Category: Youth

Commencement Prayer at Hargrave Military Academy

I was asked to offer the “Senior Prayer” at Hargrave Military Academy’s 103rd commencement ceremony today. In the past few years I found that writing my prayer for a public event helps me focus my thoughts more clearly.  Here’s the prayer I prayed today for the Hargrave Military Academy Class of 2012.

Hargrave Military Academy Graduation — Senior Prayer

Let us pray.

Almighty God, our Father,

We are gathered here today in this sacred hall to celebrate a milestone in the lives of these seniors. They have come to this hour as the result of their dedication, perseverance, and accomplishment. But they are also gathered here today as a result of your grace, and the guidance of your unseen hand in their lives. For both their effort and your guidance, we are grateful.

Assembled here today with these cadets are their families. Their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, and others who have prayed for them, and who have sacrificed to make this moment possible. They now stand behind their sons and grandsons in silent gratitude, just as they have stood behind them in support for the past four years. Bless these families, and confirm today their hopes for the futures of their sons.

Today as these young men cross the threshold from adolescence into adulthood, may your peace go with them, and may your wisdom guide them now and in the future.

In this world, where your children are more often divided than united, may these graduates become peacemakers. When they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, may they seek solutions that lift up, rather than tear down; that reach out, rather than reject; that redeem, rather than condemn.

Just as you have guided their lives in past years, our prayer today is that you will guide their lives beyond this campus, and in the future. Reward their study, encourage their curiosity, and expand their horizons.

And, in the days to come, may they look back with appreciation on the years they invested at Hargrave Military Academy  — years which shaped their character, sharpened their minds, and strengthened their bodies.

Send them from this place that has been their home, out into a world filled with possibility — to make it a better place, to be your ambassadors of hope and healing in a world which needs both.

This is our prayer today, and we pray it in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Baccalaureate Sermon: Standing Out From the Crowd

Last Thursday night I was asked to deliver the baccalaureate sermon at Hargrave Military Academy. About 340 seventh through twelfth graders are enrolled at Hargrave, and all were present for this last convocation of the school year. Here’s the message I shared with them.

Standing Out From The Crowd

Numbers 13:1-3, 26-33 NIV
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.”
3 So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.

26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country;and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan. ”

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

The Origin of Baccalaureate

It’s great to see you here tonight. Of course, you didn’t really have a choice about whether or not you were going to come tonight, but I’m still glad to see you. And, if it makes you feel any better, the original baccalaureate sermon was delivered in Latin…by the students who were graduating!

So, that should help you feel a little better about having to be here tonight. You just had to show up, unlike the kids at Oxford in 1432, when the baccalaureate sermon was thought to have originated.

Baccalaureate is made up of two Latin words — bacca, which means bachelor; and, laureate, which means laurels. The idea was that candidates for the bachelor’s degree would present laurels, or accolades of thanksgiving and gratitude, for the four years of learning required to finish college.

Tonight, rather than have all of you speak to us in Latin,  all you have to do is listen to me in English, so this shouldn’t be too hard for either of us.

An Old Testament Story with a Contemporary Point

The story that was read just a moment ago is from that beloved Old Testament book, Numbers. I’m sure you’ve spent many hours reading the book of Numbers and can quote entire passages from memory. Actually, believe it or not, lots of people think the Book of Numbers is a little boring. Well, maybe not math majors, but everybody else.

Anyway, the Book of Numbers is also called “In The Wilderness” in the Hebrew Bible, which makes a lot more sense. That’s actually where we pick up the story that was just read a moment ago. Here’s the scene:

This happened about 3,500 years ago. The nation of Israel — sometimes called “the children of Israel” because literally they were all descended from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel — had just escaped from Egypt. In Egypt, they were slaves whose job was to make bricks for Pharaoh’s construction projects. Not great work, by any estimation, and Pharaoh liked the idea of free labor, so he was reluctant to let the Israelites leave.

But God chose Moses to confront Pharaoh, and after Pharaoh and the whole country of Egypt suffered 10 plagues, like swarms of locusts, rivers turning to blood, frogs everywhere, and so on, Pharaoh finally relented and let them go.

