Sometime’s Good Enough is Good Enough

There’s a lot of talk in youth ministry about excellence and ‘raising the bar’ and setting a higher standard.  And there should be.  We never need to look at the ways we communicate the exceptional love, forgiveness, and mercy of Jesus in a mediocre light.  We should strive for excellence in everything – not for excellence’s sake…but merely because the message we communicate is not mundane or cheap in any way.

I digress – that is NOT what I learned at camp this summer.  I already knew that.  I also already knew that I have a pretty high propensity for perfectionism.  Every single thing on a Wednesday night talk can go exactly as planned, but if the music starts 12 seconds late, I think the entire night was a bust.  I could spend three hours (and used to!) making sure all the letters on my bulletin boards were in exactly straight lines (yes, I know that jumps the fence of perfectionism into the pasture of OCD.)  In preparing for events, I get so ‘worked up’ about everything going just right that I really get a little crazy.

One year, I was planning a spring retreat.  One of my student interns was working hard – but a little more reserved, sullen than usual.  When I asked him what was wrong, his reply was maybe one of the most memorable accountability checks I’ve ever had.  “I hate it when you get this way.  It takes the joy out of ministering with you.  Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

Wow.  That was almost seven years ago and that healing sting is still fresh and refreshing.

Anyway – so as I was preparing for camp, I kept that mantra going in my head (as I do now before every major thing I do).  It doesn’t have to be perfect to be Godly.  I need to be obedient to do the work God has set before me and trust that things that go awry are part of The Plan.

So as we are driving our 1,100 miles to camp in luxurious 15-passenger rental vans this summer, my mantra is getting a work out.  The vans are nice – not limo nice, but definitely not junk yard ghetto, either.  But as we get further and further from home, something becomes very apparent.  They are in desperate need of alignment.  As we approach the half-way mark, students are losing fillings as we bounce along the highway.  Milk left over from our traveling breakfast has turned to butter.  Those of us stressed during the preparation for the trip have experienced one of the best massage chairs ever.  We’re gonna have to slow down or these vans are going to bounce off the road.

But wait!  That’s gonna put us behind schedule.  We’re gonna have to adjust all our times.  This was not in our plan for the week!  “Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

Obviously, this wasn’t something for which we’d planned.  Thankfully, it wasn’t a serious breakdown on the side of the road.  (Incidentally, if you ever DO break down on the side of the road in New Mexico, be prepared to wait a while…that place is pretty desolate!)  But in the interest of safety, we were gonna have to slow down our trip a little bit.

We did that – we only arrived about 20 minutes later than planned (not even enough to adjust our schedules at all.)

Throughout the week, we had a few more opportunities to invoke our mantra.  And at one point, it was my honor to pass along the sage wisdom of my intern to another of our adults.

“Darren, don’t you think we should call the rental company and try to get them to replace those vans – or at least repair them?  The alignment is really ridiculous.”

“You know, we’ll just adjust our drive time on the way home to accommodate the alignment.  We don’t need to sacrifice our week here for a simple alignment – sometimes good enough is good enough.”

“Hmmm.  OK, then – you’re right. It’s no big deal.”

Sometimes good enough is good enough.  It doesn’t have to be perfect to be right…or holy…or a part of God’s perfect plan for your ministry.  Sometimes we can even see God more clearly through imperfection.  Sometimes good enough is good enough.

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Helping Kids Find Their Way Home

When people have wandered far from the Lord, the road back can look too long and grueling to make the destination worth the journey. But it is worth it. Those of us who have made the trip know what’s waiting at the end.

Pull out that GPS.  Hop on MapQuest.  It’s a REALLY long drive to anywhere from Corpus Christi, TX.  It’s about 1,100 miles from Corpus to Durango – and, ironically, about the same distance back.

On the way to Colorado we had three vehicles and six drivers.  Someone was always rested and ready to go the next leg of the trip.  We took the trip in two days and changed drivers every 3 – 4 hours.  Safety first!  It seemed like an easy trip, to be very honest.  We stayed overnight in a nice hotel.  We enjoyed sometime at the pool, ate a nice breakfast, and leisurely traveled the remaining miles on the second day.

