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Category Archives: Reflection

Reflections and analysis of Pastor Church fires.

I’ve started a kind of home page for my thoughts and reflections about the increasing number of struggles between pastors and congregations and the increase in bad endings.

Capture of Art 17 stats by decade to end of 2014

It will likely be a page that is in constant flux, as I have new thoughts or time to flesh out old ones.

Here’s a link: https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/peteillogical-reflections/observed-common-elements-of-hard-pastor-church-separations/

 

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What aspects of CRC culture might be keeping us from thriving?

I define culture as the actions by which we live out and express our values. As I’ve written elsewhere, we often have a hypocrisy of values, i.e. those we profess publicly are not those we actually live out. When I say values are the basis of culture I am talking about these unstated values. They actually have more influence and power. I have no idea if that is an acceptable definition of culture or near what the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture means by culture.

On various media platforms an ‘outside of official channels’ discussion is ongoing about this and related subjects like leadership and how our organizational structure possibly limits us. and even making leadership afraid to speak up. I have linked to two blog posts in the statements above that will give you some idea of the discussion.

All of this has me thinking about many things, and thoughts are coming faster than I can capture. But I find myself returning to a question that I think my experience qualifies me to begin to address. That question is: What aspects of our “culture”  in the CRC might be contributing to a failure to thrive?

I refer to — and depend on — experience as a son of a CRC pastor, as a person who lived in the Netherlands for 3 years just before my teens, as a person growing up (or trying to) in the CRC in Canada in the 70’s and early 80’s, as a King’s in Edmonton and CTS educated pastor who served two churches as a called pastor, and now as a Specialized Transitional Minister on his second contract. A myriad of other experiences, many very difficult, some very educational (working at an addiction treatment center) add to the mix.

I am skipping all kinds of caveats and disclaimers (why do I feel they are needed in the first place? could that be an element of culture?) to simply and concisely as I can share some observations from the pulpit and pew level. I don’t have a lot of interest or experience ‘higher’ up the organizational and institutional ladder.

As an immigrant-based denomination, I see us as having the following never-overtly-stated cultural values but with plenty of actions demonstrating they exist (see first link above). I’ve tried to put them in order of effect, starting with the biggies:
Preservationist – we have grown up with the implicit and explicit value and practice of maintaining something from the past.
Oppositionalist – we are used to being always on guard (defensive) against what we fought about before or against new threats (aggressive). (To me, the external architecture of the Seminary side of Chapel at Calvin College symbolizes this well. It looks like a Fort, with slots for archers or gunners and everything).
1-calvin-chapel-570x350
Relationally challenged: Poor interpersonal and relational boundaries – we don’t know how to disagree and live well together. (These will be made more clear further in the list as contributing factors are named)
Comfort seeking, not in Heidelberg Q & A 1 style, but originally in the familiar practices from ‘back home’ and then in other things. Ironically, we sometimes find comfort in reciting Q & A 1 just because “we know it was important” at one time. So too with Forms and other rituals.
Suspicious of emotion, relying on the brain as an unfallen part of man.
Fake rationalists Under a veneer cloak of reason or rationality, emotion actually runs the debate in many council rooms. So does broken or strained relationships. Another word for it is anxiety or fear.
Low Emotional IQ, in fact deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded. Especially in Canada, many of the immigrant generation were suffering unhealed deep trauma when they came to North America. In a hardscrabble initial existence, and in a religious culture that suspected emotion, emotional and personal and spiritual growth were luxuries no one had time or use for. So, in many cases, the generation now dying off were quite immature and broken. Studies show that my generation, without strong intervention and active engagement in addressing that, can be a bigger mess than the one before.
No longer principled in making choices – as practices derived from principled choice were defended and protected, their meaning was lost, we became living museums re-enacting empty rituals
That is just a start. I realize there are positive ones as well, but I’m looking for the ones that lead to a lack of flourishing.
I welcome feedback or further input.

 

 

It is good to hear a terrible (to you) sermon now and then

One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.

These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.

Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.

The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.

It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.

