Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

Today, Administrator Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Less than a year after President Barack Obama promised cuts in domestic carbon as part of his Climate Action Plan, the reduction standards released today are aguably the Obama Administration’s most significant climate action to date.

As a young evangelical who, as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, is working to encourage our national leaders to act swiftly and responsibly on climate change, you can imagine I looked forward to today with at least a little bit of eager anticipation.

Read more of my thoughts for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action here.

Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

I’m a youth worker. Seriously, check my LinkedIn. In addition to multiple summers of camp counseling, and going on my second year of urban youth ministry, I have experience both “in the trenches” and also at the fancy-schamncy level of organizational leadership. Even the final projects for both of my non-youth-work internships were directly youth related.

This was completely unintentional. Despite an interdisciplinary major, I didn’t have a single undergrad course in education or youth ministry or something even remotely related. “The youth guy” was never part of my identity, because in college your identity is what you study, and at North Park University everyone and their cousin worked at summer camp, so the fact I worked with kids sometimes was not something worth mentioning.

It has slowly begun to hit me, however, that being “the youth guy” is a prominent part of who I am despite no conscious decision on my part. Which has led to some reflection: what is it, exactly, that I am doing? And what it is, exactly, about this work that fuels me and my volunteers? 

The typical answer is valid, despite tinges of self-righteousness. Youth work is about providing stability, a positive environment, attention, unconditional love, and mentorship. In short, we youth workers help make human flourishing happen amongst teenagers.

This should be enough to convince you that the work is worthwhile.

This, however, is not the full answer.

What follows are three truths I have learned about youth work, as someone not formally educated in youth work but rather with my own academic lens (global studies and conflict transformation, ha!) and a particular set of youth work experiences. They might strike you as novel at first, but upon reflection you might see how they have always been there. These not-so novel truths aren’t exclusive only to youth ministry, but I would argue have some resonance for the whole gamut of youth work: from teaching to coaching, from social services to student activism.

Youth are subversive.

We all know the stereotype: the rebellious teenager standing defiant against all authority. Whether they do it for attention, as a vent for adolescent hormones, or maybe even because they have the seedlings of a particular political consciousness, we know who these particular kids are.

The rebels aren’t who I am talking about. Not specifically, at least.

All youth are, by definition, subversive. They represent a certain threat to our authority, structures and institutions, simply because they have not yet learned how to fit into our categories. Youth have, so to speak, fresh eyes for the world.

This may sound overly political. But if you have ever known a choir room used for a hide-and-seek game, or a sanctuary balcony used as a place to sneak a kiss, or a church building that has a freakin’ gymnasium in it, I guarantee you that somewhere along the way youth were involved. And, truth be told, I am not quite sure what can be considered more political than redefining spaces according to how one sees fit.

Youth subversiveness is not limited to spaces. Youth challenge relationships, customs, hopes, prejudices, ideas, and plans. This is part of what we call “not knowing any better.”

So we try and teach our youth how to fit in. We help them behave properly and speak correctly. We give them the skills they need to survive in the world (specifically, our vision of the world), because we know the machine will grind against them if they do not know how to be a part of it, and we know the machine’s parts (that is, us) are always wearing out and in need of constant replacement.

This is the starting point for much of what we consider to be youth work, as it should be. But it overlooks the fact that the whole exchange is a two-way street.

When the adults engage with the youth in order to promote conformity, the return deal is that the adults might find their own structures lacking. Youth have the fresh eyes to call out the contradictions, cracks and collusions that we have grown blind to by way of seeing them too many times. We want them to ask the questions that we have answers to; we are much less comfortable when they ask the questions that we never knew were questions. Youth have the right to reform the machine that they are destined to be a part of, and we would be foolish to wait until they grow up to fix the mistakes that they can see now.

So while we need to figure out what to do with the rebellious teenager, we can be thankful that youth are inherently subversive. The challenge of the youth worker, in this case, is to figure out how to properly channel that subversiveness into something constructive for all of us.

You don’t get too old to work with youth.

Just like how the subversiveness of youth can refresh our institutions, the energy of youth can refresh us as individuals.

