Apple Juice

Back when I used to watch Saturday Night Live (before the Jamie Foxx episode that permanently changed my mind), there was a skit that for some reason I still can’t stop laughing about. The episode was being hosted by Bryan Cranston, and near the end of the episode where they put the skits that just aren’t very good, he is joined by Fred Armisen in a skit called the Bjelland Brothers.  The skit centers around a song with the lyrics, “I sent a bottle of sparkling apple juice to your house.  Did you get it?”  But, rather than describing it to you in detail, I’ll just embed it below.  Give it a chance…it’ll grow on ya.

So after watching this and having the song in my head, I realized that the chords were really easy, and the next week in youth group, I started by playing this song and getting the kids to sing along.  I doubt that any of the had any idea what this was, but they thought it was funny.   Just like a good shampoo (lather, rinse, repeat) I’ve done it occasionally since, and the teens always think it’s fun.  I doubt that hardly any of them still have any idea what it is from.

As anyone who ever reads this already knows, I recently left youth ministry.  My teens showered me with love in ways that I still can’t put words to.  The most powerful for me are never little trinkets or gift cards (although I do like those), but the teens that tell me how something I did affected their lives, or when they go the extra mile to make me something, or do something creative to honor me.  All of the ways in which they’ve touched my life through the years I’ve known them, and even more as I’ve left will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Tonight I cleaned the last vestiges of clutter from my old office at church.  It was bitter-sweet.  Now there is nothing tangible that ties me back to that building.  As I left, I looked back into my office with a touch of sadness.  After a large part of a decade, it is no longer my place.

When I got home, I carried boxes of books and other office stuff from my car into my home office.  As I carried the last box in, I looked down and saw this on my doorstep.

Bottle of Sparking Apple Juice 1











Bottle of Sparkling Apple Juice 2











Forrest, I got it.  Thank you

The Wall

Wall Header

I decided to undertake a massive project this summer, which we now affectionately call the Great Wall of Ryan.  My house sits on the top of a little hill, which is a pretty novel thing in North Texas.  This means that in every direction, the ground slopes down and away from my house, like a little rollercoaster for any topsoil.  The only defense I have found for this problem in my front yard is to build a massive retaining wall near the street.

In preparation for this project, about two years ago I imported a large amount of dirt into the front of my yard.  Then about a year and a half ago, we were able to swing a deal for a whole lot more soil, which was also dumped on top of the existing pile.  And there it sat, for over a year.  It was embarrassing.  My neighbors would occasionally comment.  I was afraid I would get a brick thrown through my front window, but I was handicapped by work projects that I could not walk away from.

This summer I finally got the time, and I dedicated my life to making this wall.  And what a wall it is!  Nearly 120 feet long, in its two sections framing my yard, and just under 4 feet at the tallest, it is a giant monument to hard work and dedication.  And I built it all by myself…with lots and lots of help.

While to my neighbors, the most important thing is that the former Prairie Dog Farm in front of my house now actually adds to the aesthetic of my block, the biggest lesson to me was the kind help that my hard-working friends put into the project without asking for anything in return.   And the lessons I learned this summer, alongside teenagers and grown men while building this wall, are what is most worth mentioning here.

Much of the summer played out this way: I would start working relatively early in the morning, mostly to avoid the heat.  Then I would call to, or answer a call from one of the teenagers I know, who said he was “bored,” and “do you need some help today?”  I would pick the teen up and drive him to my house.  We would then work until lunch (which I’d provide), go back at it, and often bust our tails till evening.  Many times, we would also feed them dinner before taking them home.

Not a single teen sat in the yard and complained.  Not one 13 through 18 year old said, “It’s too hot!” as we worked in 105 degree sun.  None of them avoided me the rest of the summer.

What I did hear a lot of were things like, “Wow, this is so much fun.  I’ve never done anything like this before,” and “Hey, call me when you need more help.”  They always thanked me as I dropped them off back at home filthy from digging, looking like some Depression era dust farmer.

There was the 13 year old who begged me to let him come, after his brother had helped.  We spent the day driving stakes and putting up line-levels to set the height of the project.  I had to force him to wear sunscreen and drink water.  He laughed the whole time, and wondered why I only let him put in some of the stakes.  Mostly, he wanted to use my axe and a few other sharp tools to try and cut a log.  I let him.

I also spent many days with the 16 year old who practically lived at my house.  He stayed in our guest bedroom on the weekends, not because there was something horrible at home, but because he wanted to work.  This teen doesn’t even attend my church or youth group.  His family is from a different country, and they sent him here alone for High School.  He approached my front yard project like it was food, and he a starving man.