 

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Rookie Reflections at a crucial point in his work as an STM

I feel almost driven to journal my thoughts and learnings at this point in the process. I identify in myself several reasons to do so:

  • To document for later reflection,
  • to share,
  • to clarify for myself as I write
  • to glorify God in revealing the results that I’ve seen, all of which are the result of God’s authorship in my life and the lives of those affected by – and responding well – the process

I’m a story teller by DNA. That comes easily. (Book: “Know Your Story and Lead with It”). Distilling stories into conclusive propositions, well, that is work. But here goes Part OneIntroducing concepts

Here is a direct link to Part Two: Connecting the Concepts to church life in general

Here is a direct link to Part Three: Crossing Denial

Part Four: Learning to live in the discomfort of the need for Adaptive change, and seeing how change comes already from knowing that. (A short version that gets to the main thing I wanted to document from the outset)

 

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Coach or Prophet? What do churches in discernment need?

This week I attended a training session for those learning to serve as coaches to churches discerning God’s leading for future direction. The time was good and worthwhile. Coaches do not become the pastor. They work from the sidelines.  We have some great tools and material being developed that will help churches be reflective by prayerfully looking into the mirror of data-derived charts and self-told narrative as they dream about what they might become. For this post I plan to stay with the metaphor of a person/congregation looking in the mirror to see what they can see, and to dream what they can be.

Those few days of presentation and interaction have seriously stirred in me the question I have made the title for this post. For me, to work out a question, I either need to talk it through – which my dog is not interested in – or write.So here goes my first thought-dump on the topic.

The biblical narrative that well images and parallels the congregational discernment process is the “time in the wilderness.” The Exodus account is a great descriptor that is used in the training. Leaving bondage that came out of past flight to safety, deliberately crossing a dangerous threshold safely to enter a no man’s land of uncertainty and testing, learning new rules of engaging God and other, then deliberately crossing another threshold to enter the future that has been collectively discerned, all as Israel did, is a wonderful narrative map for the journey. As a Specialized Transitional Minister I’ve even likened my role to that of Moses (and John the Baptizer). I will say to a congregation “I’m here to walk you through the journey, to be your navigator in helping you figure out where you discern God is promising you a better life, but I can’t enter that life with you.” I’m even preaching through Exodus as a guide to “Transitions.” But here’s my difficulty. As I relive Exodus, I don’t see the biblical Moses “coaching” a whole lot. Moses is not known as a coach. He’s known as a prophet, even as John is supposedly the last of such prophets.

So, bluntly put, the coaching approach may be too kind. It feels like yet another current cultural ethos we’ve enthusiastically embraced, leaving out the more chaffing role of one who speaks harder truth out of love, who speaks or applies denial-shriveling discernments God has revealed.

When congregational politics ends up ignoring the coached process’s results and having the gang return to Egypt — to the good food and predictability of life there while confined — instead of facing the uncertainty of new territory, is that maybe because a prophet did not speak?

When I look in the mirror, there is tons of delusion and denial and headgaming going on in how I interpret what I see. Same with a congregation. I have learned that I need people around me yet somehow ‘outside of me’ who will — in the direct way of a prophet, for I don’t hear coaching hints well — help me see through the fog I create for myself. Is that not also true for congregations?

This snippet from Dr. David Schnarch crossed my screen earlier today, and I’ve bolded part of it:

“Conventional wisdom in couples therapy says troubled couples have to get more securely attached before they can differentiate. But repeatedly I see troubled couples differentiate first—which leads to stabler marriages. I believe couples have to stop manipulating their stories and tampering with facts to keep their relationship together. Far from being impossible or improbable, this is the way relationships really work. Realizing this yields a different kind of experience in therapy—not one of safety and hovering support, but one in which higher anxiety and pressure and faster pace of change emerge, as people realize their full capacity to meet the adult challenges of life.”

I read him speaking about the very same thing I am trying to sort out. What he describes as needed and more effective is similar to how I see a prophet playing a role.

