So I have been reading one of the greatest books on youth ministry I have ever read, "Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing The Presence Of Jesus" by Mark Yaconelli.

I'm challenged by this passage:

"What would it mean if the goal of our ministries was simply to be prayerfully present to young people-to allow them to be fully themselves? Could we trust that our presence is enough? How would we treat youth if we weren't trying to convince them of the importance of the faith, the worthiness of Jesus, the necessity of the church? What would happen if we sought to minister to young people through our ears, through our presence, through silent prayer and an open heart? What would such radical acceptance evoke in young people?"

Deep down this is what I desire to see in our youth ministry, but what does it look like? How do we do it? What does it mean? What do we need to change in our program? In ourselves?
Just listened to a very interesting report on BBC radio as I was driving in to the office today:

In Zambian prisons basic necessities such as soap, shampoo, toilet paper and even food are extremely scarce. As a result prisoners have begun a black market of sorts to purchase the items that they need, the main currency in this black The major problem with this is that approximately 27% of the Zambian prison population is H.I.V. positive, a statistic that is higher than in the rest of the Zambian population.

Recently when one of Zambia's leading medical researchers did a study on the overall health of Zambia's prison population he discovered that nearly 100% of inmates admitted to exchanging sex, either due to force or willingly, for goods/food. Statistically speaking it is only a matter of time before an inmate will contract H.I.V.

One solution that has been proposed to combat the spread of H.I.V. within prison's is the distribution of condoms to the prisoners. However because homosexuality is illegal in Zambia the government will not allow this to happen. On top of the government rejection, there has been strong opposition by Christian's on moral grounds.

It was this last bit that really struck me. The question that comes to mind is this, "what is more immoral, the practice of homosexuality (for those that believe that it is a sin) or to hand a person a death sentence (H.I.V./AIDS) when it is in your power to stop it?"

Perhaps I'm just setting up a "Straw Man" but this is the way my mind thinks at times.

I'm sure there are other ways to curtail the spread of H.I.V. within Zambia's prisons other than simply distributing condoms, and I would certainly hope that the church's in Zambia are working to make this happen, although I can't speak to that.

Something to think about
One thing that becomes increasingly disturbing for many grownups is the sense that they have little control over young people. This scares adults. Adults want youth to conform to adult standards. They want kids to act responsibly. They want them to sit down and listen. They want them to hurry up and get their identities fixed and grounded. Adults want youth to have a roadmap for a secure and reasonable future, and they get rattled when they realize that most youth aren't carrying one...

Perhaps one source of these adult anxieties is the growing separation between youth and adults. For the past 40 years, economic policies, changes in social norms, and a relentless marketing strategy to create and sell to a teenage market have combined to create what sociologist Christian Smith calls a "structural disconnect" between adults and youth. This separation begins long before adolescence. Many youth spend most of their childhood segregated in daycares and schools, afternoons and evenings in front of televisions and computers, weekends hanging out with friends. By early adolescence most young people are attuned to a different reality, a different world, than adults.

The less contact adults have with young people, the more mysterious they seem. Adults can fall into the traps of projection, speculation, worry, and fearful imaginings. Congregations and church leaders find themselves relying on the media to learn about kids. They absorb stories about teenage gangs and violence. They watch videos and movies that portray youth as hormone-driven, sex-crazed nymphs. They hear news stories and government reports that talk alarmingly about "at-risk" kids. All of this becomes a filter for how young people are perceived. Adults see teenagers in baggy jeans and oversized jackets and fear they're hiding drugs or weapons. They see a group of young women in short halter tops and lipstick and worry about their sexual activity....

Sometimes adult fears about youth arise from what we do know. Adults get scared when young people reflect behaviors and attitudes we recognize. Adolescent desires for pleasure, material goods, entertainment gadgets, constant activity, sex, and mood altering substances all mirror the behavior of the adult culture - and it scares us. There is much we adults don't like about ourselves. There are mistakes parents have made and want their kids to avoid. We get frightened when youth begin to reflect the ambiguous values and conflict of the adult culture...