Now, fast forward a few months at least. The Israelites, which are somewhere between 300,000 and 2-million depending on who’s counting, have made their way to the land that God has promised to give them. That’s why it’s called The Promised Land. And you thought senior Bible was hard!

So, now they’re camping close to the land of Canaan. But before they go over, they decide it’s a good idea to do some recon. So, God tells Moses to select one man from every tribe — there were 12 tribes — and send them on a recon mission to spy out the land.

Now these were young guys, strong fellows, who were fit and strong. We know that because they bring back some of the fruit of the land. One cluster of grapes is so large that it takes two guys to carry it back strung on a branch between them.

So, when they get back to camp, everybody is excited. The 12 spies show everyone the grapes, the pomegranates, and other fruit they brought back. Then, the chairman of the committee of spies gives his report.

We don’t know who it is who gives the report, but he says, “Moses, you’re exactly right. The land you sent us to is great! Lots of produce, fertile land, great for growing crops and raising cattle and sheep. But there’s only one small problem. Other people already live there. And, they’re bigger than we are. They’re so big, we looked like grasshoppers compared to them. So, unfortunately, we can’t take the land because they’ll kill us.”  That is more or less what he said.

However, Caleb and Joshua don’t agree. Caleb speaks up and says, “Wait a minute. He’s right — this is a great land, no doubt about that. But he’s wrong about going in. We can do it. God promised it to us, and God will give it to us. We ought to go ahead!”

So, this is something of a democracy already, or at least they think it is. Ten-to-two, majority rule, nobody is moving into Canaan, grapes or not.

Not only that, but that night everybody in the camp, all 600,000 – 2,000,000 of them, starts complaining. “We should have stayed in Egypt,” some said. Others said, “Moses has brought us out here in the desert to die. We ought to go back to Egypt.” They even talk about stoning Moses and his brother to death and picking a new leader to take them back to Egypt.

Now remember Egypt is where God delivered them from. Egypt is where they were slaves. Egypt is where Pharaoh declared that all their boy babies should be killed to keep the Hebrews from rising up and overthrowing Pharaoh.

God has about all he can take, and all of a sudden, the glory of God fills the place. God says to Moses, “I’m tired of this. Has everyone forgotten all the miracles I did in Egypt to get them out?”

God says, “I’m going to spare their lives, but none of them who did not believe are going to see the Promised Land.”

So, for the next 40-years, until that unbelieving generation died, the nation of Israel wandered in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb, the two original spies who believed God, finally led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and took it for their own.

Standing Out From The Crowd

The obvious point of this story is that the majority can be wrong. The ten spies who did not want to try to enter the Promised Land were wrong. Just because you’re in the majority, doesn’t make you right. The history of our own country tells that story. “The majority rules” may work in politics, but often in life it is those in the minority, people like Joshua and Caleb, who are in the right.

In a couple of days you’re going to graduate. You’ve worked hard for your diploma, and I congratulate you on your accomplishment. But this is only the beginning as you pass from this institution learning to other institutions higher learning. So, this is only one chapter in your life story.

The lesson I want you to take away tonight is that faith gives us the courage to stand up for what is right, to chart a different course, to make the lives of others better, to change the world.

But you don’t do that by going along to get along. You don’t change the world by doing what everyone else has done. You don’t make the lives of others better by simply preserving the status quo.

The Monkey Experiment

Let me tell you a story I think you’ll find interesting. In 1967, an experiment was published in the periodical, Progress in Primatology. In that experiment, researchers took 5 monkeys and placed them in a room with a banana hanging from the ceiling, and a ladder placed under the banana.

Apparently it is true that monkeys like bananas, so when the first monkey attempted to climb the ladder to get the banana and eat it, he was sprayed with cold water. Not only was he sprayed, but the other 4 monkeys were sprayed with cold water as well.

Monkeys apparently dislike being sprayed with cold water more than they like bananas, and so when the monkeys stopped trying to retrieve the banana, the researchers replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey.

Now this new monkey sees the banana, and guess what, he immediately starts to climb the ladder. Only before he can get past the first step, the other monkeys jump on him, and beat him up. Of course, the new monkey doesn’t know why he’s being beat up, because he’s never been sprayed, but he quickly learns not to go for the banana.