In the end, for now, I’m not done with this. I have resolved my own dilemma somewhat by deciding to pay more attention to how Prophetic truth might be spoken in love, not “at” people as blunt commands or propositions, but as couched coaching: inquisitive questions and indirect revealing narrative (Eugene Peterson’s “Telling it Slant), like Nathan the prophet did with David.

 

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Being evitcelfeR

I feel reflective today. I can’t move forward on my to do list, distracting myself with a computer game or housework isn’t making it go away, so I’m honouring the feeling by letting it speak through my fingertips in this post.

The most powerful drive in the grateful reflectiveness is in how strongly I sense that God has me doing and learning a kind of pastoral work that is quite well suited to my interests and character, nurtured well by my backstory (somewhat especially by the difficult parts), and how this work is a clear need in the church local and at large. Being in that kind of place vocationally, calling-ally, is a weighty, light-of-heart making privilege. Earning a full paycheque again after four years of underemployed subsistence living — some of it in a paradise that I miss deeply some days — well it ain’t so bad either. Somehow the equation always balances.

Soup in the cupboard... all's good!

Good soup filling the cupboard... All's souper!

The downside is not big enough to unbalance the situation — otherwise I’d need to make a change. So too, now, the downside of distance is not dissonant enough to be hugely disturbing, largely because technology eliminates much of the geographic distance. Other distances would be there even with physical proximity, so geography does not matter.

So it is interesting to me too that this blog is the place I felt it most appropriate to express this. Thoughts of sharing it on other popular social media felt like a cheapening. Hmmm. As it is I struggle more and more with my involvement with those places. I do not like how much information I ‘give’ them in order to get a ‘free’ service that I am feeling more and more has price that I can’t yet see. I am letting them analyze me, box me in, and feed me ads that are supposed to be tailored to my interests, but when they show up I am creeped out. Is it really free if they have chosen what I see because their alogarythm thinks it knows the beat of my inner heart? Doubt it. I certainly resent that they believe so. Anyway, I can blog about that another time. I’ve said the main thing I set out to say. God has me in a good spot work-wise and for that I’m grateful. There’s more narrative and substance to that feeling, but that’s what the button called “New Post” and the blank page is for that comes after pressing it.

 
 

Reflections on being delayed.

I was recently asked to reflect on what I’m learning from the experience of being delayed from crossing the border by the same people (CRC Network) who asked me to tell the story of the delay so others could be warned (This is the same information as in the blog post previous to this one). I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but simply give you a link.

 

Valuing Others Above Yourself

So I’m pushing my way through an article in my hard copy of CT, you know, one of those articles where you decide “I should read this because it looks important.” But the words were not getting traction in either my brain or my heart like a story I would later read in The Banner or a first person reflection in the same.
My eyes are persistently plowing through the words as little is registering — I dissociate whenever I get a feeling someone has picked a classic Christian truth or Truth that needs defending and their strident yet lamenting tone implies they are the guardians, I hope you know the type – well in process of that, a phrase catches in my awareness. I’ve missed the context, so all I’m aware of is the phrase: “
Faithfulness to the mission of Jesus means emulating his humility by valuing others above ourselves. This is the Way of Jesus.”
Instantly I’m engaged. In a second instant I both agree and disagree. I stumble over several small things, and one big one that I do a lot of thinking on, and which I have not resolved yet. My first hesitation bumble is over the possibility of emulating humility. I don’t think it is a possibility. If I’m aware that I’m emulating humility or humble sample actions, to me it means I’m mentally in a pride place. But that’s the smaller issue.
Valuing others above myself like Jesus did is the biggie. Although I believe I know what the author intends and have some sympathy with it, and although I know it has been a strong teaching in the last couple of centuries in the Christian church, the statement leaves a grand void that gives me a sense that if I step out into living that teaching, there will be no ground beneath my feet.
Here’s my struggle: Where is valuing yourself in this? Think on that. Deeply. Is it presumed that I value myself? How do I value myself? I have seen too many who act the valuing others above themselves well, but closer acquaintance points to the fundamental fact they do not value themselves. They have no self identity of strength. In fact they create identity by servility, as it is a Biblically recommended way to be. Do you catch my dilemma?
Whenever I encounter that issue, I am brought back to a key statement from Christian scripture, taken from the Old and quoted in the New Testaments. In my own words it is “Love God with all you are and have, and, love your neighbour as yourself. That tagalong – seeming afterthought – statement clearly implies love for self. It does not just imply it, it states it in a way that makes it foundational to all that comes before it.
So now I know I’ve got part of my brain working on the question again. It is still not resolved. I still don’t know how to value others above myself like Jesus did. Mainly, that is because I don’t know how to value myself in an healthy way. I’ll keep thinking on it.

