A Youth Minister’s Story of being shattered
At an early age, I wanted to talk to God. Not just the simple everyday prayers of a child. I wanted God to have an audible conversation with me. Some of my earliest memories were of walking around the large playground area behind my church-school while waiting for my mother to get done with teacher meetings talking to my imaginary friend called “God”. I often still feel like that doe-eyed child trying to balance on the imaginary catwalks made of concrete and playground equipment in an attempt to not fall into the lava that covered the ground all the while just chatting to God about my day.
I grew up hearing stories about these amazing Bible characters that did amazing things and had conversations with the Creator of the Universe. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted my grand adventure to start from a missive given to me from the Almighty. I think my idealistic nature started at that point. Nobody told me that God doesn’t work like that anymore. Maybe God does, but it never happened to me. I never heard a still small voice speak my name in the dark and tell me that I was needed in an audible and tangible way. Instead, I have a lifetime of bumps and bruises that show a lifetime of trying to do what I thought was right. Maybe it was God’s path for me, or maybe I had delusions of grandeur.
Everything that I am writing may sound cynical to a large extent. I admit there is a part of me that is feeling that way. But in all honesty, I still have a deep longing to hear the voice of the Divine telling me that I am doing the right thing. That despite all my imperfection, and failings I am chosen to be God’s champion. I know deep in my bones that it will never happen, but there is still that childlike part of me that dreams it could. Maybe it still will. I pray it does. Maybe it will finally quiet the cynical realist self that wars against my childlike dreamer self.
I have found that it has a lot to do with the two religious selves at war within me. On one hand, you have the black and white simplistic approach to the Gospel. The biggest problem with that approach is that it’s close-minded to the very large gray areas of faith. The other self-being that broad vast ocean approach to the gospel. This being that we only know the surface of what there is to know about God, Jesus, and all that took place. The biggest problem with this viewpoint is that it’s hard to find meaning in anything. I really want to think of things as black and white or good and bad. But in this world, there can be no such certainty. One of the biggest truths that I hold to in youth ministry is there is no “right” way to fix things, instead, we just have to find the way that we fail the least “badly”.
I want to think of my time with the church as part of a bigger picture. At more than 7 billion people in this world, mine is only a very very small part of that much bigger picture. There was a wonderful line in a tv show I was watching recently that said that we each come along and add our own color to the painting that is life. I like to think of life like a mosaic. Mosaics are made up of much smaller pieces so often broken, but rejoined in a way that makes the whole much grander than the sum of its parts. This is the story of my mosaic tile. This is my bit of the whole.
In the Big Inning…
I was never any good at sports. I was usually the kid that was picked last in our PE games. Except when it came to our “illegal” games of tackle football, the other kids discovered at the age of 11 I weighed a lot more than everyone else so I couldn’t be taken down that easily. What I was truly good at was using my imagination. I used to dream up entire worlds and situations for my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. My brother and I would build entire cities for them out of cardboard boxes. We even had plans to build a robot out of empty pop cans, much to my mother’s laundry room’s detriment. When things got difficult I would retreat into my imagination, daydreaming about something awesome that could happen.
Though, I was always a very worried person. I never knew there was anything other than that. I worried all the time. I worried that my family was safe, that people would be happy, that I would get good grades, that I would be “normal”, that people wouldn’t make fun of me today, or that I wouldn’t get it together. There is nobody to blame for that at all. It’s just how I was. I know my mother would try to blame herself for that, but she can’t. It isn’t her fault. Biology just works in odd ways. I would say that my life of worry helped me to be a much more empathetic person.