Once the new monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replaced another one of the original monkeys with another new monkey. Guess what happens? The new monkey goes for the banana, and the other monkeys jump on him and beat him up. Only this time, the first new monkey also joins in beating up the second new monkey. He doesn’t know why, but he’s quick to do what all the other monkeys are doing.

Once the second monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replace a third monkey, then the fourth, and finally all five monkeys and been replaced. None of the monkeys tried to get the banana anymore, but they didn’t know why. None of the new monkeys had been sprayed, so they didn’t know the history of why going for the banana was dangerous. All of them simply gave up, and they didn’t know why.

Back To Egypt or Into The Promised Land?

My point is this: You can be like the monkeys who kept others from even trying to get the banana because you’re afraid of the consequences. Fear of failure is a paralyzing fear that keeps many from even attempting to do something new.

In other words, you decide if you want to go back to Egypt, or if you want to enter the Promised Land.

If you think you want to go to the Promised Land, there will be a lot of folks who will say you can’t. That you’ll fail. That there are too many obstacles out there. That no one has ever done that before.

But if you listen to the voice of God, the voice that says to you, “I haven’t brought you this far to fail. I love you and have a great plan for your life,” then you’ll do what others said can’t be done. You’ll succeed where others see only failure. You will find God’s plan for your life, not for someone else’s, and you will do what God is calling you to do.

That’s what Father Greg Boyle did. After serving for two years as the associate pastor at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, California, Father Greg became the pastor. In 1986, Los Angeles was considered the gang capital of the United States, and Father Greg’s neighborhood was ground zero. There were 10 gangs consisting of over 10,000 members in Father Greg’s community.

But, against the advice of others, Father Greg decided that somebody ought to love those gang members with what he called “boundless compassion.” So, Dolores Mission opened its doors to gang members.

At first, the gang members just used the church as a place to hang out. Father Greg didn’t mind that so much. He figured if they were at the church, they weren’t somewhere else causing trouble. But so many kids had been kicked out of public schools for gang activity, that Father Greg started an alternative school for gang members. Their first principal lasted one day.

But eventually things settled down. Father Greg stayed busy brokering peace deals between rival gangs, while also running the school. But what the neighborhood really needed was jobs, he thought. Even small time drug dealers weren’t going to give up their livelihood if they had nothing to replace it.

Gradually, Father G, or “G” as most gang members call him, started finding jobs for kids who had left their gangs. G got some doctors involved who were willing to remove gang tattoos, making job applicants more appealing to potential employers. Gradually, Father Greg’s “Jobs for the Future” program began to pay off. Dozens of gang members, more than they could handle came to Dolores Mission looking for work.

So, Father Greg started Homeboy Bakery, taking over an abandoned bakery in the neighborhood. Eventually, Homeboy Bakery spun off Homegirl Cafe, where former gang girls worked as waitresses. More businesses were created, and a kind of conglomerate, Homeboy Industries was formed as the umbrella organization.

Today, Homeboy Industries has helped thousands of LA county gang members leave the gang life, and start a new life. With that kind of story, you’d think everyone would have supported Father Greg. But Father Greg had his own “back to Egypt” committee working against him, too.

When they first started working with gang members, Father Greg encountered lots of opposition from citizens in Los Angeles who believed helping any gang member would only encourage more gang activity. After Father Greg wrote an editorial for the LA Times, the offices of Homeboy Industries received several death threats, and a couple of bomb threats.

Of course, looking back, Father Greg’s story is a success, and Homeboy Industries has become a model for the country in gang intervention. But if Father Greg had listened to those who were sure he would fail, to those who were convinced that gang members couldn’t change, then there would be no Homeboy Industries today.

So tonight, as you anticipate graduation, as you face your future, I want you to know that you can find God’s plan for your life. You can be what God is calling you to be. But it will not always be easy. Not everyone will support you. Some might even try to discourage you from following the dream that God gives to you.

When that happens, just remember Caleb and Joshua. Their’s are the only names we remember from that story. They believed God had something for them to do. They believed that they could stand out from the crowd. You can, too. That’s my prayer for you tonight. May God bless you and guide you.

