A film commissioned by YFC’s ‘Ethos’ project – a series of short films for young adults.
A few years ago, a friend and I decided to make proper use of a mid-week day off, and travel to a nearby beach town. Because of the timing of our visit and the fact that it was mid-week, everywhere we went was eerily quiet. Walking down the main street we were greeted by the flashing lights and electronic sounds of games arcades, and we decided to visit one, to spend some of our hard earned two pence coins! As I walked into our chosen arcade, a big neon sign caught my eye, with the word ‘redemption’ on it. This was the cash desk where vouchers or tokens won on certain machines could be redeemed for cash. As I looked around a sadness hit me, as I saw many people playing on slot machines, people of all different ages, at about 11am in the morning. You could tell that for some this was a daily hobby, spending hours of time and lots of money in the hope that they would hit the jackpot and be able to make the journey to the redemption desk to exchange their winnings for something greater.
It made me think about how we all search for redemption in one way or another.
That sign has been on my mind again recently as I’ve explored what redemption might mean, a word we use a lot in ‘Christian-land’. We talk about God redeeming us, redeeming things, his redemption plan for the world. I’ve always thought about redemption in terms of being saved by God, that God has redeemed me, which I believe is true. But there is another meaning of redemption which I’ve perhaps neglected, one that takes me back to that slightly sad games arcade in that quiet beach town on my day off.
The second meaning of redemption is about gaining or regaining possession of something, normally in exchange for something else. So in that games arcade, you win tokens which you then exchange for real money. You give in what you have (or what you have is taken from you) and you receive something much better in exchange, something of a higher value. Something better than what you had before.
When I’ve lost things in my life or things have been taken from me – friendships, jobs, projects, whatever…it at times has felt unfair. People have often told me that God will, in time, redeem that situation, that I will get back whatever I’ve lost if I trust Him and wait. But what I’ve come to realise is that it’s so much better than that, and it goes right back to the very core of who God is; a massively creative creator, who is always pioneering new and amazing ways to restore, heal and bring people back to Himself.
Sometimes we don’t get back what was taken from us…we get something even better.
Take the story of Joseph (from the book of Genesis in the bible) as an example. I often imagine what Joseph must have felt like, being ripped away from his father, broken relationships with all his family, sold into slavery and thrown into prison. I wonder about those months and years that he spent in prison, with everything that had happened going round and round his mind. What did he think the redemption plan was? If it was me I would have probably imagined my brothers repenting, me being allowed to go back and live with my family, doing what I was doing before. What was God’s plan? Joseph became one of the most powerful men in Egypt, he saved the lives of thousands of people preventing them from being killed by famine, and in the end his relationship with his family was restored. Wow. Do you think he ever even imagined that as he sat in prison, alone, with his life in shreds? At the end of the story when being reconciled Joseph says this to his brothers; “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” – Genesis 50:20
Or Job. Job literally had everything taken away from him apart from his life. Through all his pain and questioning he never lost faith in God. At the end of his story we are told that ‘the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before’ – Job 42:10.
Or Moses. Because of a stupid mistake Moses went from being the son of a Pharaoh to a shepherd tending sheep in the wilderness. He lost everything. But it was Moses that God used to set the Israelites free from slavery. That’s kind of a big deal.
The bible seems to be full of people who in their loss, in their mistakes, in their grief, trusted God and waited, and out of that came a redemption plan that reached so far beyond their own imaginations. Greater purposes came from those messy situations, where what was taken or lost got replaced with something so much greater, something that stretched so far beyond meeting their own needs into meeting the needs of others.
When things are broken we can try to fix them so that they become exactly what they were before. We can see redemption as getting back what we had before and nothing else. But sometimes we need to just put the broken pieces in the hands of God, trusting that He, as the ultimate and most incredible creator we know, will take those pieces and make the most beautiful mosaic, something that will reach out and bring purpose, destiny, healing and redemption not only to our own lives, but to the lives of many other people.
