Friday, November 30, 2007

When Worrying Becomes Absurd

"Oh Lord, help me get through this night!" It was 30 minutes until the students would be showing up and I was consumed with worry. Tonight would be the night I was going to share with the kids that our time as a community together was drawing to a close. I was worried that I would say the wrong things and that they would somehow think that this was their fault. Or maybe that I would say too much and implant in their hearts a seed of bitterness toward the church. I considered putting it off, but recalling the pain I experienced in high school when my youth group ended suddenly and without warning made me certain that I ought to tell these kids what was happening as early as possible to give them time to process the situation. Certain of this, my mind found a new topic of worry.

What if not very many kids came tonight, and then they heard about things second-hand from their friends instead of from me? That could cause lots of miscommunication and unnecessary pain depending on what they were told. "Lord, these kids are yours," I prayed, "and you care about them even more than I do. I trust that you will do what is best for them in this situation. Please bring the students who need to be here to hear this from me tonight, and if it would be better for any of them not to be here, then please keep them away tonight." Once again (as has been happening so much the past few weeks), an overwhelming sense of God's peace calmed my heart and hushed my worrying mind. He was in control, it was all up to him now.

One of the students was dropped off by her mom and she and I sat in the foyer chatting and waiting for the van to arrive. The van was already 10 minutes late and still the clock ticked by the minutes. Finally the front door of the church burst open and a noisy, laughing stream of students poured in the door. "Kristi!" one of the girls squealed and ran to give me a hug. Another one was close behind her yelling to be heard over the group, "Eighteen, Kristi! We had eighteen students in the van--so nineteen people including Debbie." I tried to imagine how they had managed to cram nineteen people into the van and winced thinking of the safety problems that could pose. But here they were--a Thursday-night-record-breaking nineteen students (17 had been our last record)! And that was without three kids who usually get a ride from their parents, but didn't show. There were four boys who had never come before and one girl who was a second-time visitor. All of the core students who I had been worrying about were there! "Thank you God" I sighed in relief.

But what about all these new kids? Why did God bring them here on such an odd night when I would be telling the students that we only had three weeks remaining in our youth program? Then it hit me. I had been focusing all my thoughts on the time after the games when I would sit the kids down and talk with them about youth group ending. I was so preoccupied with what to say and how to say it that I hadn't been thinking much about the lesson that would follow.

Later that night I stood before nineteen kids and addressed three big questions that we sometimes wonder:
(1) How do I know if I really do have a relationship with God?
(2) Can I ever lose my relationship with God?
(3) What happens when I mess up big-time or when I choose not to walk in obedience to God?

I was so thankful that God gave me the opportunity to spend time Thusday night answering the kids questions about the church and my job and their future, and to hug those who were crying and upset and spend time grieving with them. I was also humbled and overjoyed that he gave me the opportunity to clearly share with four new students the good news of forgiveness of sins through Jesus' sacrifice, making it possible for fallen humans to experience fellowship with a holy God! Why in the world do I bother to worry so much when God has proven to me time and time again that he is in control and that his plan is GOOD!

Friday, November 23, 2007

November Seventeenth

November Seventeenth. It's an odd day. It sneaks up on me like any other day and then BOOM, something strange happens. It's not necessarily a terrible day, just a day that notable things often seem to happen. It started November 17, 1994--the day my Grandma Smith died. That was a bad one. A couple years later November 17th was the day of the first snowfall of the year--the earliest date I ever remember it snowing in Portland! November 17, 1999 was the day I first held hands with a boy. Weird things happened on November 17ths in college: I randomly received money in the mail one year and I had a strange encounter with a crazy boss another year. Last year, I spent November 17th at the beach with a houseful of Jr. High students who were perhaps the whiniest, rudest group of students I had ever encountered up to that point. My friend Ibrahim attributes my November 17th superstition to "confirmational bias"; he thinks the only reason notable things happen that day of the year is because that is the day of the year that I am looking to notice them. He could be right...but then again...

November 17, 2007 joins the list of notable November 17ths. That is because this is the day that I officially received notification of losing my job at the church. The long deliberated merge is happening, and the termination of my employment at Cascade helps relieve our struggling community of some of its financial burden as well as allows a new church to emerge from the two groups that is not tied down to extra committments. I've chosen not to be a part of the newly merged church, but will continue attending Sunday morning services at Cascade until my work with the youth is wrapped up.

I have received "three months notice"--meaning that I will be paid for an additional three months work. However, since over the past three years I have worked about 12 weeks of overtime hours, the church has agreed to pay me for the next three months and allow me to decide how much of that I intend to work. I plan to wrap up my administrative responsibilities next week, but take a longer time helping the youth to deal with this change and provide them options for future growth in community.

