Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sault Ste. Marie Youth Mission Trip

What a week.

On Saturday, June 16, I left with Sam, Seth, Stuart, Tim and Neal (students from my youth group) for a Youth Works mission trip to Sault Ste. Marie, MI. A lot happened over the course of the trip. I’ll throw down some highlights for your education, edification and pleasure. And for my own sanity.

Father’s Day
Over Saturday night, we spent the night at Saranac Community Church along with the crew from Libertyville Covenant Church. Because of this fact, my wife and daughter were there with me on Sunday morning, which just so happened to be my first Father’s Day. It was a wonderful gift to be able to spend one last morning with the loves of my life before heading off for a week-ish. Father’s Day actually means something once you become one. Weird.

That night, we arrived in the SOO around dinner time. My boys didn’t know what to think about Youth Works after the first evenings’ activities. Everything was very corny, and they just weren’t in the corny mood. I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t have that great a time.

We had found two loves by this point, though: hackey sack and inventing new slang.

Early Week
Monday, we got into the swing of the mission. We took a ferry over to Sugar Island and worked with Bud Byron at his Cultural Camp. We helped move their main sign closer to the road, weedwacked a TON, and painted a bunch of picnic tables and a couple sheds. Our new slang reached new levels, and the boys covered their bodies in paint. Neal got some wicked paint tan lines. It was pretty much a jiminy jehemoth.

Later that evening, the boys loosened up quite a bit. In a bit more corny mood, the evening activities no longer bothered them. What a bunch of jokemasters.

Jerad Birge, RIP
We were hacking on Monday night before bed, when Seth received a text message. After a bit of clarification, we found out that a good friend of Seth, Stuart and Neal had died. He was also good friends with Zach, another kid from the youth group who did not come on the trip.

At first, the guys were just in shock. They made some initial comments, and we went upstairs to get ready for bed. After a while, I asked them if they wanted to go downstairs to talk and pray. They did, and I’m glad. They opened up, shared stories, and I could feel the group gelling and growing closer by the moment. It was really tough, but it was good for everyone to talk and get out their frustrations, as well as brainstorming ways to honor Jerad’s memory. Little did we know that Zach was back home putting together a tribute video of Jerad that would be shown at his viewing and funeral.

I continue to pray for Jerad's family and friends. May the peace of Christ be with you all.

That news changed the complexion of the trip. The guys thought much more deeply about everything that went on. They were more gracious with others, and they served wherever they could. We picked up trash all day on Tuesday. It was a bit depressing, but the guys had a good attitude about it.

That night, I shared what happened with all the adult leaders and the Youth Works staff. Unbeknownst to me, the Site Director emailed a prayer request to all the staff in the US, Canada and Mexico. Over 300 Youth Works leaders were praying for my boys and for Jerad’s friends and family.

Wednesday, we did Kid’s Club. It was pretty fun, and the guys did a great job with a modern day Moses skit. Tim’s old man voice is hilarious. “Get off my green!”

Some Great News
Later in the week, I received two pieces of good news to temper the bad news we received from home. One was news that some dear friends are pregnant. Pretty sweet, but I’m not sure if it’s public yet, so I’m not using names. This news was a huge answer to prayer.

The other one was Marcie’s job. She will be working as a Human Resources Generalist at a large and well known Christian college in Grand Rapids, MI as of mid-July. This was also the answer to much prayer. It’s a perfect job for Marcie and right in her field. Her major at TIU was Business—Non-Profit and Human Resources, and now she’ll be doing Human Resources at a Non-Profit. Pretty sweet, eh? For you Office lovers, she’ll be Toby, but hopefully her boss won’t hate her as much at Michael Scott hates Toby.

Late Week
Thursday, we went out to someone’s house on Lake Superior to play football, throw the Frisbee, and hang out. I didn’t know until afterwards, but Stuart and Neal had an impromptu funeral for Jerad out on a beautiful part of the beach. They fashioned a cross out of some sticks and watched some pigeons congregate in Jerad’s memory. I was so impressed that the boys did that.

Later that night, we had a footwashing ceremony. Some honesty from a new friend made the experience extra emotional for me, and I couldn’t stop crying. As I prayed for and washed the feet of each of the boys and girl (Sam was the one girl on the trip from my church and was technically registered on the trip with Libertyville, but is really part of our church), the tears poured out of me uncontrollably. I felt the Spirit’s presence in a very real way. I pray that the experience was as memorable for them as it was for me.

The Trip Back
On the morning of Friday, June 22, BZ decided to break his van about five miles after we had left the SOO, so we stayed an extra three hours before heading back home. We got some pizza, shared some children’s stories, reminisced of the old days, and thanked each other for an awesome week…which it was.

Eventually Bucky Cook (give him a call if you ever have car trouble in the SOO) fixed the great white beastly van, and everyone made it home safely.

