Can finals be seen as a spiritual discipline?

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Why do finals stress us out so much?

I have yet to meet someone who relishes the opportunity to take tests, let alone finals. The amount of stress that comes with trying to remember a semester’s worth of information and then regurgitate it for your teacher in unbelievable. And unless you have a photographic memory, this takes a ton of hard work.

Now I am sure that this isn’t true for my students, but I think part of the challenge of finals is that there is little learning that happens throughout the semester. We live in an instant gratification culture where learning and retaining new information is difficult. Subjects that come naturally we enjoy, and the ones that don’t make sense to us, we give up on and find ways to justify our poor performance.

I always thought I was horrible at learning languages. You know, I am just not a “language” person. But the truth is, that memorizing words and learning grammar takes time, too much time. And because I didn’t want to put the time and effort in, I never did well in the four languages I have studied.

Finals are actually an unflattering mirror.

Just like a mirror, finals are simply a reflection on our true knowledge of a subject. If you are not proficient with the material, a test proves that and makes it clear to you, your teacher, and your parents. There is no escaping the awful truth, you don’t know the material.

The people who love tests are the people who know the information on it. If you have been paying attention all semester, digesting the information, staying up with the compounding information, a test is an opportunity to prove that you have mastered the information in the class. Finals get to be an opportunity to shine! But these people are few and far between. You know the top 5% of your class. Not being a part of the top 5%, my circle of friends, seem to always run away from tests.

Tests don’t just stop happening when we graduate from school. And the tests we face after graduation can often be more challenging and more revealing. You see, we like to think we know a lot of information. We like to think that we are good people. We like to think we have strong character and have deep faith. but when we are tested, we find out the truth. And sometimes the truth is difficult to swallow.

A test of faith I failed:

When my son was six months old, my faith was was given a difficult test. Up to this point in my life, I was confident in my depth of faith and love for god. I knew his hand was on me and would gladly give up whatever I was asked, and go wherever he asked, for his glory. But an unexpected call from our doctor turned out to be the most difficult pop quiz I had ever taken.

We were told that our son had e. coli (that awful disease that killed some kids from Jack in the Box) and to immediately drive to Seattle’s Children's Hospital for tests and treatment. This was an hour drive, and like normal, our gas light was on. While I gassed up our car, I remember very clearly a conversation I had with God. I told him that if we was going to take my son from me, then I was done with this ministry thing. Sure, I would still be a Christian, but being someone who would share God’s hope and grace with others, no way!

Well, the short version is that God miraculously protected my son and ended up with zero kidney damage from this deadly bacteria. Our church family in Olympia loved on us, prayed their guts out, and showed up for us when we were in the hospital. Their depth of faith and character pulled us through this difficult season.

People in my church have walked through a wide verity of tragedy. And one thing that is consistently true, is that God seems to always show up and provide the needed strength and faith to the people who walk through the valley of death. What I soon realized, is that this chapter in my walk with God was a test. A test that I clearly failed. What I thought was true about my faith and my character was put on full display and reflected back at me. I was so quick to throw away history and perspective in my walk with God. I had zero trust in the presence, healing and comfort of the Holy Spirit. I realized that if I was going to be the pastor that God is calling me to be, then I need to be a man of deep faith and deep character. I needed to go back to study hall, to the gym, and intentionally grow and develop my faith.

Seeing tests as a spiritual discipline:

God’s desire for us is to be sanctified and to grow in his image, to be people of deep faith and character. and unless we are tested, we will never know how we are really doing. Thankfully, the tests that God gives to reveal this are never final exams. His tests are pop quizzes and check-ins.

Instead of running away from tests in our faith, we should actually welcome them. People who grow in depth and character in their faith are people who welcome examination. They are people who have made a habit of self-reflection. They reflect upon their day and examine all of the pop quizzes God puts in their way.

