Sunday, 10 June 2018

Being Acknowledged

Had an interesting experience the other night. It was a beautiful evening, I had a craving for a smokie dog, and there happen to be a couple of quite famous hot dog restaurants around 20 minutes north of the city. Driving past, the first one was full as usual and so I figured I'd check out the other one as which was just a little further. There were only a few customers inside, so I stood at the counter and waited. The young ladies behind the counter barely gave me a glance as they walked around doing various things - grabbing orders that had come up, looking together at the soft serve ice cream machine, and one was just walking slowly around the restaurant slowly sweeping. Minute by minute went by and no one even acknowledged that I was standing there waiting to order. Finally after at least 5 minutes I shrugged my shoulders and left. I drove back to the first restaurant which was still completely packed, and yet was able to immediately place my order.

Acknowledging people personally is something we see Jesus do quite often in the gospels. "Zacchaeus, come down from that tree." "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." "Who touched my garment?" “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Each time Jesus acknowledged someone personally He emphasized that they were important to Him and He affirmed their worth and value as individuals. This has probably become my most important tool in youth ministry - making the effort to acknowledge every youth who walks through the door, whether it be a youth night with 80-100 middle schoolers, or a Sunday School with youth and high schoolers together. Knowing how I personally respond to being acknowledged, I can only imagine how much more it is important to our young people who are going through the most difficult time of life in regards to self-esteem and self-worth.

Back to the restaurants I visited, both are very similar - retro 50's style, fantastic greasy spoon food, and prices that require a loan to eat there regularly; and yet one was jammed full of people on a warm Friday night and the other was almost empty. In the end, I was content to wait for my order, but I certainly was not prepared to wait without even be acknowledged so I could even make my order. It seems judging by the lineups at the first restaurant that I was not alone. In youth ministry we are always tempted with the notion that a bigger and better event will bring out the kids, but the truth is that their greatest desire is to be acknowledged and loved. Yes I do my best to do fun things, and yes I definitely strive to teach the bible well, but it starts with our youth knowing that when they walk in the door they are "home" and will be recognized as such. It's the knowledge that they are known and welcomed that opens the door for the rest. The gospel after all is a story about love.... the greatest love.

Friday, 25 March 2016

A Potty Mouthed Artificial Teenager and What Makes Friday Good

This week Microsoft introduced us to Tay, an artificial intelligence based chatbot that would interact with users (aiming for the late teens and early 20's) via Twitter, KIK, and other social media outlets. If everything I just said makes no sense to you, just imagine texting with a robot and receiving an intelligent response. Tay, like other AI bots in the past would learn from her interactions to become more and more human, and sadly that's exactly what happened. Some internet users quickly realized that if they coordinated their conversations with Tay correctly they could influence her responses to others, and soon Tay was using racial slurs and denying the holocaust. It escalated very quickly and Microsoft was forced to pull Tay offline for some important adjustments.

This has happened before, including in 2014 to programmer Anthony Garvan who's own chatbot quickly became a racist after he exposed it to social media. Garvan published a blog post response to the Tay fiasco on Thursday and I found one particular quote absolutely fascinating.
"I believe that Microsoft, and the rest of the machine learning community, has become so swept up in the power and magic of data that they forget that data still comes from the deeply flawed world we live in." Source
Yes, we live in a deeply flawed world and it's not just the internet trolls who set out to make an internet robot say bad words. It's all of us and we need help. We can have the best intentions, we can attempt to cleanse our thoughts, we can do every good deed we can imagine, and still we will never get it right at every moment. Whether we believe in the concept of a god or not we all hold a moral compass of some sort telling us what's right and wrong, and yet our own consciences prove that we can't even live up to our own expectations.

This is where the Good in Good Friday comes in. Our perfect creator saw the path we would take and from the beginning of creation His plan was to show us his grace through Jesus (2 Timothy 1:9). Throughout the entire Old Testament we see God demonstrate His holiness and we see His people turn away time after time from even the simplest of commands (commands that were designed for their own good), and yet even that was part of His plan as the people would see time and time again how much they actually needed God (Romans 5:20). And then, at just the right time in history a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem ...

If the biblical account is true, God stepped down to earth in the form of a human being and lived a life just as we live. He experienced life as a child learning to listen to his parents, as a teenager going through puberty, as an everyday Joe doing his job, as a mentor followed by others, as a friend who would be abandoned by those closest to Him.... but with one difference in that He never went against God's will. We are flawed; He wasn't. When His teaching threatened the religious leaders who relied on fear to rule the people He was arrested and executed as a common criminal... still all according to His perfect plan from the beginning of time itself. The due consequence of our disobedience to God is separation from Him who is all that is Good, and yet we read that Jesus took that punishment upon Himself so we don't have to experience it (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are deeply flawed, and yet when we accept the forgiveness that Jesus freely offers, we are perfect and clean in His sight. Jesus took the "death" we deserve upon Himself, and then defeated it by rising again as we will celebrate this Easter Sunday. Nothing we can ever do will bring us true peace, and yet Jesus offers it freely.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 NIV

Happy Easter.

-ben

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Every Moment Matters

Driving home this evening from visiting friends I drove past a church that I once considered attending as a teenager. I was immediately hit with the sobering question of what my life might be like today if I had attended that church instead of the one I ended up attending, the church I still call home twenty years later. The simple story is that I was invited by a friend, but the bigger picture takes me back further to a completely unrelated conversation with my grade 11 history teacher.

I was nearing the end of Grade 11 and holding very good marks in history and my teacher approached me recommending that I take a special level world issue course the next year. Although at that age my confidence level was quite low, this teacher's confidence in me convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and take this course setting a chain of events in place that would lead me to where I am today. In taking that course I was required to complete volunteer hours. I chose to volunteer my time at Youth for Christ, leading me to meet Harvey who would quickly become a close friend. Harvey, seeing that I was not connected to a church, invited me to his. I was welcomed warmly and within less than a year was baptized into membership. The next month I began my first summer of camp ministry which soon transitioned into a year round ministry position financially supported strongly by my church family.  Eventually the call came to move into pastoral ministry in this same church, starting with worship ministry, adding small groups to my responsibilities, and then exchanging small groups for middle school ministry where I am still serving today.

As I traced these things back I was struck by how different my life would be if my teacher had not had that simple encouraging conversation with me. It is quite possible that my life would be almost unrecognizable from what it is now and it shook me because of how the last few days have been such a reminder to me of the blessing of friendship and community that I enjoy. My lesson from this is that every moment we spend with others matters and may in fact be eternally significant. As a youth pastor I will never be able to pick and choose which moments with my kids will be impacting. I don't know if it will be a opportunity I offered, an encouragement I gave, or something I taught from scripture, or even just some time spent together. I pray it's not the time I lost my temper, the need for attention I ignored, or the opportunity I failed to give because I wasn't watching close enough to see the gift God was forming inside of someone. I can only pray for God's grace that my impact, every day and every moment, will be positive and that the good things will be remembered.