I love this so much about God. That His creativity is not limited to the earth and the things He has made or done in the past. He is endlessly creative in the ways He engages with us; His provision, His interaction with us, the way He brings healing and restoration, all done differently for each individual, a masterpiece He paints differently for each of us. Even His redemption is creative beyond our comprehension, beyond anything we could ask or imagine in our wildest dreams.
“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” – 1 Corinthians 15:37-38
We can be like seeds that get crushed. But it would be ridiculous to try and gather all the tiny parts of a seed and try to put it back together again, as it was before. We would know that this brokenness, the crushing of the seed, put in the right hands and given the right care, can grow into the most incredible tree, that brings life, fruit and shelter to many others for years to come.
I want to be able to trust that God, the first and ultimate artist, is the one who determines what kind of plant the crushed seeds of my life will become. What a relief, because every time I have had a plan in my head and I’ve finally let it go and let God take control, what grows is mind-blowing, overwhelming, something I never could have predicted or created.
It actually makes my own plans look ridiculous.
That is creative redemption, and day by day I am absolutely loving seeing it happen in my own life, and in the lives of others.
This article was originally written for and published in the July 2012 edition of Youthwork Magazine.
Whoops. It’s a word I must have used thousands of times in the ten years I have been doing youth work. In the early days I used it probably on a daily basis, with the hope that as I grew in experience and got my youth work degree, I would say whoops, a lot less. Perhaps I make less of the more obvious mistakes now, but I still make mistakes. Whether I like it or not, whoops is still a regular part of my vocabulary.
The mistakes I have made have varied from small organisational errors and badly handled conflict, to deep-seated bad attitudes and reactions to unhealed hurts. Some of these mistakes are funny to look back on and would feature comfortably in an episode of ‘You’ve Been Framed’. Some of them have been painful and costly and are really not very funny at all. But as I look back I realise that whatever those mistakes were, they have shaped me as a youth worker and made me the person that I am. They have helped me to realise not only the importance of making mistakes, but the deeper importance of learning from those mistakes.
Mistakes are always messages. At a youth project I worked in a few years ago, I had faced months of difficult conflict with a group of young people. I had been insulted, threatened, spat on, pushed, had bags of dog excrement thrown at me…for months and as I was the senior worker I always had to deal with any kind of trouble. One night despite every effort on my part to engage these young people and build a positive relationship with them, they went beyond what I was able to cope with, and as my staff and the young people were in danger I was forced to call the police. When they arrived 45 minutes later, one police officer spoke to me very badly, saying I should have dealt with the situation myself and was wasting his time. I lost it. The people that were supposed to be helping and protecting me were now angry with me for asking for their help. The conversation developed into a nasty argument and in full view of young people and staff I lost my temper, shouted and swore at the policeman, who threatened to arrest me. Thankfully a colleague took over and forced me to go back inside. As I sat on the floor in the staff toilet with tears streaming down my face hoping I wouldn’t be spending the night in a police cell, I realised what I had done and I wished I could erase the last ten minutes. But I couldn’t.
Later that week as my amazingly supportive line manager and I sat down to talk about what had happened, we realised some problems that we just hadn’t seen before. I was doing too much, the problems with these young people were not being resolved in any way, I was the worker dealing with it on a weekly basis without any support and I was completely exhausted. I had acted unprofessionally and should not have said what I said, but the mistake told us things, pointed towards areas that needed attention, helped us improve the situation. The mistake had a message and thankfully we heard it.
A simple reflective practice strategy can help us make sense of a mistake. Kolb (1984) developed a cycle that can be useful in helping us reflect and learn from an experience. I include my mistake to show you how it might work;
A mistake nearly always forces you to look at the determining factors that led to the mistake. In my example I acted badly and I needed to be disciplined for that, but there was also some responsibility that needed to be taken by my co-workers for not supporting me, my line manager who hadn’t spotted I was doing too much and of course the policeman who perhaps didn’t handle the situation in the best possible way! When someone makes a mistake it can be because they’re too tired, perhaps they are juggling too many things or don’t have the adequate training to deal with a certain situation. If someone you are managing makes a mistake what can you take responsibility for? What can you improve on and what can be changed to ensure the mistake won’t happen again?
