Flat tires and sunsets: A story of answered prayer

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Sometimes, we have to look through the weirdest circumstances to encounter God. This is a story of one of those times.

I was lucky enough to spend last week serving as a mentor for a group of teenagers at the Radical Discipleship Academy of Appalachia, an initiative of the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church’s Conference Committee on Youth Ministries. It was an incredible week working with some really remarkable teenagers and some awesome colleagues at Spring Heights Camp, a facility owned by the WVUMC and used for a variety of summer camps and other retreat activities.

As the adult staff gathered on Sunday night to prepare for the students’ arrival on Monday, we walked through some worship and prayer exercises and ended our time together in prayer triads, groups of three people who would pray for one another’s needs for the week.

A prayer for rest

One of my prayer partners, who happened to be our guest speaker for the Academy, asked me what I needed prayer for. Having just come off a stressful week of trying to button things up at the church so I could be gone for a week, I simply asked her to pray for me to have some rest.

It seemed like a pretty reasonable request, considering the fact that our schedule for the week was jam-packed, including late nights and early mornings. Rest would be a precious commodity.

We’re having a heat wave…

Sure enough, I was beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation by about Thursday, a day when we were to take the students offsite for a planned overnight mission project. Due to some allergy issues, I planned to return to camp at the end of the day along with a few other adult leaders with similar concerns.

Thursday also turned out to be the 5th consecutive day for us to experience 90+ degree temperatures and oppressive humidity that drove the heat index well over 100º. So, needless to say, by mid-afternoon when some of us had to drive a few miles out a rural West Virginia back road to shuttle some of the kids from one place to another, I was fading fast.

Blowout

flat-tire-jpgWhich is when God gave me the flat tire.

Now I know it sounds strange to say that God gave me a flat tire. But hear me out.

As a result of getting a flat out in the boonies of Roane County, WV, in 100º+ heat, I was a filthy, sweaty mess by the time I got the tire changed, and had just enough time to get back to the town of Spencer to try to get to an auto shop before they closed to see if I could buy a new tire (luckily, my Jeep Cherokee came with a full-size spare…but it was just one spare, leaving me vulnerable for further driving on roads used more frequently by logging trucks than local residents).

I made it to the shop five minutes before closing time, and the kind and very professional owners and staff fixed me up by putting my spare back on the good rim and selling me a used tire to put in the spare well.

At that point, though, it was fairly pointless to drive back to the mission site, so I returned to camp with the hopes of getting my sermon for last Sunday written and maybe catching up on some correspondence before the other staff members returned.

One is the loneliest number

As it turned out, I had nearly five hours of total solitude back in the retreat area of Spring Heights.

Now, as an extrovert, I generally relax in a crowd. I need people around me to unwind. But even extroverts need the occasional bit of solitude.

After a quick shower and piecing together some delicious leftovers for dinner (don’t ever let anyone tell you sausage gravy and mashed potatoes isn’t a good dinner!), I sat down at my laptop, expecting to do battle with the camp’s sketchy Wi-Fi service while trying to get some work done while I had the time.

But something really cool happened in the midst of that.

I not only managed to get everything done I needed to do, but actually flew right through it without my internet signal ever dropping out. And as I finished up, I looked out the windows of the cottage to see an amazing sunset over the hilltops on the western horizon.

As I stepped out to try to get some photos and admire the day’s final display of color and light, I realized the humidity of the day had broken a bit, making it almost pleasant (or at least markedly less disgusting!) in the summer evening air.

And I realized something else.

I felt rested.

Did you hear the one about God and the flat tire?

And that’s when I realized God had answered my prayer through a flat tire.

I should note, by the way, that I’ve never doubted that God has a sense of humor.

I say that because in the moment of having a blowout in literally The Middle of Nowhere West Virginia, I could have thrown one hell of a pity party. I could have questioned why I was even there in the first place, or ruminated on what particular sin God was punishing me for, or indulged any of a number of other negative thoughts.

