Rock Climbing Teams?

What if “overscheduled” was “committed?”

What if “busy” was “engaged?”

What if “decline” was “cooperation?”

One way to look at all the activities that vie for people’s time (and mostly get it) is as competition. Soccer competes with Confirmation. The debate tournament competes with the youth retreat. Church activities rarely come out ahead in the competitive view, and church leaders can become bitter.

Another way to look at all that lacrosse, theater, and family vacationing is as engagement in things that matter, as teenagers and their parents choosing physically and mentally difficult, very often team-based, activities that demand high levels of commitment, and to choose cheering over crying about it.

But they’re not coming to church things because of all those other things! Right. It used to be that church was a main driver of young peoples’ social engagement, but that was at a time when the options for young people to engage in things was far more limited than it is today, especially for girls. My students are on rock climbing teams. Rock climbing teams? There were no such things when I was a teenager.

The increase of options for young people in their communities is a good thing. Those of us who work with them have a chance to enhance young peoples’ lives in ways most of those other options aren’t doing, but we can do that with appreciation for them instead of competition.


Pictures Of My 9th Grade Classmates Don’t Look Like 9th Graders

I ran into a school classmate at a wedding last weekend, and the encounter launched me onto a three day trip down Blurred Memory Lane, destination 1991 high school yearbook.

Here’s what I realized: I will never relate–mentally, emotionally, or socially–to the peers of my youth as anything but peers. Looking at yearbook portraits of 14 year-olds, I don’t see 14 year-olds. I see 41 year-olds. These people do not appear to me the way that contemporary 9th graders appear. They strike me as full-fledged adults.

I recall with stunning precision the way I felt about many of them, because a brief glance at their photo 26 years on makes me feel the exact same way. This one intimidates me, because he’s so effortlessly cool. This one angers me; he’s so full of himself. Nowhere in my appraisal of the kids in these pictures is the kind of conditional appraisal of character and motive that marks my view of the high school students I work with today, people who are still developing and trying on identities and forming convictions. Instead, I size them up as contemporaries and slot them into a category that is no less rigid for its age: friend, potential friend, foe, crush, bully, nerd.

The picture that receives the least charitable assessment is the one bearing my own name. Still, today, that little black and white box appears to hold a person whom every other coiffed-hair 9th grader on the page is looking at in judgment. It’s not true, of course, but try telling that to pimply, lanky adolescents.

Hardly less difficult: try telling it to those adolescents grown up counterparts.


Homecoming, Part II

Read part I here.

The clock is ticking. I had an hour to make my connection when I landed. Half of that hour was devoured getting off the plane and to the baggage check, where I’m now standing on my one good ankle, sweating through my clothes in the May Chicago humidity, vexed at how to get the year’s worth of life now crammed untidily into three separate bags (none of which feature wheels) through customs and to my connecting gate.

The massive army duffel comes off the conveyor belt with a tug, and now there’s nothing for the situation but to drag it. The wheeled luggage carts are for people with $5 in their pocket, not for me.  It actually works well enough. The sprained ankle is loosening up the more it moves, and the duffel slides on the terminal linoleum fairly easily. Customs is not far off, and getting through is unremarkable. On the way to customs, I even snag an abandoned luggage cart. The clock is still ticking, but I’m gaining confidence that I will, in fact, make my connection and get to Kansas City, where the only thing waiting for me is the fiancee who’s not sure she wants to marry me anymore.

The luggage cart serves faithfully until I reach the escalator that leads down to what must be the longest uninterrupted stretch of walkway in any airport in the world. I don’t even think to look for an elevator. In a flash, I heave the bags off the cart, throw the backpack over my shoulders and begin down the escalator. That’s when some of the items I’ve crammed into the borrowed tote bag begin to spill out. I’m able to cram them back in before I reach the bottom of the escalator and begin the long trek across the neon-lit corridor.

That corridor is really something. I admire it every time I’m in O’Hare. This spring evening in 1999 is my first time to ever see it, though, and it’s wavy colored ceiling lights and ambient music are not having the calming effect they’re designed to have. Items keep falling out of my tote as I walk the 37 miles across, skipping the moving walkways because they’re too full. By the time I reach the opposite escalator that leads up to domestic security, I don’t know anymore if I have all my luggage or if I’m leaving a trail of socks and crumpled 4 X 6 photos for rescuers to find me with. I decide I don’t care.

There’s no way I’m making this connection now. The neon marathon killed all hope of that. Nonetheless, I present my bedraggled self to the agent at security. It’s not until now, in this moment when he’s asking for my boarding pass, that I begin to think with any degree of depth about this last leg of my premature journey home. So much of my thinking and planning has revolved around the London-to-Chicago flight and the time in O’Hare to make the connection to Kansas City. So little has gone into the Chicago-to-Kansas City flight that now, asked for a KC-bound boarding pass, my mind draws a blank. Boarding pass? What’s that?

