So I’ve been away from blogging for a while. No excuses really—maybe just uninspired. That is, until yesterday.
For the past month I’ve been trying to reconnect with a student—I’ll call him “Mike.” Mike had been coming to L1 on Sunday nights since the school year began. During the year he really experienced God for himself and he came to a place where he was ready to completely give every part of his life to Jesus Christ. Rarely have I seen the kind of pure desire to follow Christ as I have with this guy. But something happened a couple of months ago that rocked him pretty hard. Because of a series of events that may have led to uncertainty, Mike decided that coming on Sunday nights wasn’t really that important. I called him numerous times. So did his small group leader. I sent him text messages—“Just seeing how you’re doing, dude. Hope everything is ok.” Sunday nights is supposed to be like family. A healthy Christian family learns together, worships together, shares the good and bad stuff together, prays together. These are the kind of things that happen on any given Sunday night. So when Mike became distant and even seemed disinterested, it was obvious that something was wrong.
I want to go off on a slight tangent before finishing the Mike story.
I talk to students all the time that are just kind of checking this whole “God thing” out. They come to L1 with a friend and are kind of kicking the spiritual tires a bit. I tell them how glad I am that they’ve come and how I hope that they find truth. I may even go out to coffee with them and dive in a bit deeper, trying my best to answer questions they may have. But in the end their faith will be just that—theirs. I can’t make anybody believe, nor do I want to. It has to be their own. So when a student like that decides that they’re not really interested in coming to L1 anymore, I meet with them. I tell them how much I care about them. I tell them that I hope they find truth and that I’ll be praying that they do. I tell them the door is always open and that they can come back whenever they’re ready. But I don’t beg them to stay. If they’ve made a decision that they simply don’t want to accept the Truth of Jesus Christ, I can only pray that they will someday. And if what we do on Sunday night doesn’t resonate with them, I can’t make them come—nor do I want to. I do think there are situations in which children of Christian parents are rebelling for a season and tell their parents they don’t want to go to youth group. These kids have grown up knowing about Jesus and many have even expressed their faith in Him. I think these kids shouldn’t have the option to skip youth group and parents should make that very clear. I know not everyone agrees with me on that. Let’s just say I’ve seen both sides of it and it’s why I believe the way I do. But this isn’t who I’m referring to. I’m talking about the student who doesn’t believe and, at least for the time being, doesn’t really want to. Like I said—I’m not going to beg them to stay. I’m not going to chase them. That’s not what its about.
Mike is another story. I knew that he really believed, but he was taking a spiritual beating. He was engaged in a spiritual battle and when he pulled out of L1, well, he was left out in the open. Remember Forrest Gump? Remember when Forrest went back into the jungle to get Lt. Dan and Bubba? We love stories like that because they demonstrate fierce loyalty. I think deep down we all want to know that there is someone who has our back, someone who will came back to get us if we fall. But never mind movie analogies---how about Scripture? Jesus made it crystal clear about how we should chase after guys like Mike:
"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” Matthew 18:12-14
Mike finally answered my phone call the other day and we talked for about 30 minutes. Some great things happened during that phone call:
1) I had the chance to tell him that I missed him and that I felt that our relationship wasn’t the best at the moment. He was surprised and asked why I thought that. I told him that I had a book on relationships on my desk. It was really short—one page actually. It said that to have a relationship with someone you actually have to interact with the person! We both laughed pretty hard, but Mike admitted that he got the point. 2) He said he was planning on coming to L1 this week AND that he would be coming on our Mission Trip. I’m hopeful. 3) I told Mike that there were other students who missed him—who were asking about him. His response: “Like who?”
