Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 3): Moving Mountains, Moving Lakes

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the last in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.

The first is here.
The second is here.

The third is here.


We are moving a lake here at Woodleaf.

I can hear the pump humming across the street, where it sits on a platform in the middle of the old mill pond. The Honda WT30X trash pump is pushing water through 760 ft of 3” PVC pipe, which Woodleaf’s property staff purchased and assembled. A good portion of that pipe runs beneath La Porte Rd before dumping 32 gallons of water every minute into a trench on the far side of the property. The water then travels just over 800ft down that trench to the 5.3 acre, man-made lake where all of Woodleaf’s waterfront features are hosted.

Why are we moving a lake here at Woodleaf?

Because the water level in the man-made lake had fallen unexpectedly low, rendering several of Woodleaf’s waterfront features unsafe and unusable. Of course, that’s the technical answer. At heart, we are moving a lake because several of the 300 kids at The Leaf this week live in the Los Angeles foster care system. By definition, these are kids whose homes could (or would) no longer sustain, welcome or care for them. Many of these kids have moved more than 15 times in their lives, and likely at least once this year. Many of them have a parent currently in prison and have lost friends or family to drugs and gun violence. Their histories tell a story in which they too easily see themselves as circumstantial persons, victims and even mistakes; children who “happened” along someone else’s way but for whom there was little to no room.

We are moving a lake here at Woodleaf because offering this property to these kids at full capacity (which means having the entire waterfront open) is a significant way for us to say to these kids (to every kid, really):

“You are welcomed.
You are valued.
You are cherished
You are beloved.
You are worth every inch of our time, energy and effort.”

Serving at Woodleaf, I am clearly reminded that the facts of life, regardless of what they are, can be changed, like the measurements of water levels. Circumstances can be restructured, like the assembly of a water-transfer system. Being at Woodleaf, I am reminded that whole lives can be transformed. And just like the moving of lakes and mountains, doing so can seem ridiculous and impossible.

It’s not.

Changing lives, like moving lakes, just takes more hours, money, emotion and labor than we are often willing to give. But every inch of the effort we put in is worth it. Every kid is worth that time, money, emotion and effort.  Had it been a mountain, Woodleaf would have move that, too. Not because doing so is a spectacular feat of strength we are impressed at having accomplished, but because, at Woodleaf, moving mountains and lakes is a way to say “We love you.”  

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 3) – The Gift Of Our Disabled Friends

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the second in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.

The first is here.
The second is here.

Michael, one of my Summer Staff guys, is talking with Anthony by the light of a flashlight. Anthony is one of 72 campers here at Woodleaf this week who are part of Young Life’s Capernaum Project. Capernaum cares for teens and adults living with various disabilities. Michael has asked Anthony if he wants to go through the military-style obstacle course just up the hill from where we are standing. Anthony is explaining that he’d like to but that his chair won’t make it up the hill. It’s a significant piece of machinery, designed to carry up to 650lbs, and while Anthony probably only weighs 170lbs or so, getting him up the steep hill and through the muddy course with his chair is a practical impossibility.

Michael is leaning over now, talking closely with Anthony and I can’t hear what they’re saying. But I can see Anthony’s arms in the air and his head nodding wildly up and down. Michael is laughing as he reaches to un-buckle Anthony from his chair. And moments later, Anthony is fist-pumping and thumbs-upping his able-bodied friends from high upon Michael’s shoulders.

Over the next fifteen minutes, Anthony would conquer each of the eight obstacles on the course with the help of his new friend, Michael. And, when it’s all over, as they descend onto the main road, Michael  is buckling Anthony back into his chair, saying “Thank you so much. That was awesome.”

And I don’t think he’s simply being sentimental when he says it… I don’t think he’s being patronizing. Though Michael is the one who did the bulk of the work, he’s expressing his thankfulness for the gift Anthony offered him – a gift I’ve been offered myself here at Woodleaf many times. Something close to magical happens to the able-bodied among us when we allow ourselves to befriend, serve and know our disabled sisters and brothers; I think we become more fully human.