It was the best mission trip I’ve ever been on as a leader. God orchestrated things in ways I would never have expected. My group totally exceeded my expectations, and Christ was glorified in amazing ways.

Believe it or not, that’s not even the half of it. But that’s enough for now. Thanks for reading.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Church and Culture, Part 2

One of my dearest friends, affectionately known as Gus, wrote the following in response to my first post on Church and Culture. (Note: Gus generally does use his shift key occasionally, but neglected said key due to the informal nature of the blog comment). I found it to be quite well put.

"the thing i think we need to learn to do is to learn to see truth and beauty everywhere it exists (as you suggest) and then re-learn to see the beauty of the gospel...not just a vitamin-fortified cure for what ails you, but a sweeter song than is actually possible to sing apart from this amazing life in God...then as we readily look for truth and beauty we can sing this sweeter song as we live in the midst of other people's lives...I just dont think we know how to recapture the beauty of the gospel, so it still seems lame, trite and out of touch with the truly "profound"...if the gospel is not more beautiful than anything else, I am not sure I want it"

I don't really need to expound on this a lot, but I want to dive further into the idea of the beauty of the gospel "live[d] in the midst of other people's lives." It harkens in my mind the metaphor laid out by Rob Bell in NOOMA Rhythm / 011. Bell's thesis is basically that many of us have a far too distant view of God, as if he's somewhere else and intervenes occasionally. As a corrective, he invites us to look at life as a beautiful piece of music that God is putting together, and we all can live in tune with this great music when we live in the story of the gospel of redemption, when we live in tune with God's score.

Whenever I watch the film, it always challenges me to think that if I am truly living in tune with the "sweeter song," which reflects God's glory perfectly, that my life and the life shared by my community (church) would actually be attractive, exciting, sweet and beautiful.

I mean, if God really knows what he's doing, then if we follow him right, our lives will be the best lives possible. We'll be blessing as many other people as possible, loving as much as possible, seeing beauty everywhere possible and knowing its source. It does not diminish the fact that the call to discipleship is a hard one, wrought with sacrifice and tough calls, but if we truly believe that making these tough sacrifices is exactly what God desires of us, then won't our lives be better on the other side of that decision?

Perhaps if we are able to stop being paralyzed by fear, to truly live out the liberation that is proclaimed by the Gospel we profess, then we will be part of a song whose beauty nobody can deny. It is not a song invented by the mind of one great genius, but the sound of thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand singing the same song, each of us using our creativity within the structure of the greater piece of music.

What this looks like practically will be addressed in the near future, but in the meantime, let's play the song together.

[Also, see thoughts from David Fitch on this exact same topic, including plans for a forthcoming post on Kevin Vanhoozer's book on the topic of the Church and cultural engagement]

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Church and Culture

I have some thoughts ruminating in my head about the church and cultural engagement.

Last night I was talking to a group of guys, and we had been talking about testimonies and life stories and all that, and one of the guys told a testimony story he had read somewhere (he couldn't remember exactly where). The story goes that a man was walking past a church one day and heard the music of the song "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton blasting out of the church. Being a huge fan of the song, he decided to enter and see what it was all about. It turns out that the church had put Christian lyrics to the song and were singing it as a congregation. The man ended up becoming involved in the church, and he said that he would never have set foot in the church had it not been for "Cocaine." As my friend recalled, the spin the man had put on the story was that the church needs to engage culture more, and his story was a glowing testimony to the possibilities that stem from that.

Before I critique, I want to make clear that I am all about the church engaging culture. My critique comes from the how and with what purpose aspect of this idea.

Here's what I've been ruminating on. I think that to a large extent, some fairly large sections of church are engaging culture in just this way much more than ten years ago (at least in my experience). I know less and less Christians who only listen to Christian music and shop at Christian bookstores and wear tons of Christian t-shirts. There has been so much valid critique of Christian subculture that a lot of people are taking notice.

But I wonder if our unplugging from a Christian subculture and engaging the media of the broader culture is actually achieving some of its supposed purposes. One of the purposes of being attuned to broader culture is so that the church can engage in conversation and exchange stories with people outside the church. It is one of many ways to make a common human connection with people who, for various reasons, would not tend to darken the doorway of a church, or even interact with a Christian for that matter. I know that this sounds like a manipulative and utilitarian view of art and media, which I do not necessarily agree with, but acknowledge that this is a very real motive for many Christians to "get involved in the secular world", and therefore want to address whether it is actually happening.

Here's what I see happening. Christians broaden their own horizons and begin to see truth in the art of the world. They see that Christians don't have the corner market on all truth, and find God and truth at work in the art of people who are not professed Christians. These same Christians adopt the phrase "all truth is God's truth" as a mantra, and their lives are enriched, and so they talk to their friends, who happen to also be Christians, and introduce them to this liberating idea.

