more than me.

I woke up pretty late on my day-off today here in California.  It was about 11 o’clock or so, and I checked Facebook/Twitter/Instagram like I normally do when I wake up (gotta keep up to date on the world’s happenings).  Today was cool because many of my friends from back in Nashville at Donelson Church of Christ got back from Camp today.  From my social media creeping, it seems like this year was yet another successful year at Fall Creek Falls for Donelson.  Pictures and tweets point to a great week in Christ like many that I have experienced in the past.  This was my first year not being at the camp in 10 years.  Since January, I have thought about this year’s camp occasionally.  My thoughts have been hopeful.  Hopeful that those present would experience the Spirit of Christ through each other.  Hopeful that the counselors would love their campers in a Christ-like way.  Hopeful that the younger campers would take showers and change their clothes.  Hopeful that the older campers would be a light to each other and the younger campers.  I was hopeful, not worried.

The past few years at Camp, I had put in a lot of effort to influence it and leave a mark.  In my mind, Camp was my thing.  I was obviously the best counselor, the coolest staff member, and by far the best softball/volleyball coach.  I am extremely grateful for something Russ, one of our ministers, said to me in the Spring.  We were chatting in his office, and he said to me, “Camp is bigger than any one person.”  Donelson’s Camp, like many other camps around the world, is a living, breathing organism.  Camp has taken on its own identity, one that is bigger than any one person or group of people.  When one person can’t make it, someone else does.  When one cool tradition is discontinued, another one is born.  Camp evolves and changes, but it’s not going to shrivel up and die because of one little thing.  Camp is something that God uses mightily, and something that is set into motion by God doesn’t just stop.  So, cool staff members come and go, but there is only one who runs Camp (and it’s not the director…even a really, really awesome one).  

I guess what I am trying to say is: a lot of things change in our lives and in this world, but God doesn’t.  God is still God at Fall Creek Falls State Park whether I am there or not.  When I leave the Bay Area to go back to school in August, God will still be here.  A lot of times, I think Christians (good, well-intentioned, Bible-believing Christians) get the idea that they are taking God with them.  Taking God to our workplaces, schools, other countries, etc., but the truth is that God is already there.  God was here before we showed up, and He will be here after we’re gone.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God endures forever.

                 Isaiah 40:8

above all else, God is.

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Living with “No”

Let me tell you a story.

Last summer, a man took his 8-year-old son (we’ll call him Jimmy) to his first baseball game, it was Jimmy’s birthday.  As most 8-year-old boys at a baseball game do, Jimmy brought his glove, primed and ready to catch a foul ball.  The boy waited expectantly for his opportunity, and he didn’t take his eye off of the game for the whole first inning.  The first inning went by, no foul ball.  The second inning passed with the same result.  Then the third, then the fourth.  Eight innings go by, still no fly ball for Jimmy.  The father, who has been sitting and watching his son wait, becomes distressed.  Jimmy still has hope, but will certainly be let down if they leave the park without having caught the ever elusive foul ball.  It’s Jimmy’s birthday, and his father wants him to have the best possible memory of his first experience at the ballpark.  So, Jimmy’s father prays to God.  He prays, “God, please let a foul ball be hit over here.  Its Jimmy’s first game, and its his birthday. Please, it would make his day.  He’ll remember it forever.”  Right on cue, with one out in the top of the ninth, the second baseman hit a lofty foul ball into the seats down the first base line.  People all around are reaching out trying to catch this foul ball.  The ball bounces off a man’s hand two rows in front of the father-son duo and hits Jimmy in the chest.  Jimmy picks the ball up off the ground, finally in possession of his newest prized possession.  Jimmy was beyond excited, and his father looked up to heaven thanking God for answering his prayer.  It was a miracle!  An everyday miracle.

I heard that story on a Christian radio station in Nashville about a month ago.  I don’t think I had ever felt so angry at a radio station in my life.  Why was I angry?  Because that’s not how prayer works.  Over the past several years, I have seen health declines and deaths, I have become more aware of poverty, both domestic and abroad, and time and time again, I have stumbled in my walk with Christ.  In all of these situations, prayer has been present.  So why the heck does God have time to send baseballs to little kids when people are starving and dying!?!?!?  With stories like that in our Christian circles, it no wonder that people think we’re all hypocrites.  Maybe God had something to do with the birthday boy catching a fly ball, and maybe he didn’t.  That’s not the point.  The point is that these aren’t the stories we should be telling.  I don’t have a degree in marketing, but if our evangelism point is telling people that we prayed a wish list to God, and he gave us all the stuff we wanted, then we are attracting people who have wish lists.  Then what happens when our Santa Claus version of God doesn’t come through?  We end up with churches full of discontent, unhappy non-followers of Jesus.