Because of his disability, Anthony will likely not experience many of the things able-bodied folks find affirming and validating in the human experience - career, education, vocational success, courtship, sexual intimacy, financial success, etc… and it is in relationship with their Young Life leaders, their loving parents and with friends like Michael that Anthony is reminded, over and over again, that he is fully human, fully loved, fully accepted and fully valued. His disability may prevent him from a significant list of experiences, but that’s different from suggesting he is defined, intrinsically, by his disability. He’s limited. So am I to a degree. Limitation is part of being human – it forces us into relationship. And in relationship, we find the roots of our most fundamental value and identity.  

Anthony high-fives Michael before being wheeled off toward his cabin to wash off the mud from his legs, arms and face. Michael says, for the third time now, “Thank you.”  And this time, I feel like he’s saying it for me. For folks like Michael and myself, able-bodied and upwardly mobile, our connection with friends who live with disabilities reminds us that our value isn’t anchored to our particular successes, failures or even experiences, either. I am reminded that the value of my life is given, acknowledged, received, taught, etc… it isn’t earned and it cannot be diminished. The value of my life is rooted in my relationships, first with the Creator and then with the family, friends and community among whom I get to live out the gift that is my life. 

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 2) – Life, Like Dancing, Is About Joy

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the second in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.  The first is here
The song’s low-end rumbles so deeply I can feel it through the cement beneath my feet, the beat is a steady 4-counts… and the kid in front of me is missing every one.Of course, he doesn’t care how well he’s doing it or how it looks. He’s just dancing.
The vast majority of these kids have little to no training in dance. They might know a few steps to a popular movement like “the Dougie,” but they don’t all do it with precision. And that’s not the point of it all, is it.

Nobody here is dancing because they’re trained or qualified.
They’re dancing because it’s fun.

They’re dancing because music makes us want to move.
They’re dancing because they’re with people that care for them.
They’re dancing because they’ve been told that they are loved unconditionally by the Creator.

Certainly, we can practice and dance with skill and there is deep value to doing so. But having skill isn’t what makes movement “dancing” … I think joy makes movement dancing. Just like joy makes life worth living,.. even worth living with skill.I can so easily get hung up on trying to get life “right,” that I squeeze the joy out of even something like dancing. There are few ways to legitimately “do life right,” which makes that goal as troublesome to achieve as it is boring. In dancing or anything else, joy is a better goal than precision.

I remember that when I’m here at Woodleaf.

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A Christian Homosexual? A Homosexual Christian?

I went to Philosophy Club parties in college. In all honesty, those parties made up about half of my collegiate social experience . . . the grown-up half. My other social outlet consisted of spending time with gaseous, chain-smoking, sixteen-year-old skate-punks as a Young Life leader. What great mercy God granted me that I met a girl who lived out of state and never actually saw the anemic nature of my social life.

During a particularly tense conversation at a Philosophy Club party, I found myself looking down the barrel of a rather loaded critique of Christianity. St. Mary’s is a Catholic college, but the majority of the folks I met in my classes were not friendly toward religion. This was definitely the case with my Philosophy Club friends, among whom faith was widely considered a weakness of thought and an intellectual compromise. A few jabs into my philosophical boxing match, Nathan came to my defense. He spoke eloquently about the philosophical foundations of his faith and pointed at the assumptive nature of our friends’ critiques. He was gentle and confident and gracious. I was dumbstruck. At that point in my life, listening to a homosexual claim to believe in Jesus was like seeing a unicorn. Only this unicorn was gay and claiming to be a Christian. I didn’t have a box in which to put the unicorn. Yet there he was, waxing philosophical and full of faith.

I told Nathan afterward I hadn’t known he was a Christian. He said that was okay because he didn’t wear it on his sleeve the way I did. Beyond joking with me about the way I carried my faith, he was referring to the tapes of my music I had given him. The songs on those tapes were rather overtly evangelical. I’d given him the music in part because I wanted to tell him about Jesus. You know, help my gay friend give his life to Christ since those two things — being gay and knowing Jesus — were diametrically opposed , . . right?

The conflict never came up in conversation between the two of us, though it was in my head whenever we hung out. What was he? A Christian homosexual? A homosexual Christian? A unicorn? My inability to fit him into the categories I normally used to control my world became one of the better gifts God has given me. Because of that gift, I ceased looking at Nathan through the filter of his sexuality. He wasn’t a homosexual first and then a Christian. I also stopped seeing him through the filter of his religion. He was not a Christian first and then a homosexual.  Before any of that, he was my friend, Nathan.  