Yet rarely do they use this newfound love for all things beautiful (not just all things labeled Christian) to connect with the people they believe so desperately need to know the triune God to whom all truth and beauty points. I guess what I'm saying is that I see the church being enriched by this bursting from the box of Christian subculture, but when it's not coupled by a missional emphasis, it still only blesses the church.

When our overall approach to the church is to bless ourselves and not the world, then it doesn't matter how connected we are to this culture.

If salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Listening to Arcade Fire, no matter how great that may be, won't do the trick. What do you think?

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The End of Blogger's Block

I've had some blogger's block. Not because I don't have anything to write about, but I have just had this unexplainable hesitation to click the little "New Weblog Entry" button on my blog. It's as if I haven't given myself permission to blog. Too many important things to do and all that. I think I'm over that now.

On Saturday, May 12, I ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run 5K in downtown Grand Rapids. In '06, I ran it in 29:19, much to my disappointment. This year, my time was 27:39. It still wasn't great, but much improvement, and I had a lot left at the end. I got really excited to run a 5 miler on June 2 here in Indy. I took a couple days off, and hit the training hard again.

On Saturday, May 19, I ran 5.9 miles in 57 minutes. It was hard, but awesome. The longest I've run since the fall of '99. Wow.

On Sunday, May 20, Addison was officially dedicated to the Lord in a ceremony at church. We promised to raise her the best we can as a disciple for the Kingdom, and the church promised to support us and her in that very adventure. We had tons of family in town who love her and love us. We all were reminded of just how blessed we are. A supportive family is something I think I take for granted most days, caught up in my own little world of busy tasks and self-importance.

The week of May 21, I tried to run a couple times, but I had some serious anterior shin soreness. I just read about how when Jeff Tweedy got into running, he got stress fractures in both legs (his explanation: once an addict, always an addict). I decided that I didn't want those, so I stopped running for an indefinite period of time, icing my leg periodically with some frozen peas from the freezer. This week, Addison began to become a much more confident crawler. Still content to stay in a three foot radius most of the time, but showing signs of increased mobility.

On Sunday, May 27, I had the privilege of preaching for our congregation from John 17. It's always interesting to preach on the day of the Indy 500 in Indianapolis. I did it last year as well...you never know what to expect. This year, attendance was actually pretty good. There was a lot of rain at the race track. The whole worship experience was really encouraging to me, and I even snuck a small clip from The Office season finale ("Hmm, why don't we call it Secret Assistant to the Regional Manager"). After church we ate at Famous Dave's. Yum. Then we headed north, to Merrillville, IN (just a bit southeast of Chicago). We found a hotel with a pool and free breakfast en route to Covenant Harbor in Lake Geneva, WI.

From Monday, May 28 til Wednesday, May 30, we got to experience a totally FREE youth pastor's retreat at Covenant Harbor. It was free. The food was free. It was Covenant Harbor. Needless to say, I thought an awful lot about RyJo. Anyway, it was a really relaxing time. Marcie and I felt like we truly experienced Sabbath for the first time in awhile. Jeff Mazzariello spoke truth to us throughout the week, and it was invigorating. We also got to reconnect with Tim and Heidi Eaton, who we haven't seen for awhile, as well as meeting most of the youth pastor's in the Central Conference for the first time. It was nice to not have any programming responsibilities for a retreat. We even got some free time to saunter into Lake Geneva to enjoy the sights and partake in some delicious birthday treats.

On Tuesday, May 29, I turned a quarter-century old. The big 2-5, as it were. It doesn't seem like that bit a deal, but it's a bit more exciting than 24 was, anyway. My most exciting present this year? Definitely the turntable Marcie got for me, and all the records I got along with it, including the record of all records, Chicago V, complete with "Saturday in the Park." I'm much older and wiser now at 25, as is evidenced by the fact that I'm listening to records now along with my standard cd's and iTunes.

On the evening of Wednesday, May 31, we got back to Indy. I worked for a day.

On the morning of Friday, June 1, we headed up to Michigan for Chad's graduation open house (Marcie's cousin, and the one member of Marcie's family that I've actually known longer than I've known her). It was good. I ate way too much pizza and got to catch up with some of the cousins and aunts and uncles and sisters-from-other-misters up there.

On the morning of Saturday, June 2, we headed back to Indy so I could get dressed and ready to speak and play music at Will's graduation. Will is the only grad from my youth group, and he was homeschooled, so we put on a service for him at the church. It was a touching ceremony, and it was capped off by a celebration involving eating large amounts of Squealers pulled pork. We went to Nathan's graduation party as well, which celebrated his graduation from his 5 year plumbing apprenticeship, and we ate lots of lumpia.

Since then, things have been pretty much back to normal. Sunday, I started running again, and I feel great. Taking a week and a half off doesn't seem to have hurt me too much, and my leg feels much better. I'm listening to Wilco's Sky Blue Sky and Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea as much as I can, and I'm reading Slaughterhouse-Five, finally. So it goes.

Grace and peace to you all.

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