When I was 15 I attended a house group that was always the highlight of my week. It was a safe space for me to ask questions, share difficulties and explore God with other people my age, as well as with incredible youth leaders. One night, one youth leader shocked me to my core as she honestly and humbly told us about a mistake she had made in her teenage years. It was something that had deeply affected her, and her marriage.
I couldn’t believe she had done it! I thought she was perfect, holy, a youth worker…not someone who made a huge mistake like that. I didn’t know what to say and as I walked home I felt disappointed that the youth leader I had looked up to so much, was actually just a normal person like me who made stupid mistakes. What a brilliant lesson for me to learn! As I continued to navigate my way through adolescence, I realized that messing up was normal and that I didn’t have to keep it a secret. I no longer saw my youth leader as some perfect role model who I could never be like, but someone just like me, who messed up and needed God. Tell your young people about the mistakes you’ve made, and the mistakes you still make. Obviously respect boundaries, be appropriate and don’t glamorize or belittle sin, but don’t let them think you are something you are not. Young people need to know that people screw up and make it, young people need to know that they are not expected to be perfect and that leaders are not to be put on pedestals, because they have a habit of falling off quite spectacularly. It’s not just young people that need to know this – it’s people in your church, your best friends, your staff and your volunteers. Sharing your mistakes stops people from thinking you are something you are not, relieves you of impossible pressure or expectations and may even prevent someone else from making the very same mistake you did!
It is a myth that Christians never make mistakes. The bible is full of not good enough people who screwed up all the time, that God used and empowered. Peter is often famous for his mistakes – losing faith whilst walking on water, cutting off a soldier’s ear, that whole denying Jesus three times thing.
But after all that, who did Jesus use to build his church? Was it the disciples who got it all right, the ones who gave all the right answers, didn’t ask as many questions and kept their sword in it’s sheath? No, it was Peter he chose. Peter the mistake maker. Peter might have made mistakes but at least he tried. He tried to defend Jesus, he was actually present at the crucifixion, he got out of the boat! He did things, he acted, his beliefs led to him doing. I would rather be someone who makes hundreds of mistakes trying to do something than someone who makes no mistakes doing nothing.
Pioneer ministry is a fairly new term within youth ministry but it’s important to mention it here because mistakes are inevitable in pioneering. Pioneer youth ministry is doing stuff that hasn’t been done before, carving out a new path that has never been walked. There is something essentially pioneering about all youth work, because every relationship you form is a new path, every individual you meet and work with will have totally different needs and responses compared to another. You are constantly pioneering, constantly guessing what will work and not work, what to say and not say, how this person will react to that. There are no maps, no senior workers to advise you or tell you about their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones. If it’s truly pioneering then trying it with a bit of guess work is the only way. Mistakes will be made, because they are the only way you can be lead to something that works, a path that’s walkable that others can follow. In his development of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously said, ‘If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward’. It is the destiny of a pioneer to find thousands of ways that don’t work, all so that they can be lead to the one way that will work. Your mistakes will always be the paving slabs the path leading to your successes is made from.
Sometimes it’s hard trying to imitate a sinless savior who in just thirty three years changed the course of human history and enabled a way for broken people to restore their relationship with God. I often feel like I’ll never get it, I’ll never be good enough, and how can Jesus ever understand that? He was perfect, he doesn’t know what it’s like to make mistakes. Or does he?
In Luke 2 we read an interesting story about Jesus as a young person, temporarily separated from his parents only to be found in the temple, listening to the scriptures, asking questions and amazing people with his knowledge. In verse 52 we’re told that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men’.
Really? Jesus grew in wisdom? Jesus could grow in something? Jesus wasn’t born with total and complete wisdom?
Then there is Hebrews 5: 8 – 9; ‘Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect…’ Jesus learned things, Jesus was ‘made perfect’. So he wasn’t before?