 

And I’ve come to believe that is probably the way God sees him, too. I don’t think God sees Nathan as His gay, Christian son or His Christian, gay son. Nathan is God’s son. Everything else, no matter what it is, comes second.

 


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf: Real Life Cost-Benefit Analysis

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the first in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf. 

Mike, who is on Woodleaf Property staff, is instructing my Summer Staff about a particular element of the obstacle course Woodleaf designed for their HighSchool guests.

“We’d like to use that slide through this entire summer if we can,” he says “and the metal studs on most jeans catch on and tear up the slide.”

Woodleaf’s high school guests had been asked by their leaders to wear anything other than jeans on the course,.. “but sometimes” Mike continued, “a kid just forgets or isn’t paying attention.”

Then Mike said this: “On the other hand, I’d rather spend $1000 to fix a slide than to single a kid out. So, if a group comes through and one kid among them is wearing jeans, just let them through.”

Every, single element of this remarkable property is designed to facilitate relationship. In the same way that Pixar’s vast wealth and expertise serves Story as king, Young Life’s Woodleaf property serves Relationship as king. Nothing is more important than the connection between the people who spend time here. In fact, the literal millions of dollars it costs to run this property elevates Relationship rather than overshadows it.

I don’t have the resources that Woodleaf has. But here reminds me to weigh the time, energy and resources I have against the value of relationship – to actively live like there is nothing more important than those to whom I’m given.

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There Is No Default Setting In The Human Mind

Sevita told us she taught herself English. She said her brother was always inspired by his sponsor’s letters and that she wanted to read those letters they way they were written. So she sat for hours comparing the handwritten English letter with the Hindi transla- tion. “Eventually,” she said, “the English started to make sense.” That blew my mind. She’s fourteen and lives in a mud hut. I’m thirty-nine and have a Bachelors in English Lit but still confuse the proper use of “whom” and “who.” My friend Steve asked Sevita what she was going to be when she grew up. She didn’t hesitate before she said, “I am going to be a banking manager.”

Sevita lives in shocking conditions and is considered sub-human by many in her culture. On top of that, she’s growing up in an envi- ronment in which she is generally considered a second-class citizen because she is a woman. And yet she expects to run a bank.

Why would she expect such a thing?

As it turns out, the teenager who sponsors her brother often writes about her mother,.. who is a bank manager in Canada. Sevita expects to become more than her culture says she can for the same reason Deep expected Jesus to help his father — because her teenaged sponsor is telling better, more beautiful stories. She is telling stories that don’t end in physical or emotional paralysis; stories in which Deep and Sevita aren’t untouchable.

I have come to believe that there is no default setting in the human mind. My expectations, along with a large portion of my identity, are formed in me by the words and presence of others. I may believe I am trash or I may believe my life is of immense value, but I don’t arrive at either conclusion after a sterile observation of simple facts. I believe what I believe about myself because I’ve been convinced those things are true by the voices I allow into my life. The expectations I have for myself and for my world are developed in relationship with others and I hold them as articles of faith. Part of what this means is learning the way my voice plays an essential role in the process of people I love. If those people don’t know I love and value them, I have to let them know.


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.

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“Go To And Stay Near”

One of my favorite stories about seeing God appears in the eighth chapter of Acts. The story features a man named Phillip, who was a member of the first-century Church, and an unnamed eunuch from Ethiopia. Phillip was on a journey south when he met the Ethiopian eunuch, who was riding in a chariot. Don’t ask me how Phillip knew the man was a eunuch. The Bible doesn’t say. The Bible doesn’t always provide details about things I find intriguing about a story. This is one such instance. What I do know is that Phillip and the Ethiopian man are very different people. More different even than a thirty-year-old father of two and a twelve- year-old flag football player.

The Ethiopian man, besides being Ethiopian and a eunuch, was a member of the Ethiopian royal court, where the queen had placed him in charge of her treasury. Phillip, on the other hand, was Greek, didn’t hold an official position of power in his government and, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read about him, he was not a eunuch. Judging by appearances, there was very little in common between these two men. And the huge cultural gap between them makes what happens next such a powerful moment. Phillip hears the Spirit of God say, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” What a perfect choice of words.