I told him the names of the students who had been asking about him. His mood changed. I could hear it in his voice. He got kind of excited because people cared. In Mike’s world, there are people that are likely to check in on him to see how he’s doing--it only makes sense. For instance, I’m going to follow up with him because I’m the Youth Minister. His Small Group Leader is going to follow up with him because he’s an adult leader within the ministry. So it also made sense to him that some of these students from L1 hadn’t called to see how he was doing. It’s not their “job.” Not only that, but we don’t see students doing that in our culture. It would be completely counter cultural for a student to call him or text him just to check in. And that’s what we want our students to be—counter cultural. I honestly think many of them are getting it. But my experience with Mike only reinforces what I’ve known for a long time. I want our students to do things that don’t make sense! I know that sounds funny, but in his book “Crazy Love” Francis Chan writes, “Having faith often means doing what others see as crazy. Something is wrong when our lives make sense to unbelievers.” When our students start to realize the hope that they can bring to someone with just a simple phone call/text message I believe they’ll do it more and more. Mike, like all people, wants to know that he is loved. I can tell him that. So can his small group leader. But when students start showing him that—man, that’s when the doors are going to get blown off! When our students identify the lost sheep and go get them, loving them all the way, we’re going to see change happen. And I believe we’re very close!
It's 12:15am on Tuesday, March 3rd. iTunes is downloading the new U2 Album "No Line On The Horizon" as I'm typing this. Hang on a sec----checking progress. Ok, back now and listening to the album. Specifically, the track "Breathe." I just saw the guys do this live on Letterman and they pulled me off the comfy cushions of my couch--literally to the edge of my seat! Bono had the studio audience on their feet--and I mean they were stoked! The audience looked like they were pulsing-no joke. There were people with their hands in the air, eyes closed--just being moved. And it was like it happened in an instant. One moment the camera showed the audience sitting there, somewhat getting into it. Then Bono gets to this section of the song and personalizes it by inserting New York:
"C'mon, New York-Get on your feet--Walk out into the street Sing your heart out The people we meet Will not be drowned out There’s nothing you have that I need I can breathe Breathe now Yeah, yeah"
There was cheering when he had them stand. The command that Bono had over the crowd was truly amazing. Now I guess this is when I'll go and get a little weird for some people, but oh well (I've never really been too concerned about that anyway). There something about Bono that draws people to him. Yes--he has charisma--that's obvious. And yes--there aren't many rivals to him out there when it comes to social justice. But I see and hear something else about him--something that draws me in and helps me relate to his journey. He's completely accessible and transparent. His lyrics are often raw and sometimes similar to a stream of consciousness, albeit a poet's stream of consciousness, but nevertheless just his passion pouring out. There is a desperation in his voice--a longing for something better to come. I believe that he is longing for a new heaven and new earth. The more hurt and injustice he sees, the more he wants the newness to come--and come soon. I'm right there.
Hey Joanna--This post is really all about you. We shared your newsletter with the 5th-8th graders and some student leaders. After we shared with them all of the amazing things that God is doing through you guys, we gave them the opportunity to write to you! Enjoy! (And by the way--you are my HERO!) We love you and are so proud of you!
God is with you ALWAYS! He’ll never let you down Emily Howell
Wow! It is so amazing what you’re doing – you’ve literally given up EVERYTHING to follow Jesus! You’ve inspired me to get serious about my faith and do whatever HE wants me to do, even if it’s hard. I’ll be praying for you! Keep up the good work, Laura Beth
Hey! It was good hearing what you were doing. It is really sad but I still hope you are having fun! Abrianna Busbee
I hope you have fun. Calvin Smith
I’m a guy that rarely comes but I know what you’re doing is good, so good luck!
Hey Joanna! I miss you. You are doing awesome things! You have been inspiring everyone by what you are doing! Miss and love ya so much! Taylor Stamper
Joanna, You are such an inspiration to everyone around you. I know these past weeks have been hard, and I’m so glad that you’ve kept your faith strong. I know that times will be hard, but God will always be with you. Love ALWAYS, Laura Suddeath
Dear Joanna, You’ve really inspired me. What you’re doing is really amazing.
JOANNA! I admire you so much for going out there and serving the Lord while doing what you love. I think that you are very strong and those kids are luck to have met you. I realized that you are coming back on my sister’s birthday! I don’t know I think it’s cool. I miss you. I’ll be praying for you. Safe travels, Tabie Fugett
Dear Joanna, I hope you are having fun and that you can help a lot of people.