I’m not trying to argue that Jesus wasn’t perfect or sinless, I believe he was both. But perhaps this is sometimes the problem in our thinking when we see making a mistake as a sin, rather than just a mistake, inevitable in the process as we learn and grow into the person God is shaping us to be. Making mistakes isn’t failing, it isn’t sinning, it can’t be if Jesus did it.
Jesus was fully human. He wasn’t born potty trained. He had to learn how to walk, to talk, to feed himself, to read, to write. He was a carpenter (or general handyman for the theologians amongst us). I have never trained to be a carpenter, but I did do GCSE Resistant Materials, which is almost the same thing and I was awful at it. It took me months to learn how to saw properly, make joints and hammer nails in the right places. Jesus would have been the same. He probably made some really dodgy tables, the ones where you need a couple of napkins under a leg to stop your dinner from flying off the table with every movement of your leg.
Although perhaps not entirely theologically accurate, I love the scene in ‘The Passion’, where a flashback shows Jesus inventing a high table, different to the others around at the time. It shows the side of Jesus we never see, the one who played and learned and grew, the Jesus who made mistakes and who therefore gives us permission to do the same.
This week I’ve been on a Bristol Centre for Youth Ministry Community Week, where students across all three years retreat to Wales to spend time with God and each other, as well as learning from some essential lectures! It’s been a great week as I’ve got to know the students a lot better, and something one of them said in a piece of liturgy they were reading out during a worship service has really stuck with me.
“God who created you, is still creating you”
The first thing God did was to create, the ultimate aspect of his character is a creative; an artist, painting and sculpting and shaping. As we are made in his image we are created to create.
The description of God as a creative being or artist is one that has resonated with me better than any other, particularly as over the last few years I have begun to explore more of my own creativity. I remember hearing Rich Mullins talk about how God is a wild man, not the cultured, civilized God we think. It’s this side of God that I am deeply drawn to, this creative, mysterious, wild, unpredictable, unexplainable force that knows me and loves me. Despite my quest for answers I have found God to be more present in the questions, in the mystery, in the unknown. This is where art belongs. It is always mysterious, sometimes slightly confusing or frustrating and yet it reveals so much of who we are, and who God is.
One of my favourite ever movies is a slightly odd film directed by Richard Linklater called ‘Waking Life’, where a teenager walks around having conversations with people trying to figure out whether life is real or whether it is a dream. The conversations he has are deep, mindblowing and challenging, ranging from theology to philosophy and everything in between. Each scene is a little movie in itself! One scene is two friends talking in a coffee shop;
“When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.”
“I know what you mean because I can remember thinking, ‘Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything’s going to just somehow gel and settle, just end.’ It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop.”
I remember watching that at the time feeling that I was in that younger stage, of chasing and striving to become what I would be, and that one day I would reach this point where I had ‘made it’ and I would be able to relax and just live my life as this finished person.
Due to lots of learning and change over the last couple of years, I do feel there has been a ‘settling’ of sorts. A kind of letting go, or at least an acceptance that this is who I am, this is my life now and who I am now is pretty much who I will be forever. Although this has been freeing in some ways, it is also disappointing. Despite the circumstances in my life being great at the moment this thought has bothered me continuously over the past few weeks.
It’s disappointing because there are so many things about myself I hoped would have changed by now; deep wounds, character flaws, unhelpful patterns of thinking and low self-confidence. Who I am is not who I hoped I would become, despite my best efforts. I thought by now I would be…better. The chase is over and I am not the person I dreamed I could be.
I’ve forgotten God isn’t done creating. I am not finished.
What a comforting thought, that who I am right now is not the end of my story. That God is still painting and sculpting and shaping and drawing and editing me…and that in his mind he sees his finished creation, a masterpiece he has crafted from dust. As if this wasn’t enough, even when I smear the painting or chip the sculpture, God just carves or paints it into something else. He endlessly recreates what others and I destroy.