Maybe what's most unsettling about youth is the way in which they remind many of us of our own adolescent hearts. Young people can stir up forgotten dreams and evoke unmet longings within adults. They can unearth the contradictions between the hopeful vision of our younger selves and the mediocre and muddled reality of our adult lives. Whatever the particular cause, the truth when adults relate to teenagers out of anxiety we miss seeing them, we miss hearing them, and we lose our sense of compassion for them...

As a result most youth ministries in North America are ministries of anxiety. In fact, most Christian communities don't even consider the spiritual needs of young people until there's a critical mass of anxious adults. Look behind most youth ministry programs and you'll find pastors and church boards nervous about declining memberships, parents afraid their kids lack morals, congregations worried the Christian faith has become irrelevant to younger generations, and the persistent frustration among adults that something ('anything!") needs to be done with "those kids!"

- Mark Yaconelli "Contemplative Youth Ministry"
I was reading through one of my many books this morning and came across this prayer. I don't know why but immediately I felt like crying. There is something powerful in these words, and even more powerful in the God who responds to this cry:

Open my eyes, Lord.
Help me to see your face.
Open my eyes, Lord.
Help me to see.

Open my ears, Lord.
Help me to hear your voice.
Open my ears, Lord.
Help me to hear.

Open my heart, Lord.
Help me to love like you.
Open my heart, Lord.
Help me to Love.

I live within you.
Deep in your heart, O Love.
I live within you.
Rest now in me.
Today I had to make a heartbreaking decision. I had to turn away a desperate father who came to the church looking for money to purchase formula for his hungry baby daughter. He was in tears, asking if he could work around the church as a way of earning the $12 he was short. Unfortunately we were not in a position where we could help him out and I had to turn him away.

Now our church gets a number of people who come in off the street looking for money for various reasons. Everything from stranded motorists who need to fill their gas tank up, to needing help with bills, to needing money to pay for a hotel, etc. The majority of these requests are scams of one type or the other. We have even had one man come in about 6 times in the last year and a half. Always with different versions of the same story and they always end with him "threatening" suicide if we can't help him out. I personally have talked to him three times.

Because of this we have adopted a "no cash" policy. We will help someone out by giving them food from our food bank, beyond that we may attempt to connect them with an organization that can help them out. Occasionally myself or one of the other pastors will help them out, out of our own pocket if we can and if we feel that they truly need the help. More often than not however we turn people away and it's always bothered me when we have to do so.

It can be so hard to live in the tension between caring for the poor on one side and being a good steward on the other.

On one hand having a policy like ours ensures that those who need help are the ones getting it. It allows us to be wise with our finances and ensure that we will have enough to continue doing what we do. The down side is that we do have to turn away some people who genuinely need our help.

The other option is to just help out everyone who asks. Sure there will be those who come in looking for a hand out knowing that church's are easy targets. But it would also mean that no one who really needs help would be turned away. The down side is that it is not sustainable. If you operate in that manner you will soon run out of resources and then you cannot help anyone.

This is not an easy place to be in. Especially when there are so many people out there right now who can use a hand.

Now I don't know if this man who came in today really needed the help. My sense is that he did. I offered to go buy the formula myself since I didn't have any cash on me. Unfortunately his daughter requires a special formula that you need a prescription for. At that point I had to turn him away. As he walked out of here in tears I started thinking about what I would do if I were in a similar situation as he is. A desperate father trying to take care of his child, humbling himself enough to ask for help. It would be my hope that people wouldn't question my sincerity.

"Lord I pray for this man and his family. I ask that you would provide what he needs. I don't know if everything he told me was true or not but if it was Lord please take care of his baby girl. Do not let our inability to help be a blight on Your name but instead provide for him in ways that only you can...."

I think I need to start keeping a little cash around just in case...

"Are you serious? Were you Jehovah's Witness or something?"
That tends to be the reaction I get from most people when they find out my family didn't celebrate Christmas when I was growing up. For some of you who just learned this fact about me, you are probably having the same reaction right now. Well, let me make myself even more strange, we didn't celebrate Easter either, although that is a topic for a later post.

No we were not Jehovah's Witness, nor were we radical atheists hell bent on destroying religion. My parents were and are solid Christians who love the Lord and have no hidden agenda for destroying the fabric of American society. Why then, you may ask, did we not celebrate Christmas? One simple reason, it has nothing to do with Jesus.