God is always with you wherever you are. From, Chase Gering
Joanna, You are so inspirational. I look up to you. Nicky is counting the days until you come home. Thank you for the X-mas note. Ethan Hackett
Hope you are having a little bit of fun. Hope things get better. Love, Georgie Busbee
Dear Joanna, You’re doing the right thing. I just wanted to let you know you are in my prayers. I hope you’re healthy and happy. Live a good life. Love, Delaney
Dear Joanna, You did some amazing things! That’s great! Thank you for what you have done. - Matt
Dear Joanna, I think what you are doing is really cool. We miss you! Reilly Adams (AKA Tyler Rouse’s little sister)
I hope you have fun. From, Kyle Fuggett
Dear Joanna, I hope that you will stay safe while you are there. I will pray for you.
So Joanna, I was seriously gonna go home and e-mail you tonight then I showed up to youth group and Melanie said we were writing to you. You’ll probably get an e-mail too. I must admit, I’m a bit jealous of your strength and trust in the Lord. Your heart and spirit truly make an impact on everyone you meet. It was amazing to see the kids react to your story, especially the ones you know best. You are providing inspiration to the senior high kids. Having someone like you go out ahead of us and show that God will provide if it is His plan has given us strength to keep up with our ATG work. You should see our ATG event nights; it really is a beautiful thing to watch people come together who otherwise never would. You’re a lucky woman of God who gets to meet His people face to face. You really are being the hands, feet, and I guess eyes of God. You’ve shown me, us, and everyone how much you can do with God on your side. I will continue to pray for you, just as I have been. We miss you. I realize what you’re doing isn’t easy but it makes a difference worldwide. I LOVE YOU, JOANNA! Maybe it’s everyone being selfish but we all miss you and can’t wait for you to come home! Love (and SO much more!), Karlen Paxton
Evan says be careful. Tyler says what you’re doing great, keep it up! Takes a lot of courage to do what you’re doing
Dear Joanna, You are amazing. I am so influenced by you. I love everything you’ve done. Amazing. Thank you, Grayson S
Dear Joanna, Wow you have inspired me with everything you have done. I hope to follow in your footsteps one day. I’ve never realized how bad the conditions are in Africa. I will definitely pray for you. You have a lot of faith and strength. God has shown me through you how to really live. Sincerely, Lane Stafford
Hey it’s a great thing that you are doing and we are praying for you and Good Luck. Luke Schmittou
Dear Joanna, It’s so cool that you go to go and do that! We are praying for you. From, Caroline Adams
Hey Joanna, I just wanted to tell you how much you inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be a photographer and lately have wanted to join the army and I think that maybe when I graduate college, I can do what you do. It seems like a great way to serve God. Stay safe and keep on serving, you rock. Katie Moon
Hi I hope you are having fun. Lance Idema
Joanna, It’s people like you that keep the world a better place to live! Good luck, Julia
Joanna, I really wanted to go with you. It must be fun and scary at the same time. I’m in 5th grade. My name is Emily. The story is amazing!!! Emily H
I’ll pray for you. Trent
Joanna, I think what you are doing is awesome. Stay safe and good luck. You are in all of our prayers. Mackenzie
Joanna, I just wanna say that Harpeth is supporting you and so am I! I hope you have a great time! Ashley
Joanna, You are doing amazing! I wouldn’t ever be able to do that! Garrett O’Shea Lydia Parker Marabeth Kennedy
I hope that you have fun and are able to help many people. Good luck, Josh Filbey
Joanna, I think what you are doing is AMAZING! It takes a lot of courage to do what you are doing! I pray for the best! Love, Brenna
Dear Joanna, We love all of the love and joy you’re spreading. Be careful out there. God bless you! Ashley Nite
Hope you have fun. From, Brady
Dear Joanna, I hope you save a lot more children and your coffee shop makes de-caf! Sincerely, Josh Burgos
Hey I love what you are doing in Africa. Hunter
Dear Joanna, Thanks for what you are doing. I will continue to pray for you and the other people. Austin Keyser
Dear Joanna: You are sooo brave for doing what your doing. I’m sure your blessing other people’s lives. Hope you’re having fun. Alexis
Joanna, I’m sorry this is hard and I hope it leaves an emotional and spiritual impression in your life, Please hang on. It’s amazing what you’re doing. Becca West
Great job! People here are admiring your work. Brian Lacey
Joanna, I miss you so much. What you’re doing is so amazing and loving. When I heard your story I was so amazed of how much love you have for people. Love, Jasmine Sagginario
Hey Joanna, It’s really great what you’re doing. We all miss you and you’ll be in my prayers. Caleb West
Joanna, This is absolutely amazing, what you are doing for these people! I will be praying for you! Love, Gretchen Sandahl
This is the good kind. Not the 'Look at me--I'm so awesome" kind of pride. This morning I went to John Mark's school for "Doughnuts With Dad." Dads are invited to come and hang out with their kids, all the while enjoying a tasty doughnut and hearing about the cool stuff that the kids are learning. All of the students had prepared a little picture book for their dads called "My Dad and I..." Here's what John Mark's looked like (with commentary):
Heck yeah, we do!