Maybe I am being a little harsh.  I mean after all, ending world poverty is a huge prayer, and surely it was part of God’s plan when those loved ones got sick and later passed away.  Maybe God answers easy prayers.  No, it doesn’t work like that.  I pray for a lot of easy things.  Sometimes, I pray that the stop light will stay green long enough for me to make it through (and I work at a church, so God definitely doesn’t want me to be late).  In high school, I prayed that we would win football games.  And we did win a lot of football games…until my senior year.  I mean, come on God, Just make the ball bounce our way a little more.  Keep the refs from blowing the call on the last play of the game keeping us from going to the playoffs (I’m not bitter, I promise).  So why is God answering some dude at a baseball game’s “easy” prayer, but not mine?  God, why couldn’t You have given me enough knowledge and wisdom to get an A on my Greek final?  Where were You on that one?

We live in a culture saturated with wants.  After all, I’m a 20-year-old, white, American male from a middle class family.  I’m supposed to graduate college, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids, and live a long and happy life after retiring at 65.  I’m supposed to live happily ever after because God wants good things to happen to me, right?  Wrong.  If anything, by the standards of our culture, being a Jesus-following Christian actually makes life worse.  Among other things, Sunday mornings are no longer sleep time for you, no more premarital sex, and you are called to give away your stuff and money.  On paper, without supernatural genie powers, following Jesus just looks dumb.

So Jesus, let me get this straight.  You’re calling me to come and die.  Ok, well at least I get little “everyday miracles” along the way for, you know, praying and being a good guy.  I may die for Your name, but at least before that I get to catch balls at baseball games and get to have perfect health for me and my family.  This whole following Jesus thing doesn’t sound bad at all.  No. No. No. No. No.  Once again, this is not how following Jesus works.

Imagine a guy (we’ll call him Mike) at a bus station looking to purchase a ticket.  Mike is sick and tired of the life he has been living in his hometown of Jackson.  Jackson is a town, not too big but not too small, and Mike has grown discontent with the lifestyle.  There’s not enough hustle and bustle in Jackson to keep Mike excited and on his toes, but he also longs for the simplicity and serenity provided by a farm town out in the country.  He can purchase a ticket to Los Angeles or Farmville, USA.  In a tragic miscue, Mike didn’t decide where he was going before leaving his house that day.  Mike sits at the bus station all day trying to make up his mind, and finally decides that he is better off just going home.  After all, home has got a little bit excitement, and a little simplicity.  Mike missed the bus.  Sometimes I feel like this is how we Christians are.  Discontent with where we are in life, we look heavily at two sides of the coin, the American Dream & the Way of the Cross.  After much thought, we decide that staying where we are is the safe play.  There’s no risk.  We’ve got some fun worldly pleasures, but just enough Jesus to get us on to heaven… or wherever it is we go when we die.  There is no fusion between the American Dream and Jesus.  That is a lie we as Christians have to stop telling ourselves.  The Spirit of Christ does not reside in the things of this world.  Jesus and his followers have gotten on one boat.  The American Dream and the things of this world have gotten on another.  You can’t sit in between the two boats.  You’ll drown.

As a Christian, I am concerned about what kind of message we give off when we broadcast certain things.  The beauty of following Christ is not how easy life becomes, but how much our struggles become worth the struggle.  Our struggles become worth it when we see others fighting alongside us.  The Church is God’s gift to us.  Paul’s command to the Church in Romans 12:9 is, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  We have been given a group of people to cling to in times of trouble.  So let us not only tell people of the random “everyday miracles,” but let’s share stories of grief and pain.  Let us share stories of being uplifted in times of great hurting through the love of Jesus shown to us by his people.  Let us pray about everything without ceasing.  Prayer is a source of hope in our broken world.  Without hope, there is no prayer.

We must choose to live a life fully in pursuit of Christ.  That life is full of trials, hardships, and pain.  James (the brother of Jesus) comes at it like this: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”  Not only does James acknowledge that there will be bumps on the road, but he argues that they are necessary, beneficial even.  If a child grows up getting everything he or she has ever wanted and has never been told “No,” then when they are finally told “No,” they will inevitably have a break down.  This is a new experience for the child, and he or she doesn’t know how to handle it.  After a while though, the child becomes accustomed to not everything going their way.  This doesn’t mean they stop asking for help or things they think they need, but when they are told “No,” they handle it better.  Also, having been exposed to “No” makes hearing “Yes” much sweeter.

So let us follow Jesus.  Let us pray, understanding that “No” is a potential answer.  Let us not be discouraged, but let us persevere.  Let us live, knowing that no matter how bad life gets, we serve a God who understands our pain having lived on earth Himself.

Thank You for…

If you have ever volunteered in a youth/student ministry anywhere, this was written for you.

Volunteer Thank You

By Michael Clinger 5/29/14

 

Thank You for following God’s lead.

If you are a volunteer or youth worker reading this, then you are one of the few, the proud, and the brave who followed a calling to youth ministry. Thank you for giving your life to students. The road you are on is not the easiest, and there are a lot of entry ramps onto it. Whether you have a child of your own that is a student, needed a place to serve in the church, or got volunteered by someone else, you are here for a reason, and God knows that reason. Every youth worker has a unique set of gifts that God can use, so thank you for giving yours for the sake of our students. Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has a purpose specifically for you, so thank you for following God’s lead to our students.

