Lead By Position or Through Influence?

I recently wrote an article chronicling some of the key tensions I faced while working in the formal position of Youth Pastor.  It was published on the Youth Specialties site today.  Can you relate or have you experienced this tension?

It was my first day working in the local public high school.  The teenagers walk into my classroom, 70% listening to their iPods while the other 30% are busy texting.  They turn the chairs from their desks and face them towards their friends so they can carry on the conversation they were having on the bus.  Trying not to show my inner panic, I calmly walk around the room and keep a stern face while thinking, “I’m sure they will all focus once the final bell rings for class to start.”  One minute later the bell rings.  It might as well have been their mom asking them to take out the trash…no response.  I think, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I had worked at churches and been in youth ministry my whole adult life.  I owned the title of “youth pastor” and was pretty good at it.  Most little boys want to be baseball players or astronauts when they are little.  I wanted to be a youth pastor.  Weird?  Maybe, but there was some truth to that dream and aspiration.  I loved teenagers and being a youth pastor was a great context to serve them.

My time as a youth pastor was full of authentic relationships, generally; the teenagers came to me and I was the guy that was supposed to have all the answers and create a good time.  Everything was going smoothly until I started asking myself some hard questions…Read Complete Article Here

My Terrifying (yet thrilling) Vision

I live and serve among a missional church community in the neighborhood of Golden Hill.  It is just miles from the heart of the “American Dream” where reputation and financial status are the measuring sticks of success. As I look out my second story apartment window, I can see downtown with the Merrill Lynch sky scraper owning the skyline.

Just a few miles to the south there is a whole different world.  Drug trade, illegal immigration and gang activity are the symptoms of a much deeper dysfunction.  Amidst their oppressive state, there is a people who will risk their lives, reputation and tradition in order to experience the glamorous “American Dream” of their neighboring country.

Between these two worlds there is a multi-billion dollar wall that is supposed to keep out anything or anyone that may compromise such Dream.  Ironically, it is the thousands that cross from south to north of the border each day that keep the American Dream alive.  As janitors, field workers and dishwashers they often go unseen, while I gladly accept the smokescreen of my comfortable reality.

As a community of Jesus followers who desire to walk closely in the footsteps of our Rabbi, we have spent the past four months discerning each of our unique roles within the bigger story of God’s redemptive work in the world. We focused on two realities:

  1. True North: What God has done, is doing and hopes to do in the world as revealed through Scripture and the redemptive work of Jesus.
  2. Personal Vision: Discerning (through testing, counsel, prayer, reflection on earlier parts of our story) each of our unique roles within God’s unfolding mission/vision for Creation

At the end of this process, we all were challenged to write a personal vision statement based on how God has wired us in our gifts, passions, values, skills, etc…

This is my vision statement:

What’s unique about a vision statement like this is that it isn’t some far out ideal.  No, it is a calling to begin stepping into right now.  I could blow this off and wait until something a bit more comfortable and convenient pops up, but I believe I would be disobedient.

Central to this vision is honesty.  Not honesty to be offensive or arrogant, but honesty in telling the stories of those who’s otherwise might not be told.

This is both a terrifying and enlivening challenge for a guy who often defaults to topics that are more comfortable and socially agreeable.  If I am to be true to how God is calling me into his Story, I guess I can no longer hide behind such insecurities.

P.S. This is a picture I took this past summer while driving in the West Bank/Palestine.  Ironic how just miles from the epicenter of faith/religion there is world where humans created in God’s image struggle to find a job making $1 an hour.

Theology of Reflection: part 1

I love Costa Rica. It could be the perfect chest high surf or the tropical rains or the endless wild fruits that you can pull from trees and eat as breakfast on the go.  It is all of those things (and much more!).  But in order to fully appreciate all those brilliant realities, one must embrace the most important reality that Costa Rica has to offer, “Pura Vida.”  Pura vida is Spanish for pure life.  It is not a tangible reality, it is mental state.  It is the mental state that gives all the other life-giving realities the context to come to life.

What is Pura Vida?

  • It is putting a sign on your business door that says, “Closed due to good surf.”
  • Waking up to coffee and reading, while the iguanas run around you looking for left overs
  • Having a BBQ with your neighbors simply because it is a good day to have a BBQ with your neighbors
  • Leaving the last 3 items on your “To Do” list for tomorrow, so you can catch the sunset with your wife

Sounds amazing, right?   Well, it is…unless you’re a product of a culture and personality with a whole different value system.

Jan and I were able to spend 5 weeks down there at the beginning of 2008 to take a sabbatical of sorts, while I worked on writing a book. I didn’t realize that this trip was going to be more about me de-toxing from an unsustainable lifestyle than it was a time of writing.

