My career in professional ministry was short, unsuccessful, and ended about three years ago. I was an “interim youth pastor” for nine months. When my services were no longer required, I told God, myself, my wife, my pastor, and my friends, “I never want to do that again.” And, considering the matter closed, I proceeded to get on with life.
I found a new church, found a new job, and basically revamped my worldview, (if such a thing can be done basically). So when folks in my new church asked me if I’d start a youth ministry, I declined. “There’s hardly even any teenagers in our church,” I pointed out. It was a handy response, because it had the benefit of being true. I did agree to pray about it, however. I am the sort of person who will give any idea at least some consideration.
They say prayer is not so much about changing God’s mind, but allowing our minds to be changed. Maybe that’s true. I certainly had no expectation at all that my mind would be changed though. See, I had finally figured out that I wasn’t any good at youth ministry. People of a certain group have been telling me that in one way or another for my whole life. But it took me actually doing it professionally to realize that they were right. Why would I say such a disparaging thing about myself?
•I lack what many people call vision, because the only goals I know how to set are small and simple.
•I am terrible at the administration aspect of leading a group. My attempts at setting a budget for the youth group were as successful as my childhood attempts at digging until I reached lava.
•I have absolutely no stomach for the interpersonal conflicts known as “church politics.”
•Most importantly, I don’t have the right sort of personality to lead youth, (this last bit of information was directly stated to me by a superior during my time as a professional youth pastor). I have a quiet, introverted, morose mode of living. But what was needed was an extroverted, excited, exuberant personality.
•I also have an awkward attachment to alliteration.
I knew all these shortcomings about myself before I began professional youth ministry. Yet I still decided to give it a shot. I can change, I told myself, I can pretend to be an extrovert who knows how to do stuff!
The effort drove me back and forth between fragile self-assurance, and stable despair. It was exhausting, confusing, and ultimately doomed. Thus, after a predictable ending to that career, I swore it off. I took a job building non-lethal, blade-based robots that was both interesting, and repetitive. I loved it, loved it, because it was the perfect antithesis of what I had just come from. And then, some months later, came the request to return.
So, yes, I refused. I gave my excuse about how the lack of teenagers showed that there wasn’t really a need. But I also prayed, and I started paying closer attention to how many teenagers came to church every week. One this week, then none, three the week after that. Then four. Then two. I recalled the promise I had made to God many years ago, that I would never, ever turn down an opportunity to teach his Word. That promise bothered me, because I was breaking it. Gears turned in my mind. I found myself planning out what book of the Bible I would start out teaching. I wondered what it would be like. Returning to ministry no longer felt impossible, it felt inevitable.
So, I built a wall that I felt wouldn’t be breached for a long time. I decided that I would start a youth group if six teenagers showed up at church two weeks in a row. Of course, six teenagers showed up two weeks in a row almost immediately. God broke through the barriers I had set up. Still, I hesitated.
The problem was that what God wanted was the opposite of what I wanted. He wanted me to serve, and I wanted to be left alone. We had to come to an understanding. And so, I literally sat down to have a talk with him one night. It was a one-sided conversation, and it went like this:
“Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy for the job. We both know what happened the last time I tried this. I thought we were in agreement that the whole thing had been a mistake. But, I know my place, and I know yours. I’ll do what you tell me to do. And I will fail. So if you want this thing to work, then you have to make it happen. I have nothing good to bring to the table, so I’m not going to bring anything at all. I’ll show up on Sunday mornings and get the youth together. If you don’t come and take over, then it’s not going to go well. This is your idea, not mine. And I’d like the record to show that I think it’s an awful plan.”
Maybe that was arrogant of me to try to dictate terms to God. Maybe that was faithless of me. I’m not proud of that prayer. It was perhaps a new low point in my service to God. But I think that it was necessary for me to reach that low point, because it had the benefit of being true. I’m not good at this. I’m not a natural. I needed to recognize that.