There were a lot of things in my life that I think would cause “normal” people to be worried as well. I’m a firm believer in the paranormal. I know that may throw a lot of you off considering that I tend to be rather skeptical too. The funny thing is Jesus believed in the paranormal as well, but that’s just saying. I bring this up because as a child I would hear things and see things that would probably land me in some serious psychotherapy if I still did. There were only a few times when it bothered me. I remember that there were a few times when I was a child that I heard footsteps in the hallway outside my room when I was home alone. That freaked me out. It leads to me needing to have something playing in the background for me to get to sleep for a good majority of my life from then on. I’m sure things like that would cause anyone to have a break, but honestly, I dealt with it. My mom was amazing and giving us kids serious coping skills and emotional strength without even realizing it. When I told her about these things there were only a few times she looked at me like I was strange, although maybe she still thinks I am. I remember that when I told people at church they would immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion; demons, evil spirits, and someone having done something to deserve this spiritual oppression. It wasn’t. Maybe it was my overactive imagination, me actually being able to hear spirits on the other side, an imbalance of my neurotransmission chemicals, or any other number of things. One thing I can say for sure, though, it wasn’t demons. I didn’t encounter those until I was older, but that is a different story for a different blog post. (let me know if you want to hear that story)
The point is that I’ve run into mistreatment from the church from a very early age. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I know they did what they thought was best, it’s not their fault. Sometimes people need better training before they try to handle a situation.
My imagination was unusual to a lot of people, and in fact, if I were to show some of the journals that I had drawn and written in back then, many would still say that I was rather messed up. Someone once told me that they were taking psych courses to find out what was wrong with me. I never did find out if they discovered something or not. I had written stories about a mad scientist who had invented the machine that would turn people into the opposite sex and then leave them that way to torment them. That’s just one of the many stories that I’m sure would make people wonder what was going on in my head.
This brings me back to my walks with God. I knew at the age of five that I wanted to be a preacher. I knew this because I knew God loved me. I loved God too. I mean we took daily walks after all. I imagined my life in the future. I pictured myself on a stage in front of vast multitudes of people telling them all about the amazing God who took away my sins. I had no idea what it meant to be a sinner at that age, but I knew that I was one because I lied sometimes. I was going to be the next Billy Graham. I would often talk to God about this. I remember at one point in my childhood that I heard the passage about where every knee would bow and every tongue confess that God was God, I felt like I would be part of the reason for that. As I write those words I feel almost slimy and dirty for even thinking that.
Those visions of the future shaped how I went through life. I knew I was destined for something special. I knew I was going to change the world, so I was going to do everything I could to prepare myself for that. I memorized as much scripture as my attention, and patience at the time could handle. Thinking back, I probably could have done more, but I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s there was a lot of awesome things to distract a young man from a life of preparation toward becoming the next Johnathan Edwards.
My family wasn’t one who many would think much of. There were plenty of times when we were living below the poverty line. I remember there was one summer that all we ate was beans and rice. You wouldn’t believe how many different ways there are to make beans and rice. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with my faith upbringing, and my answer would be a lot. My father was a very proud man. He never wanted to ask for help when he needed it. He also knew the value of hard work. He instilled that in us very early on. Handouts were for other people, not us. We were going to work for what we had. My father worked hard to make sure we had the little we had. When he was between jobs he mowed lawns and did other odd jobs. When he had a job he worked hard at that job and devoted a lot of his time and energy to those jobs. You could say a lot of things about that man, but one thing I admire the most about him is that he is not a quitter. I guess that is why I find it so hard to give up on anything.
When I was in middle school I met a best friend who shared in my delusions of grandeur. In fact, when we met I was wearing a t-shirt, my favorite at the time, that boldly proclaimed; “Satan is a Poo-poo head”. I wonder what ever happened to that shirt. I remember wearing holes into it and it had a few bleach stains, but I digress. My friend was the first who really believed that I could become those things that I imagined too. In fact, he was going to join with me in changing the world. We came up with this dream of starting a traveling “big tent revival” thing that would go and stay in a place until everyone converted in that area. I still kind of wish things worked that way. I miss those kids, they had so much potential.
My friend and I were forces to be reckoned with. I started taking guitar lessons, and I would go and teach him everything I learned that week. We joined the praise team at youth group. Eventually, we were the praise team. No really, I’m not kidding. We were so gung-ho about it that the rest of the people who were doing it with us decided that we were so annoying they were just going to let us run it. I remember one night that the pastor, who used to be at youth group every week, came in and heard the “Christian Rock” music we were listening to and attempting to learn to play. He immediately flew into a fury and told us to turn off the devil’s music; It was not to be played in the church. He called us into his office after that. I can remember sitting in his office looking him dead in the face and saying, “God made everything right?”