“Go to . . . and stay near . . . ” is not the language of religious agenda, which is what so many of my friends have come to expect of me because I’m a Christian. “Go to . . . and stay near . . . ” is the lan- guage of a God Who went, Who came, and Who goes to His people and stays. And He does so, not because being present is the most effective means to some greater end, but because presence is the end. “Go to . . . and stay near . . . ” is not about getting something done — it’s about being present. It’s about relationship.

Phillip went to the chariot and stayed there long enough to hear that the Ethiopian was reading aloud from the Hebrew Scriptures. Specifically, he was reading from verses in the book of Isaiah that Phillip’s newly formed Christian community read as describing Jesus. In other words, Phillip didn’t “bring the word of God” to the Ethiopian eunuch. In fact, Phillip didn’t even lead the conversation. Instead, he was led into a situation he was unfamiliar with and asked to “stay.” And only when he had clearly heard and seen that God was already present and active did he enter the process by asking, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The whole exchange was about what God was already up to. It was never about what Phillip could make happen. Phillip did not begin the process of faith for the Ethiopian; he was granted the opportunity to be a part of it by adding clarity.

I want to see that way.
The way Phillip was challenged to see the Ethiopian.

I want to assume God is present rather than wonder if He is or
feel like I need to insert Him into a situation. I want to see God in more and various pleas and then help friends who already live in those places see Him there.  I want to see like that instead of seeing God in one, small place (on a Sunday morning around 10:00 am, for instance) and suggesting that those who want Him should meet me (and God) there.


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.

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Renaming Trails

The official “map” of adulthood and fatherhood bears the same names now as it did the day I was born. It is marked with trail names like “Success” and “Security” and “Provider” and “Laborer.” I recognize those trails and those names because they are the names on the official map. I also recognize them as the trails and trail names my father used. The trails named “Success” and “Security” were particularly well traveled by my father’s feet. They wore on his knees and ankles, making his footing less sure. They also took a great toll on his heart and eventually broke his spirit. The corporate culture he lived in for his entire adult life gave the map with those names and suggested they were the best (if not the only) ways up the mountain. I’ve spend enough time on those trails to decide I will call them by different names.  Some of the trails marked “Wealth” and “Safety” I’ve renamed “Boring” and “Unhealthy.” And while I will occasionally trudge up one of those trails for a season, I’ll never use it for long and certainly not as my only way — there is far too much to the journey than those trails offer or the official map implies.

 

On the official map, anything on either side of the wide, main trail is labeled “Failure.” For my dad, this meant that when he found himself off-trail at fifty-five years old, he not only lost a sense of where he was but felt like his journey was over. When the company he built was dissolved by a larger, more powerful entity, he ended up in the unnamed, forbidden space called “Failure.” And that’s where he quit. The tragic reality was that, so long as he was still on the mountain and as long as he had his legs beneath him, there were ways forward from wherever he stood. I cannot tell you how deeply I wish my father would have heard the better voices of friends and loved ones calling him forward and upward.

“Keep moving, Jon!”
“I’m so sorry. I just can’t. I’m in Failure.”
“Failure? Who told you that?”
“It’s what the map says.”
“To hell with the map, Jon. Look up and keep moving. We’re all just a few steps away.”

None of us were calling him back to the main trail. We were calling him forward and upward through the thicket and the brush toward Life. And a funny thing happens when you leave the main trail long enough: you start seeing signs of life — evidence of others having been there before you. Sometimes you find an empty water bottle or a Cliff Bar wrapper or a lost hat or a glove. But sometimes you find the lightly worn beginnings of a trail because it wasn’t just one person; it was a tribe of people who had traveled through the thicket for years. Those are trails carved not by machinery, but worn slowly by the shoes and bodies of people. They are trails you have to walk slowly enough to find; trails you have to be expecting to find in order to see. They are more interesting trails, with names like “Community” and “Simplicity” and “Presence” and “Adventure.” These are the trails I plan to spend my life on.

This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.

spiritual-praying

Re-Post: Thinking Spiritually

A  young man came to his priest, saying “I feel like something is terribly wrong in my spirit. Please help me.”

The priest replied “Can you describe the feeling?”