Honestly, this “Pura Vida” culture was really difficult to embrace.  It took me three weeks of frustration, stress and anxiety to finally release my unhealthy expectations and embrace a way of life that offered way more room for introspection, conversation and reflection.  Left unchecked, my life was being overrun by self induced chaos, unrealistic deadlines, a pursuit of a mythical definition of “success,” and on and on.

I was headed down a road of empty destruction.  One that lacked the space for rich relationships, personal reflection and a listening ear for God’s divine breath.

How did I get to this point?  Where did these lies of false success find their way into my confused value system?  What cultural paradigm had I bought into that could breed such a life of chaos?

Launching into a new year, it is important that I re-trace my steps of a few years ago and take some inventory of where I land today.  Interestingly, the Biblical Story and the voices of the Early Church Fathers cast a serious indictment on the life I was living, while offering a sustainable way forward.

More tomorrow.

“Don’t Act Like You’re Not Impressed.”

I love to impress people.  I mean, who doesn’t?  For example, just last night at our friends’ house the topic of Giants baseball and my long time fanhood jumped into our conversation.  I was asked how painful it has been to be a Giants fan for so long and I quickly responded by retelling the gut-wrenching story of the Mets’ Benny Agbayani hitting a 13th inning game winning homer against us in the 2000 playoffs.  My friends were impressed by such specific Giants’ knowledge (or maybe they just thought I was pathetic) and I was happy to oblige, especially now that those memories aren’t so painful having won a World Series.

A trusted counselor of mine once told me, “Jon, you probably write/teach about the importance of authenticity, but you need to do a better job modeling that in your own life.” Ouch…

On my best day, I write what God has put on my heart and I share it with conviction.  On my worst day, I write while asking the question, “What do people want to hear and how can I impress them?”  I don’t have the time, desire or calling to simply write what people want to hear.  Plus, that is just bad writing and doesn’t make for a compelling story.

Over the past three years, I have sensed an overwhelming conviction to tell the stories that often get dismissed, over looked or that are culturally taboo within our Western narrative.  Whether stories from the alley behind my apartment or stories from our travels in a war torn Middle East, I commit to tell them with honesty, conviction and creativity (more on this in my next post).

For now, help me live out the advice of my counselor by engaging in critical conversation and story that sheds light on God’s Kingdom, even if it rustles our feathers and makes us a bit uncomfortable.  Because if I’m authentic in telling these stories, we will be uncomfortable…and hopefully inspired towards action.

Blog Freeze

So I have been running from an honest update on this blog for some time now. Reading the blog of my great friend Chip, has stirred me to action. Some use the “blog” as a platform to inform others of the latest life happenings, some use it as a public journal of personal thoughts/exploration, others may use it as a place to sound tough on issues they are passionate enough to write alot about, while often taking much less effort to turn the words into actions, etc…I probably have used it for all of those things. Further, most blogs I have read end with some kind of conclusion that gives the impression that the writer has mastered the issue(s) at hand and can come off a bit arrogant. I have probably done some of that too.

I am typically a “glass half full” kind of guy. Not lately. Things have been a tough go, while lacking many of the positive experiences and/or insights I mentioned above. Something I am realizing more and more everyday is that I am a product of a paradigm/culture that doesn’t very well embrace the reality of simply “being” who we are without having some kind of positive spin to it. Especially those that find themselves in religious leadership positions. If I don’t have some positive news, life experience or insight then why share it? Well, I am finding that this may be the most important time to share. I can often relate to the pain of real life in a much more profound way than I can relate to anothers’ success. Not that I am saying we shouldn’t celebrate and throw a party as a result of anothers success. We should. But I also want to be with others in the pain of the everyday in the same way that I need those closest to me to partner/share in mine.

These past few months have been full of relational tension, confusion, frustration/anger, hopelessness, passivity and depression. It is not necessarily the events of these past couple months that have led to this, but the illumination of past hurt that has surfaced. Not just ways that I have been wronged, but ways that I have wronged myself through unrealistic expectations. I feel as though I am going through a detox from this culture of “assumed/expected daily euphoria” that I had bought into and moving towards one of transparency, humility and service.

I have a pretty good idea what to blame for this extended time of introspection and revelation. Like never before, Janny and I have experienced a peace in our souls that affirms that we are uncovering and partnering in the Kingdom of God in a real way. It hasn’t come in the form of going to a church service or speaking/sharing only the ways God has “worked” in our lives. It has been through an acknowledgment of the ways He is “working” and asking us to better identify with those that may not have it all together…like ourselves. I’m not saying this peace has made it all easy or at times even felt worth while. But I have to assume that if God wants us to invite others into His Kingdom that raises up the weak, poor, hurting, broken…we must be able to relate. I must get a more true understanding of who I am in light of this Way of love and share with others in the midst of chaos.

I’ll save our latest life happenings(teaching, coaching, church, etc…) for the next blog. For now, I have thawed the Blog Freeze with some good old fashion honesty.

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