The road home, however, was not as tranquil.

We found out about a week before we departed for camp that my son had won a state writing competition for our region.  He needed to be in Austin, TX, on the last travel day of camp.  So after conferring with our camp team, we decided that my son and I would leave a few hours earlier than everyone else, take the luggage van and drive straight through from Durango to Austin.  I would meet up with the team the next day as they drove through San Antonio.

As we drove the almost 1,000 miles to Austin that day, I realized what it must be like for people who wander far from home.

We started the trip back with a fresh outlook – a good night’s sleep – a full tank of gas – doughnuts from the best doughnut place in Durango.  We were excited about the trip. I think kids who turn back to God after a stint ‘far from home’ might feel the same way.  Their outlook is glorious.  They have fuel for the journey and they are just excited to get back to where they know they need to be.

After about 250 miles, my son and I both realized this trip was gonna be a lot longer than we had anticipated.  We started our IV drip of caffeine and sugar and kept plowing forward.  I think maybe when kids start coming back to Christ, they might keep going at the first sign of fatigue. It’s a tiring journey, but they know they need to be where they are heading. Help them plug into a source of energy for the journey.

After about a half day of driving, we were both tired and getting cranky.  And though we were meant to encourage one another on this trip, we started fighting.  It was a pretty intense argument over how difficult this journey was going to be.  Instead of helping one another along the way, we started taking shots at one another. I think kids who are trying to crawl their way back to Christ will do this, sometimes.  As the road gets rough, they start ripping on the ones meant to help them find their way home.  Sometimes when that happens, we give up on them.  We see that as the end of their journey, not just a crabby, exhausted, road-weary traveler lashing out during a weakened moment.  During those weak moments, help them find the strength they have in Christ, in fellowship, and in accountability.

We still had about four hours left in our drive when I finally had to pull over at a rest stop and use it for its namesake.  I was just so done with driving.  I could hardly keep my eyes open.  My extremities were shaking from fatigue.  I had a difficult time focusing.  I slept for about 15 minutes.  I couldn’t believe how much that little rest refreshed me.  I was still tired, but I was able to finish the journey.  Sometimes, as kids make their way back to Jesus, they’re gonna have to stop for a breather.  This is an intense trip in every way, but especially emotionally and spiritually.  Recognize that as long as they aren’t going backward, they are facing forward – and that’s a good thing.  Rest is good.  Give them a breather – then wake them up in 15 minutes for the rest of the journey.

After almost 20 hours on the road, we finally made it to Austin.  In the dark cover of night, we rolled into our hotel parking lot.  My wife had already checked into the hotel, so we were able to walk straight to our room and collapse in complete joy that we had made it home, even though that road was a long, arduous one.  We slept well that night.  The road home is long.  Walking it with kids can be almost as tiring as making the journey for yourself.  Make sure there’s a safe place to land when the journey is complete – for both you and your student.  Surround yourself and your student with people who will welcome you back with encouragement and joy!

When people have wandered far from the Lord, the road back can look too long and grueling to make the destination worth the journey.  But it is worth it.  Those of us who have made the trip know what’s waiting at the end.  Stand firm with your kids.  Love and encourage them as they drive.  Don’t give up on them and be there with an open and rejoicing heart when the trip is finally complete!

Adapt or Lay Awake at Night

At about 2 AM, Mountain Time, I realized I would have to adapt to survive the evening.

You have to be able to adapt.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned.  In fact, usually they don’t.  Are you the kind of person that gets uptight if your ducks don’t walk in row?  Because it seems like, in youth ministry (at least in my youth ministry) the ducks never walk in the row to which they have been assigned.

One thing I have learned as a tried and true principle in my ministry –write it all in pencil…and make sure you have a good eraser.

This year, we decided to do something we’ve never done before.  We actually took our students tent camping for one night of our summer camp experience.  I hear your incredulity – ‘you’ve never been camping?!’ – ‘is there any other kind of camping besides tent camping?!’ – ‘why only one night of camping – are you a pansy?!’