Now, do I believe God literally gave me that flat tire just so I could experience something transcendent later that evening? Honestly, I don’t think that’s how God works.

But I do believe God gave me the ability to see that good can be made of anything, and that if we’re willing to tune in and pay attention and not get wrapped up in our own self-pity, we might just open ourselves up to an encounter with the divine.

That evening, witnessing that sunset on that West Virginia Hilltop, there was no room for anything but gratitude.

Gratitude for a flat tire.

And an answered prayer.

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World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s a day for us to reach out and share hope.

My daughter and Awesomeness Conspiracy Poet Laureate Anna posted this on her YouTube channel today. I wanted to share it here in hopes of spreading the word and reminding us all how important it is to make sure everyone we encounter knows they are valued and that each life is precious.

A reminder of what is possible

If you’ve been following the blog here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy, you know I spent last week at the Aldersgate Campus of New Creation UMC in Chesapeake, Va., for their annual Youth Week celebration. This was the second consecutive year I was invited to be the guest speaker for this incredible youth event and for my daughter Amanda and I to be part of it.

I had originally intended to post a daily blog entry throughout the week, but as you probably noticed I stopped kind of abruptly after last Wednesday’s post. Shortly after I uploaded that article, a freak lightning strike and small (but quickly contained) electrical fire at the home of our hosts, Sean and Barb Maconaghy, scrambled our plans and living arrangements for the last few days of our visit. Then, after returning home late Sunday night, my time was occupied with preparing for a scheduled engagement to speak at a revival service at Barlow Presbyterian Church in Barlow, OH, last night.

Despite all of that, though, I wanted to come back to Youth Week one last time and share some of my impressions.

YWBoysTo say that Jesus was present throughout the week and that lives were transformed might be both cliché and a bit of an understatement. We saw teenagers genuinely trying to deal with family tragedies, broken situations in homes, addictions, loneliness and hopelessness. We saw kids come together to lift one another up, to pray together, cry together, and laugh together.

We saw students who, for the first time, began to “get it” when it comes to understanding the reality of Jesus. And we saw one young man come into the week (at the invitation of a friend) denying that God even exists and end the week with a celebration of Christian baptism.

I’m sure I speak for all of the adult leaders, church staff, and my friends from the worship band To Send With Love when I say that none of us could take any credit for any of it.

On Friday night, during our closing worship service as we gathered for a time of Holy Communion and invitation, we did our best to create an atmosphere where the students could open themselves up to have an authentic experience of Jesus in that place and time. There’s a delicate balance for worship leaders and preachers to set a tone for those kinds of moments without becoming emotionally manipulative.

The response we witnessed was nothing short of amazing. God was clearly intersecting in students’ lives. The outpouring of love in the room was tangible.

But to me, what might have been the coolest part of the week was on Sunday morning as the students led the Youth Sunday services for the congregation.

Not only did the folks of Aldersgate pack both Sunday morning services, but the support of the church for its youth ministries was clearly evident. This is a church that knows how to prioritize youth ministries. The compliments that poured out from the attendees to the clergy, the youth staff and to all of us who participated were heartfelt and genuine.

As I mentioned last week, it seems too many churches are unwilling to give much more than lip service to youth ministries. We all want youth programming, but we are unwilling to commit the resources–especially in terms of time and money–to create and maintain successful ministries. We often become so entrenched in defending traditions and attempting to live in a bygone era that we fail to appreciate the power and potential of a strong youth program to enliven stagnant congregations. We become so focused on squeezing pennies that we fail to create a compelling environment where people are not only willing, but anxious to give of themselves.

Events like Youth Week have been a blessing to me because they remind me of what is possible. They remind me of what the church can be when it sets its vision and priorities with where Jesus is actively moving in the world. Always looking forward, never backward. Respecting tradition, but not worshipping it.

Below is a short 4-minute video I put together of interviews with several Youth Week participants. I think it demonstrates in a powerful way what can happen in the lives of teenagers when a church makes them a top priority.

