Friday, March 30, 2007

Cesar's Way

A few weeks ago at the library, I picked up the CDs for the book Cesar's Way. The author Cesar Milan is also known as the Dog Whisperer. What a name! I was excited to hear more from him since we have a 6-7 month old dog named Lucy. We got Lucy back in January from Mike and Kim, fellow Christians at the Contact Church. Mike and Kim get several dogs dropped at their doorstep, so they have a ministry to provide homes for these dogs. They called us about Lucy, and after some "counting the cost" discussions, Sarah, Miriam, and I took her into our lives. We are rather behind in knowing how to help a dog get trained, so Cesar was a welcome friend in helping us (and also Mike and Kim).

In the midst of listening to him (and watching him also on a DVD), here are some insights that have helped me from dog training in applying them to youth ministry (I hesitated to post this, but it really has helped me gain insight into how to train and nurture youth--though I heartfully acknowledge that they are not animals):

1. Dogs have a dog psychology, not a human psychology. Cesar says that we tend to humanize dog behavior with our own human psychology. Dogs need an alpha dog to lead the pack, to show them how to live. If you don't become the alpha dog, they will. Dogs also live in the present moment, not in the past and the future. Sounds like the ways things work with youth to me. If there is not a clear leader, then youth will take the reins. The ability to live in the present is often under-appreciated by adults, but we are often poor at this. This also means that the lesson you taught youth yesterday could be forgotten today and then tomorrow. The lessons have to be repeated over and over.

2. Dogs respond best to calm, assertive energy. Cesar says that Oprah is the best example of this, although I've seen her lose her "cool" a few times. Dogs, like youth, can feel the energy. When we get frustrated, they can feel it, and often that energy damages the relationship. From deep within our core, we can respond to youth in a calm, assertive way. I find myself wanting to be in check when my anger starts to rise. Maybe I'm taking their actions or behaviors personally. Maybe I'm making too much of something or come with unrealistic expectations.

3. Dogs need exercise, nutrition, and affection--in that order!! Last week, during Spring Break, we had a day with the teen boys devoted to basketball. We played from 1 PM, took a short supper break, and then played until 8:00PM. This verified a theory that Matt Hurley, a co-worker of mine, and I have held. These boys could play ball all day long. Around 4:30 PM, I noticed that the teens starting picking at each other and getting annoyed a little bit easier. Time to load up and eat at CiCi's Pizza. Throughout the day, we had times to stop and talk about being role models for the younger guys and how well they could do that. They listened a lot better because the first two needs were met.

4. Dogs get frustrated and need ways to channel that energy. Cesar points out that dogs get so much energy built up that they get frustrated and don't know what to do with it all. He tends to work with strong breeds of dogs the most since they are such high-energy dogs and owners don't know how to help them. He will get a Pit Bull on a leash, put some roller blades on, and go for a ride. The Pit Bull won't listen to anything before the ride. After the challenge of keeping up with Cesar, he is tired and better able to listen. I believe that youth have the same trouble, so much frustration is built up which comes out in awkward or hurtful ways. This can be redirected into exercise or an activity as a distraction, and then you can talk later about what was going on back there.

5. Dogs need to be rehabilitated, owners need to be trained. Cesar believes that since dogs are naturally pack animals, as they live with humans, they forget how to be dogs. In his words, he needs to help them to "learn how to be a dog again." He rehabs them and helps the owners to know how to let their dog be a dog. Often I wonder how much of problems that arise with youth is the junk--emotional baggage, sins unconfessed, addictions, misunderstandings from not listening-- that parents/adults carry in themselves. This is the junk that we then pass onto them. Don't get me wrong, I believe youth can be rebellious and choose wrong. I just think that youth, in the city or suburbs or rural areas, often have to grow up way too fast because adults are not being the grown-ups that they should be. Teens often need to "learn how to be youth again" in this season of life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What Kills the spirit

Tonight I did pick-ups for the teen girls' weekly Bible Study fellowship. My wife Sarah and Taryn Towers do a wonderful job loving on these young ladies on Tuesday nights. What I thought would be a quick first stop ended up in a conversation about how life changes directions.