“It happens every night” The young man began. “I lie down and begin thinking over my day when a terrible feeling comes over me; a burning in my heart, like the kind the disciples felt when meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Only, when I feel it, I can tell something is wrong; it’s more like a pain… as if God is trying to tell me something. Please, father. Help me. What does it mean?”

The priest bent forward from his chair, reaching into his satchel. Thinking the priest was retrieving a rosary necklace, the young man knelt on the floor, bowing his head and extending his hands, palms up, to receive the priest’s prayer of blessing. But into the young man’s open hands, the priest lay a single antacid, saying “You’ve got heartburn, son.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do regularly pray… but sometimes I just need an antacid…
and sometimes I just need to eat better…
and sometimes I need to sleep more…
and sometimes I need to see a trained, professional therapist…
and sometimes I need to change the shoes I’m running in..
or read better books.
and I think all of these things are spiritual things.

In the past I might have suggested that “not everything is spiritual.” But I’m no longer fond of that expression. Instead, I wonder if it is actually inaccurate to consider one aspect of my life “Spiritual,” and leave all other aspects of myself sectioned off, as if I was divided into different functions, reactions and purposes. I wonder if learning to think spiritually means seeing my whole life (emotional, psychological, physiological, religious, economic, social, familial…) as singular. Perhaps learning to think spiritually means seeing my interconnected, interdependent life as exactly that: whole… and acting as if my Creator is concerned with “every inch” of my whole self. 

Because I don’t believe it is at all unspiritual, much less un-christian to see a therapist or take an antacid. I do think, on the other hand, that it is distinctly un-christian to separate the physical or financial parts of my life from my “spiritual life.”  God, whose greatest revelation of Himself was to become fully human, has great concern with all of me.

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Schoolyard Fights and Divine Discontent

In sixth grade I had a pair of friends who fought after school, at the bike racks, just about once a month. Their names were Matt and Mike. I don’t remember why they started fighting in the first place. As likely as anything, they had some disagreement about the actual sequence of the “up, down, left, right, A + B” Nintendo controller cheat. For the record, I believe it was Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, A, B, Select and then Start. If you believe it to be otherwise, you know where to meet me and when.*

Matt and Mike’s fights were never particularly violent events. There was usually a lot of pushing, grabbing, name-calling and some general thrashing about, as if both of them were contesting with the same swarm of invisible bees. It would almost always end with someone in a headlock. Well, not just someone; it was always Matt. To the best of my recollection, Matt lost every one of those fights, without exception. I also recall that after every loss, Matt would adamantly claim that he had not fought his hardest and would then, on the heels of that admission, challenge Mike to yet another fight, after school, at the bike racks… which he would again lose and again claim that he hadn’t fought his hardest, and so on. Eventually it got boring and the crowd of on-lookers shrunk since we all knew the sad ending. Regardless, Matt and Mike went right on duking it out, month after month. Which meant that so did Matt’s protestation that “I didn’t fight my hardest.”

Many of my fights with God have had a similar tone; I hold something back and walk away frustrated. I’ve carried deep resentments towards God because of things I believe God has done or things I think God should have done but didn’t. I’m convinced that these resentments often last far longer than they need to. But because I haven’t honestly and completely aired my grievance, pain or complaint, the tension just builds quietly under my skin.

Maybe we figure that questioning God is a losing battle or that our complaint is too small a thing for God to concern Himself with. Whatever the reason, I think that when we hold our grievances inward, God’s “goodness and love” become Ideas we begrudgingly agree to, like a math equation. In doing this, we eventually settle for an unsettled and distant ‘belief’ in God rather than a living, vibrant, active and complex relationship. My interpretation of the events that cause me grief might be wrong or they might be right but I can never truly know if I do not fully voice my complaint to God. I have come to believe that there is a faith that only comes by way of fighting tooth and nail for what I believe to be true and right… and losing. Such faith requires “chutzpah.”

I am not suggesting we bemoan every scrape and bruise. I know that not all injustice is equal. What I am suggesting is a process of faith in which, when something sincerely hurts or when life really does stop making sense, we carry our complaint to God like we would carry an offering; we sit in protest before Him just as we sit in reverence. We plead and we cry and we shout and pace, just as we would pray and praise and sing and dance. We return over and over until either the mountain has moved or our hearts have changed.


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.