“Correct.” He said matter-of-factly.
“God saw what he made and said it was good, right?” I said a little too smart-assly.
“Well God created music, and this music is good, so It must be created by God.” Flawless logic from a fourteen-year-old jackass.
He got red in the face, and said, “Fine.” We never saw the pastor at youth group after that. That’s how I know that we were only put in charge because we were so annoying nobody wanted to work with us. We formed a band. We decided that our big tent revivals were going to be awesome concerts filled with Christian rock that glorified God. We called ourselves Overflow because our love for God overflowed. We wore matching cross dog tag necklaces. You didn’t mess with Overflow.
My last year in the deep south of Texas was where I began to receive my broken edges in this mosaic of delusion. I’m not saying that everything in life was hunky dory outside of this. No, I’m saying that this was the first time I started to doubt God. There are many reasons why this happened. My parents’ relationship was falling apart at this time. Now, I don’t blame them for me being messed up either. They did their best. They are human beings. They are probably also some of the only people who will ever read this. But I believed, falsely, that if I were to follow God closely and believe hard enough that all things would be good. I believed that “all things worked together for good for those who loved the Lord.” I didn’t know that in that particular passage it means over time, not all at once. My parents going through that time caused the biggest crack in my “holy armor”.
I started to go through most of the things that normal teens go through. I liked people in a like like way. I got mad at my friend when they ended up like liking him instead of me. I struggled with my self-identity. The only problem being that I knew what I was going to be. I had always known, but how could the next Michael Faraday struggle with things like looking at naughty pictures and really wanting to make babies with any girl who was even the slightest bit nice to me. I finally discovered what it was to be a sinner. How was it that Paul was able to put away those childish things? Was the thorn in his side, girls? It had to be. I wanted people to see that God was forgiving, but if you go too far, God wouldn’t forgive anymore. I kept trying to keep myself and others from going too far. But it was a lot of pressure. The pressure was too much to me at times. I often thought of suicide at the time, or as I worded it, “Just going to my eternal home”. The only problem, that was a sin, and probably was going too far. I was a teen, I did normal teen things just in my Jesus bubble.
I finally cracked one night. I couldn’t believe that my other best friend, God, wouldn’t make my life perfect. I was doing all I could to follow God after all. God must just be a mean bully in the sky. How dare God let me struggle with feelings! How dare God let that girl like like my friend and not me! That’s it! I guess I wasn’t supposed to be born! I guess I’m just worthless! I’ll show you! You need me! Those knees won’t bow without me! You’ll see! I don’t care if it’s going too far… Needless to say, I didn’t follow through on those thoughts and feelings. Thankfully, though sometimes I do wonder what would have happened to the world if I did.
These are dark thoughts that constantly plague me. Even to this day, I wonder if my family and loved ones would have been better off without me. I look at my son and wonder if he’ll struggle through those same thoughts. I wonder if he’ll be better without me raising him. These are things that I often try to pack away, but they pop up in the worst way sometimes. I just wanted to mention this because I know so many of us in ministry struggle with mental illness. It’s a problem that we all need to face and take care of. If you are facing some of these same dark thoughts, don’t worry it’s normal. Don’t let them tear you down. Get help. It took me a long time to ask for help myself, but I did. It’s not always easy, but you need help. We all need help… Anyway, back to the story.
I went to a Jesus camp the summer after that. No, it wasn’t as bad as the one in that one documentary. But it was one of those, week long come to Jesus camps. To which I barely paid any attention to the preachers, and tried to figure out if I could maybe start a long distance relationship with that cute blond girl across the room. The funny thing is that I ended up marrying a cute blond that really is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. It would have blown poor teenage me’s mind! It was that week that I actually had a come to Jesus moment. It was at the weepy “testimony” night. You know the ones. The ones where everyone confesses their undying and eternal love for everyone, even though they have only met you like a day or two before. That night I suddenly felt God talking to me again. It was through a friend’s admission of being “not normal”. I suddenly realized I wasn’t the only one who felt not normal. I mean really, who actually feels normal? It was in that that I heard God saying, “I love you. You are my own. Things will be alright.” So that night I decided that yes I am going to do whatever it takes to follow this vision God gave me…
Doing whatever it takes.