It’s that ‘now and not yet’ metaphor. There are glimpses of God’s work in me, moments of genius and beauty, a deposit of what is to come, a sign of the future. But there are glimpses of corruption and pollution, devastation and evil, a reminder of the darkness that exists in the world, the war that I am a part of, raging within me. The now and not yet fight, as one kingdom tries to invade the other, and I am a mesh of both, a slimy caterpillar hiding in the cocoon of my partly finished physical form until I can burst out and fly away as the being I was born to become. Everything we see on this earth is only a partial glimpse and we will never be fully made, completed, until the end of this age.
This reassures me! I am not who I want to be, but I’m not who I was or who I will be. There is so much more God will do. Outwardly I am wasting away but inwardly I am being renewed day by day! (2 Corinthians 4:16)
God had an idea to create a masterpiece. God created me, and he is still creating me. He is editing and carving and painting and sculpting and molding and making and shaping and one day, I will be finished.
Our biggest battle with One Eighty was always venues. We started off with the perfect city centre venue, a massive hall that was already used for rollerskating. Unfortunately due to lots of different reasons, we were kicked out of this venue after just a few months. I struggled to find a venue that even came close to our first one, but eventually found a youth centre which had a small hall we could use. It didn’t even have enough space for all of our ramps, but at that time we were only attracting around ten young people a week and I thought this venue would be a temporary solution that would allow us to build up the project.
Then, the project exploded. After a few months at the youth centre, our numbers had tripled, the hall was getting dangerous and we needed somewhere bigger. I tried everything. Schools, universities, garages, car parks, warehouses, churches. No one wanted us in their space. We prayed, prayed some more, and did everything we could possibly think of to find a better venue. Nothing, for months, nothing.
Then we found out about a church, half a mile from the city centre, which had no regular congregation. It was a massive church, complete with storage space, kitchens, toilets, access and basically everything we wanted. The only thing it needed was a new floor. We suggested the idea to the church, and they seemed interested. Within weeks we had found an architect who said he would help us through the process, the approval of the church PCC and diocese as well as a floor company managed by a Christian who agreed to build us a new floor at cost price.
It moved so fast, it was ridiculous. It seemed to fit, it seemed to make sense. The doors were opening, the right people were coming forward to help. There seemed to be something so incredible about holding One Eighty in a church, about destroying young people’s stereotypes of what church is. It seemed right to reclaim the church for the mission of God, to breathe life back into a dead building… everything just slotted into place!
We would have to raise around £12,000, but in my mind that was only half a big black truck, we could do that. We were all ready to go, all we had to do was find the money and then we could finally get our dream venue.
Then, the phone rang.
It was the PCC. They had had a meeting. They had decided it was a bad idea. They were putting a stop to it. The answer was final, the answer was no. I was stunned, gutted, so disappointed. I thought this was it, everything had fitted so perfectly into place, why had this happened? I didn’t understand it.
I had to start all over again. All those meetings, all those plans, all that time I had spent on proposals and research…for nothing.
Within two weeks another option appeared, totally out of the blue. A school had asked us to come and do a skate event for them, at their sports hall. It was like the hall had been built for us. The access was perfect, the floor was amazing, the location was good. We asked the school. They said yes. They offered us weekly slots on a Friday night. We couldn’t believe it! Maybe all the hassle of the previous potential venue had been to lead us to this one.
They were slightly concerned about us marking the floor, and we were also not able to move our sessions to a Friday night. We decided to hold five monthly events there over the winter to test the format of the venue. This would reveal any potential problems to us, get the location known by the young people and reassure the school that we would not damage the floor.
We made a big deal out of the events, we called them ‘Fight the Elements’, we paid for flyers to be designed and printed, we organised a date to have a massive competition in partnership with the local skate shop. We were excited, the young people were excited, the buzz around the events spread, and when the day of the first event arrived, we were more than ready. The team were all in the office, about an hour before we were due to leave to pick up the trailer and head across town to the school.
Then, the phone rang.