Kids love VBS and it shows!

Kids love VBS and this 45-second video clip proves it! Part of the VBS fun is learning the songs and motions, and getting into the spirit of the theme. You don’t need a lot of high tech stuff, but you do need some enthusiastic leaders, which we’ve got this week. The audio isn’t great, but you’ll get the idea that kids are having fun at Saddle Ridge Ranch this week.

VBS Off To A Great Start at Saddle Ridge Ranch

We partner with 4 other churches in our community to do VBS each year. Each church takes a turn leading VBS planning, and hosting the community for VBS week. This year we’re at Chestnut Level Baptist Church for Saddle Ridge Ranch VBS. The other churches participating include our church, Chatham Baptist; Watson Memorial United Methodist Church; Oakland United Methodist Church; and, Chatham Presbyterian Church. Here’s a quick video montage of the sets, rooms, and our first night at Saddle Ridge Ranch.

Saddle Ridge Ranch VBS set is taking shape

Debbie is painting the backdrop and set for our community VBS.  This year the theme is “Saddle Ridge Ranch,” which is available at LifeWay stores.  We partner with 4 other community churches — a Presbyterian church, two United Methodist churches, and another Baptist church — for VBS each year.  All of our churches have about the same attendance, which is under 100 on average, so partnering with other churches helps share the cost, provides lots of adult helpers, and lots of kids for VBS.

Our VBS costs have run a little more than $20 per child in recent years, and we anticipate about 100 children, plus 60-70 workers.  Here’s our schedule for the week of June 27 – July 1:

  • 5:00 PM:  Our bus leaves our parking lot to make the trip to this year’s location at Chestnut Level Baptist Church.
  • 5:30 PM:  A snack supper is provided for $1 per child, and $2 per adult to help working families get there together.
  • 6:00 PM:  VBS starts each evening.
  • 8:00 PM:  VBS ends.
  • 8:20 PM:  Bus arrives back at our parking lot in Chatham.

We start on Sunday evening to give us time to set up that afternoon.  We don’t serve the snack supper on Sunday, but Monday through Thursday nights we feed 80-100 people supper.  Each church pays a pro-rated share of the expense of VBS based on the number of children (not adults or workers) each church has enrolled for the week.  Usually the host church for that year spends a little more than the other churches, but over 5 years it all balances out.  What is your church doing for VBS this year?

Our community VBS backdrop for Saddle Ridge Ranch. A bunkhouse and ranch entrance will add to the western theme this year.

5 Keys to Transformational Youth Ministry

“Kids have better things to do than come to a big event,” youth minister Prentice Park commented.  “Kids are looking for something deeper, more meaningful, and they’re not going to get that at a big event.”  Jeremy Zach, also a youth pastor, echoed Park’s point: “In our setting, youth ministry can’t be event-based because we don’t have the budget or the space.”

Jeremy and Prentice serve neighboring churches in the Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel communities of southern California.  Both churches average about 300 in worship.  Youth ministry in smaller churches like theirs relies on building personal relationships and creating space for conversations about Jesus.  Reaching an always-on, technology-native generation means more than serving pimento cheese sandwiches at an after-church fellowship.  Teens today deal with complex issues of identity, meaning, and the need to belong.  Smaller churches can engage teenagers effectively without having to produce big events requiring huge budgets.

During an interview, Park and Zach identified five keys to reaching and keeping teenagers engaged in ministry:

1.  Build relationships. While this doesn’t sound like new advice, both Park and Zach see relationships with teens as the number one key to effective youth ministry.  “Kids don’t need more ‘hello’ friends,” Park noted.  Building relationships is really about building trust between adult leaders and youth group members.

2.  Share ministry. Zach suggested a ratio of one adult leader for every eight teens when building a youth ministry.  “Students need to see adults living out their faith,” Zach said.  Having a 1-to-8 adult-to-teen ratio allows adults to connect with clusters of kids.  Youth ministry becomes a “network of networks” as adult sponsors get to know teenagers both individually and within their circle of friends.

3.  Create safe space. Both Park and Zach hold about half their youth meetings away from the church campus so that

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