Yes – yes to all!!  I’ve never taken teenagers camping.  There are LOTS of other types of camping that do not include sleeping on rocks and pooping in holes.  And, yes, thanks for noticing – I am definitely a pansy.  My idea of roughing it is running out of towels at the Holiday Inn!  But, alas, because I love my students and they begged me – we decided to give them ONE night of tent camping to start off our summer camp experience.

At about 2 AM, Mountain Time, I realized I would have to adapt to survive the evening.

I don’t know if you know this about me – but I am what most grandmothers call ‘husky.’  Most teenagers call it fat.  I call it preparation for being lost in the wilderness after tent camping.

I don’t know if you know this, either.  Most sleeping bags are not made for ‘husky’ guys.  I was trying to sleep on a self-inflatable pad (that didn’t have very good self-esteem apparently) in a sleeping bag that was a size and a half too small for a husky guy.  I would dose for about ten minutes and then awake as some part of me either fell off the pad onto the hardened ground or slipped out of my straight-jacket called a sleeping bag.

Finally – in the middle of the night and to the symphonic sounds of coyote calls – I finally decided I needed to adapt if I was to sleep a wink.

I unzipped my sleeping bag so it was the biggest comforter I’d ever seen (yes, even big enough for a husky guy), positioned my self on my flate-less inflatable mat in the most comfortable position I could muster – and slept deeply and soundly until morning.

Now what’s the point of all the TMI?  There are times in ministry when things just don’t go as planned.  Someone throws a monkey-wrench in the carefully-thought-out mix of your ministry ideal.  Equipment doesn’t work to its potential or for its intended use.  You step WAY outside your comfort zone only to find it’s VERY uncomfortable there.

You can spend the entire night resisting adaptation – trying to force square pegs into round holes (husky guys into slender bags).  Or you can simply adapt.  You can adjust to the circumstance.  You can show your students how to make the best of a bad situation.  You can get a good, deep sleep in the midst of coyotes.

Youth ministry, of all professions, is about adaptation.  We adapt to trends.  We adapt to everyone else’s calendar.  We adapt our eating habits, sleeping styles, and musical tastes – all in an effort to love God by loving students.

So the next time things go awry in your ministry – your mattress doesn’t inflate, your sleeping bag is too small, or the coyotes are singing the wrong song – remember…you can adapt.  You can sleep well.  You can find Jesus EVEN in the midst of tent camping.

Darren is a veteran youth pastor in Corpus Christi, TX, and the co-host of Mi Podcast – a weekly podcast for parents of teenagers. (www.facebook.com/MiPodcast)

Do You Know Where Your Kids Are Swimming?

Do you know which pool your kids are swimming in?

By far, one of the highlights of our Colorado adventure trip was a morning at the natural hot springs.  I didn’t have to hang off a hundred-foot cliff by a tiny rope.  I didn’t have to walk 40 miles, up hill, both ways, in thin mountain air.  No one was falling into the icy river as we navigated rapids designed for Olympians.  Nothing but a natural hot tub…now that’s my idea of adventure.

The hot springs were divided into three pools.  One was a tepid, playing pool.  Kids were playing volleyball, chicken fighting (don’t tell the lifeguards), and swimming laps in that pool.  It was cool upon entering, but one could swiftly adapt….like most pools on a warm summer’s day.

One pool was about the temperature of a traditional hot tub.  But it was huge.  So it was kind of like being in a pretty hot bath with 113 of your closest friends.  It was more of a therapy pool – no playing, just relaxing.

Then there was the final pool – a crescent shaped pool with lots of warning signs about the heat.  And rightly so!  I’m not sure, but I think this pool might have actually been the first model for the Lake of Fire.

So of course, our teenagers were trying to man up and just jump in the crescent pool and stay in.  Few of them could.  It was just way too hot.

I noticed, though, that a few of them would get in and just muscle through the obvious burn.  They would sweat.  Their skin turned red (probably a rise in blood pressure).  Even though they knew it was hotter than a really hot place, they wanted to be in that pool.