November 17th. I told you it's an odd day! (Do you believe me yet, Brahim?) Although this year it was painful, it also marks a great transition that God has in store for my life and I'm trusting him for whatever comes next!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

It Made Me Smile When...

A boy was trying to steal a girl's spot on the couch and in the process he hurt her finger. She made an overly big deal about it, which made him really mad. I talked to him about letting go of his anger, but he seemed unable to do so and seethed in the corner for at least an hour. After a while, I glanced across the room to see the girl he "hurt" and him apologizing to one another and giving each other a big hug!

Sunday morning I was emotionally and physically drained from dealing with students who had been telling lies and trying to steal another student's property. The mood of the entire group that morning was somber as half the group was waiting to see who would face consequences for the night before. Three girls (who are never behavior problems) came up to me and gave me a card that said they hoped I would cheer up and feel better soon, because I seemed sad. They had also drawn me pictures. At the bottom of the card they each printed their name and signed in cursive above the printing--all official-like.

In the car, on the way home there were two girls who seriously asked me "are we there yet?" and "how much longer will it be?" every 10-15 minutes! (It was just like the family vacation movies). One of them didn't seem to get the concept of cities and towns.
--She asked, "Are we still in Tillamook?"
--"No," I replied, "We left Tillamook about 15 minutes ago."
--"Yes! So we're in Portland, now?"
--"Well then where are we?!"
--"We're in the mountains...on Highway 6...between Tillamook and Portland."
Then about 15 minutes later...
--"Kristi, now are we in Portland?"
--"Nope, we're still in the mountains."
--"Are you sure we're not in Tillamook?"
--"Yep, I'm sure."
Just a couple minutes later...
--"That sign said Tillamook on it!" she shrieked accusingly.
--"It said Tillamook State Forest," I explained, "we're still in the forest, but not the city."
--"Oh, good," she sounded relieved, "so we're in Portland now?"
At this point I decided it was time to explain something to this carload of kids.
--"Everyone look up here," I called, interrupting a serious argument between two girls over whose dad or stepdad was the horriblest father. "Have you guys ever seen one of these weird things? It's like a big piece of paper." I drew an imaginary rectangle on the windshield of the van. "There are little dots and circles on the paper with names of cities and towns, and inbetween them are lines that represent the roads that connect the cities and towns."
--"They're called maps, Kristi," called a seventh-grader patronizlingly.
--"Oh yes, thanks. I always forget things...anyway these maps. If we had one right now, it would show Tillamook over here," I said as I pointed to a spot on the windshield near the passenger side, "and it would have a bigger circle over here that said 'Portland,'" I pointed to the driver's side. "Now there are roads connecting the two cities and we would be right about here, inbetween the two." I pointed to the center of the windshield emphatically. "We're still in the mountains--in the mountains in-between the cities of Tillamook and Portland."
Everything seemed fine until Highway 6 dumped out onto Highway 26, then...
--"Kristi, now are we in Portland?"
--"No, we're still about 30 minutes away."
Several minutes later the same girl read a sign on the road announcing that we would soon be reaching the Hillsboro exits.
--She turned excitedly to the student next to her and exclaimed, "Hillsboro! Yesss!!! We're in Portland!"

Toward the end of our car ride, one of the students needed to use the restroom very badly. To keep her mind off of her desperation, she decided to teach the rest of the van how to count in Spanish. The other students listened respectfully to her as she rattled off her spanish numbers: "once-uno, once-dos, once-tres....doce-uno, doce-dos, doce-tres...", etc. But my favorite came after the "treces" when she said, "Sometimes I forget forty--oh yeah, it's quartito! Quartito-uno, quartito-dos, quartito-tres..." I thought about correcting her, but it was keeping her mind off going to the bathroom--and besides I wanted to see what she would call fifty!

Sunday night, one of the girls I had sent home without ice cream called me after 10:00 PM. "I was in bed, but I couldn't sleep," she explained, "and I decided it was because I needed to apologize to you for being bad this weekend." I thanked her and told her I had forgiven her and then we had a great talk during which she admitted to me, "I'm sad that even though I was telling the truth you couldn't believe me because I have told so many other lies."

In one of the small groups last Tuesday one of the students had just shared something semi-personal, when she suddenly asked, "Can I make a rule for this small group we're having?" I told her to go ahead, assuming that she was going to request that we not share her story outside of the group. Instead she said, "Let's say that we cannot chew chips while other people are talking--sometimes chewing is really loud!"

In that same group we were talking about kindness. "What sorts of people are hard to show kindness to?" I asked. One student's hand shot up into the air, "I know: cheerleaders!"

