuff like that.

Example #2...another family at the school, another single parent, this one with a daughter in my younger son's class and one a couple of years older (a year behind my older son).  Towards the end of last year we connected with them through various things we were at through the school.  They came to our VBS (they are happily actively involved in another church) and had a blast.  At the beginning of this school year, at our school's open house, the mom went out of her way to introduce me to her dad because apparently the kids had been telling grandpa about me/us during the summer.  Very cool.  Each time I have been at the school, both for picking up my kids and also for eating/recess, both kids have gone out of their way to greet me and often to show me things they have done or whatever.  Last week, the mother called me on my cell phone because she knew some people who had gotten down on their luck and were actually living in a car.  She thought of me/our church as someone who may be able to help, again, because of the intentional development of relationships with them.  I immediately thought of my good friend and one of our youth workers, who has a REAL heart for that type of ministry and is in the process of bringing an official ministry for that to light.  I gave her number to the mother, and after some initial misfires, a couple of days later they were able to connect and to begin working on a solution for the people, two single mothers who have like 6 kids between them and one on the way.  They are getting their situation improved almost on a daily basis right now, and God is using my friend from church and my friend from the school both in the situation.  Again, all because of an intentional development of relationships.

Example #3...last Monday, as I was getting out of the car to pick up my kids at school, another mother who I have gotten to know partly through being up at the school and partly because her two sons LOVE me (mostly because I get out after school and throw footballs and such with them, haha), was getting out of her car as well, with the two little kids she watches.  She called out to me and asked what time our church started.  She told me they were (again like example #1) perhaps looking for some place with more for their kids because their current church didn't have much for them.  Sunday, 5 of the 6 in her family were at our church.  It was a lot of fun having them there as well.  I don't know what their long-term plans are, but I felt good about them being there.  But, again, that's not the point, at least in my mind.  I don't develop those relationships so they will want to come to my church over some place else or whatever.  But, again, she knew me and felt comfortable enough with me (and others they know that go there) to initiate the conversation and ask about it, then to come Sunday as well.

What's the point?  Most of the time, most of us, honestly, could get out of our comfort zones and out of our self-focus, a little more than we do.  There is a world of opportunities out there.  There are friendships waiting to happen.  There are relational, social, and even spiritual possibilities out there.  And sometimes they will even come to us, but not until we get outside of ourselves, notice and work at getting to know people, and work at and develop those relationships through intentional purposeful efforts...something if we are honest, most of us are not as good at as we want to pretend we are. I'm not saying I have it all figured out, but it's amazing what just a little bit of intentional effort has developed into.   Live life intentionally.  Live life on purpose. And who knows what doors of opportunity God may open up for you?