I found a fascinating distinction between that pool and the others.  In the other pools, it was them temperature of the water that seemed to change.  Realistically, that didn’t happen.  Bodies just acclimate to the temperature of the pools.  But it seemed as though the cool water pool got warmer – and the traditional hot-tub water got cooler.  Kids were able to stay in both pools for prolonged periods without danger or threat as their bodies became accustomed to the water temperatures.

But in the SUPER HOT tub – the water temperature didn’t seem to change.  The water didn’t get cooler – people just got hotter….and hotter….and hotter.  And even though they were burning up – even undergoing physiological changes – they refused to get out of the pool.

It was a perfect microcosm of our student community.

We had kids who wouldn’t go anywhere near that pool.  It was too hot.  Period.  They didn’t need to try it out.  They already knew – just stay away.

We had kids who knew it was hot, but just wanted to give it a try.  And as soon as they jumped in, they jumped right back out.  Too hot.  They tried it once.  Maybe to say they had tried it.  Maybe out of curiosity.  But it didn’t take long in the pool to help them realize they just weren’t cut out for that kind of heat.

And then there were those few kids who just dived head-long into the cauldron.  Smiling as their blood pressure rose – the sweat beaded up on their foreheads – scoffing as friends tried to get them to come out of the pool.

Left in that pool long enough – according to the warning signs – people develop nausea, dizziness, even the possibility of stroke.  Being in that pool for prolonged periods of time is life threatening.

Incidentally – there was only a small, concrete wall separating the hot tub from the hotter-than-hell tub.  Wouldn’t take much for kids to jump from normal hot to life-threatening hot.

Do you know which pool your kids are swimming in?

My MacGyver Wife & Our MacGyver God

Not because my wife is like the MacGyver of youth ministry spouses. Not because it was up to me to make something happen. Not because we had planned for every eventuality. Simply because God was in control.

Have you ever been out of town when it seems like all Hades breaks loose at home?  Our family always plans for the most unexpected things when I’m gone over the summer.  One year my wife went into pre-term labor while I was on a mission trip.  Another year the wheel fell off our car as my wife drove over the JFK Causeway, almost sending her and my two young sons over the edge of the bridge and into the Gulf.  One year our city was evacuated for a hurricane the day before we were to leave…

My wife has learned to be pretty resourceful in my absence.  She stopped her labor.  She towed the car.  She packed camp luggage amidst our evacuation supplies and left me there when she returned home.  She is a fully capable woman who doesn’t need me to fix one thing for her.  Usually she is fixing stuff for me.

But that never impedes my feeling like I MUST DO SOMETHING when things go amiss and I’m away from home.

This year, my wife didn’t go to camp with us.  She had an opportunity to participate in a ministry opportunity that we knew had been given by God – so she abandoned her plans join us in Colorado for a week of adventure camp in order to pursue a different call God had given her.  (Incidentally, in twenty years, I’ve done this trip five times and she’s never been able to attend…a fact she rarely lets me forget!)  The day before she was to fly out, she found out a clerical error had been made and her flight had not been booked.  Now in a normal city, this might not be such a big deal.  But we live on the edge of the earth.  It can be difficult to get flights to and from anywhere on any kind of time schedule that’s convenient for the receiving end of the flight.  Not only that, but she was FINALLY going to get to join me for this amazing camp opportunity – and it appeared that she had foregone that opportunity for nothing.

In addition, she woke up with an abscessed tooth.  I knew when I got the text saying she was going to the dentist, it was bad.  Have you seen those cartoons where the title character gets hit in the face with a frying pan and his or her teeth just crumble into a billion pieces as they fall out of said mouth?  Yeah, that could happen to Katie and she STILL wouldn’t go to the dentist.