He thinks I make the best!
My favorite sport and he loves it, too! Saturdays at the movies is quickly becoming a tradition. His first experience with this movie was a few weeks ago--HE LOVED IT! This was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I read him all kinds of stories every night, as well as the Bible. He has so many books that he calls his "favorite."
This made my day, week, month, etc.! His teacher told me that he is constantly talking about God and how he has such a sensitive way about him. I'm so proud of my son! I can't wait to see how God will use this little guy.
While you do have freedom of speech in America, if you're using that freedom to express your great sadness or utter disappointment in our country's choice for president-well--it may be time to refocus your energy toward something a bit more productive.
If you're a praying person, pray for President Obama. Whenever you think of him, pray.
Celebrate what has taken place today. I just saw a woman interviewed and she told this story: "The day after the election, when my young daughter woke up, I told her that something incredible had happened. I told her that that while she was asleep, Dr. Martin Luther King's dream had come true." We definitely have a ways to go with that one, but I appreciated the heart behind what she said.
Yesterday I had a great conversation with some of my favorite people. We were talking about truly living a life dedicated to following Christ and how that can be really hard sometimes. Specifically, if you're in a situation where you may have been living a life that was in complete opposition to God's desire for you and He sends you some kind of wake up call which rocks your whole world and then everything changes. Even more specifically, when the friends you used to party with see a change in you but don't really get what's going on. You want them to "get it", but they don't. So I was telling this student who is brand new follower of Christ how hard that can be, and in doing so I began my sentence like this: "I know this can kinda suck, but...." He interrupted me and said, "I like it when you tell me sucky things because it's truth." I love where this guy is because he has been so real about how hard it can be to follow Christ! He knows it's not easy because he's living it. Often times the truth does suck at first, or maybe second, or maybe the 100th time we hear or experience it. It sucks because we want what we want when we want it and that has nothing to do with the truth. God's truth, if we accept it and apply it, will mold us. This usually means that it will stretch us and shake us up a bit. That doesn't always feel good. In fact, it kinda sucks sometimes! What's really cool about what this student is saying about truth is that even though the truth may suck at first, it ultimately sets you free and freedom is what he's experiencing. He'll tell you that in the midst of the truth that may suck at times, he's never felt so alive. Explain that?
Ok, my alarm went off at 5am again today (funny how it will do that when that's the time you've set it to go off!) and I didn't make it out of bed until 6. This is harder than I thought! Anyway, I started my study at 6:30 and it was great! My church (Harpeth Community Church) is currently reading the enitre New Testament this year and today's reading was in Matthew 8.
I've read the story of the Centurion many times, and thankfully, I'm blown away every time I read it. I think I have faith and then I read this story and I'm like, "Dang, do I have faith like this?" This guy obviously had heard about Jesus and the things that he'd done, but unlike many others who had a "I have to see it to believe it" attitude, he says to Jesus, "Just say the word." Crazy. Just say the word. If you've never read this story or if it's been a while, check it out (Matthew 8:5-13).
God, please increase my faith. I want to believe like the Centurion. Amen.
So I'm now trying to wake up at 5:00 am each morning to have some good quality time with God. This morning my alarm went off and I turned it off. Then I woke up around 5:30 and got things started around 6. Hey, it's a start. So today in my "Experiencing God" study I was looking at examples from Scripture when people had to rely on God to come good with the promises He made, or times when people stepped out in faith and believed that God would make what seemed to be impossible possible. And it was in these moments that God was undeniable to the people around. One example was Moses and the Red Sea. No way around that one. God was going to come through or all of the Israelites were going to die. Or when David fought Goliath. David said, "the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel." He said that because everyone thought they were about to watch him get owned by the huge Philistine but he believed that God was going to deliver Goliath to him. Everyone who witnessed that had to admit that God was real and that he wasn't fooling around.