Life moves a little quickly. You don’t realize it as a child because you haven’t experienced enough of it to realize how quickly it moves. I wish that I had listened to the immortal words of Ferris Bueller who so eloquently said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” I look back at all of this, and even now at thirty-three, I feel like I got here way too quickly. I don’t feel like an adult sometimes. Maybe that’s pretty evident to everyone else, but I know that I am. I don’t feel like acting my age, maybe that’s why I ultimately ended up in Youth Ministry. I couldn’t wait to start my life back then. I think that impatience is what proves to be my undoing time and again.
Midway through high school, my parents’ relationship finally fell apart. My mother wanted to move us with my Grandmother, what seemed like a million miles away. I had made friends, though. I had a band! We actually put on an entire concert, complete with a failed guitar jump attempt on my part. Things were finally starting to look like I could pull off this crazy vision of mine. Oh well, there is always a time to go. It doesn’t always happen when we want it to. It also, most times, happens when you least expect it. I got mad at God again. Like it was really God’s fault that crappy stuff happens sometimes. This was the biggest gray area I’d experienced to this point. I couldn’t find the meaning in this suffering at all. This was in 1999. My grandmother lived in Colorado, and the horrid nightmare that was the Columbine shooting had just taken place. Everyone I knew told me to beware of guys in trench coats. The suffering didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t but now I know that God doesn’t cause the suffering. There is no meaning in it.
I can sum up my childhood and adolescent years with a statement that was told to me about my mom leaving my father and moving to a different state, “You will no longer be under God’s protection if you move.” Needless to say, I’ve worried about the validity of that statement for longer than I’d like to admit. Who says that to a 15-year-old? I’m not pointing fingers, I’m not going to tell you who said that to me. But I want you to examine the impact of that statement on an impressionable mind.
We spend tons of money trying to tell teenagers to worry. We do it in the church as well. Worry about your spiritual life as well as all the worries of modern society. We are churning out anxious adults at an alarming rate. As was done with me, we are very much guilty of pushing children to be worried about “sin” and “falling short of the Glory of God”. These are very adult concepts. There is a ton of abstract in those concepts. Children are remarkably smart but the way their brain is structured up until they are of puberty age is set up to really only handle concrete information. We manufacture this worry as a demand for the supply of Grace that God has. The problem is that we know we are in need of love and acceptance from the time we are born. We know we need love and grace, it is embedded in our DNA. So learning this inspired me. It inspired my message from that point on. My message was going to be simple. There is nothing you can do to earn the Divine’s favor; there also is nothing you can do to lose it either. This was something that I had a hard time believing for myself as if I was the only one who was exempt from this rule, I have a weird relationship with pride.
I found a new view of God. It was a different side of God that I haven’t ever been introduced to. It was a side of God that loved unconditionally. This side of God didn’t have a “too far”. Whew, pressure off, well mostly. I found this image of God in people and places that I had been warned were not really Christian. I know you doubt what I just wrote, but it’s true. I was pulled aside about a month before we moved by the same pastor that I had thwarted on the whole Christian rock thing. He told me that, “those Methodists believe you can lose your salvation. They aren’t real Christians. You need to be careful!” The funny thing is that because of those long conversations I had with the pastors in the “non-Christian” Church really taught me what it meant to be a true God follower. It showed me that people were willing to put up with a nerdy teen, who felt like he knew it all. It showed me the tremendous patience and love that God has for all of us, even when we feel like we know it all.
It was because of the patience and love that the pastors, men, and people of that church had for me that I discovered what my vision really was meant for. It was meant to reach out to those who were like me. Those who felt the most vulnerable, and struggled the most with identity; those who needed the most patience and love: Teens.
There I went, set on this path to become a youth minister. I was going to do everything it took. I pushed, I annoyed, I learned, and I got distracted. Like I said I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s lots of awesome stuff to distract you from life. It was mainly video games. There really is only so much Unreal Tournament you can play until you have to get back to what you were doing. Eventually, I finished high school and went off to college. I decided to double major in youth ministries, and something that I thought would be an excellent complementary course of study, Theatre. I mean because aren’t all of us church folk just sort of acting in our own little plays anyway?