Some of you are wondering how that scenario worked out. Others are asking yourselves, “What the heck? Tom works for a church. His professional career didn’t end three years ago.” Ah, but I make a distinction. I did start teaching again. I have been a youth pastor for about a year and a half now. And I have been getting compensated for it since January. But I am not a professional. It is a fine line that I draw. It’s the difference between getting paid because you do something, and doing something because you get paid. It’s the difference between working, and serving. How do I make sure that I’m on the right side of that line?
For me, the distinction is embodied in the way that I pray now. In the past, I typically said something like this prayer before I preached: “God, help me do this work well. Open up the hearts and minds of the people who will be listening, and make up for my shortcomings.” Nowadays, I don’t leave the house Sunday mornings before saying a prayer that goes more like this: “God, do this work. Bypass me completely, because I am wholly made of shortcomings. If you don’t show up, we’re all wasting our time.”
So far, our arrangement has been working out nicely.
It’s Ray Day again. That means that today is the anniversary of the sudden end of a man’s life. For all the hand wringing and surviver’s guilt I’ve gone through for the last five years, today I feel nothing but gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel awful that we couldn’t save Ray. But I am thankful that I am still alive, and I am thankful for all the good and bad things that have happened to me since then. Life goes on, at least for some of us. Let’s not waste it, friends.
“Jeeze, Tom! Do you know everybody in this town?” The grocery store bagger asked me this question because I was holding a conversation with the customer behind me while at the same time waving hello to a cashier a few aisles down. It took me off guard, not only because I didn’t actually know the other customer, or because I was surprised that the cashier considered me somebody that she knew enough to wave at, but because I don’t generally consider myself a friendly person.
“No, not everybody,” I replied, “there are still a few people. I’m working on it.” I was playing along, because I could see why he would say that. But his question got me thinking about the four employees of that particular grocery store whom I did know by name. And, oddly enough, there were three customers within my field of view whom I also knew.
It was a surreal moment, because I immediately realized that I knew more than those peoples’ names. I actually knew at least a little about each one of them. That man had his only child late in life, and quite unexpectedly. This guy had once been investigated for gang activity, but had pulled his life back from the brink for the sake of his own unexpected son. I’d gone to youth group with that girl when we were young. I grew up with that guy’s big brother.
I felt strange, as if I’d just realized that I’d grown a mustache without noticing. I paid my bill, said hello to two other people on the way out the door, and pushed my groceries out to the car. When had this happened? How do I actually know so many people? Am I friendly? It might be time to re-evaluate my life.
We’ve had a netflix streaming account for maybe six months now. I can’t even remember how much we pay for it, but I just cancelled it a week ago. My kids have had countless adventures with Diego and the Backyardigans. My wife has watched some movies, tried out a few series. In all that time, all I have watched is:
Trollhunter, a Norwegian movie with subtitles
Primer, a mind warping time-travel movie made on $7,000
and the whole series of the Mr. Bean television show, which may very well be the best thing ever done with video recording technology.
I stand by my choices. I will not miss netflix, (until the new episodes of Arrested Development start airing).
Ever since I started attending Simple Truth church, I’ve been fielding questions about our youth group. The funny thing about it was that there wasn’t a youth group at Simple Truth. We were small, we still are small in a relative sense. I honestly didn’t feel there was a need for a youth group at the time. But there were rumors going around that I was the youth pastor for our small church. Indeed, there were rumors going around that the reason I went to Simple Truth was because they offered me that position. People are funny.
Anyway, things change, the needs of the church change, and so do I. So at least some of the rumors are going to become true. Simple Youth starts this Sunday for High School and Junior High. Show up at 9:30 to eat and hang out, services start at 10:00.
Here’s the website with the address: Simple Truth
I tried to write a long post about Holy Week, human nature, and who knows what else. It got too complicated for me to follow my own thought processes. But the main point was intended to be simple, and it is this:
The crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday because they had certain expectations of Jesus. Then they shouted, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday because Jesus didn’t meet those expectations.
Jesus rode a donkey instead of a white horse on Palm Sunday to show that he had a different agenda than the crowd. Then he died on Good Friday to fulfill his agenda.
The crowd wanted Jesus to deliver them from Roman rule. But Jesus came to deliver us from the dominion of sin.
