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Tagged: thoughts

Nov 29

Making Mistakes

This article was originally written for and published in the July 2012 edition of Youthwork Magazine.

Ouch.

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.

Whoops.

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.

Whoops.

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.

Whoops.

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.

Whoops.

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.

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Sep 29

The Shell

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, is that ideas you have now, are not always for now. Sometimes an idea needs time to grow, evolve, develop. It needs to be pruned and refined. It needs to be pulled apart and criticized by people who love you and understand the context of the idea. I love ideas. I have them all the time. Sometimes I have so many ideas they drive me insane. I am thankful for my ‘ideas’ notebook, which is filled with projects, dreams, film ideas and book plans. Some of those ideas have been done, some of them will get done and some of them may never happen. Ideas are fun.

I want to tell you about one idea, because it’s an idea I would like to be refined and pruned. It’s one of those ideas that won’t leave me alone, and I think that even though it’s kind of a big one, one day it might actually happen. It’s shaped from all the different parts of me – my experience as a youth worker, my love of art, film and creativity, my desire to see as many people as possible come to know and love God in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them…and my weird obsession with abandoned buildings and large empty industrial spaces (I once cried in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Gallery in London because it was so beautiful. It was empty). So here goes, drum roll please, introducing…The Shell.

( Read more )

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Sep 14

I Am Not Finished

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.

Thanks to my lovely art teacher friend Anna for this photo of her beautiful classroom

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.

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Aug 30

The Lift Dance


In the first couple of weeks at my new job, I’ve had several moments of complete and total joy at what I’m actually getting paid to do. This has lead to what I will call – the lift dance. It goes a bit like this;

1) I find out something cool I get to do as part of my job
2) I feel full of joy and excitement but recognize that I may lose my job or traumatize my new colleagues if I fully express this joy and excitement
3) I have to go in the lift at some point during the day to go somewhere awesome like the library (there is a basement library with a vault that has some super old books in that smell amazing)
4) I remember that no one can see me in the lift (the rumours of CCTV are false)
5) I do a silly dance and fully express my joy and excitement at everything God is doing and the life I get to live

When I sit and really let myself think about everything God has done for me, the way he’s turned everything around…it’s overwhelming. It’s from this place that I try to start every day. Even when I’m grumpy, even when it’s early, even when there seems to be too much stuff to do, even when the sadness of the people I’ve lost in the last couple of years still stabs at me, I remember.

I remember what God has done for me. And when I remember it, there is always a reason to do the lift dance.

Sometimes as Christians I wonder whether we are too keen to forget, to press forward, to move on. We are so focused on the future that we forget to reflect on the past and let it revolutionize the present. The journey we’ve been on, the road God has weaved for us and walked with us.

It’s too easy to forget.

The Israelites were good at forgetting. It wasn’t long after they had been delivered from Egypt that they forgot just what they had been saved from – a life of pain and slavery. They even wanted to go back! (Numbers 14:3). Even when they reached the Promised Land they forgot and started doing evil stuff (Judges 3).

Forgetting what God has done never seems to end well.

In the Old Testament, one method of remembering was to build a pillar or altar of stones (1 Samuel 7:12, Joshua 4:1-9). When God helps Joshua cross the Jordan river with the ark of the covenant, Joshua does just that, and tells the Israelites that in generations to come when their children ask what the stones mean, they can tell them the story of what God has done. I love imagining a little kid, hundreds of years later, being sat down and told the amazing story of God doing a total miracle.

Remembering is good for us, but it’s good for others too.

One of the last things Jesus did was teach his disciples something to help them remember. During the last supper Jesus broke bread and drank wine with them, telling them to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). All across the world, 2000 years later, we celebrate communion together as followers of Jesus. We stop and remember what Jesus has done for us on the cross. It’s always a powerful symbol, where perspective returns and gratitude ignites.

We need to keep building pillars of stones! For real, maybe. Symbolically, definitely. Some creative ways of doing this:

• Buy or find a cool glass jar, and put it somewhere in your house. Every time something awesome happens to you or someone in your house write it down on a bit of paper and put it in the jar. When the jar is full empty it out, get your friends and family round and read out everything in the jar over a bottle of wine.
• Keep a journal, or prayer diary. Split the pages in half and on one side write down what you’re praying about. When you feel like God has resolved it or answered your prayer, write down what happened next to it on the other half of the page.
• Write down your testimony on a bit of paper, photocopy it ten times, and see how creative you can get leaving it in random places. Doctor’s waiting rooms, train seat tray tables, underneath the windscreen wiper of a random car…you can have lots of fun with this!
• Tell your stories! Tell them to your friends, family, house group, church. Stories are so powerful, moving and untouchable. They’re useless if they remain inside of us. We must tell them.
• Do more lift dances. But check for CCTV first.

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Feb 06

The Waiting Room

Originally written for The Sophia Network – http://www.sophianetwork.org.uk

In the last two years I seem to have spent a lot of my time in waiting rooms. Due to a back problem I have been through X-Rays, MRI scans and physiotherapy, with every appointment requiring a short, or sometimes not so short wait, in the waiting room.

They are not very inspiring places. Magazines are always months, if not years, out of date, horrible plastic pastel coloured chairs line the walls and a display of mostly irrelevant information leaflets usually occupies one solitary corner. People come and go, people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. People with all kinds of stories. It seems everyone at some point has a stint in the waiting room.