Tests are not awful. Tests reveal who we really are, what we really know. If we don’t like tests, it is because we don’t like what they are reflecting. My desire is to welcome tests and welcome what they will prove true about who I am. To celebrate when I succeed, and work hard to develop when I fail. And thankfully, through Jesus, God’s grace covers all the results whether they are A’s or F’s.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Test me and know m anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. - King David (Psalm 139)

the greatest need of a youth worker : to be known


This week I am honored to be part of a team of people who are wrestling with how to provide healthy youth ministry for the long haul within our denomination. Through brainstorming we came up with many great ideas to do this; being resourced, being connected, doing shared ministry, planning camps and retreats together, and eating together. But the more we have talked and shared our ideas as to what the magic bullet might be for long term, healthy ministry, the more I have realized what might be the greatest of needs, at least my greatest need, to be known.

I Need to be Known: I didn't realize this was such an important need of mine until I recently went to the Orange Conference in Atlanta. This was the first time in my entire ministry career where I showed up at a conference not knowing a soul. When I arrived at the convention center, I had this strange emotion begin to bubble up within me. After my third lap around the conference center, I realized what I was feeling, I was experiencing loneliness. I had no where to go, no one to be with.

All of the great information and resources presented began to matter less and less in comparison to finding a place to belong and be known. It wasn't until that afternoon that I connected Matt McKee, who gave me my spacial badge, directions to "our" place, and a friendly greeting, that I finally arrived and was ready to go to work.

Now, we all get the importance of friendships and community. We all get that we thrive when there are people around us who actually "see" us. But when we show up in a new context and don't have those things, being known becomes of utmost importance. It is a funny phenomenon, that when you are not known, the status of who sees you or doesn't see you actually impacts how lonely you feel. Isn't it strange the way youth workers jockey for position after a seminar to meet someone "famous," and how surprising and life giving it is when that person remembers our name later.

It Matters Who Knows Us: In our brokenness we seek to have that void filled with other people, people of influence, people of status, and people of power. This is so dumb, because having those people know our names does not change one thing about ourselves or our situation. The truth is that we are already fully known. We are fully known by our creator, who fashioned us together in our mother's womb, who has marked out all of our days, and who knows our words before we even speak them. We are not only known on a data sheet, but in the context of warm relationship, by a God who has more thoughts about us personally then the sands on the beach.

It is from a place of being known and accepted fully by God that we can then be settled in our spirits and available to be accepted and known by others. As youth workers, we do this all the time with our students. We introduce ourselves to them, we remember their names, and we follow up on conversions we have had. We celebrate successes and mourn losses alongside them. We share life and experiences together, we walk towards Christ together. And it is often the students who feel most "seen" by their youth workers and volunteers who feel the most connected to the church and to their faith.

But students are not the only people with this need. As much as I get that God loves me and knows me, I still need to be known. As a team of youth workers who strive to connect other youth workers, we are committed to making sure isolated and lonely youth workers don't stay that way. We want to run after them, like we would our students, so they can be known, so they can be connected, and so they can be resourced. And when this happens, the entire fellowship of youth workers are blessed to have another voice at the table, another angle to see the world, and another package of talents to be used for the Kingdom of God.

May We Know Each Other: If you are a youth worker who is connected and known, please use your place of influence and security to look towards the fringes of your community, your cluster, your context and see who is out there isolated and lost. Run after them, invite them into relationship, and see them, so they will be known.

If you are a youth worker on the fringes, isolated and alone, we are looking for you. You might want to consider putting yourself out there a little bit and jump into an area network, denominational cluster, online forum, something. I would love to help you process ways to find community and connection. You deserved to be seen and affirmed for the tireless and thankless work of pouring your life into sometimes fickle, and always amazing students.

I would love to know what your denomination or network is up to; what works, what doesn't. And if you are part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, know that we are fully going after it. This is our new statement that we are trying to live into:

"Youth Ministry Network promotes healthy Youth Ministry in the Evangelical Covenant Church by helping Youth Workers to be known, connected, and resourced."

Man, I need to be known. Don't you? Don't they? May we be people who embody the love and grace of Jesus as we see people the way he does.

Photo taken from Creative Commons