Halfway to Armenia

airplane

On the day I left for Armenia, I pulled the boys out of school and took them to McDonalds for hot chocolate…and then to Chuck E. Cheese to play bright-and-noisy arcade games and hug that creepy rat. I suppose it was yesterday, technically, but sitting in the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris, time is starting to bleed together like watercolors on tissue paper.

I spent the morning getting weepy at the oddest moments — as they rode around in circles on the tiny carousel, as Liam chucked balls down the wrong ski-ball lanes, as Dane grinned in the photo-booth, arm swung around a plastic Chuck E. Cheese. Every now and then, my tender-hearted oldest sidled up to me to squeeze my hand or give me a kiss. “I’m gonna miss you Mom,” he said, more for me than for him, so aware of the anxiety and emotional turmoil I’ve been feeling the last few days.

It was hard to drop them off at a friend’s front door and kiss them goodbye. So much harder than I expected to board a plane headed halfway around the world — nearly 6000 miles away from my family.

Once I was a sixteen-year-old girl with wings on her feet, and I thought the suburbs were too small, too inconsequential, too boring to be worth much of anything. But lately, I’ve been on a journey into the smallness of my own life — each year, the circles of my world getting tinier.

This one small church. That Walmart greeter. These neighbors. This barista. These two blonde-haired-boys and their Daddy.

I have a 9×13 pan with that Mother Teresa quote — Small things with great love — etched on the cover. It was a Christmas gift from my next door neighbor, and it’s perfect since I’m learning the simple beauty of loving others one hot-dish, one cup of coffee, one church-lobby-hug at a time. This girl who once thought she was meant to go, go, go has fallen in love with staying. I am rooted deep in the unlikely Minnesota soil, spread bare and shivering in the winter world I live in, yet still, amazingly, alive — expanding into it all a little more every year.

When I tell you that this trip is “out of my comfort zone,” I mean that I’m sitting at gate L31 at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, half-drowned in the enormity of the world. The accents, the languages — a million people, an infinite number of stories, all of our small circles intersecting into some abstract painting that I can’t understand.

I’m halfway to Armenia, and when I say that I’m afraid, it’s because I know that when you choose to open up the tiny circles of your life, there is so much you have to take in. Pain and chaos and joy and sorrow. Poverty and beauty. All of the things you cannot change. All of the things that you can.

Out the airplane window last night (this morning?), I watched the sun dip out of sight in Minnesota and then rise again over a landscape of clouds in France. I sat there with my paper cup of coffee feeling so out of context — a single word ripped from the paragraph of my life.

I hope that the word is love.

The chairs at Gate L31 are hard against my back. The carpet is red striped, and there is a Playstation Lounge next to us from which the varied sounds of video games come tearing through the air.

I’m waiting for the rest of the team, waiting for the flight to board, waiting for Armenia and God and courage and love. Waiting for my heart to split open like the morning sky.

Armenia Bloggers 2015

3 Things We Need to Stop Saying to Youth Group Kids

photo credit: MercyMe via photopin (license)

photo credit: MercyMe via photopin (license)

A month or two ago, I stumbled upon a televised version of the Acquire the Fire conference on some obscure Christian channel on cable. This was the conference that I attended every year as a high school student, the conference that deeply informed the way I understood and lived my faith.

I couldn’t believe it was on TV. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there, watching it.

In the opening segment, Ron Luce sits with a very young (and slightly starstruck) reporter. The President of Teen Mania Ministries has gained weight and his hair has grayed a bit at the top, but he’s still the same person I remember from all those years of Acquire the Fire conferences.

The theme of this year’s ATF is “Epic Truth.” The reporter asks Ron Luce questions about today’s youth, and Ron blames comedians and sitcoms for the rise of “new atheism” and then awkwardly injects Katy Perry into the conversation. “I know her parents well,” he says. Then he gives a little pitch for the Honor’s Academy: “It’s like Red Bull for your walk with God,” he says, and he flashes that white-toothed grin at the camera.

Red Bull. Epic Truth. Acquire. The. Fire. Big words. Charged words Fighting words.

I fast forward through the first speaker until I get to the skit being acted out on stage by Teen Mania interns. The skit, which will run through the entire conference, is about a new Christian kid named Travis who suddenly finds himself being “persecuted” by his former friends at school. “I am Travis, and my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” he narrates. “I have to be more than full of heart. I’ve got to be headstrong.”

The skit takes place in Travis’ brain, which we come to understand because the booth at the center of the stage is labeled Cortex. The character labeled “Conviction” has curly hair and rides around the stage on a Segway saying pompous things like, “I’ve been stirring in Travis for some time, and today is the day he’s going to do something about it.”