To borrow logic from “Dipsea Demon” Jack Kirk, you don’t stop working with youth because you get old, you get old because you stop working with youth.

I have to speak carefully because as a twenty-something youth worker I am far from knowing what “old age” feels like. That said, I count it a great blessing to have a game of dodgeball built into my weekly work schedule, when many of my peers are taking office jobs spent almost entirely behind desks. Although I may not be too proud of the fact I can recite the names of the One Direction singers by memory, I find something particularly exciting about being able to speak the language (which is less a language and more a particular set of communication practices) of the generation after mine.

Yet again, it runs both ways. Youth can refresh the elders, while elders can inspire the youth.

When recruiting volunteers, I keep my eyes open on two particular age groups. The first isn’t surprising: those in their 20’s and 30’s. We are old enough to command the respect (and occasionally, awe) of teenagers, but still young enough to not resemble their parents. The second age group, however, are the “empty nesters”: roughly those in their mid-50’s and 60’s.

Why 50-somethings?

1) Because youth are always subconsciously looking for the role models that their immediate family can’t provide. The same reason those in their 20’s and 30’s inspire awe in teenagers isn’t that much different from why those in their 50’s do as well. Youth are looking for role models, not just for the next stage of life, but all stages of life.

2) Because, assuming they have had kids of their own, they are veterans of the teenage drama, and sometimes your average twenty-something youth leader needs a little extra wisdom on the leadership team.

For those of us “professional” youth workers, our work is sometimes seen as a way of getting one’s foot in the door, before the adult world finally accepts us for bigger and better things. Kind of like a glorified internship. That may be true, but more and more I realize that when (if?) the day comes that I have to leave youth work, I’ll resist like the dickens, unless the next job has an office-wide dodgeball tournament built into the schedule.

Youth work is timeless.

I work in youth ministry, a particular form of youth work that has been around for about two centuries, although it has looked radically different from generation to generation. While it seems that every youth minister — and most youth workers — are constantly on the cutting edge of culture, the work we do has been around as long as civilization itself.

I’ll make my case with Ancient Greece, because Ancient Greece seems to be where everyone wants to make “as long as civilization” arguments. Exhibit A — Socrates hung out with a bunch of youth teaching them the Socratic method and other counter-cultural things, one of those youth being Plato, Plato being Aristotle’s mentor, and Aristotle in turn being Alexander the Great’s youth worker (aka “tutor”). Exhibit B — the Spartans, despite implementing a number of strange practices, nevertheless developed an intricate system of youth work, from which they built their legendary militaristic society.

The principle is simple: as long as there have been youth, there has been a need for youth work.

The next generation is not going to “get it” through osmosis, or “flourish” in passivity. It’s amazing what kids can learn from the Internet, but the Internet cannot teach kids everything. The next generation needs people who understand them, who pursue them, who help and care for them.

If we fail at identifying the right people for this task — and equipping them properly — the future of our communities, churches and societies all of a sudden looks rather bleak.

Despite all of its importance, there is a certain intangibility to youth work. leading to a certain angst among youth workers. We rarely get to see the finished product of our labors. We are artists molding with a clay that has a mind of its own, trying to make beautiful something (someone) that already has dignity on its (their) own.

From this intangibility arises frustration, and therefore youth workers have a tendency to “burn out.” Not before the task is finished, because the task is constant, but before the time is right for them to properly retire or move on to the next phase of life.

So, if not in the elusive sense of accomplishment, where then should youth workers find their perseverance? Their endurance? Their strength?

The answer is simple:

Our perseverance is in the past — this is a work as old as time.

Our endurance is in the future — the youth before us have so much potential to flourish.

Our strength is in the present — there is a game of dodgeball to be played.

I don’t usually dedicate blog posts, but I thought I’d take some space at the end of this post to recognize a certain someone. Someone who perhaps modeled these “three truths about youth work” before I could ever articulate them. I speak of a volunteer youth worker I had as a teenager, Margaret Legardwhose abrupt passing from this life provoked me to develop these thoughts I had been sitting on for a while. Peace to your memory, Mother Margaret, and thanks for all your years of sacrifice, care and wisdom. You will be sorely missed.

Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

In Boston’s aftermath

As a runner who studied the sociology of terrorism as part of his undergrad, I think I need to say something in light of recent, appalling events. It won’t be much. Words cannot reverse what has happened, but maybe they can point towards a possible direction, a different place set forward in the horizon.

Running, we know, is an intimately personal act. It is an act of mustering the motivation to lift your body from a state of rest. It is breaking your body down in order to make it stronger, it is choosing to be strong when your body has broken down.

In addition, running is an incredibly political act. (Not in the sense of elections and legislation, but in the sense that politics is the art of the public.) Save for treadmills and indoor tracks, running always takes place “out there” and relates the surrounding place to the runner.

Runners are vulnerable. Sometimes we are with a group, but often our sense of commitment means we go it alone. In the city we watch out for cars and in the country we watch out for cougars. The nature of the sport means we tend to be under-dressed and a little fatigued. Many times we have done an “out-an-back” long run where have turned around and realized that we are miles away from home, often with no cash, no identification, no phone. The only security runners have are our legs — and the fact that we trust society to let us freely go about on our little exercise ritual.

Runners are disruptive. Runners may be vulnerable, but runners have a certain power. Runners redefine what sidewalks and gravel roads and city parks and out-of-the-way trails are good for. Our routes are like arteries on a map, infusing meaning into the landscape around us. Running is a performance, a play of biological code and cultural script. Running is an act of presence, of being multiple places almost at once, witnessing the world around us at many miles per hour. On our favorite, out-of-the-way runs, we might stumble across a high school couple making out (sorry) or a slightly more offensive offense (like that one time I busted a drug deal at seven-minute-mile pace).

Runners are achievers. There are a special few endorphin junkies who are runners just for the feel of it, but for the most part runners lace up their shoes with some goal or challenge in mind. Many runners can point to a personal record or a particular day that they are proud of. Even if the runner falls short of an arbitrary goal, they have succeeded in going out and trying. Olympians and first-timers alike can inspire the human spirit – if passersby take a moment to step back and notice.

The reason I bring this up, in light of yesterday’s events in Boston, is because even if the blasts occurred among bystanders, many of whom were not runners per se, these particular victims were there to celebrate a runner they knew and in some way part of the running spirit.

And terrorism, the sort of act witnessed yesterday, is not just homicidal mania. The heinous crime of terrorism is also a political act. As the cliche goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Certainly that doesn’t make it right, as terrorism is neither morally sound nor tactically effective (non-violent protest is always more effective, ethical and sincere). But it helps us understand the event and shape our response.

Almost every marathoner represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. A marathon itself is the sum total of this hard work and sweat, in addition to the volunteer and staff commitment that make the event possible. To witness the finish line of a marathon is to see the focal point of millions of hours of hard work.

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is an amateur event as opposed to mere recreational race. Although it is not the Olympics, individuals still have to qualify for the Boston. It is difficult to just “sign up” for the race, one has to truly be committed to the sport. Hence, amateur,  rooted in the word amore, the word for “to love.”

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is a integral part of the Patriot Day celebrations, something I admittedly don’t understand but Bostonians certainly cherish.

We do not know who the culprit behind yesterday’s horrible act is. But we do know this:

With the string of moments it took for them to assemble an explosive device, they attempted to steal away the significance of millions of hours. They attempted to replace love with hate. They attempted to pervert the public spirit.

Let us make sure that, whoever it is, that they fail. Let us reject categorically the twisted worldview that made a senseless act make sense to this particular group or individual.

Let us mourn the dead, care for the injured, lament what could have been.

But let us not sacrifice one inch of meaning to the false gods of fear. Let us continue to celebrate the human spirit, seeing that in a runner (like any athlete, or any person striving towards a positive goal of any sort) we can be better than base, deranged and pathetic. We may not be perfect, but we are not soulless.

So for those of who run, or cheer those who do, let us keep lacing up our shoes. Let us carry the weight of tragedy, let us look over our shoulders to be on guard for obvious threats, and then let us go, and go strong.

Vulnerable, disruptive, achieving: let us keep running.