Thanks, New Creation, for an amazing week! I hope we can do it again next year!

Whacky Tacky Wednesday

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A youth pastor friend of mine recently had his budget cut because he spent too much on tacos for some students one night. Another was run out of his job at a small church because parents wanted him to spend more time playing games and developing activities for his students than teaching them the Bible.

It seems like churches are always trying to find a balance in their student ministries between teaching and fun. Sadly, many youth pastors get caught in a trap between parishioners on one side who feel that fun and learning are mutually exclusive, and parents on the other who prefer to have their children entertained rather than taught anything significant.

No wonder the average tenure of a youth pastor in American churches is something like 18 months.

Activities like the Youth Week event I’m speaking at in Chesapeake, Va., this week are a perfect demonstration of the fact that it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to make a choice between serious teaching and serious fun. In fact, if you do it right, it doesn’t even become about achieving some kind of balance between fun and learning. It is entirely possible to do both at the same time.

What makes it work is attitude. The attitude of pastors, youth leaders, parents and students are all critical components. Youth leaders have to have clear expectations and communicate them to their kids. Parents have to buy in to what the leaders are trying to do and, most importantly, be present both for their children and for their youth staff. Students have to be teachable. And pastors have to give their leaders the space to work creatively while providing moral and spiritual support without suffocating them.

Yesterday’s “Whacky-Tacky Wednesday” here at Aldersgagte was a great example of these principles at work. Many of the kids who attended dressed in goofy costumes for our worship and teaching sessions today. Even the worship band, some of the parents and leaders, and even this grizzly old guest speaker got in on the act. We learned. We served. We worshipped. And we had a blast.

Church leaders, don’t hamstring your youth staff by either forcing out the fun or, worse yet, making it so overly-contrived and orchestrated as to render it inauthentic. Parents, allow your church to actually teach your kids something. Trust me, they can take it.

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of joy. Churches should be the first place our students learn that lesson, not the last.

Kingdom ambassadors

DSCN2908Yesterday was the first of two days of service projects for the students attending YouthWeek at New Creation United Methodist Church, where I am blessed to be serving as the guest speaker/teacher this week. As we’ve been unpacking the gospel over the past few days, we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to be an ambassador in the Kingdom of Heaven.

My plan for this entry of The Awesomeness Conspiracy was to spend some time talking about that concept a little bit. But yesterday I met Malcom. Malcom is an 88-years-young retired United Methodist Pastor. I asked him how he saw the Kingdom in the students who had come to clean up his yard yesterday. I think he says it better than I ever could.

Meet Malcom:

Waves of mercy, waves of grace

DSCN2900Our Youth Week celebration got underway in earnest today at the Aldersgate Campus of New Creation United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, Va., after last night’s opening session. And to say the energy level is high would be more than a bit of an understatement.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Youth Week is seven days of worship, teaching, serving, activities and much more for teenagers in this coastal Virginia community. The 100 or so kids who showed up today shared meals together, participated in small group discussions after both the morning and evening sessions, worshipped together, and in between spent a few hours at the beach just having a good time being awesome together.

My favorite part of every day at Youth Week, though, is the last activity of the day.

After I finish the evening teaching session, we invite the students to go into their groups and come up with some kind of creative response to what they have learned. It was a concept I introduced last year, roughly modeled on activities from the Walk to Emmaus weekend for adults.

Tonight we had poems, skits, and my personal favorite, a song set to the tune of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire.” It is amazing to see what creative ideas these kids can prepare in a short 30 minutes. It’s obvious that they are not only invested in what we’re trying to teach, but that they desire to find ways to integrate the lessons they’re learning into the reality of their lives.

What really impresses me the most, though, is that they’re actually processing fairly weighty theology. I’m really not pulling any punches in trying to help them understand the importance of Jesus’ time and place in history in understanding why his life, death, and resurrection still matter today. I’ve always believed that teenagers not only are able to grasp deeper theological truths than we often give them credit for, but they really want them. You just have to find the right ways to communicate them.