We were cutting some blocks for the curving corners of the wall, a task that takes forever and I really dislike, when he asked for a turn at the saw.  I showed him how to operate the angle grinder with its sharp diamond blade, and he went to cutting.  When he finished, I was astonished at the quality cut he made.  It wasn’t quite as good as what I could do, but it was an amazing first attempt.  I told him so.

From that moment, he wanted to cut every single block.  He spent hours making perfect cuts and angles, which were eventually far better than the work that I could do.  I told him that he was good at it, and he became a master at it.  He later told me that it was actually his least favorite thing to do, even though he was always the one who asked to do it.  He did it because he was proud and accomplished.

But this was far different from what parents and teachers have been telling me about teen guys.  Huge numbers of teenage boys are getting barely passing grades in Junior High and High school, and are deciding not to go to college at all.  They aren’t doing this to chase after wild dreams in art, music, sports, or to travel the world.  Instead they are staying home and sitting in front of the X-Box until their parents force them to get a job.  In fact, according to a government official in the State of Washington recently, “Teen males, 16- to 19-year-olds, have an unemployment rate of about 40 percent. That is certainly something unique to this recession.”[1]

So why did I experience such a difference in the guys I was working with?  Why were they sweating in 100+ degree temperatures and not complaining?  Why were they thanking me at the end of an 8-hour day instead of demanding payment?

I think it is because they were engaging in something that is hard-wired into guys, and part of what manhood is about.  They were out building something, working with their hands, and accomplishing a project.  They were doing something they were being told not only that they could do, but also that they were good at.  They were also seeing immediate results of their labor.  When you shovel a pile of rocks for an hour, after that hour the rocks are no longer there.

But the narrative for success that we are telling our young men does not involve those elements.  What we tell them is to be quiet and listen in school, which many of them are naturally not any good at.  They also need to invest in things that they won’t see any results of for many years.

This is told to teenagers in High School career programs, and as a threat to keep them studying hard.  “I mean, you don’t want to not get into college and have to be a construction worker for the rest of your life, do you?”  You can almost hear the sad trombone play in the background.  But that threat doesn’t appear to be working on many of these boys anymore.  Now more than ever, their response to this question is “I don’t care.”

That response says far more than most people realize.  “I don’t care” isn’t a complaint.  “I don’t care” isn’t a cry for help.  It isn’t something you can argue past or even fix through stern lecturing.  “I don’t care” really means, “I have lost hope, and I don’t think anything I do will actually matter.  So, I’ve given up.”  It is a crisis beyond education and employment.  Our men are in a crisis of hope, and a lack of hope makes a person’s heart sick.  Sick hearts don’t produce healthy lives.

They lose hope when they aren’t involved in things that they see as making any lasting difference in the world.  They lose hope when we hold up feminine qualities as good, while simultaneous saying both that any good male qualities are expressed equally through women, and that most male qualities are actually negative.  They lose hope when they have no true heroes that express virtuous male qualities.  Why should they have hope?

The message is, “Just be a like the good girls.  Sit down and be quiet.  Try not to be such a boy.”

In our church’s youth ministry, one of the things that we instill in our leadership team is that our job is not to fill buckets, but to light fires.  This means that we don’t want to just teach students not to “smoke, drink, or chew, or date people who do.” Instead we want them to know mostly that God built them to do great things, that He put destiny in their hearts, and has an awesome future planned for them.

The only way for them to really see this completely fulfilled in their lives is to be in close relationship with the God who created them and loves them dearly. When they fall in love with that God, they will want to know how He wants them to live their lives and will want to live according to that.  Expecting them to follow His rules for any other reason is like expecting people watching a soccer game on TV to also not use their hands during the match.  The spectators are not on the field and haven’t committed themselves to the game, so why would they commit to following its rules.

So we believe that when the teenagers fall in love with Jesus, and commit themselves to Him, then they will want to passionately follow what He tells them He cares about.  They will try to do less of the things that hurt that relationship, and more of the things that deepen it.  Their actions will be fueled by the passion inside, not just from some list of dos and don’ts.

Remember High School Algebra?  At some point in the semester a student raised his hand (it was almost always a boy) and asked the teacher, “When will I ever use this in real life?”  Our boys are asking that question of almost everything, and our response is to tell them to be quiet and let us put more in their buckets.  It is obvious that as a society, we aren’t lighting our boy’s fires.  We are just trying to fill their buckets, and they are responding accordingly.