Off to stage right, two girls with bows in their hair play the part of “Free Will,” smacking nonexistent gum, speaking in tandem, and acting the parody of a ditzy cheerleader.

On the giant video screens flanking the stage, bits of the story unfold: we see Travis’s ex-friends creating a YouTube video, mocking Travis and his faith with a puppet show about how much Christians suck.

In Travis’ brain-skit, someone says, “I really want to transition into pride right now. I really want to flip some tables!”

The YouTube video sparks a school-hallway argument that escalates quickly until Travis is heard shouting, “SHUT YOUR LIE-HOLE, ALEX!!” (This is an actual quote. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Suddenly, an antagonistic teacher enters the scene, and the hall goes quiet. With pursed lips, she tells Travis and his ex-friends that they will settle their differences over a debate about whether Christianity is true. “You have one class period to polish,” she says haughtily to New-Christian Travis, who she clearly doesn’t like. “You’d better get to the library.”

“Definitely a liberal,” someone in Travis’ brain-skit mumbles.

One of my kids cries from upstairs in bed, and I stop the recording. By the time I get back down, I don’t have the heart to watch anymore. I meant to get far enough to hear what Ron Luce has to say to today’s youth, but I’ve heard enough.

Fifteen years later, it’s all exactly the same.

*

After my first book came out — that memoir, documenting my own somewhat toxic evangelical youth — people kept asking me, “What should we be doing different;y with our teens?” I always stood there, blinking at that question. I still don’t really know, and I’ve been around the whole thing long enough to know that there’s no formula. No exact equation.

Teen Mania’s approach has always tended toward the extreme end of the spectrum, but it does makes me worry about the messages we’re communicating to our youth still today.

Here are a three undercurrents that stuck out to me as I watched a little bit of Acquire the Fire this year — three things that I think we need to strike from youth group curriculum, conferences, and talks.

1. Your classmates/peers/friends/teachers are going to persecute you for your faith.

One of the recurrent themes in my Christian youth was the pressure to stay strong for God around peers and teachers who, I was told, would be antagonistic toward my beliefs. So many talks and sermons and rally-sessions wrapped tight around this topic, constricting my chest with the urgency of knowing how to accurately and compellingly disseminate the specifics of the Christian faith to others…even if they mocked me for it.

I spent the duration of junior high and high school braced against the entire student body, sure that they secretly mocked/hated/despised me. I wore Christian t-shirts like some kind of bullet-proof vest. I memorized all of the brilliant apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity in case any teacher or student ever cornered me in the hall and forced me to debate my faith.

But here’s the thing. No one ever did.

What actually happened is that I distanced myself from everyone who didn’t believe like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me — it was that I had barred my arms in an eternal defensive pose, and no one could even get close. So after a while, they stopped trying.

I understand that there are places in the world where persecution exists. I know that, particularly in light of current events, it’s  is not something to take lightly. But the American cultural climate, right now, is not violent toward Christians. We are not being beheaded, here, for our faith. And despite the popularity of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead, I’d argue that 99% of teachers are not in it to shatter students’ faith. And yes — kids can be cruel. But, in the land of first-world problems, it’s usually not about anything quite as noble as religious beliefs.

I’d love to see youth pastors and teachers who refuse to play into that “Us” and “Them” paradigm. Who encourage, instead, their students to understand that we are all so much the same. Complicated and quirky and broken and beloved. Afraid and brave. Tactless at some points, impossibly kind at others.

I’d love to see a more compassionate approach — toward both the Christian student and her friends. Listen, they might not understand your faith, and there’s a chance that confusion might come out sideways. But they are still the same person they always were. Instead of teaching our kids that Jesus is something that we have and they don’t, let’s teach them to look for the bright image of God in each person that crosses their paths.

2. Your friends’ salvation hinges on how well you can defend the Gospel.

In this stage of their faith, kids tend to ignore conflict and inconsistencies in their beliefs…simply because they’re not equipped, yet, to deal with those complexities. (See Fowler and Peck’s Stages of Spiritual Development.)

This is normal, and okay. It’s an essential stage of their faith development. But when we combine it with the urgent, heavy responsibility to witness to their friends and bring revival to their schools, we’re inadvertently creating an atmosphere in which cliches, trite answers, and Christian t-shirts pass for “evangelism.”

Let’s start by telling them this instead: You can’t save anyone.