It’s a mark of their postmodern age that they want to understand the historical and cultural context surrounding the stories from the Bible. They don’t want to just be told to believe something, they want to know why they should believe it. They want to know what is believable about it. And they want to know how to make it real in their lives.

Tomorrow we’ll be talking about Jesus’ Kingdom parables. We’re going to try to unpack the reality Jesus is trying to relate when he tells the stories of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast, and the hidden treasures of the Kingdom of God. For the next two days the kids will be involved in various mission and outreach projects in their community…actually putting Jesus’ Kingdom lessons to work in the real world.

Please continue to keep all the students, adult volunteers, parents, families, and this church in your prayers as this week progresses. I believe this is part of a calling to equip a generation to be the greatest ambassadors for the Kingdom of God the world has ever seen!

Super Groovy Amazing Awesomeness

aldersgatekidsFor the next week I get the awesome privilege of speaking at one of the coolest events I’ve ever been part of.

The Aldersgate campus of New Creation United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, Va. is holding its annual Youth Week celebration. It’s a week of teaching, worship, activities, mission, outreach and, frankly, just a ton of fun. Think Vacation Bible School for teenagers.

This will be my second straight year as the guest speaker at Youth Week, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve said many times that I’m convinced God is raising up a generation that is going to change the world. Events like Youth Week only serve to affirm that notion.

The theme for this year’s Youth Week is “Why Would Jesus Die For Me?” Every day we’re going to unpack that theme by learning Why Jesus lived in the first place. We’ll take a journey along with Jesus and his disciples from Nazareth to Jerusalem, stopping at points along the way to listen, learn, and experience Jesus in his historical cultural context.

Throughout the week I’ll be posting updates here on The Awesomeness Conspiracy as well as on my Facebook and Twitter pages (just use the links on the right to find and follow those feeds).

Please keep the church, the kids, the Aldersgate staff and all the dozens of adult volunteers in your prayers as this week gets underway with our opening session tonight.

It’s going to be super groovy amazing awesomeness. I can’t wait to get started!

From Russia With Love Part 4: Lasting Impressions

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Say hi to my new little buddy Dima, one of the kids whose mom attends the ministry center.

Even though I’ve only scratched the surface of my experiences during my recent visit to Russia on behalf of Orphan’s Tree, I feel like it’s about time to wrap up my “From Russia with Love” series today with a few of the lasting impressions that have forever altered my perspective.

It sounds almost trite to call this a “life-changing experience.” After all, if we’re honest, nearly every experience is life-changing in some way or another. But for me, these are the things I have learned from this particular experience that have deeply affected my heart and in many ways redirected my spirit:

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1. I am the foreigner. Almost everything I saw and heard in Russia was different to me. From the alphabet and the language to the architecture and the culture, there was little to which I could draw comparisons to something familiar.

One night when writing in my journal I caught myself about to pen something about being in a “foreign country.” Then I realized, the country is not foreign. I am. I am bringing my experience, perspective and preconceptions into a place that is simply not the same as that to which I am accustomed (and whose culture, by the way, predates my own by more than a thousand years).

When I accepted my friend Brooke’s invitation to join the team for this trip, one of the reasons I did so was that I recognized a need to break my egocentric American arrogance. I don’t mean that as derisively as it sounds, but the truth is most of us who have never left US soil (and, sadly, many who have) view the world through a very narrow lens. We assume that what is familiar to us is superior to that which is not. And so, mostly subconsciously, we treat people and experiences of other cultures as being somehow inferior.

What I discovered was that when I allowed myself to approach Russian culture from a place of humility rather than superiority, I was able to see it in all its beauty. Yes, much of it was uncomfortably unfamiliar. But had I equated “unfamiliar” with “inferior,” I would have missed literally everything.