So back to the wall…

What happened this summer is that a bunch of boys got to invest their time in activities that are inherently manly (yes, there are other manly qualities that don’t involve shoveling).  They built things that will hopefully last far into the future, and they saw immediate fruit from their labor.  They got to work with an adult man who not only cared about them, but also modeled certain qualities, and told them that what they were doing was good and important.  And they were also told that they were good at what they were doing, and were thanked for their help.

They left feeling accomplished and good about themselves. These were boys that for a while at least, didn’t say, “I don’t care,” at all.  They seemed to care about something a great deal.  They left fired-up.

[1] Arum Kone, a regional labor economist for the Washington state Department of Employment Security, as quoted in The Spokesman-Review. February 13, 2012.

The Most Holy Time

Coffee Shope Image

I admit it.  I’ve been in some kind of funk lately.  No actually, not lately, this has been going on for some time now.  The exact nature of this funk is difficult to describe, and especially so when I am trying to do so without offending the sensibilities of proper and sincere religious people.  I am one of those proper and sincere religious folk myself, which means that my internal dialogue has been offending me for quite a while.  So, if you are reading this, and happen to get offended, then we can commiserate together.  Just don’t shoot the messenger on this one.

The problem exists because I am naturally a part of two separate worlds.  One of these is the land that all of humanity lives in.  It cannot be escaped, save for moving to the jungles of Brazil or becoming some sort of religious hermit (but more on that one later).  It is dark at times, beautiful at others, yet always convulsing and turning somehow.  This world, like my barely functioning clothes drier, is making loud noises, fits-and-starts, and sometimes barely functioning in any measure of success.  Yet, it is where we are, and there is also great beauty in it.  From natural creations, to the Burj Dubai, and even a stranger picking up something you dropped on the street there is wonder.  God loves it, and like an abused spouse, so do I.

The other world I straddle is the world of the Church.  All kinds of people, from poufy-haired, multi-pinky-ringed televangelists to African children in Sunday school are a part of it.  There is amazing beauty in the Church.  The great array of what is good in the world is all a child of Christ’s bride.  It doesn’t matter what the likes of Christopher Hitchens says, God’s goodness is reflected in His Church.

I have often throughout my life taken refuge and comfort in the world of the Church because I know that the other world is victim of a fatal disease that rots its flesh, a cancer that grows and devours.  I expect it to be this way.  The problem that I have been increasingly having is that the world of the Church I have allowed to nurture me is seemingly growing increasingly very ill herself.

Yes, I am aware that the Church being an institution full of humans, is subject to all the frailties of man.  But those have always been beautiful scars in my eyes, reminders of the grace and power of God.  Maybe it is just me, but those scars are looking less and less romantic.

Now, I am in no danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and leaving the Church entirely.  I know that there is no chance that I can tread water on my own long enough to point out all the holes in the ship for everyone else to plug.  Further, God gave us the institution of the Church for a reason, and His wisdom infinitely trumps mine.

This difficulty in the Church world was highlighted to me a few weeks ago as I looked back on the events of that particular week:

I started the week with my day off (Monday), working on different chores and things I had to do to keep my life going, pretty bland, but it is life.

Tuesday was spent planning at another staff meeting.  We talked about events and programs that were coming up.  Staff meetings are not part of the fun of ministry in any way, really.  But they are a necessary evil (if I can use that word so flippantly).  Nothing would get accomplished  if proper planning was not done.  I spent a lot of time in staff meeting this week wondering what lasting value much of what we were discussing would achieve.  Maybe that is the wrong thought to have, but it was my thought nonetheless.

Later Tuesday night, we had High School group.  As we lead worship, played games, and taught, I kept wondering if any student would remember anything I said past 9:00 PM, when they left the building.  I was later corrected (gently) by one of my students, who told me that Tuesday night had a big effect on him, and there were probably others.  But I guess my real issue is with the general effectiveness.  I will not belittle the powerful impact God may be having on one person in the group, or even pockets of them.  I have also learned that times when I think no impact is being made can be the most impactful.  But after doing this for many years, I know the look in the students’ eyes that say “If we could have left after game time, I would have.”

Wednesday was similar to Tuesday in that I did office work to further the ministry, and Wednesday night was Junior High.  In the case of Junior Highers, small victories matter.  I had to rejoice that no one was injured and no one was sent home early.  Also, one of the students gave a testimony of how God had a powerful impact on him over the last two months.

Thursday, I spent a big portion of the day at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop writing, reading, and hanging out.

Friday, I did general chores, and ended the day at a church gathering at someone’s home.  It was fun.  Like all church gatherings, it has to be concluded with an extended time of teaching about something.  Let me break down the fourth-wall and ask the reader a question here: How many sermons in your life can you remember, and had a lasting effect on your life?  Well, this Friday night teaching was for me in the pile with the majority of teachings I’ve heard.

