Better heroes than you will find on TV

My wife and I were sitting on the porch the other day sipping coffee together and reminiscing about how easy life was when we were little kids. We tend to do that from time to time when our schedules get out of whack and it feels as if the calendar is our nemesis rather than sheets of paper held by magnets to our refrigerator. Memories have the ability to allow you to escape like that.

On this particular morning we were talking about our grandparents on our mothers' sides, all of whom have already passed on from this world. I brought up the old show Hee Haw that I watched on so many Saturday evenings in my grandparents living room when my wife lit up and told me about the many times that she too had lounged in her pajamas in her grandmother's living room in Topeka, KS, and watched Roy Clark and Buck Owens lead a cheesy cast of comedic characters across the old tube television set with the wood grained sides. 

My wife never had the pleasure of knowing her grandfather as a child, but her Grandma Becky more than made up for that. She spent countless days with her grandmother as a girl while her mom was at work, helping out at the Mason Lodge and running errands across town for one event of the other. She sighed gently and smiled as she recalled those many hours listening to Grandma Becky's stories and tall tales.

For years Grandma Becky published a family newsletter entitled The Kansas Korn where she would voice her odd mix of conservative and liberal views for the benefit of her family and closest friends. While the rest of the family would silently groan when they saw the thick envelope in the mailbox, my wife would readily pull open the sticker tab and read every word that Grandma Becky put on those pages. Most of what she wrote would be considered political satire, but that woman had a way with words and she wasn't afraid to share them with the world. When age began to overtake her and she passed on several years ago, more than just a comical newsletter was taken out of circulation. My wife lost one her best, and at times only, childhood friends. 

My grandfather on my mother's side was affectionately known as Pop and his wife, my grandmother, we simply called Grandmother. Pop was the only grandfather I ever knew since my dad's dad had passed away before I was even a thought in his mind. He was a WWII veteran who worked for the USPS after the war before opening up a mom-and-pop store with Grandmother called Food Land. Pop was a large man but even if he had been skinny as a pole he would have still been larger than life to me. He was funny and witty in an archaic kind of cool way. Pop never talked about the war - I only learned about the B25 bomber he had flown on in the Pacific theater and saw the amazing pictures of Papua New Guinea after he died in 1990 - but he was quick to share with me stories about everything else in life. 

On Sunday mornings at Antioch Baptist Church I would love to slide in next to Pop on that hard wooden pew because he had a way of entertaining me during the sermon so that I wouldn't fidget my way into too much trouble while at the same time maintaining a laser focus on the pastor as he preached. More than anything I loved to hear Pop sing. I can still hear his deep baritone chime in on the secondary chorus of I Surrender All, a staple invitation song at sermon's end. 

There were many Sunday's when we would take the short drive down Palmer Lane to Grandmother and Pop's house where Grandmother would have a literal feast prepared. You would have thought she had invited the entire neighborhood! Cube steak and gravy, fried chicken, collard greens, corn, green beans, biscuits, banana pudding, and sweet tea were just a few of the options that we would gorge ourselves with before collapsing on the couch to snooze between innings of an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Breakfast at Grandmother's was even better - country ham with red eye gravy, thick sliced Neese's country sausage, grits, chipped beef with gravy, biscuits, and sweet stewed apples - but that's another story for another time. 

Eventually time and age took us to different places in our lives. My wife left Kansas at age 19 and I met her in Clemmons, NC, a year later. We fell in love - and are still falling to this day - got married, had four amazing children, switched careers about half a dozen times, and finally settled on the coast of North Carolina, which I am convinced is a little slice of heaven. We have been unable to figure out how to get our kids to stop growing, so as a result we spend much of our time trying to stay caught up with their lives and activities. My parents and my wife's parents are now our kids' grandparents, and we diligently try to keep them connected from four hours away. FaceTime and texting seems to have taken the place of Saturday evenings in front of the TV watching bluegrass inspired family comedy. 

Yet not a day goes by that we aren't grateful for grandparents who in a big way served as larger than life heroes. By the time high school and college rolled around, we didn't think that an evening in their house watching TV with only three channels was such a fun idea, but as an adult there is no doubt that those were some of the best and most meaningful times in our lives. Which is why when we go home to visit, we sometimes hide in the background as our kids lounge on couches with their grandparents watching Discovery Channel shows or root around in their kitchens looking for a snack that they can help bake or help pick weeds around the flower beds out in the yard. With all of the negative options that my children have in this world, I am so grateful for grandparents who can serve as heroes just as our grandparents did for us.  

One size does NOT fit all

I took my middle and high school students to camp this past week and we had a great time with all the stuff camp brings - lack of sleep, filthy living conditions, every middle schooler wanting to challenge my manhood, stuff like that. But it was so good to have our students together for a week away from most distractions (we let them have their phones one hour every night, the rest of the time they are in the "Box of Woe") and to focus them more on Jesus and what He wants for their lives.

Now when you gather over 1,000 students in one place from churches all over the map, you know you are going to get a mixed bag of personalities and backgrounds in that place. Where I live, church is usually an afterthought, so many of my students don't have a church background and really don't understand church culture, which is perfectly fine with me. It's refreshing to have a clean slate with so many of them when it comes to questions of faith and how to live it out.