 

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Twist of faith

The last Saturday of November started out as one of those kinda aimless days. I had a bit of work-work to do and I had some house work also. Deep down I was an unhappy camper for reasons I can’t always get at. I just know what I feel, not why.

Earlier, I had come to the awareness I am content with my work situation, but I am not fulfilled in it.

In conversing with God about this the way I do, I made pretty clear I was discouraged, and I desperately needed something to strengthen my confidence and hope for the future. And just in case the wireless heaven-line was busy that first time, I repeated it. “Hello: I need a new sign of hope.” It was said in various ways with various levels of lament or gate-of-heaven smashing defiance. A few requests found the happy humbler middle.

I went about my day, tugging my proverbial bootstraps as if by moving the boots I was motivating me.

It worked. I got busy and my request for new hope – for a sign from God – became a vague darkness in the back of my mind and depths of my heart. I remained alert for signals, looking for them to come in ways I expected: an email from a church inquiring further about hiring me; or a phone call from the bank saying there’d been an error in calculations for all my life and they had $10,000 for me… that kind of thing. Nada. None of that happened. I was watching carefully, remember!

During the week I had written a report to the board in of the camp I live and work in, a report in which among the good things I had to share I had mentioned two things I was dissatisfied with, two things that frustrated me in my work. One was an extremely slow desk computer, the other was a lack of a reversible drill, either corded or cordless to make some of my repair tasks more efficient. Numerous times I had done repetitive screw turning by hand. Reporting these irritants was more about venting and getting things known. It was done without serious expectation of change. Maybe it was even a precursor to the glum feelings Saturday morning. It likely had some self-pity in it. I’m good at that (He said with insecurity-covering-ego-pride, another thing he’s good at).

Well, I need to tell you that it wasn’t until this morning, the day of writing this, Sunday, when I picked something up from where I had set it down yesterday that I realized very unusual, non-coincidental, sign-like things had happened, and I missed them completely, even though I was part of it. I made no connection in the moment.

Saturday a lady came to the camp to do some cleaning as a volunteer. As I went over to check if there was anything she needed and to describe what I’d done to prepare for her arrival, she opened her trunk and said “could you use a cordless drill? And I have a cordless screwdriver here too. Here, take them. I don’t have a use for them.” And so I picked them up, duly thanked her dully and started walking toward the camp workshop to put them away. She said: “No no no, keep them in your house, use them for yourself” and so, my steps a little lighter with a load that was now mine, I dropped them off in my back room and went back out into the dull weather to do some things.

Later, the two guys from the camp board who do the property work came. They said “We’re here to see if we can speed up your computer with new memory chips and a cleanup, and Pete, we brought you a cordless drill” to which I replied “I already got one” and I fetched it and enjoyed seeing their tool envy. I can’t remember ever having others envy tools I had. But still, I was nonchalant in the bigger picture sense of things. No lights were going on for me.

Nothing registered until Sunday, when I pulled the cordless drill out of it’s neatly compartmentalized box with bits and attachments each with their own cubby, and I realized it had two batteries with the charger, it was a 14.4 volt Mastercraft (newer units, I knew, had voltages in the teens, older ones were below 10), a nice darker blue colour that I like with bright yellow buttons, it had an adjustable clutch for if you were either drilling or driving screws, it was not only reversible but had two speeds and, most significant, it looked like it had probably been used once on a Sunday afternoon it was so clean and unscathed. And I held it in my hand, and felt the heft and balance of it and imagined the torque and whine of it, and the ability to reverse and to adjust the clutch… and I realized something unique had indeed happened the day before.