It was the bursar of the school. I felt the room start to spin slightly, as I heard the words ‘too worried about the floor’, ‘the teacher you dealt with didn’t get my permission’, ‘cancelling all five events’, ‘no possibility of you using the hall for skateboarding ever again’.
I couldn’t believe it. I was fuming. For a few seconds I sat there thinking about it. The young people had been so excited about these events, they would be devastated. I had no way of telling them in time that it was cancelled. We needed that venue.
The event was not going to be cancelled.
I told my team to pray, and I phoned the school and asked to speak to the bursar. She wasn’t at her desk. I waited five minutes and tried again. She wasn’t at her desk. I waited five minutes and tried again. She wasn’t at her desk.
I felt like I was going to explode. I went into another room in our offices where people wouldn’t be able to hear me shout. I texted everyone I could think of and asked them to pray, I told them what the venue meant to me, what it meant to us, what it meant to those lads. And I shouted and screamed and stomped at God, because I was not going to lose another venue.
I went back upstairs and phoned the school, asking to speak to the bursar. She wasn’t at her desk. I waited five minutes and tried again. She wasn’t at her desk. I waited five minutes and tried again. This time they stopped answering the phone.
I had half an hour before I was supposed to leave with my colleagues and pick up the trailer. There was only one thing for it. I needed to go to the school.
By now, rush hour traffic had hit Bath, and the roads outside our city centre offices were gridlocked. To get to the school we would have to go right through the city centre. With a massive four by four truck, it would probably take us over 45 minutes to reach the school.
My colleague had a smaller car, parked on a back street near another longer route which would avoid the traffic. We rushed to it, and I made him drive like a total maniac. Sorry Luke. Also sorry to that lady walking her dog that we nearly killed.
We arrived at the school, swerving into the car park like the A team. I ran into the reception but no one was there. I went into the staff room but no one was there. Eventually I bumped into a teacher who was holding a glass of champagne. It was the end of the Ofsted inspection, of course she wasn’t at her desk. I explained the situation in a frenzied waffle, and the teacher said she would take me to her. She was new, and forgot how to get to the room everyone was in. The clock was ticking. I had fifteen minutes to find this bursar, persuade her to let us hold the event, get back to the office, pick up the truck and my staff, pick up the trailer, then get back to the school and set up the skate ramps.
We reached a set of double doors, to which the teacher said ‘ooh there she is’, she tried the door but it was locked. I could see the bursar pick up her handbag and put down a glass was holding…she was about to leave and I couldn’t get to her because the door was locked. This was my last chance to save the event and possibly the venue. I decided I couldn’t take any more of this, and under my breath I commanded the doors to open in Jesus’ name! I’m not sure who was more surprised when the doors opened.
As I walked towards the bursar, I tried to calm down, take some deep breaths, remind myself that she would probably get a restraining order against me unless I handled this properly. I needed to be passionate, but not psychotic. Sometimes this can be a fine line with me.
Hello Bursar, I’m blah blah from blah blah, how’s Ofsted gone, blah blah oh great that’s nice blah blah blah. My turn. In 60 seconds I told her everything. I told her about the project, the events, the flyers, the boys. With tears in my eyes I told her things I didn’t even know I felt, I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth but I just went with it. I told her she couldn’t cancel my event. I begged her to let us go ahead.
I thanked her and bolted for the car, telling Luke to step on it! As soon as we got near the centre of town again the traffic hit gridlock, and I got out of the car and ran.
I jumped into the truck, drove like a total psychopath, went through two red lights, picked up the trailer and made it on time.
The event went ahead, despite many more battles that night, including the hall being double booked.
I told them that we would never give up.
I told them that we will always fight for the things that are important to them.
I told them that God would never give up.
I told them that God will always fight for the things that are important to them.
I told them they needed to write lots of letters to the school.
Despite a successful event, the school wouldn’t budge, and we lost the venue.
And that’s it. We fought, we battled, and we lost.
One Eighty never moved out of the youth centre.
Some locked doors open, and some don’t.