Even before the explosions, the American Red Cross was at the Boston Marathon, supporting the running spirit by providing volunteers and working at aid stations. They were quick to respond and continue to put their muscle into this tragedy.  I consider myself more of a rational giver than an emotional giver, so as odd as it is for me to impulsively add a handful of dollars to an organization with a $3.5 billion budget, for whatever reason I threw out all calculations and did it anyway. I cite my frugal donation not to boast, but rather to challenge you to consider doing it too

In Boston’s aftermath

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Save for the Olympics and whatever bowl game the Oregon Ducks get into, I almost never put the effort into working my schedule around televised sports. Just not my jam.

But Monday night, one of the low-key evenings in the life of a fresh college grad, in addition to a few mindless e-mails to send off and a simple word document to create, I figured I might as well catch the Packers versus Seahawks football game. A nice, civilized contest of Midwest brawn versus Pacific Northwest brute, that I would be sure many of my friends would be talking about.

And then this happened:


Unless you somehow missed all the ensuing news coverage, you would know that his not just a matter of game-ending frenzy wrapped up in an ambiguous call. Rather, it came in the midst of a strike on the part of the NFL Referees Association, and the season so far has been carried out by “replacement refs” of dubious credentials.

The NFL reached a deal with the “real refs” just in time for tonight’s game, the Browns versus Ravens. But it got me wondering, what was the big fuss?

There were two sorts of sports pundits in Monday’s post-game coverage. About half were so excited that they had something uniquely interesting to talk about the words just spilled right out of their mouth, the other half were so irked by what had happened that, when it was their turn to speak, they spoke impromptu jeremiads. One pundit, trying to establish how much of a “real deal” this was, said something to the affect of the NFL being a “multi-billion dollar enterprise, with millions of dollars resting on each call like this being made.” Another simply said, “the shield has to defend itself.”

Between the lines, I felt like each of this latter group of men, each of whom have spent years and careers as fans, players, coaches, and now commentators, were saying “my life is wrapped up in something that is looking a lot like a fraud.”

There is a brand-new pigskin hanging around our front room. Recently, when I came back home, exhausted from a solid workout, I laid down on the couch and picked up the this official, composite-leather, not-incredibly-round ball. I realize I speak from my own prejudice as a runner, where the sport is as simple as getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as I palmed “the Duke” I was struck by how lifeless it seemed.

Lifeless, of course, compared to the fan-packed stadiums, the enthusiastic cheerleaders, the calculating coaches, and the players’ incredible feats of athleticism. Lifeless for something that a third of the country takes as a national holiday one Sunday each February. Lifeless for something that, at least at the high school level, has become a medium for entering into larger social issues – think of the non-sexy parts in Friday Night Lights, the race relations of Remember the Titans, and I have to give a McMinnville shout-out to the self-explanatory Quarterback Princess. With so much energy and passion surrounding the game, it seems strange that the football just by itself can seem so dull and unanimated.

It is easy to become disenchanted.

It is easy to become cynical.

It is easy to want to analytically break everything down to component parts.

The same gamble the NFL is took with replacement refs is the same gamble governments take when politicians act contrary to the law, or the law works contrary to the people. It is the same gamble churches and other religious groups take when betraying the truths they supposedly preach. It is a gamble of legitimacy, that the whole shebang might be exposed as a dirty power-play to manipulate the imagination of the masses.

Which may be true, although I sincerely hope against it in every case. What I want, instead, is to believe that synergy exists, and that synergy can be put to good cause.

I think of the human body as a perfect example of synergy. Our bodies are something like 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and then a bunch of other trace stuff. But you cannot say that we are nothing but these elements – there is something fundamentally different between a human body and a water puddle with a block of carbon on the side. Rather, these atoms are in relationship to one another in such a way that they create something of greater value (that is, the human body) than what they would have been on their own.

I am currently reading through Christian Smith’s rather dense but apparently important book What is a Person?. In chapter one he makes quite the argument for personhood, saying that the human person is not simply the human body, but rather the formula goes something like person = human body + cultural context + rational thought + a bunch of other things. And there is something about the “person” which is greater than all of these things combined.

Furthermore, I think that when two human persons become united in marriage, the whole process of “two becoming one” is less 1+1=1 and more 1+1=3. That is, neither partner really gives up their individual identity, but now they have created a new, shared identity that exists as a dynamic addition to who they were originally.