Now I understand that this last statement will be even more shocking for many of you , than my admission that I never celebrated Christmas as a child. After all, everywhere you look we see evidence of Jesus birth. Manger scenes are erected in nearly every house, church marquees remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season, we sing songs asking if Mary knew her baby boy would be our savior or about the three kings who traveled to meet Jesus at his birth, even the conservative pundits are telling us that there is a war on Christmas and that the evil atheists are trying to remove Christ from Christ-Mass. How can I possibly tell you that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus?

The reality is that December 25th has had a long history of being used by religious groups to celebrate the birth of their gods. Many of these celebrations revolved specifically around sun gods. This is easy to see given that December 25th is the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and the day when the sun begins to make it's return back to the north. While these pagan festivals can be traced as far back as ancient Babylon, it was really the Roman Empire that united many of these festivals into a common theme. Across the Roman empire traditions from many religions were joined together, the yule log (celebrating the sun's eternal light) and the evergreen tree (a reminder that the sun would return and bring the crops back to life) for example, and celebrated commonly as Dies Natalis Sol Invicti "the birthday of the unconquered sun". It wasn't until hundreds of years after Christ's burial and resurrection that December 25th became associated with his birth. In all probability Jesus was born in early September, although no one really knows for sure.

Most early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, more than likely for two reasons. First Jesus never asked them to. The only thing that Jesus asked was for us to remember his crucifixion and resurrection. Second the Jewish culture regarded celebrating birthdays as a pagan tradition that was to be avoided. All of this changed however with the Roman Emperor Constantine. As I'm sure you are well aware Constantine was the first Emperor to legalize Christianity. In doing so he brought about many of our Christian traditions, once again a story for a later time. Amongst these traditions is the celebration of Christmas. You see Constantine, as well as being the Roman Emperor, was also the head of Roman religion. And the easiest way to get pagan Romans to convert to Christianity was to take the pagan celebrations and traditions, and slap a Christian label on them. So December 25th which celebrated the birth of the sun god now was changed to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. We now exchange gifts because God sent us the greatest gift, His son. The evergreen tree now symbolizes eternal life that is found in Jesus, rather than the return of the sun. The yule log symbolizes Jesus, the light of the world, rather that the sun's eternal light.

As you can see Christmas, at least in it's origins, has nothing to do with Jesus. That is why, growing up my family never celebrated it.

Why then do I choose to celebrate Christmas?

First, because my conscience is clear to do so. Some Christians, and I do have some friends and family who fall into this category, cannot get past the Pagan origins of the holiday and are unable to celebrate. In a very real sense this becomes like the "food sacrificed to idols" that Paul mentions in 1 Cor 8. There were some believers who could eat this food with a clear conscious and some that could not. For those who could not, it was a sin for them to do so. I view the celebration of Christmas in this same light. I fully understand the pagan origins of the holiday but they hold no bearing in my decision. I have a clear conscious before men and God.

Second, I believe that Christmas can be/has been redeemed. Paul in Acts 17 walked into a pagan, idolatrous city, Athens, and used their idolatry to point them to Jesus. Regardless of the pagan origins and traditions associated with Christmas, many of these have been used in the same way. People all over the world for the last 1,700 years have been pointed to Jesus through Christmas. I don't see that as a bad thing.

Third, it causes me to reflect on what is truly important in life. I have the opportunity to spend time with friends and family in a way that is different than the rest of the year. While I value my time with loved ones all year long there is something special about gathering together in a time of celebration. I enjoy blessing my friends and family with gifts. I enjoy sharing a good meal together. I enjoy the memories that come from these times. In the busyness of life it is very easy to take these things for granted and Christmas is, for me, one time when I can slow down long enough to savor them.

Fourth, I love the celebration. I love the Christmas lights that line the streets. I love putting up my Christmas tree and talking about the different ornaments and the memories they hold as we pull them out of their boxes and hang them up. I love my mom's winter village that she puts up every year. I love making cinnamon rolls for friends and family, and of course myself. I love trading goodies with my neighbors, a tradition that my wife started when we got married and we all look forward to. I love giving, and yes receiving, presents. I love the Christmas carols we sing at church. And yes I even love the kids Christmas play every year. I truly believe that God want's us to enjoy the life he has given us. For me this is one of the ways I do that.