The Old Testament prophets leveled pretty sharp criticism on Israel for the way the people treated “outsiders.” And when they were exiled in Babylon, Jeremiah actually encouraged them to adapt and to actively seek peace and prosperity for their captors (Jer. 29:4-9). When we see ourselves as the foreigners, we open ourselves to enriching and transformative experiences.

2. It’s all about the heart. One of the things that’s been popular for some churches in our area in recent years has been shows by “Power Teams,” groups of big-muscled men who tear phone books in half, break concrete blocks, and perform various other feats of strength while proclaiming a gospel message and usually offering some sort of emotionally-infused invitation or altar call at the end.

To be honest, I was never really all that impressed. Now I know why.

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Valeri (right) with one of his star pupils at Ivanovo Tech School #8

Our second morning in Ivanovo, we visited one of the technical schools where many of the orphans from the ministry center attended. There we were introduced to Valeri, who basically served in the role as the gym coach. Valeri clearly was a man’s man. Former military, athletically gifted, hearty laugh, tough as nails. The whole package.

In Valeri’s gym, we saw typical equipment…weights, exercise machines, ropes, etc. But what was not “typical” was the boys he brought out to demonstrate the work he does.

It’s one thing to see big weightlifter types toss around kettle bells, bust up concrete with their bare hands, or take a punch to the gut without flinching. But when you watch a bunch of scrawny 16-year old boys do all those things and more, you see what true strength really is.

Valeri trains not only the bodies of his students, but their minds and hearts as well. His aim is not to create an army of ultra-macho muscleheads. It is to infuse a sense of inner strength and confidence that will allow them to go into the world in whatever profession they choose and excel.

It’s a reminder that the gospel is proclaimed not through what the world views as strength and power, but what it often views as weakness.

(Check out the video below for a brief sample of what Valeri’s students are doing.)

3. Vulnerability is foundational to great relationships. If I can sum up my feelings of being a foreigner in a different culture in one word, it would be vulnerable. Not being able to read directional signs, understand someone’s question, or know what cultural norms are called for in a given situation can be incredibly scary. I learned very quickly that I had to not only rely on our amazing team of interpreters, but also pay attention and try to learn from them. I was completely and utterly vulnerable, and they were literally my lifeline.

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Anya & Alex: New best friends!

It was out of that vulnerability, though, that I learned something about creating deep, authentic relationships. I can’t remember a time when I have become so close so quickly with any single person or group of people as I did with the gifted young women who served us so well and so selflessly. Even though we only spent a few days together, I can honestly count those with whom I spent the most time–Tanja, Alex and Anya–among my very close, life-long friends.

I think that sense of vulnerability may have also helped forge relationships with some of the students in the ministry center. As you can imagine, when kids have been abandoned by their families to live an institutionalized life, it’s very difficult for them to trust people. If I’d have come in with an attitude of the American hero sweeping in to save them from themselves, I would have been met with cold indifference at best, or, more likely, downright hostility. It was only through a position of vulnerability that I could approach them, and make them comfortable with approaching me.

I wonder if maybe one of the most under-appreciated qualities of Jesus was his vulnerability. I think sometimes we look at his miraculous power over nature, sickness and death, and forget how vulnerable he allowed himself to become in donning the mantle of humanity in the first place, in risking everything to approach the people whom society had utterly marginalized, and in enduring the humility of the cross to give all people resurrection life.

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I’m sure this won’t be the end of my writing about my experiences with the beautiful people of Russia, but it is the end of this particular series of blog posts. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this little journey with me.

To those of you who have followed these entries, I offer you my sincerest gratitude. I have created a new page here on The Awesomeness Conspiracy where all of the articles from this series are included in chronological order. Feel free to read through the entire series, link to it or share it with friends.

I would love to continue this conversation either here in the comment section, on my Facebook page, or, better yet, in person. If you belong to a church, civic group or organization that would like to hear more about my experiences in Russia and/or the work Orphan’s Tree is doing there, please get in touch with me through one of the methods listed on the Contact page.