I was looking around the room and I happened to notice one girl burp, and then puff out her cheeks, holding the burp in her mouth. She looked like a chipmunk with nuts bulging in her cheeks and I watched (unbeknownst to her) as she held her burp-air in her mouth for about 20 seconds before slowly blowing it out.

In the evening life group, we were sharing with one another how we rated ourselves at showing love to people the past week. I told the group I felt that I had done very well at loving people that are difficult to love, "I asked God for love for them," I told them excitedly, "and that love was just pourin' out!" One boy looked up startled, "Did you just say that love was porno?"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tales From the Retreat

Tears flooded my eyes as the van crammed with students pulled away from the church after youth group. The next day we would be leaving for our Fall Retreat themed "Walk With the Family of God." I was hoping and praying that the students would experience loving fellowship with one another over the weekend and that they would be encouraged to always be plugged into a group of believers. Suddenly, however, I feared the weekend would be a huge flop. Earlier that night two girls had argued heatedly and although I sat down with them to try to help them work it out, they didn't seem interested in reconciling. I verbalized my fears to my brother: "Eric, what was I thinking? There's no way that these kids are going to be able to be kind and loving and encouraging to each other this weekend! They're going to be mean and rude and hateful just like last year, and then instead of being drawn to fellowship with other believers they're going to be turned off to it!." Eric listened patiently while I unloaded and then we prayed together telling the Lord our concerns and begging for his help for the weekend. Afterward I felt less emotional, although I still had a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach thinking about the coming weekend. I spent a lot of time that night and the next morning asking God for wisdom to know how to deal with the situations that would inevitably arise on the trip.

The next night right before leaving for the beach, I sat all the kids down and explained to them our theme and our hopes for the weekend. "If you feel that you won't be kind and encouraging this weekend, let us know now and we will take you home on our way out of town," I warned them, "I don't want to let one or two bad attitudes ruin the weekend for the group. That being said...I'm sure that all of you are able to show one another God's love this week--it'll be great!" And amazingly, it least for the first day.

Our first night there we took the kids on a trust walk and I was very impressed with the way that the students demonstrated patience and concern for one another as we led them blindfolded through a simple obstacle course. When a girl fell down the students on either side of her would help her up. Afterward the students did a great job of connecting our activity with the lesson: "We Need the Family of God" as we walk though life following Jesus, our guide.

It seemed like the kids were getting along really well that night and the next morning. Our morning lesson ("The Body of Christ Needs You") was illustrated by the Triminator Quest--an activity where groups of three students were given a list of simple tasks (put on and tie your shoelaces, make a PB&J sandwich and eat it, etc.) to complete together. The catch? Only one person could speak--and the speaker couldn't use their hands to complete any of the tasks. Each of the other two could use one of their arms (one right, one left) but could not speak during the quest. Afterward we talked about how the teams suffered if someone refused to do their part, or how sometimes some people felt like their ability wasn't as important as someone else's but they needed all three to complete the Quest. It was fun and led perfectly into our discussion of 1 Corinthians 12.

Saturday afternoon we headed out to the beach for Beach Olympics where the teams competed in silly events: backward sprint, steamroll race, logput, etc. Although the forecast had predicted rain, God graciously gave us beautiful blue sky and very warm November weather. During free time five girls got into an argument, but after working with them for about 45 minutes they seemed to work things out, which was such an encouragement to me!

That evening we talked about how the early church remembered Jesus together as they ate in one another's homes, and then we had a communion dinner. Before dinner we thanked Jesus for coming to earth and taking a human body and we thanked him for dying for us so that his blood pays what we owe to God for our sin. During dinner we made sure that we were showing loving concern for one another by following two simple rules: (1) no one was allowed to dish up food for themselves, and (2) no one was allowed to ask for anything. Instead we all had to keep our eyes open to the needs of the people around us to make sure that everyone got what they needed and no one went hungry. True, some of the kids found ways to get around the rules (once you ask five people who already have salad dressing if they want any ranch, usually somone picks up on the clue and will offer it to you in turn!), but afterward they decided that if everyone always looked out for one another selflessly, then everyone would be cared for.
So far, pretty good, right? Right. Well... to tell you the full story of what went on later Saturday night would take up far more time than I have to write this blog and certainly far more time than you have to read it (I thank you if you are still reading at this point!). Suffice it to say, I almost took home 7 girls at midnight because of the outrageous disrespect they showed by their disobedient actions followed by a tangled web of lies that I spent the next 10 hours sorting out (minus the three-and-a-half hours I actually slept). Ten revisions of their original story later, I felt I had a good enough understanding of what happened to punish the three girls who had told the most lies and who had been involved in an attempted cell-phone theft. We sent them directly home with the luggage Sunday morning instead of letting them stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory for ice cream as the rest of the group did. Now the whole story is very complicated and insanely crazy--if you ever care to hear it you'll have to call me and I'll share it with you. What I would like to say, however, is that the entire time I had no clue what to do. Every moment, with every sentence spoken to the girls I was praying for wisdom from God--and I let the girls know! Although at the beginning I couldn't have told you what we should do, I look back at how it was handled and see how God led us step by step through the whole process and I honestly don't think there is a single thing we should have done differently. God's word is proven true where it says in James "If any of you lacks wisdom he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." What a faith-builder this weekend was for me as I watched God amazingly lead me through a minefield of lies and deception, to a place of love and truth! God is so good!