Jesus is the Savior, and we are not. We might get to play some small role in the redemption narrative of someone else, but if we do, it won’t be because we’ve got the perfect defense or memorized the right Scriptures or read the right books.

Instead of teaching our youth group kids six different ways to explain “the Romans Road” to their friends, let’s take this time we have with them to show them Jesus. Let’s do it not so that they’ll have a perfect defense when someone asks about their faith…but simply because he is unfathomably beautiful, because his love is so deep that we cannot see the bottom.

Later, when they begin to grapple with the inconsistencies and the doubts and the hard things in their faith…it won’t be trite answers that see them through. It will be that single glimpse they’ve gotten of the beauty of God. It will be the muscle memory of having dived deep into something real. And if and when their friends question them about their faith, it won’t be about showing them a diagram. It will be about showing them Jesus.

3. You have to do something to make a difference for God.

Youth group kids are so often pulsing with possibility, wild with hope and optimism, immortal in their chests. They want to do BIG THINGS, and if they’ve grown up privileged and loved and safe, they might even still believe that they can.

It’s natural to want to tap into that desire — to show them that faith itself can be exciting and extraordinary and dangerous and beautiful.

But at the same time, what we don’t need is a bunch of kids hopped up on a kind of Red-Bull-faith — over-caffeinated and overtired and then, finally, crashing into the ground. I belonged to a generation of on fire kids who careened like fireworks through the dark world and then burned out. We don’t need that either.

The Christian walk is a long journey — so often mundane and difficult, putting one foot in front of another — seeing nothing, feeling nothing. And linking faith with extraordinary actions and extraordinary feelings makes it so much harder for us when we slam into the inevitable ordinary.

YES — let’s get excited with our kids about their dreams. Let’s encourage their passion and their hearts. But also, let’s make sure that underneath that, we are offering a steady drumbeat of timeless truth.

You can’t do anything to make God love you more.

You can’t do anything to make God love you less.

You are already enough.

God is already doing amazing things through you — even if it all feels hopelessly average.

*

I didn’t watch the rest of the Acquire the Fire conference. Who knows? Maybe Travis figured out that his teacher is just a woman with a husband who just said he’s leaving and two grown kids she has to tell somehow.

Maybe he’ll blink a couple of times and realize that Alex is still the same guy he used to hunt frogs with after school as a kid, and he’ll say, “I don’t want to debate faith today. Let’s go play basketball.”

Maybe he’ll learn that he does not, in fact, have to be “headstrong.” That all God ever wanted was his heart.

I doubt it. But maybe. And maybe if not him? Maybe the rest of them — the glowing, immortal kids sitting in youth group rooms all across the country. Loved by God . Loved by us.

On Saying “Yes” to Armenia

Armenia Bloggers 2015

Two weeks from today, I’m getting on a plane and going to Armenia with World Vision.

No one is more surprised about this than I am.

Weather-wise, it’s a lateral move — just as cold there as it is here in Minnesota. Maybe colder. When the World Vision Blog Manager, Matthew Brennan, first asked me to join the trip, he cited my blog, where I’d written extensively about my perpetual struggles with winter and darkness. “I thought that your readers would connect with the cold weather topics we’ll be talking about,” he said.

Note to self, I thought. Begin blogging about WARMTH and SUNSHINE and HAPPINESS.

I looked up Armenia on a map — a teeny tiny country about the size of Maryland, surrounded by Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. I had heard of it, of course, but I’d never taken the time to look for it on a map — to see it there, a sliver of land, wedged between so much political tumult.

I waited until the last possible day. Go or stay? 

I wrote annoying emails. If I do this, are you going to let me blog about whatever I want? If I go, I’m going to process it is a MEMOIRIST, which means I will be in the story. Is that okay? Are you sure you want ME? “Yes, yes, yes,” they said.

So on the last possible day, I said yes too.

* 

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, or if you’ve read my book, you know I have a checkered history with “missions trips.” I started at such a young age, lugging the Gospel message around cultures I didn’t understand like a two-by-four and whacking people over the head with it.

The two weeks I spent as a mime in a Teen Mania drama in the Dominican Republic created a deep crack down the center of both my faith and my self-worth. A youth group trip to Sweden a few years later left me feeling on the fringes, isolated by complicated feelings about what we were actually doing there. But I kept going on trip after trip — one inner-city neighborhood after another. I stood in line to serve soup or played with neighborhood children, and all the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the transient nature of the trip.

The year I spent in China with my husband, teaching English, wasn’t a missions trip, per say. But it was just as lonely, just as isolating — a year when I burrowed deeper and deeper into myself until I’d tunneled too far into my own darkness to get out on my own.