Jay (not his real name), the boyfriend to one of the teen's relatives, informed me that the teen girl I was looking for was out of control and was not to be found. He related this situation to his life. His mom taught him a healthy fear of her authority. He would never do wrong in front of her or be disrespectful toward her. At the same time, he still allowed himself the option to do wrong when she was not around to see. Before he went through that door though, he had followed a good path. He was active in sports, especially football. He asked his mom to come to his games. She said that she was too busy or had too much work to do. He kept asking her. He pleaded with her to come to his games. She still would not come. Then he started missing practices, or he would go to practice but not really give it his all. He developed relationships with some guys who ran the streets. Finally, he gave up football. He got hooked to life on the streets--gangs and drugs. Eventually, he had to learn the hard way, serving time in the state penitentiary.

Upon reflecting on his mother's unwillingness to come to his football games, he said, "I don't know. I guess it just killed my spirit to play." You could feel the tender hurt in his statement. That was a big part of his life story. He sees now that he could have decided to play just for himself. Toward the end of the conversation, he said, "When I have kids, I am going to do all that I can to be there for them at their games, even if I have to lose my job or something." I believe him.

Friday, March 9, 2007


Last May, the teens at the Contact Church had just about finished a good evening of fellowship on a Friday night. Then chaos broke out over some trash talk about who won or lost the last basketball game. In the process, two teen guys got up in each other’s faces, ready for who knows what. What eventually happened is that one of the guys made a serious threat toward the other guy. The words “I’m gonna shoot you if…” flew out of the mouth of one young man. This was new territory for me. In all my days as an urban youth minister, I had not encountered this kind of threat on another teen. The teen admitted that he said it. For the safety of others, we told him to stop coming to Contact.

What didn’t stop was the development of a game plan to help this teen get restored back to a right relationship with the other guy, the Contact Church, and the Lord. I contacted an organization called Urban Youth Worker’s Institute and asked if anyone in this field of ministry had ever encountered a similar situation. One person replied that something like this happened in California. Two guys got into it with each other, and a youth leader stepped in to help resolve the situation. He ended up taking the two teens on a boating trip to help do something fun together. In the midst of the trip, there was some stormy weather. The boys were desperately working to get water out of the boat, and needless to say, their relationship grew in that moment.

One youth worker named Detra sent this to me:

Furthermore, when we talk about apologizing, this youth also needs to know that he should be asking for forgiveness not just saying “I’m sorry.” He also needs to know that in spite of the discipline he will get, that the ministry still loves and forgives him as Jesus does. My biggest concern is that if you decide not to let him back into the ministry, there may be some unresolved issues that could result in future problems. Win him over as Jesus did, with lots and lots of LOVE. If he trusts you or one of your youth leaders enough, you will be able to win him over.

I thought that she said well the things that we (Contact Staff, parents of the two teens, and myself) were wrestling with in this process of restoration. What does true repentance look like for the teen who made the threat? He and I talked about that. He was getting anger management counseling at school that helped him to develop an approach to fights at school that was way less reactive. At one moment last fall, he seemed ready to ask for forgiveness. When I went to pick him up to meet the other guy and his mom, I asked if he was ready. He said, “I guess so,” with little or no interest in going to make things right. I was not about to drag him off to apologize, so he stayed home that day to mull it over some more.

Restoration does happen. A few weeks ago, the two teen guys sat with me in a Braum’s restaurant parking lot to get right with each other. The teen who made the threat said what he needed to, and the other guy apologized as well. The following Sunday they stood up in front of the church together. The first teen said that he made a big mistake, regretted it, and had learned what to do when there’s a fight. The other teen stood by him and apologized because it “takes two people to have a fight.” The response was overwhelming from the adults in the church. Many came up there to pray with them. After the prayer, I got to see adults hugging this teen who had made this threat. As we hugged him, we got to reflect the unseen God in a visible form with lots of LOVE, like Detra suggested. He got to meet the God who is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6: 35). The one that I have met and known along the Way.