Many times during my waiting room moments, I have realised that in my life I have very much been in a metaphorical waiting room. Almost two years ago I left a job I had done for seven years, since I was 19 years old. This was a big deal. What would I do now? What does God have planned next? What if there isn’t anything else planned? I hoped there would be some next big thing, some other God given idea that I would be able to launch myself straight into. Instead God has lead me into a time of waiting and studying, where I am unpacking and evaluating seven years of ministry, learning to be enough just as a daughter of God, trying new things, enjoying life and trying to figure out where God wants me next. I have hated it! I want to be out there changing the world, dreaming big dreams and working hard with God to see them come to life. But instead I am just sat in the waiting room.

There are so many examples of people in the bible who were made to wait. God told Abraham that his offspring would be so numerous trying to count them would be like counting the dust, that he would have more descendants than there were stars in the sky. At the time this may have been a little awkward as he was over 75 years old and had no children. When his wife Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham was 100, God again promised the same thing and specifically said that Sarah would get pregnant and have a child. Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. But it happened. Their waiting wasn’t easy and they made mistakes but in spite of all that, everything that had been promised took place.

Moses was told he would lead the Israelites out of slavery into the promised land, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. When they finally did get out of Egypt, how long did it take for them to get to the promised land? A couple of weeks? A month or two? No – forty years. Forty years of wandering in a desert. Wandering in a dry, dusty, empty, hot desert, that was supposed to be milk and honey.

David was anointed by the prophet Samuel and told he would be king. But before this happened the leader he had faithfully served and loved turned on him, he almost lost his life and was forced to go into hiding to save himself. He lost his best friend, he faced battles and temptations. Sat in a cave alone and hiding, I bet he didn’t feel like what he had been promised was going to happen. I bet he didn’t feel much like a king.

My experience has shown me that sometimes the waiting room is boring and frustrating. It feels like you are not where you’re supposed to be. You’ve got better things to do, jobs to be getting on with. But maybe the waiting room is part of the plan.

When I read what happened to Moses and the Israelites in the desert, I begin to understand why waiting is so important. They learned to trust God completely as their provider, they learned to stop complaining, they learned to support and respect their leaders, they got Egypt out of their heads. They learned the kinds of lessons you can only learn in the desert. And when they entered that promised land, they were ready, they were more than ready! But only because they had done their time in the waiting room.

If waiting is part of the plan, maybe we should stop impatiently tapping our feet, looking at our watch, wondering when we’re going to get out, and embrace the waiting room as a God given place.

We are a people called to wait. We live in one giant waiting room, with the knowledge that one day our precious and perfect king Jesus will come back to restore our broken earth and reign forever. We live in hope, we live in the knowledge that one day, what we have been promised will come true. No more tears, no more pain, a dream made real and the promise fulfilled.

Waiting has always been part of the plan.

So maybe you are stuck in the waiting room. Maybe you have been promised something and you long for the day when that promise is fulfilled. Maybe you are waiting for a miracle, for healing, for a relationship, a job. Maybe you are waiting to see transformation in the lives of the young people you work with. Maybe you’ve just sat down in the waiting room, or maybe you feel like you’ve been there long enough and you can’t wait any longer.

Whatever your situation, know that waiting is part of the plan. Know that God is changing you, training you and transforming you in a way that only the waiting room can. Know that everyone has a stint in the waiting room. But most of all know that the God we trust is a God who knows the plans he has for us, a God who never makes a promise that he will not fulfill and a God who will always do immeasurably more than anything we could ask or imagine.

No one stays in the waiting room forever.

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Feb 01

A Parable about Pumpkin Pie

Joel and Ben were best friends who both loved pumpkin pie. Despite all their ups and downs growing up, throughout their childhood pumpkin pie had been the one thing that had always united them. They would regularly hang out together; eating different varieties of pie, comparing recipes, watching cookery shows and documentaries on the pumpkin growing process. At weekends they would often visit pumpkin growing competitions and after working together as teenagers to create their own pumpkin growing business at their allotment, they would often enter the competitions themselves. They devoted their lives to pumpkin pie and everyone who knew them knew about their obsession with it. Sometimes people even mocked them for it! But they loved it, and as they grew into adults they continued to learn everything they could about it. One year, at the Pumpkin Farmers Summer Camp, they made a pact, promising each other that they would spend their lives spreading the message of pumpkin pie, to all who had not yet experienced the joy it could bring.

One day at the annual Pumpkin Pie Appreciation Society Conference, Joel and Ben listened to a pumpkin grower, who like them, had devoted his life to pumpkin pie. He gave a talk on how pumpkin pie was best served warm, that cold pumpkin pie was inferior. He argued passionately and convincingly and his love for pumpkin pie was obvious.

After the talk, Joel turned to Ben and began to compliment the speaker, praising his insight and clearly agreeing with what the speaker had said. It was obvious that the pumpkin grower was right, his points were excellent and he had been growing pumpkins for years and years. He knows everything there is to know about pumpkins, and about pumpkin pie. He even referenced the Pumpkin Pie Appreciation Society’s guidebook to back up his points! It must be true that pumpkin pie is best served warm.

Joel noticed that Ben looked troubled and asked his friend what was wrong. Ben began to explain that ever since he was little, he had enjoyed pumpkin pie not warm, but cold, straight from the fridge! He explained his reasons for this, all he knew about pumpkins and pumpkin pie, all his experience and his study had lead him to believe that it was best enjoyed cold. He also, quoted the Pumpkin Pie Appreciation Society’s guidebook to back up his thoughts.

Joel and Ben both love pumpkin pie. They have both devoted their lives to it. One thinks it is best served warm, and the other thinks it is best served cold.

Who is right, Joel or Ben?

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