 

Thank You for standing up for our students (all of them).

       So often in our culture, teenagers are described as being too (Fill in the blank). Too loud, too young, too unpredictable, etc. Thank you for being countercultural in that aspect. So often teenagers are referred to as the “Church of the Future,” but thank you for understanding that they are the church now. Thank you for seeking opportunities for our students to have responsibility, for listening to their ideas, and for being a voice for them among your peers. Every ministry has those students who are on the fringes. Thank you for being consistent in caring and reaching out to those who have trouble fitting in, smell funky, are a little crazy, are misunderstood, are shy, and also those who are not shy enough. In Mark chapter 2, Jesus is looked down upon for spending time with those who were disliked by the religious. Jesus responded by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” You are mirroring Christ when you pursue those students. Thank you for that.

 

Thank You for believing that God’s Word makes a difference in the lives of our students, and for sharing that Word with little to no affirmation.

If you’re involved with youth ministry for the recognition, you won’t be involved much longer. Students are very unlikely to thank you or openly appreciate you. THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU DON’T DO A GREAT JOB. Another frustration of many youth workers is there often is no fruit of their labor evident in the lives of students. Keep planting seeds and cultivating your plants! Just because you don’t see any difference in the lives of the teenagers doesn’t mean you aren’t making one. You are taking the Word of God and putting it into the lives of teenagers, how could that not make a difference? God’s Word will not return void. Thank you for your perseverance in sharing a beautiful gift with our students.

 

Thank You for giving while never expecting anything in return.

       Thank you for sacrificing. Most people probably have no idea how much money you spend being a volunteer. No one knows how much of a time commitment you have made to be in the presence of and praying for our students. Thank you for offering your resources, time, and money to share the love of Jesus with teenagers who will never pay you back. There is a lot more to being a volunteer than people on the outside will ever know. Thank you for opening up your home, buying food, coming to events, and praying regularly for these teenagers. In Matthew 18 Jesus said that anyone who welcomes a child in his name welcomes him. These teenagers aren’t exactly children anymore, but still, thank you for welcoming Jesus into your home in the form of our students. Thank you for your generous spirit, and remember, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).

 

Thank You for being a voice of truth and encouragement in the lives of our students.

First of all, thank you for spending enough time with our students so that this is possible. Something great that volunteers have the opportunity to do is see the strengths of teenagers that no one else sees. Our students live in a world where they likely think plenty of negative thoughts about themselves, let alone what other negative things people tell them. Our teens need to hear what they do well, and they need to be encouraged to continue in those things. They would never admit it, but they deeply desire affirmation from the adults that they respect, and you are those people. When you see a student with a particular gift, tell them that you see it, and encourage them to cultivate it. Thank you for being an adult that is both accessible and approachable to these teenagers. You have become a trusted voice of reason in their lives. Let God continue to speak through you. Thank you for the constant encouragement that you are.

 

Thank You for being vulnerable in your weaknesses.

       One of the worst things for a teenager to believe is that mature Christians are perfect people. They know their weaknesses and struggles, and if they believe that perfection is what God wants, many of them will turn away, knowing that they can never achieve it. They need a person who is human and struggles with some things, just like they do. Thank you for being that person. Obviously, oversharing is not good, but thank you for sharing what needs to be shared. A great thing about God is that He uses our weaknesses to bring forth his glory. In 2 Corinthians 12, the Lord says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Even Paul had struggles, and he let people know that he did. There has been only one perfect person, and you are not him. Thank you for appearing human to our students.

 

Thank You for loving God and trusting Him to use you.

To spend the amount of time that you do sharing God’s Word with our students, you must love God. Thank you for having that relationship with God and letting Him guide you to our students. You likely do not have the total package for the “ideal” youth worker. You’re probably not prepared, skilled, trained, and cool all at the same time, and that’s ok, no one is. Being a good youth worker is not about being young and cool, but it’s about loving God, trusting in Him, caring for students, and pointing them towards God. Thank you for doing those things, that’s all that can be asked of you. Thank you for serving God despite your inadequacies. Many let their shortcomings keep them from living out the calling that God has for them, but thank you for trusting that God can use what gifts you have for the betterment of His kingdom. The young boy that came with five loaves of bread and two fish did not have enough food to feed five thousand people, but through Jesus, God made it more than enough (John 6). God can take what little you have and make something amazing happen. Thank you for trusting that God can do more than you can.

 

In Conclusion…

You are the unsung heroes of youth ministry. What is done among our students could never be accomplished without you and others like you. Thank you for all that you have done, all that you are doing, and all that you will do.

 

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”   1 Corinthians 15:58.

 

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May His face shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.

 

 

 

 

*This is something I wrote for volunteers in youth/student ministry. Its not an original idea, but most of the content is original. Inspired by Doug Fields’s booklet, “Thank You: Appreciation for
Volunteer Youth Workers.”