For this lady to show up with a drill, particularly not knowing anything of my whine in my report, and then for those guys to arrive ready to address my concerns when I didn’t expect it, well I had to admit it was notable or remarkable at the very least, and worth a silent restrained-Reformed “thank you Lord” (Hallelujahs are too charismatic in such situations, as is Holy Celebration Dance). And for it all to happen that same day, within hours of my lament! Quite something. I’m not sure how to interpret the sign though. I’m reluctant to give it too much meaning. I’m watching my email still, and waiting for the bank to call…

Somewhere in me I know my problem is that I’m missing the billboard message. I’m missing it because I’m not liking it. It doesn’t fit my plan, my agenda, my hopes and aspirations. God seems, at least at the time of writing, to be reinforcing me where I am with hope signals on request. My problem is my agenda is not the same as Gods.
Who’s going to change agenda’s first?
Stay tuned. The batteries are charging. Will a green light go on for Pete, or will it stay red?

 

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Would Jesus paintball?

That thought came up in the context of church-related youth activity planning. Personally, I don’t think he would. But it’s no fun to just state that and shut a door to a exploratory learning opportunity. And just because I believe Jesus might not, does not mean it should be forbidden.

Playing Paintball (which I have not done myself, my childhood was in the Cowboys-and-Indians days – I played Indian – and before capture the flag, which I have done once) is basically combat play, like checkers, chess, cards, and many video games and lots of activities in between. Paintball, from what I understand from my own offspring who are well versed on it and many virtual combat methods, is about as close as you can get to actual warfare without death or propelled-metal-projectile injury. As such, it is a game in which one can feel very alive. There is nothing like the nearness of immanent death to make you feel vividly the living moment you are in now. The thrill of the danger, the excitement of coming so close to having the power of death over “the enemy” or the enemy having it over you makes it all very very exciting. It remains fun because the kills are not “real.” However, be aware that the feelings, the passions, are real. And those feelings, and the desperation they bring out, and the things that desperation get you to do in order to win, or to “live” on in the game are the teachable moment of the contest.

Where Jesus once said something like “look at the flowers and birds, they don’t fret or compete, they just exist, appreciating the Creator’s care for them” if he were talking with paintballers I can readily imagine him saying to them, after they come out all splattered with near-death experiences “Why do you find such a thrill in playing at killing? What does that thrill do to you? Where does it take you? Does it make you more human and humane, or something else? Would you have played differently if the power of death was real?” And I imagine much more, and I imagine what I would ask, and what I would point out. The fact is — and this was proven in experiments done long ago which would be unethical now — that most people, given slight but consistent encouragement, would in fact “take it to the limit” much quicker than they believe they would. I might talk about how the thrill is part of “the flesh” and how Jesus was all about getting us to see how it is the passions of the flesh, exercised in this way, that take us to committing acts of inter-human destruction, whether they be flesh wounds or heart wounds.

Jesus knows. He’s seen it happen. Up close and personal! Ordinary people who considered themselves properly religious were incited to call for a death by infuriated and threatened religious leadership. And it happened.

Which is why it was so striking, that in the conversation about Paintball I was privy to, another story came up, a story about an ordinary man who was deeply moved when he was simply constructing a cross to be put up as a symbol in a Christian camp, and he had chills to think that someone in Jesus’ time had actually done that, and now he was repeating it. And he felt he was contributing to a death all over again. Wow! He had learned to pay attention!

All of this is to say that by all means let Christian youth paintball! But then let them explore what they’ve learned about themselves afterward. To simply go to black-and-white, right/wrong thinking and forbid it would be to lose a chance to learn about the real power of the latent desire to win and kill and survive. This is the power Jesus gave up for us, so we could learn something about ourselves.  And reflecting on that part of Painball, or video gaming, they can begin to recognize how we tick, and how our natural way is likely not the way of Jesus.