College really helped to reinforce my vision. I now was an educated jackass. I really took pleasure in showing people that they were wrong. In fact, I made it a point to stir the pot whenever I possibly could. Partly I did it just to show off how smart I was, but mostly it was to help break people of preconceived notions that I felt were dangerous to faith. I really wish I could smack my younger self and tell him it only helps to make people dig their heels in and think you are more of a jackass. It had taken a lot but I had broken free of a lot of unhealthy and dangerous ideas on God through the course of my schooling. I wanted to do the same for others. So, all my jackassery did come from a good place, it just was not a good way of going about changing people’s minds for the better. We’ll talk more about how this proved to be disastrous for me later.
I learned. I really enjoyed learning. I really enjoyed thinking about God. It was like my entire life I had only seen the surface, hence the birth of the new religious self. I used to liken it to the beach. If you go the beach and stand on the sand you have an appreciation for the beauty of the water, but it is only when you start to wade into it, do you fully begin to grasp the vastness of the ocean. All my life I had been told that only specially trained people could go wade in that water. Don’t worry about that stuff, we think about God so you don’t have to. My invisible friend became so much more real to me, and so much more complex through this process. I realized I would never fully understand God. Nobody ever has, nobody ever will; which is a wonderful thing because it means we will always have something to talk about.
My learning process expanded much beyond the formal education. I guess there are things that people can’t really teach you. You have to stumble through, sometimes very blindly, on your own. I know that it’s not supposed to happen as many times as it has happened to me. Maybe that’s the nature of my calling. Maybe it’s the nature of my idealism. Maybe I’m just as much a failure as all those people said. Whatever it is I hope that whoever happens upon this strange writing will not have to go through what I went through. It’s painful as hell and twists you into a neurotic paranoid mess.
My Informal Education
Learn by doing. It is an important mantra, but there is a huge difference between saying and doing. I had a lot of intern experiences. I was very eager to get at what I had envisioned myself doing for so long. My first forays into church work were rather short lived. Maybe that should have told me something. I worked a summer as an intern at my home church. I worked a few months as an intern at a church near my college. I even spent a summer working as a camp counselor. I even made sure to attend the National Youth Workers Convention every year. Each experience was different. Each experience taught me something new. Life is a learning experience. For what, I’m not sure. I like to think that it’s all meant for something someday. Like one day there will be a problem that all the cumulative knowledge gained from your life’s experience will solve. But that’s the simplistic religious self coming out.
One of the great things about going to the National Youth Workers Convention with your professor and classmates is that you get to meet some of the leading people in the field. I got the opportunity to meet a lot of big names in the Youth Ministry field. One of them my mom swears she knew in high school. One of the things I learned from that experience is that even those who have a small amount of fame thrust upon them can let it go to their head. I can tell you even some of the big names of my day are relative nobodies in the grand scheme of things, but they will still treat you like they are hot shit. That’s not all of them, though. There are some truly genuine people who can remain humble throughout. Mike Yaconelli was one of those truly genuine people. I remember meeting him at one of those conventions. He greeted us all with a smile and asked how the travel went. You could tell in his voice that he truly wanted to know, and wasn’t just making pleasantries. This was a man I was going to listen to. I’m sad to say that was one of the only chances I had to meet the man. I wish I had more of an opportunity to get to know what he was about because his teachings and writings are what I base a lot of my methods on. If you haven’t read “Messy Spirituality”, put down this writing go find it and read it. Trust me. My ramblings will still be here when you get back. Unless you are reading this during a Zombie apocalypse, then you are just going to have to put this in your bag for later. If I take nothing else away from those conventions, I want to remember meeting him and hearing him talk.
The summer I interned at my home church was an unusual one. This was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was interning with the middle school program. I lived down the street from the church so I often would walk or ride my bike over. I didn’t have an office there or anything so I would end up hanging out in the youth room. Often I would just work from home because that was where my computer was at. Can’t say that every day I worked the way I was supposed to as you can well imagine from my previous rants, I get distracted. There were a couple of things that I learned that summer: 1. Don’t try to hit on your fellow interns or volunteers it doesn’t end well. 2. I don’t know how to handle every situation (probably the biggest and most important lesson). 3. Just because I think something is fascinating, does not mean that everyone will think so too.