Peace and love,

Joe

Ivanovo 2013 Video (by Doug Patterson)

Thanks to my friend and traveling companion Doug Patterson for sharing this video of our trip to Russia May 18-28. Doug did a fabulous job of capturing both the highlights of our adventure and the relationships we formed. The bulk of Doug’s video is from our time in Ivanovo, but you’ll also see footage from our brief visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Enjoy!

From Russia With Love Part 3: Breaking the Cycle

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Now that I’ve spent some time relating some general thoughts about my impressions from my recent journey to Russia (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series as well as my original poem, “Ivanovo, my love” if you need to catch up), I’d like to get down a little more today into the nuts and bolts of the purpose behind the trip.

I traveled with a group representing Orphan’s Tree, an organization devoted to helping teenage orphans transition out of the dependency of the orphanage system and into life as independent, productive members of the community.

IMG_0337Our group’s particular task was to spend time at a “ministry center” in Ivanovo, a former textile city located about 200 miles northeast of Moscow with a population of about half a million people. Ivanovo is home to several technical schools, where most of the kids from the orphanage in Komsomolsk (a small village about 30 miles west of Ivanovo) end up attending and learning various trades once they reach their 15th or 16th birthday.

There are two primary challenges to the teenagers who “graduate” from the orphanage. First, because care in the orphanage is primarily custodial in nature, kids are raised with a high level of dependency for every aspect of their lives. The orphanage provides food, shelter, and basic education; but there is little to no training in what we would call “life skills.” Second, Russian culture historically has placed a low value on orphans. They are often at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, when it comes to opportunities. And while such cultural attitudes seem to be changing, there is still an uphill struggle for these kids to find a place for themselves in their communities.

The purpose of the ministry centers like the one my group visited in Ivanovo is to serve as sort of a transition point to help former orphanage residents develop the skills they need to survive and thrive in their culture and economy. They are able to learn things like computer skills, how to manage a household budget, how to cope with childcare issues (many of the girls become mothers at a fairly young age), how to find a job, how to navigate governmental systems, etc. The ministry centers also provide psychological and social work types of services as well as advocacy and, in some cases, mentoring and tutoring.

IMG_0323Perhaps more importantly, however, the ministry centers provide a space where these young people can learn to form authentic, trusting relationships with others. And therein lies the need for teams like ours from America to visit and spend time with them. While we did participate in some direct programming activities, we were mostly there just to hang out, make friends, and (although it sounds cliché), demonstrate God’s love for them by being a loving, genuine presence in their lives.

It’s one thing–and a very important one–to have people from your own culture express love and care for you in a broader culture where you are generally undervalued. But it is a powerful testament to the big-ness of the gospel to have people from a foreign land travel almost 6,000 miles just to be with you for a week.

The point of all this is to help break the cycle of dependency orphans experience. Without the life skills training offered by the ministry centers and the opportunity for authentic relational encounters with people from both inside and outside of their cultural “comfort zone,” there is a very real danger that former orphans will fall into lives of other types of dependency ranging from addiction to human trafficking. When that happens, orphans inevitably produce more orphans, and the cycle of abandonment and dependency perpetuates.

These young people deserve to know they are valued. They deserve to know they have options. They deserve to learn how to make good choices. They deserve to love and be loved.

Of course, God’s mission is never a one-way endeavor. Again, I know it’s cliché, but I am certain I got as much or more out of being with the amazing people of Russia than I could possibly have given. From the kids and staff in the ministry center to our incredible interpreters (and new best friends!) Tanja, Anya, Alex, Sasha and Valya, I was blessed to have the privilege to just be in their presence, to learn from them, and to sense God doing a new thing in my own life through them.

I still have much more to share about this incredible experience. I hope you will keep reading as I continue to post my thoughts and impressions. But meanwhile, if you feel compelled to become a part of this story in any way, I would urge you to support the work of Orphan’s Tree. If you need to learn more, please visit their website or contact me via the e-mail link on the Contact page.