So then the point was made in the study that often times Christians aren't stepping outside their comfort zone and believeing that God will use them in ways that can only be attributed to God being at work. A lot of Christians and churches have a "play it safe mentality"--they do the usual stuff that churches might do, but they're not really opening themselves up to be used in ways that make God's presence and existence undeniable. Here's an excerpt for today's study:
"What our world often witnesses today is a devoted, committed Christian or church serving God. But they are not seeing God. They don't see anything happening that can be explained only in terms of God's activity. Why? Because we are not attempting anything that only God can do. Our world is not being attracted to the Christ we serve because they are not seeing him at work within our lives. They see us doing good things for God and comment, "That's nice, but its not my thing." The word is passing us by because they do not want to get involved in what they see in our lives. We are not giving them opportunities to encounter God. They are seeing only us. Let the world watch God at work, and He will attract people to Himself. Let Christ be lifted up, not only in words but in life. Let people see the difference the living Christ makes in a life, a family, or a church; that will affect how they respond to the gospel. When the world sees things happening through God's people that cannot be explained except that God Himself has done them, the world will be drawn to such a God."
I'm praying that God will use me to make his name great. So I guess I'm praying that I'll be open to things that would show His greatness. That's pretty huge if you think about it because who knows what that will look like. Are you willing to be stretched so that people will really see Christ at work in your life? I want it, but I'll have to get past myself everyday.
If you're a follower/fan of the blogs of Melanie Carter, Jamie Vance, Melissa Carter, Erica Osborn, and Keith Trollinger (big shout out, guys), then this blog entry may seem a bit redundant. Oh well. I've been thinking about the best way to sum up this year's ski trip experience. I think that God gives me insight into what he's doing within our youth group while we're on trips like this and this year's trip was no exception. From the moment I looked out on everybody's tired faces at 7:30am on New Year's day to the moment I looked out at all of the students and adults who were participating in the baptism of Dominic Nanni, there is one word that has been forever etched into my mind about these people--FAMILY. I think about how grateful I am for my wife. She's amazing--truly! Then my awesome kids, John Mark and Riley. Words fail to describe how much joy they bring me. My mom and dad and all of my sisters--they are such a blessing. God has so richly blessed me with my family. But amazingly, family doesn't stop there. These students and adults that I have the honor of serving--they are all my family. I think it catches some of the students off guard when I tell them they're my family. I love that. They're like, "Family, really?" You bet. For some reason, most likely because He loves us like no other, God shows us glimpses of heaven. Specifically, how we will all be joined together in perfect unity. That is God's design for family--His family. Why I get to see it now, on earth, is something I can't fully grasp. I also can't describe the feeling I have in my heart toward these people that are my "family." I was trying to describe it to a student while we were on the trip. I said, "Y'know when you meet someone and there's something inside you, in your spirit, that goes off like a siren, and you connect with that person immediately?" That's God at work. When Jesus is praying for all the people who will believe in him after his ascension, he leaves no doubt as to what he desires for them. Three times he prays that we all will be one, as He and the father are one. Jesus and His father--the most amazing family ever--and that's what he prays for us. So something happened on this trip that took that to another level. The thing that I love is that I can't for the life of me put my finger on what it was. Whether it was having a blast playing catch phrase on the bus, sharing my water with a student while we were in the lift line, catching up with old friends, or just sitting there quietly watching everyone interacting, there it was--there was my family. I can't imagine what is going to happen this year as this family gets even closer. God is drawing us back to him, and in the process we are drawn to each other like never before. God's kingdom has come and will continue to come. He is manifesting it through his people and to quote Melanie Carter, "My heart is full." Praise be to the Most High God. The infinite creator of all things seen and unseen, and the intimate lover of our souls who brings us together and adopts us all into his perfect family! I love you guys!
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."--The Apostle Paul. Trying to be more like Christ--its a battle most of the time. Loving God and loving others--to REALLY do that--takes work. So I'm trying.