Fifth, and by far the most important, Jesus. While I know that the origins of Christmas have nothing to do with Jesus, my celebration of it has everything to do with Jesus. He is my reason for everything. And while it's true, as my parents have said, we should be celebrating him all year long rather than just on one day, it's nice to have a time of "forced" reflection. To take some time and truly ponder all that he has done in my life over the last year. To reflect on the miracle of his birth and the importance that it holds for all of human history. We take time to celebrate the births of our family and friends, and to thank God for the gift that they are in our lives. To me it only makes sense to do the same for the most important birth in all of humanity.

I could go on an on, but I won't.

These are my reasons, yours may be different. You may even be one that chooses not to celebrate and have your own list for why you chose not to. That's ok.

Just remember as A.W. Tozer said "It's not what a man does that makes it sacred or secular; it's why he does it." For some, Christmas is nothing more than a secular holiday. For me, it's extremely sacred, and one I will continue to celebrate with friends and family.

God bless you all. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Bottled Water or Living Water?

One thing I have been convicted of lately is drinking bottled water. Yes you heard me correctly, I said bottled water. What, you may ask, is so bad about drinking bottled water? Well let me tell you.

We live in a society where bottled water is readily available. It comes in all shapes and sizes.
Imported, domestic and yes even local "tap" water can be found bottled and sold if you look hard enough. Some of the bottles are plain to the eye, others are fancy. Some make claims that if you drink their water your life will be forever changed. Others just promise you a refreshing drink. You can find bottled water that fits just about every taste and lifestyle. And above all it's convenient. Other people have already done all the hard work, all you have to do is open and enjoy.

The truth of the matter is that I have become quite addicted to it. Every time I walk into a store or am shopping online and I happen to see a new bottle that I haven't tried before I purchase it. I have amassed quite a collection over the years. Some I have really enjoyed, others not so much. Some I have recommended to friends or even purchased a bottle or two to pass on.

The problem?'s bottled water. You see bottled water will never be as good as water that comes from the source. I mean it's good, but it is lacking.

Now least you think that I am some sort of freak who is obsessed with bottled water let me clarify a bit for you. I'm not talking about the wet stuff that you find in just about every supermarket or corner store across the United States. I'm talking about spiritual water.

In John 4 there is a story about Jesus hanging out at a public well. His disciples had traveled on ahead to get food. As He is waiting for the disciples to return a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water from the well. Jesus asks her to give Him a drink of water and they end of having a conversation:

The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)

Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

"Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also hi sons and his flocks and herds?"

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water."

The absolute best water I have ever tasted can be found in Northern Arizona at the base of the Mogollon Rim. I used to backpack quite a bit up in that area and one of our regular stops was at a spot called Horton Springs. The water flows directly from a spring in the side of the mountain. It is ice cold and a bit sweet. It needs no filtering or purification because it has been naturally purified by the limestone and sandstone rocks that make up the rim. It is the perfect treat for a tired and thirsty backpacker. In fact I can almost taste it just thinking about it. Nothing else will compare to this natural spring. It doesn't matter how fancy the bottle, what country it comes from, what additives it has in it. Bottled water will always fall short.

Jesus made it clear that He was the one with the Living Water. He is the source of the water that will never leave you thirsty. The funny thing is that it is often far easier to turn to Bottled Water rather than Living Water even though we know it will fall short.

By Bottled Water I am talking about all of the books, all of the videos, all of the sermons, all of the magazine articles, all of the TV programs, all of the radio programs, all of the blogs that are produced by men and women who have encountered the Living Water. Now I'm not saying that these things are bad, far from it. Many of them are extremely valuable and have helped me tremendously in my ministry and my relationship with God. However they are still Bottled Water. They will always leave you thirsty.

I have been convicted that I am far more addicted to Bottled Water than I am to Living Water. I am far more inclined to pick up the newest book or listen to the latest sermon from one of my favorite pastors than I am to pick up my Bible or sit in silence waiting for God to speak.

I wonder how many of you are in the same boat?

I really want to learn to become addicted to Living Water