The church that I interned at near my college was a very short experience. I think it only lasted a month before they decided that they would rather have just the attractive female as the only intern. Oh well, every time I attended the youth programs or the church itself I felt lost. It was one of those mega churches that had a completely separate building for their youth ministries. They had a big stage, sound system, and even professional lighting! I realized pretty quickly that I did not consider that to be a church on any level. Maybe this was when the cynical part of my brain started to take hold of me, but if the whole thing is a production; where is the whole relationship aspect of our spiritual life come in? I mean there are some large youth ministries that do some very good work, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying it’s very hard to manage size and effective personal ministry. I learned very quickly that I can’t allow myself to get lost in the show of it all, even though it’s very tempting. This shattered some of my vision from childhood, but I was still determined. I wanted a large program, but not one large enough where people could easily get lost. I wouldn’t let people get lost.
Sometimes learning isn’t a completely painful process, sometimes it can be relatively painless. My summer as a camp counselor was a very good experience. The camp staff did a very good job of supporting each other. It was nice. Every time one of us ran into a difficult challenge that summer the others would come around them and help them to figure out how to best get through it. This was one of my experiences where I would say that made me want to start a commune up in the mountains somewhere. Of course, though, life isn’t clear cut like that. This is what gave me a vision of what the church is supposed to be like. Even though I had started off that summer as a jackass know-it-all, I was accepted and loved just as I was. If you don’t believe me you can ask the other staff that summer. They will tell you that the entire staff training week I kept trying to start theological arguments with all who were unlucky enough to make my acquaintance. It taught me that God’s love and patience run deep. I think that many left that place thinking poorly of me, but at least while I was there I was supported. I remember that the valley after that mountaintop experience was particularly dark. Luckily, it only lasted a short while before I started my first “real” ministry.
After 13 some odd years of working for the church and approximately 30 years of deep church living, I was finally released into the wild. There are a lot of bumps and bruises I would love to cover here, but that would take way too much space in an already long blog post. I discovered something looking back on my time as a deep church Christian. I found that the simple message of the Divine’s incredible love was a very unpopular one. I don’t want this to be finger pointing or indicating of any of the churches I’ve attended over the past 30 years. Some of them were better than others at being the gospel, others not so much. But the one thing that was constant was the priority of those places, numbers.
As much as they would like to deny that fact, it rang true across the boards. It’s not just Christian churches either, it’s everyone. They are so incredibly worried about butts in the seats and money in the coffers that they will do whatever it takes to stay afloat. As much as they preach about relying on the Divine to provide, they tend to do a pretty poor job of actually relying on the Divine rather than their own ingenuity. It doesn’t make business sense to do any of the things most of the Divine messengers throughout history taught us to do. So I can’t blame them. I don’t know how a true not-for-profit church would keep its doors open.
Maybe I’m cynical. I did get to experience first hand the dark underbelly of church politics. I experienced the financial stress all too often of those places because often the first thing to go when a church is in financial trouble are the children and youth staff and programming. This added more to my already fragile psyche. It’s a wonder I lasted as long as I did in ministry. It wasn’t just money either it was the little things that we did to carefully position and play political games that stressed me out. Like I said, it’s not pointing fingers, not all of the churches I attended or worked at are guilty of this. Some, possibly, may be. But they are doing the best that they can.
After I was set free, during this whole transition time, it made me really question what it was my faith meant. I have been trying to strip away all the worry, all the manufactured guilt, all the things that came packaged with my belief and homesickness (a reference to a Fredrick Buechner quote I love and use often I talk about it a lot in the Honest Faith Conversations podcast which is why we devoted the first episode to explaining it.) . I lost that idea of salvation I had before. I didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want to be “saved”. I wanted a Divine being to love me in spite of me. I wanted to break free from the self-created prison and be me. I didn’t want to live with the broken pieces of my life being broken anymore. I wanted to see the mosaic, the stained glass, the big picture for what it was. But, we’ll get there.
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