So many times, my own prayers sound like the hosannas of Palm Sunday. I have my expectations of God. And when he doesn’t meet those expectations, my heart turns from him the same way that the crowd did. But God has plans for me that are so much better than mine. He goes ahead with those plans even when my heart betrays him, just as he did on Good Friday.
My job is not to dictate my wishes to God, he is not a genie. My job is to receive what he has for me.
I have unwillingly listened to country music for the last three days at work. The songs are getting stuck in my head. I could probably sing along with about ten songs at this point. Did I say that THE SONGS ARE GETTING STUCK IN MY HEAD! But I’m okay, it’s okay. I will not complain, because the guy I’m sharing the workspace with has every right to choose what kind of music he wants to listen to. I will say, however, that I have noticed a few peculiar things. Aside from a little of the obligatory Johnny Cash, I have had almost zero exposure to country music. I am aware of its existence, just as I am aware of the botfly. But I would never choose to be in the same room with either of them. So, country music is a new world for me. It’s almost as if I went to hide in a wardrobe and discovered a magical realm of unpleasant experiences. But I am back from the Narnia of Country Music, and I have brought back an anthropological report of my findings.*
– I won’t speculate as to what this signifies, but something like 80% of the commercials on the local country station are for debt relief and/or loans.
– I have been told by several girls that they had high standards for men because of country music, and that country music taught them how a man ought to treat a woman. After hearing how the men of country music sing about women, and vice versa, I don’t see how this is possible.
– There isn’t much variety in country music. I felt like every song was just like the last one except with different lyrics. Same beat, same instruments same chord progression. The lyrics were pretty limited too. Most country music is made up of selfish love songs, and/or descriptions of what it is like to “be country.” Many will feature a reference to “this town” and “my chevy.” As far as I can tell, the ideal date for a country music singer involves either getting blackout drunk, or driving endlessly in a truck together. I swear that I heard one song that managed to combine every single one of those elements.
– There is, interestingly, a lot of plurality in country music. For every man singing about how he is breaking up with a woman because she is insane, there was a woman singing about how she is going to show a man who had broken up with her just how insane she is. If a man sings about how his wife loves him even though he’s a jerk, a woman will sing about how she loves her jerk husband. When you hear a song about how a girl’s daddy is going to beat up her boyfriend, you will certainly hear about all the things the boyfriend did to deserve a beating from her daddy in another song.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study of country music. But the study of country music has exhausted me. I refuse to force myself to think about it any longer. The remainder of my evening will consist of attempting to scrub these songs from my mind.
* If country music had its own Narnia, it would be populated with small, yipping dogs and index fingers on wings that only lived to poke people in the eye. The roads would be paved with poo. The only beverages would be cherry cough syrup or egg yolks. Anyone who visited Country Music Narnia would be cursed with a persistant wedgie and forced to wear really tight headbands.
The following story has three titles that you may choose from:
the right way to be late for work
what it sounds like when the voices in your head are smarter than you
how it is to be trapped in the body of a moron
Whichever title you decide upon, I hope you enjoy my morning commute.
If you could admit it to yourself, you would have confess that you are expecting bad news. But, it’s hard to be that honest with yourself. So you shrug and say things like, “We’ll see,” and, “Hope for the best!” Or, you don’t say anything at all. You clench your teeth without realizing you’re doing it until your jaw begins to hurt. Your stomach twists. You avoid people. You sweat.
But when you suddenly receive good news instead of what you anticipated, there’s no other relief like that that kind of relief.
Thank you to everyone who participated in my foolishness yesterday. Any stragglers are still very welcome to send me a story to post, firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is the story I wrote yesterday, (and edited this morning).
the man who hated cats
Once upon a time, there was a man that hated cats. By and by, he married a girl who loved cats. Everyday he came home from work and she would ask him, “Did you bring me a kitty?” To which he would reply, “No.” Because he hated cats.