Saturday, Peichi and I had fun and hung out with some friends at our house that we know from the foreign exchange community.  I ended up in a very deep conversation with one of the ladies at our house.  She talked about how she felt alone and kind of floating in her life.  She wanted to be a part of doing something that made a difference in the world.  I asked her if she was willing to help do some work at the church for us.  She said she would, and she has.  In the back of my head I have been hoping that she continues in her quest for meaning, and hoping her involvement in helping at the church isn’t leading her in the wrong direction.

Sunday was a church service.  It was similar to most church services.  I like our church.  I think God does work in people’s hearts there.  Although I can’t remember any of the Prophetic Words and I don’t know of anyone who got healed during prayer time, or anyone who made a decision for Christ, I am sure that God worked in people’s lives.  I am not self-important enough to believe that I am qualified to determine the effectiveness of these things.  There are weeks when I leave feeling just tired.  Then again, I’ve spent the last 14 years making church services happen.

That was my week.

When I looked back on it all, the powerful times where I really felt God doing stuff was not on Tuesday, of Wednesday, or even Sunday.  I know He did do stuff.  I’m not denying that.  But the times I really felt like God was using me to make a difference was on Thursday as I wrote in the coffee shop.  I had two long conversations with total strangers.  We talked about everything from geopolitics to budding technology.  We also talked about faith.

Mind you, I am not one of those people who is always walking up to strangers and acting like they’re my best friend.  I am more inclined to be deeply involved in internal dialogue when in line at the supermarket than to carry on a conversation there.  But these coffee shop conversations just naturally happened.  They felt easy and natural.  Even the parts when we were talking about God felt fun and light, as if the His Spirit were guiding us in them.  I wasn’t the guy sitting and waiting to accost someone with a canned salvation message.  I was the guy watching God unfold something in front of me.

It was beautiful.  For the first time for me in a long time that Thursday, the feverish outside world was crashing into the holy world of the Church, and I was right in the middle of it.  I left the coffee shop feeling energized and excited.  God had actually showed up.  He had done something in front of me that gave me the impression that there was some sort of lasting difference made.  It felt like getting in the shower after a long afternoon of gardening, with dirt under your fingernails and the smell of soil on your skin.

I can’t do the spiritual hermit thing.  I know that there is a great value in keeping oneself from being polluted by the world, but I can’t see that as being separable from looking out for widows and orphans and being a light to the world around me.   In fact, the more I approach those semi-cloistered places lately, the more I have an asthmatic choking feeling, like there isn’t enough air.  I’m not leaving the building.  I just need to keep the windows rolled down and the fresh air flowing.

Addendum: I know that this brings up some real issues, and I don’t write this as a sermon.  I often feel that people write the word “I” too much, and I am always scanning my writing trying to get rid of as many instances of that as I can (that sentences contained 4).  This piece is riddled with them, but that is because it is one of the most stream-of-consciousness things I’ve written in a while.  I saved it for a week, and edited, but I still have the sinking feeling that someone might read and want to misunderstand, argue, debate.  I don’t really have a desire to enter that fray.  This is really just an opened internal dialogue of sorts.  I am not trying to be self-defeating.  I think honesty in this regard honors the Lord.  If you have thoughts or feelings that will honor this dialogue, please feel free, though. -Ryan

Texting During Church

Texting and Tweeting in churchI read an interesting article from Time magazine last week about churches warming to the idea of texting and tweeting during church. Twittering in Church, with the Pastor’s O.K., by Bonnie Rochman sites a few churches that are encouraging church members to text and tweet all they want during the sermon, in an effort to get the people interacting with the sermon.

I have actually seen this in action.  The other night I was briefly watching a sermon on TV (in Texas, there are about 10 channels on broadcast TV that are religiously themed) where the pastor was interacting with text messaged questions and comments from the congregation during the sermon.  It seemed interesting, although most of what the people had texted was totally uninteresting.  It seemed pretty cool.  Something like that would be especially useful for building a sense of community and interactiveness in a case like Saddleback in California, where there are several on-campus simulcasts in order to accommodate the sheer numbers of people who attend.  This could also be really good for achieving the same goal in some sort of live TV broadcast (Billy Graham style).

There is another side to this, though.  As a minister, one of the biggest challenges that I see in church culture is not getting people to interact with the message on Sunday morning.  In fact, this could be achieved any number of ways that didn’t involve Twitter or texting.  Instead, I see one of the biggest difficulties in getting the people to dial down from the wired world that they live Monday through Saturday (OK, and Sunday too, right after service ends).