This was hands-down the most difficult retreat I have ever been a part of. Since last weekend I've been wondering if retreats are actually an effective tool for urban ministry--perhaps they worked very well for ministry to suburbanites, but my retreats with urban kids have so far proved fairly disastrous. I came home physically and emotionally exhausted, yet spiritually strengthened because of having to rely on God. Ultimately, I'm not sure whether we were successful in our goal of experientially teaching the kids the beauty of being linked with the family of God. However, I am sure that some of them learned something new about God's patience and love as we went through the discipline process with them. It seemed ugly at the time, but in the morning as we tossed a ball of yarn around and shared things we appreciated, it became apparent that they had sensed God's love through it all. And for that, I'm extremely thankful! The weekend is done; the seeds are planted; it's up to God whether or not those seeds one day produce a harvest of fruit in the students' lives.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Pardon My Singleness

It's not really so bad that people always ask, "So...are you seeing anyone?" They're mostly just curious. But then there are the students who say things like, "You're twenty-five and you don't have a boyfriend?" implying that there is something hideously wrong with me (which of course we all secretly wonder on our own from time to time, even without the help of prying adolescents). That's okay, though. I mean, they're thirteen and for them relationships are status badges, which means that their surprise indicates that they think my status merits a relationship (in other words, it surprises them that I'm not with anyone, isn't that sweet?).

You know what really frustrates me, though? It's having to explain myself over and over and over again to other Christians who should have similar world-views to me. I mean, aren't we reading the same Scripture? It happened to me twice today! Both times someone asked me (instead of the standard, "are you seeing anyone?") "So when are you going to get married?" How in the world am I supposed to answer a question like that? It's rooted in the idea that of course I will get married. Don't get me wrong here (as both people did today); I don't have anything against marriage--in fact I would love for God to bless me with a companion and co-laborer in service to God. But their question assumes that I will get married. I don't make such presumptions. I don't find anywhere in Scripture where God promises to send believers a husband or a wife, and I certainly don't feel that he owes me this blessing. So I may wish for it, and I may occasionally pray for it, but I don't expect it and I definitely don't put my life of service to God on hold waiting for it.

So I tried to explain that twice today and I got two of the usual responses. The first person basically argued that almost everyone gets married and that if I want to get married I should make decisions that lead toward that (the classic "put-yourself-out-there" approach). The second person was quick to reassure me that there was someone for everyone and I would meet the right man someday, etc.

Argh! Both of these responses annoy me.

The second response makes assumptions that are no where in the Bible. Usually if I point that out ("maybe not all people get married...") these sorts of people start to suspect that I am a man-hater. Next they say things like, "Well, if that's what you really want..." No people, that's not what I'm saying! What I'm saying is that what I'm after is what God really wants for me, and his plan for my life just might not include a husband.

The first response implies that if I held marriage as a higher priority I could be married. Well...that's probably true. I'm sure if being married were my highest aspiration I could be married by now, but it shouldn't be my highest aspiration. What I should want more than anything is to glorify God with my life. If this is my goal, then marriage would require not only finding someone who can love me that I can love, but also someone who increases and strengthens my passion for God rather than diminishes it. That's a tall order! I'm so happy for those of you who have been blessed with such a relationship, but let me tell you that from where I'm standing it looks like a long shot for me.

I guess that's all I have to say. I don't mind people asking me about my relationship status. But being single is hard enough without having to worry about the fact that other people are uncomfortable with my singleness. I'm tired of seeing eyebrows raised at my presumed "feminist leanings" and I'm tired of hearing false assurances regarding the certainty of my nuptials. It would just be nice someday to hear someone say "Kristi, I really hope God blesses you with a husband, but just think: if he doesn't you'll get to experience dependence on him in an even richer way! And married or unmarried, I know God will continue to use you for his glory!"