I don't usually throw the "I've been working with students for over 20 years" card, but the truth is I feel pretty connected to youth culture and what they do and don't relate to. I am certainly no expert, but I've had my share of hits and misses over the years. So to me, it is so interesting that churches and denominations and organizations are so quick to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to not just student ministry, but to reaching people for Jesus in general. This week has definitely been a super fun week with lots of spiritual meat to chew on, but it's also been one of those weeks where I have looked around and realized just how limiting some approaches to ministry can be.

You see, I don't know what the dynamics are of the other youth groups that we shared the week with, but I do not that most of my students fall into the category of unchurched and dysfunctional family. There have been moments where they totally get it followed by that glassy eyed look that totally says, "You just lost me." And that's okay, because students aren't going to get it all the time. This is why I am so thankful that we can have these big weekly events together that don't have to define or limit how we are going to reach students. 

If there is one thing that I have learned over the years of working with students, it's that not one student is the same. Not one. The way that I approach students when I served in a rural county is different than when I served in a more metropolitan area which is also different than the approach I take now, serving in a coastal county that is over 80% unchurched. That's because one size does not fit all.

The only way that we are going to reach students - and all people for that matter - is if we seek to understand where they are in life now, not where we want them to be in order to fit into our template. And this is so difficult because I know that I learned a certain model of ministry when I was serving as a church intern and in seminary, a model that simply doesn't fit the context in which God has placed me now. 

So what do we do? We pray, we look, we listen, and we ask questions. And once we see students as real and diverse people with unique needs and backgrounds and not just a glove that we can force on a hand, we will continue to see so many of them walk away from Jesus. That's because one size does not fit all.

Summer Memories: The pool

I didn't sleep in much during the summers when I was a kid, not when there was so much to do each day. From the moment I finished my bowl of Froot Loops in the morning until the sun went down and I knew to come home when I heard my mom hollering for me, summers were made for playing outside. My neighborhood was filled with other kids close to my age, so there was never a shortage on things to do and places to explore.

But without a doubt my fondest summer memories involved the Sandihill Swimming Pool that we joined when I was in kindergarten. Sandihill was unlike any other swimming pool on the planet. It wasn't Olympic size or some luxurious, gated private club. Instead, it was a pool tucked away in a neighborhood next to ours that felt like the best kept secret.

What made that pool so special was the people and the memories that were made there. It was there that I learned to swim, not because I took lessons but rather because I jumped into the shallow end one day and figured it out. Every fifty minutes the lifeguards would blow their whistles and shout, "Kids out!" which was the open invitation to our parents to take over the pool. All of us kids would sit on the edge of the pool counting down those eternity-long ten minutes until the lifeguards would blow their whistles again and we would crash the party while the adults would frantically swim for the ladders to avoid the onslaught of bodies.

The snack bar at Sandihill was always stocked with the unhealthiest of options that parents today would never dream of feeding their children. Frozen burgers and pizza slices were heated up in a dial-operated microwave, to be topped off with Big Otis ice cream sandwiches, Boston Baked Bean candies, and Lemon Heads which in turn were all washed down with Sunkist soda from the drink machine. Somewhere in the corner a radio would be playing an endless loop of classic rock music where the cooler older teenagers would be hanging out around the picnic tables.  

If my brothers and I didn't have a ride to the pool, we would pony up on our light blue ten speed bikes and pedal the short - but dangerous - distance on Bolton Street, avoiding oncoming traffic and trying to maneuver properly with goggles around our necks and towels trailing in the wind. There was no bike rack at Sandihill, just a mesh of bikes strewn all over the front lawn, abandoned in a hurry to be the first one in the water. If you were late, you might miss the first game of sharks and minnows in the deep end.

Thursday's the pool was reserved for swim meets. I wasn't allowed to join the team because I had a heart condition, but that didn't keep me from being a lane judge or raiding the cooler that mom would pack for my brothers and eating all their snacks while they were swimming their races. The best part were the pool parties that would take place the nights of those meets where we would cook out, fight for greased watermelons, and dive for 50 cent pieces in the 14-foot diving area while our ear drums rebelled against the water pressure. 

Nighttime was my favorite time to swim because I would usually have the place to myself. Sometimes after dinner, mom and dad would pack up the leftovers in Tupperware containers and take them to the lifeguards, who in turn gave me and my brothers free rein of the pool while they chowed down on meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A full belly often made up for their frustration of having the work the evening shift while all their friends were out on the town. When the lights in the pool came on, we would dive for quarters and nickels at the bottom of the deep end, imagining we were Jaques Cousteau finding treasure on the ocean floor.

35 years later, life doesn't seem as simple as it did when I was kid swimming at the pool almost every day. Yet there are those moments when I see that same glimmer in the eyes of my own children as they splash around our little neighborhood pool with their friends and play hide-and-seek in the neighborhood long after the sun has gone down. And there are still those moments when I find that I can't resist the urge to play sharks and minnows or dive for coins that might be enough to buy a Coke in the machine, yet to the imagination of a little one is the next best thing to buried treasure.

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