But before all that — before I started wearing Witness Wear or toting a Bible around in my backpack at school or wearing frayed WWJD bracelets — I went to the Czech Republic with a small group of adults from my church to teach at an English summer camp. I didn’t know yet that I was supposed to be changing their lives, so instead, I made friends and laughed and blew bubbles and sang silly songs…and I let them change mine.

The night before we left I sobbed so loudly during the students’ impromptu worship service that my parents turned subtle shades of red and finally ushered me out.

What I mean to say is that before the whole thing got complicated, it was all desperately beautiful.

*

Last summer, the students at our tiny community church went on a trip to Costa Rica. When they came back, they stood on the stage, glowing, and our pastor gestured to the photos above. “We did make a contribution,” he said. “But mostly what happens on missions trips is that we learn how the Kingdom functions.”

Afterward, I processed my own missions trip experiences in light of that compelling statement. “When I went [on missions trips] looking for the holes and the poverty and the need, I found it.” I wrote that day. “And the recognition of that reality never made me feel like a servant. Instead it filled me with a powerless kind of shame. But every now and then, I managed to open my eyes enough to see the glory. And that, in the end, is what changed my life.”

*

Two weeks from today, I’m getting on a plane and going to Armenia with World Vision. I’ll be gone for eight days (Nine nigh-nights, I tell the kids while trying not to totally freak out).

I’m going because there is so much of God that I haven’t seen, haven’t understood, haven’t allowed myself to come face-to-face with.

I’m going because my experience of Christianity and church and faith and darkness is just one tiny knot in a tapestry.

I’m going to write and to hopefully bring awareness to the work being done there. To the ways that we can all be involved in the lives of those who are very far away from us.

But more than that, I’m going because I too have spent my life struggling with the cold and darkness. Because I am desperately aware of my own poverty and of the reality that our lives are bound up with one another, whether we choose to see it or not.

I am exhilarated. I am terrified.

I hope you’ll follow along with me and my team as as we process, prepare, and then venture out into a far away winter, where God is still, always, at work — as sure as the crushing cold, as wild as the winter wind.

When Lent Comes Too Soon [Guest Post]

lent comes early

I started Lent early this year.

Not long after New Year’s, a meltdown enabled me to glimpse the darkness of my heart: the way I use people, my capacity for self-deception. A dustup online confronted me with the need to cut back on Facebook. A strange reaction to my morning coffee suggested a switch to decaf.

Perhaps it’s the reclusiveness of the Northeast winter that brings it on. Maybe the quiet of January after the holiday rush lends itself to introspection. Whatever the cause, Lent has started early for several years running.

At the same time, formal Lent has become a grind. I used to plunge into its heavy spirit of mea culpa with abandon, walking through Holy Week with a shadow over my soul, trying to repress the craving for whatever I’d given up. A few years ago—maybe with the job that went horribly wrong, or the crises of loved ones too close to me, or the slowdown of age I no longer want to fight—I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The intensity was just too much.

I seem to be doing Lent on my own time, as it comes to me. I still love Jesus, but not according to a schedule.

I seem to be listening to my heart.

I wonder if this is something that happens over time. You start by devouring the scriptures, analyzing passages and memorizing verses and applying them to your everyday life. You go for guidelines and forms and rituals and techniques. But gradually your focus shifts, and your life starts to coalesce not so much around the written word, but around the whispered Spirit in the depth of your soul. Things take place on the schedule you need, according to your own seasons of the spirit.

Maybe this is where your faith becomes your faith.

Years ago, someone told me you have to learn the rules first in order to break the rules later. It’s one of the few “dad mantras” our daughter remembers from childhood—and she applies it even today. If you don’t start with rules, you don’t know what you’re doing. Imagine playing Scrabble without any hint of the rules: you’ve got a pretty board and a bunch of tiles and no idea what to do with them.

But if you stay within the rules, you miss out on that strange mix of joy and fear that comes with the Christian life—the sense of heading into the unknown with the tug of the Spirit as a guide, confident only that you are loved and that the journey will make you better. At this point, the rules aren’t external; they’re baked into your heart. That frees you to follow the Spirit into places you never thought you’d go.

Perhaps this is the year I learn to live my own faith. Perhaps this year I will understand that obscure saying of Jesus: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Perhaps I won’t know what I’ve learned until Lent is over. What I do know is that it has already begun.

 

john backmanJohn Backman, the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides.

As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, he has written articles for numerous Christian publications. Check out his work at the Dialogue Venture blog and follow him on Twitter.