Thursday, November 1, 2007

You Should Probably Try Not to Be Jealous...

Sometimes I'm a whiner and I feel sorry for myself because my job doesn't provide any benefits and I work a lot of hours. And sometimes I feel stressed out by the way things happen (or don't happen) at my church. It's true that I've sometimes groaned when getting calls from kids late at night or early in the morning thinking to myself, "I just want one day to myself!" But those are the times when I'm being crazy. In my saner moments I can't help but saying, "THANK YOU, GOD for blessing me with an amazingly cool job!"

Take this week for example:

Sunday: I went to church. I would do that even if I weren't getting paid, but it just so happens that it is part of my job because I went early to set up visual equipment and then I ran the system for one service and led the congregation in worship music during the a different service. Except for when I'm worrying more about what other people think than about what God thinks, I love being able to serve God and his people in that way. Sunday evening I had some company over, but had to step out of the room for several minutes when a parent called to talk about our upcoming youth retreat.

Monday: I spent several hours preparing next Sunday's bulletin, and performing general receptionist duties. In between phone calls and email messages I spent time reading a theology book in preparation for Thursday's lesson (notice that I'm being paid to learn cool stuff, there.) Then I had a meeting with my brother where we discussed interesting theological concepts after troubleshooting some stuff about youth group. Later that evening I called each of the kids in the youth group to remind them and their parents about the retreat and answer any questions they may have. I followed that up with a trip to four of the students' houses to take them the form that I had already mailed to them, but they apparently lost. When I arrived back home, I selected the songs for next Sunday's worship service before going to bed.

Tuesday: Again in the morning I performed general office duties (not too exciting), but after that I got to refresh myself on a learning theory called "Bloom's Taxonomy" that I proceeded to use to help me write a discussion guide on "Kindness - A Fruit of the Spirit." (for the evening life group). Then I reviewed the discussion guide for "Patience - A Fruit of the Spirit" (the afternoon life group is a week behind the evening one). I had an hour before the students arrived for the first life group, so I went to the Baby Grand Piano and figured out the keys we needed to play Sunday's music in. Only one girl came to the first life group, so rather than tackle "patience," I took her out for ice cream and we chatted about her life. After taking her home it was time to call the students in the evening group to verify if they were coming. I spent the evening talking with kids about their lives and God's Word and how the two can interact. After taking them home, I got to finish up the evening with some more studying in preparation for this week's lesson.

Wednesday: I went to the church an hour later than usual because I spent time in the morning getting my house ready for the high-schoolers to come over in the evening. I spent the rest of the morning in the office typing up Sunday's music into the keys in which we'll be playing them, then made song copies and also copied, folded and assembled Sunday's bulletins. I studied more for this week's lesson, and then we had Music Practice. Right after that, Mindy and I went to my house to await the arrival of trick-or-treaters and the other members of our high school group. We spent the evening talking, reporting on last week's spiritual goals and making new ones, handing out candy, eating pizza (and of course, candy) and playing a board game. The last students left just after 10:30.

Thursday: This morning I woke up exhausted and with a headache, so I slept in additional hour. Once I arrived at the church I focused all of the week's studying into coming up with a viable outline for tonight's lesson--a tough one. (We're doing a series called, "Are You Ready For What's Coming?" in which we address issues such as death, heaven and hell, general eschatology, Jesus' return and the final judgment. Tonight we talked about Hell--a first for me, which I wasn't particularly looking forward to, but God is gracious and he blessed me with a very smooth evening.) I fleshed out the outline, while trying to figure out how to present systematic theology in a way that would keep the students' attention. That's when it hit me--I needed cartoons! I made an emergency run to the library for a couple cartoon books and spent an hour perusing them for cartoons that purported common misconceptions about Hell. After the lesson was ready, I prepped the upstairs and downstairs meeting rooms and then the kids showed up! I spent the evening playing Chair Basketball with them, playing my guitar to a couple of my favorite worship songs, teaching the lesson, trying to answer incredibly insightful questions about salvation, heaven and hell, and eating cookies and chips with the students.

I'm now home and basking in the fact that I was paid this week to have cool discussions, chat with kids, play music, study my Bible, read theology books, visit students' homes and talk with their parents, write lessons, play games, eat food, talk about Jesus, hand out candy and read cartoons! Seriously, my job is incredibly cool. But it isn't about the candy or the cartoons or the games. Those are just tools that I use to build relationships with the students. What really makes my job awesome is those relationships themselves, as they provide me with opportunities to encourage students to love God with their whole hearts. And watching God work in those students' hearts and transform their lives--even just in small ways--that is what makes my job one of the most incredible jobs in the world!