A couple of weeks ago during my Mother’s Day sermon, one of our church elders was in his usual spot in the congregation.  As I taught I noticed that he was busily reading his email on his iphone.  I think that people in the congregation somehow believe that there is some sort of two-way mirror where the stage ends, that allows them to see me, but totally blocks my view of them.  I thought about calling him out on it, but I knew that probably wouldn’t be a good idea for my own career, and I strongly suspect that the action was more intentional on his part to send a message (I’ll just leave that there—I could be wrong).

My point in mentioning that situation is this: while many congregations might use tweeting and texting to create a positive and interactive culture surrounding the message, the net result of these changes will not be to plug more people into what God is doing on a Sunday morning.  Instead, in my opinion, it will be exactly the opposite.  People who are struggling to focus their attention on what is happening at the service, will now return to multiple-option-land where there concentration can be as split as it is the rest of the time.

I guarantee that if I gave the teenagers in church the option to text and tweet me during the service, some would take me up on it.  At the same time, I would have twice as many teens texting their friends just like they do all the rest of the time.  One of the biggest negatives of our over-wired world is that people seem to be having an increasingly difficult time existing unplugged from the Matrix.  I was amazed two weeks ago at some of my teens who spent the late night hours texting and myspacing on their phones.  Some of them were up past 3 AM doing this.  They weren’t busy laughing and talking to each other like they usually would at a lock-in.  They were triple-tapping their LOL’s and OMG’s as their batteries slowly drained.

I don’t think as adults we should be feeding this beast in church.  I don’t say this from a biblical precedent standpoint, but just as one examining culture.

Semi-Liveblogging the Vineyard Conference (a)

Vineyard USA National Conference

This week I’m on Galveston Island, southeast of Houston, for the Vineyard USA National Conference.  I am going to be semi-live blogging the event.  I can’t actually get internet in the conference room, and I’m blogging from a laptop.  I will be posting my thoughts that I have penned the old fashioned way and typed out.  I know, I feel like a luddite…or something along those lines.

Galveston was ravaged by hurricane Ike over a year ago.  The flood waters have subsided, or course, but there is still lingering destruction.  Peichi asked me tonight if there were any buildings left.  I guess that the media made it sound like that.  There are.  The whole place was underwater, but many of those places were cleaned and repaired.  But many places were also totally destroyed.  The closer you get on the island to the sea wall, the more you see hotels standing uninhabited, and buildings that look like they’ve been through a hurricane (duh).  The convention center the conference is at has no working elevators anywhere.  This is because of the flooding.

The most difficult thing for me is the fact that half the street signs have all been blown away, and have yet to be replaced, as if replacing street signs for me are a top priority to the city.  It is hard to find my way around sometimes because of it, though.

I’ll be taking pictures and will include them on a different post when time allows.

10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication

communicate It seems that the Information Age has been one of the most aptly named epochs in history.  The popular meme may be true, that the average American accesses more information every day than was accessed by our grandparents in their entire lifetimes.  But even if it isn’t, no one can deny that everywhere we turn some advertisement, announcement, print ad, or electronic message is vying for our attention.  The advent of the Internet has done nothing but make matters worse.  Now, instead of a couple dozen pieces of junk mail in my mailbox, I have an email box full of “cheap replica watches,” “free iPods” and unmentionable others.  Unfortunately, the church is doing a worse job at communicating that most of these spammers in my inbox.  Here are 10 ideas for your church to improve communication. Continue reading

What Are We Doing Here Anyway?

This blog really stems from who I am.  I am a youth pastor/church planter, Internet entrepeneur, and the husband of an awesome woman from Taiwan.  I have a passion for writing, seeing the Church use communication technology (specifically the Internet) in the most effective way possible, and helping to grow Christianity in America into what Jesus intended it to be.  I blog about these things here in separate pages according to these various themes.

A Letter to a High Schooler Who Moved Away

This is an excerpt from an email that I sent in response to a message from a teenager who moved away.  I just thought it opened a little window into my world.  Sorry it is long.


Dear _____,

There are challenges wherever you go.  The difficulty of your situation is that a person’s tendency is to compare the best of one thing with the worst of the other.  That is why comparing ourselves to others is so bad.  We only see their best that they present to the world, compared to the things we see as wrong within ourselves.  The same thing happens with places.  There is good in every place.  People are people.  I miss the surf of Southern California.  I miss the mountains.  I miss driving on freeways where other drivers actually know the rules of the road. Continue reading