Nevertheless, because he loved his wife, he got a kitten for her one day. When he returned home from work, his wife asked him, “Did you bring me a kitty?” At last he could answer, “Yes.” And there was much rejoicing. The man did not rejoice, however. The kitten was a nuisance in his estimation. It hid behind things and pounced on his ankles to bite and scratch him when he walked by. It clawed up his chair. It threw up on the carpet. But the man comforted himself in knowing that his wife was pleased with the furry pest, and he hoped that at least it killed some rodents when it was outside.
One day, the kitten came home from an overnight excursion without one of its feet. There was much distress. If the man had been home, he likely would have shot the animal in order to put it out of its misery. But he was at work, so the kitten was taken to a veterinarian and had its whole back leg amputated. So it goes. The man’s wife made the cat a bed so that it could sleep in the bedroom while it recovered. Late that night, the man awoke to the sound of the kitten howling miserably. His wife slept on, and so he got up to check on the animal. It was asleep, but it was obviously suffering. The man pitied the kitten even though he did not like it. He crouched down and stroked the kitten’s fur. It quieted almost immediately. The man returned to bed, and the terrible howls began again soon after. So, he sat himself down next to the kitten’s bed and stroked its head all night long. Three sleepless nights passed this way, and the kitten began to get better.
It wasn’t long before the kitten was back to normal, although he had one less leg than he began with. It bit the man, tore up his things, and generally did everything it could to make itself unwelcome. Only now, the man couldn’t comfort himself by sending the kitten outside to murder rodents. His wife gave strict orders that the kitten was to remain indoors for the rest of its life. The kitten grew into a cat, and the man and the cat grew into enemies.
Any time a window in the house was opened, the cat would tear holes in the screens. It crouched near the front door so that it could dart outside if the man was not vigilant. He would then be obliged to retrieve the cat, who would lead him for long walks through the underbrush, always staying just out of reach. Sometimes the man would have to crawl under the house in order to fetch the cat. And the cat did many other things to vex the man. Once, when the man returned home from a long journey, he shucked his favorite jacket off onto the floor. The cat immediately rushed over and peed on the jacket. Such was his way. He no longer had the excuse of being, “just a kitty.” He was just a jerk. Many times the man looked at the cat and though, “If my best friend in the world came into my house, destroyed my belongings, scratched my children, and pooped in my closet, as you have done many times, I would violently remove him. And everyone would say I was right to do so. Yet I must tolerate your presence here indefinitely.”
Gradually, however, the cat mellowed out a little. As many villains do as they mature, he became less aggressive, but more devious in his villainy. He would often feign affection for the humans with whom he lived. If he was hungry, he would meow and rub on people’s legs. If he wanted a comfortable place to rest, he would purr and cuddle with someone until they allowed him to sleep on their lap. But all of his affection was purely selfish. The man was not deceived. When the cat tried to crawl onto his lap, he would place it back on the floor and say, “We are not friends, cat. Go away.” When it would rub on his leg and beg noisily for food, he would push it away, saying, “Shut up, cat. Nobody likes you.” Once, his children heard him saying this to the cat, and they protested.
“Don’t say that to the cat,” they said. “He’s our cat, and we like him!”
“Very well,” the man replied. “You can be responsible for feeding him, giving him water, and scooping out that ridiculous box of sand and poop we keep in the laundry room, if you like him so much.”
“We will! We will” they shouted back.
And oftentimes they did. But they also forgot to care for the cat many times, because that is their way. And when the man rose very early in the morning, the cat would be waiting for him. He would trip over it in the kitchen as it rubbed on the same ankles it used to bite. The cat would meow, and meow, and meow until the man would almost shout at it in the dark, quiet house, “SHUT UP!” But the cat would not shut up. And so the man would feed it, and give it water, and then he would squat down and stroke the cat’s fur while it ate, just as he had done many years ago. And so they still live, until this very day.
The moral of the story is this: If a man who hated cats would adopt such a miserable creature, will not God, who loves mankind, adopt such miserable creatures as us? And if a man would care for an animal he hated because of pity, will not God care for us, whom he loves? And if this man continues to feed the cat, whom he would much rather throw as far as possible out the front door, simply because it repeatedly asks, will not God who loves us give us all that we need?