So a perfect storm had ensued at home – I was stuck on the side of a mountain three states away and in roaming service, if I was lucky enough to have service at all.  There was literally not a thing I could do.  I was sharing this frustration with my leadership team…in a very frustrated way.  One of my leaders said ’Wow – my cousin works at such-and-such airline, but they don’t fly out of Corpus.  I wish I could pull some strings for you.’  Then, in an amazing display of wisdom, she said ‘I guess we just need to pull the right strings. We should pray.’

Duh.  What a doofus. Griping had been my string of choice.  Praying, honestly and ashamedly, hadn’t even occurred to me.  I didn’t need to fix a thing.  Not because my wife is like the MacGyver of youth ministry spouses.  Not because it was up to me to make something happen.  Not because we had planned for every eventuality.  Simply because God was in control.

I seem to forget – on a pretty regular basis – that nothing in my life takes Him by surprise.  All my days are numbered – he knows all my hairs, gray and otherwise – not a tooth falls to the ground that He doesn’t know about it.  He had it all under control – even if it didn’t turn out the way WE had envisioned it would.

So I just spent the next few hours praying in between hiking, luggage unloading, cooking dinner, and sitting in the Jacuzzi (hey – I had already spent my one night in a tent!)  When I finally got cell service again – a ticket had been purchased, a tooth had been pulled, a prescription had been administered and luggage was locked and loaded and waiting for the airport.  Apparently, not only do I have a MacGyver-wife, I also have a MacGyver God.  May I never forget it!

Get In The Water

Living on the beach, we are no strangers to powerful water. There is nothing more soothing, relaxing, calming than the sound of the ocean as it meets the beach, each time as though it were the first time. But this water was different.

This summer our students spent a week in Colorado hiking, rappelling, climbing, and rafting.   It was an amazing adventure experience – especially for our ministry, located at sea level,      with warm gulf water and sand dunes – to see God through the glory and grandeur of the Rocky Mountain range.

The first day there, we suited up for our eight mile hike.  The air was crisp and clean.  The fragrant mountain breeze cooled us, seemingly at our every request, as we hiked.  The trees provided a glorious canopy of shade since most of us felt even closer to the sun than usual.  The landscape was nothing short of miraculous.

Trees towered.  Pine needles blanketed the ground.  Boulders beckoned the weary to rest.  This landscape was so very foreign to beach dwellers.

Equally alien were the rushing rivers and streams.

Living on the beach, we are no strangers to powerful water.  There is nothing more soothing, relaxing, calming than the sound of the ocean as it meets the beach, each time as though it were the first time.  But this water was different.

Watching it rush through its designated route, I couldn’t help but think about God.

This water was powerful.  Pulling large stones from their hiding places.  Making rough edges smooth.  Sometimes creating a difficult route for fish to get where they thought they should be.

This water was renewing.  As I watched its mighty flow, it was obvious that what was in the water where I sat just a moment ago was now far downstream.  It made me wonder how much change the bank had seen as it sat silently watching the river-friend work its renewal.  Microbes swept away in the rushing current.  Tress that used to be upstream relocated downstream.  Silt carpeting the river bottom that once belonged to the mountain.  The water changes everything.

And then I thought about my students – seeing this kind of water, some for the very first time.  There was no doubt they could see its power – its renewing properties…even from far away.  At times, we were so far up the mountain that the stream looked like a ribbon of white flowing through the valley.  But you could hear the power in its voice as it sang its song to nature.  When we got close enough to sit at the water’s edge, there was no denying its powerful force as it rushed to its final destination.

And it broke my heart.  As I listened to the majestic water’s roar, watched it change everything in its path, I realized a devastating truth.

The water doesn’t really work if you don’t get in.  I am praying that my students experience the refreshing, renewing, life-giving water from a personal, intimate vantage point.

It is one thing to recognize how beautiful and glorious the rushing water is from the safety of shore.  It’s a completely different matter to allow the current to sweep you away – smoothing your rough edges – changing the direction you thought you were going – renewing everything.

I am praying that our students experience THAT kind of water – the deafening roar of life anew – the panic of going in a completely different direction than planned – life-altering, life-giving, living water.  I want them to know THAT kind of water long after we return to the beach waters of the gulf.