It only takes a moment of rifling through my backpack to retrieve the Chicago-to-Kansas City paperwork. But the security agent is telling me it’s not a boarding pass but a ticket. What’s more, it’s a ticket for a date in July, not May. He points to the ticketing counter some 200 yards away and suggests I go talk to them.

To be continued.


The Less You Know 

I don’t know who is winning NBA playoffs or who is even playing. The same is true for hockey.

I don’t know what movies are playing in theaters right now.

I don’t know what’s trending on Twitter.

I used to know these things, and unused to have opinions about them. But not anymore.

The older I get, the less I know. Is that how it’s supposed to go?

Back At It Again

The day that matters more among the two is not the day you miss but the day after the day you miss.

It’s not about getting back on the horse after you’ve fallen off. It’s about getting on after you forgot to, or after you didn’t have time to or were too intimidated to. Coming back from a fall might be easier than coming back from a simple lapse.

I didn’t get to it yesterday. I’m back at it today.


Yesterday: a warm, balmy May spectacle in Chicago. The clouds gathered in the late afternoon but waited until dark to produce any rain, out of consideration for the sun-starved. The feeling of the air and the look of the sky out my back door at twilight reminded me of a most memorable warm May afternoon in Chicago, 18 years ago.

I landed at O’Hare in a thunderstorm. I had a sprained ankle and a year’s worth luggage stuffed into a giant army canvas duffel, a backpack, and a donated tote bag with a busted zipper. I had roughly one hour to make a connection to the Kansas City flight that would take me to my fiancee, the reason I’m landing during a May thunderstorm and not a July one. I’ve never been to this airport before, but how hard could it be? I’m days from turning 23.

There’s trouble form the first hobbled step onto the jetway. Eight hours from Heathrow have tightened my ankle up good. The backpack feels heavier than when I packed it in Belfast the night before (what time is it in Belfast if it’s 6:00 pm in Chicago? Midnight. I think of my friends sleeping peacefully as I trudge toward a doomed engagement). The tote bag is bursting. Loaded with an ultimatum–come home early or the wedding’s off–it held as much memory as I could squeeze into its dusty interior. Now, free from the cradle of the overhead bin, it was threatening to give up parcels of my angst right there in the gate.

The ankle is loosening up by the time I reach baggage claim. I retrieve the duffel from the carousel with little difficulty and soon realize that I don’t have a way to transport it, in addition to the tote and the backpack, through customs and to my connecting gate. I had help this morning when I checked it at Belfast International. Now I was alone and hobbled. I spot a chain of wheely baggage carts and experience a surge of relief. But my relief dissipates when, after dragging everything across the baggage claim linoleum, through many happy reunions, I discover they cost $5 to use. I don’t have $5. I’m broke as well as alone.

Also, where’s this humidity coming from? Nine months at 55 degrees latitude have purged my senses of any memory of moisture, and now they are panicking to remember. I’ve sweat through my T-shirt. Of the items protruding from the tote, none is a clean shirt.

To be continued. 



What will you know on your next birthday that you don’t know today? What capability will you possess? We can decide to learn, and birthdays are helpful time markers. 

Of course, a lot of learning is not objective, meaning that the learning is less an object than a consequence of another pursuit. I think I’ve learned a lot since May 15th, 2016, and almost all of what I have learned has been the result of some other thing I was trying to do or something that happened and over which I had no control. 

Were not the only ones learning, either. The greatest gifts in my life in the past 12 months have been the hard-earned learnings of the people I care about the most. To get to share in another’s maturation is a beautiful experience for which you never feel fully worthy. The people I love have fought and endured things since my last birthday that none of us were anticipating. Their learning is a gift to me. So, happy birthday to me. 

“You Made An Un-thinking Remark In Your Sermon Today!”

The anonymous letter of complaint is a weak way to criticize someone. People should put their name of their critiques, or at least a return address.

If you get one of these letters, take it with a grain of salt.

But also read it and see for yourself if the complaint has merit. Let no opportunity for growth go by.

Bring On The Lock In

Tomorrow night is the spring lock in for junior high students. I’ve got a couple of brave volunteers and the outline of a schedule. I might even have somebody coming in to make breakfast. Now to pick the games and icebreakers, order the food, commandeer the snacks, and generally steel myself for the rapture of it all.

I used to hate the lock in to such a degree that I swore it off as a useless exercise in recklessness for the sake of recreation and a thing that no adult volunteer with a portion of sanity would come to. I’m changing my mind about that. Especially given the facility I’m working with now, the lock in can be a meaningful experience not only of community building and recreation, but also mystery.

What better venue than the dark corridors of the downtown church in the middle of the night to invite youth to consider the mystery of God? Can’t the spooky midnight game initiate students into an experience of wonder, of contemplating their frailty as human beings as they creep beneath the lamp-lit stain glass window and beside the creaky pew?

Yes. Let’s go with that.

I love lock in stories, and I’m receptive to lock in strategies and tips. Hit me with your best shot.