(Hm. This may be the most-off topic rant about the whole Seahawks-Packers touchdown debacle.)

Just like how the institution of marriage is synergistic, I think the institutions of sports and politics and religious affairs are synergistic. Imagine that lifeless football laying in my front room, in the hands of a much more skilled player than myself, on a proper field and perhaps even with a proper crowd. The oddly shaped ball, which kind of resembles an uncomfortable turd, becomes a key part of what is not just a multi-billion dollar empire, but a game which (in varying degrees) is a meaningful part of many of our lives.

All the more reason then that the NFL needs qualified refs on the field maintaining order, to keep the football from being lifeless, meaningless leather. All the more reason government need qualified politicians maintaining law and respect, why sacred places need qualified priests to keep sacraments alive and devotees in worship. When all the pieces come together, something magical happens, synergy happens.

Call it all an illusion if you want, but don’t complain when I call you a puddle of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important thing, of course, is not whether or not synergy exists, but what the synergy is directed towards. This is, I think, a test of the true mettle of a leader and their organization – not the component parts of her or his organization, but how they make those component parts work together and for what purpose. Governments can join in unjust wars, churches can become overly judgmental, and football leagues can needlessly sacrifice the beauty of the game for a quick dollar or two.

But, unfortunately, some leaders cannot get to the step of deciding what to direct the synergy towards, because they are stuck making decisions that jeopardize the existence of that very synergy. They get hung up on some details and neglect others. This goes beyond the decision to hire lousy refs in order to minimize expenses, but also what takes place in corrupt politics and cult churches.

I guess what I am getting to is this. If you are a follower, and we all are followers sometimes, accept the reality of synergy. Don’t say “it is nothing but,” because that contributes nothing but cynicism to the discussion. And if you are a leader, and we are all leaders sometimes, accept the responsibility of synergy. Cultivate it, direct it. Do something good with it. Please.

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Military alliance, popular defiance, identity crisis

One nice thing about being a college graduate is that I no longer have to spend my Sundays finishing all that procrastinated homework for Monday classes. So – after going to church in the morning, of course – I decided to head downtown to see what all this NATO ruckus was about.

I am characteristically not much of a protestor. Maybe it is a personality thing. But I am intrigued by those who chant and shout and fight for something, who are not afraid to make public demands for some sort of justice.

Of course, there are some basic details about NATO that need to be cleared up before I continue. The best description of NATO I have heard was from J.D. Bindenagel, who spoke at Fourth Presbyterian Church’s “Michigan Avenue Forum on NATO in the 21st Century” a little over a month ago.

NATO is an international military alliance, consisting mostly of North American and Western European countries, although in recent years NATO has expanded to include countries such as Lithuania and Albania. It was formed in the context of the Cold War as part of a geopolitical strategy to deter Soviet influence in Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO had seemingly served its purpose.

That is when history began to take an interesting turn for NATO. Genocide began to emerge in Yugoslavia, and the world order refused to ignore tens of thousands of unjust deaths. The idea of “humanitarian intervention” was born, as the United Nations called on NATO – dormant military strength existing without a clear direction in a post-Cold War context. Humanitarian intervention returned this past year NATO intervened in the Libyan civil war by aiding the forces that were fighting to overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

9/11 resulted in another ironic moment for NATO. The alliance had been formed so American military strength could bolster and protect Western Europe, with the treaty stipulating that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” But this first time this principle came into play, it was America that was attacked. Nonetheless, a promise is a promise, and NATO came to America’s defense. Unfortunately, the enemy was an ambiguous one: a terrorist group that did not belong to traditional categories of nation-state international politics. So began our rather convoluted and exhausting campaign in Afghanistan.

(Many of the protestors today were rather irked about Iraq, although NATO was not a relevant force in the Iraq War. Oh well.)

What this history lesson suggests to me is that NATO remains a military alliance suffering from an identity crisis – it was born to fight the Cold War, but now it has stuck around as a rather violent historical souvenir. Quite a number of protestors were concerned about what conspiracies the world leaders were concocting behind the closed doors of today’s and tomorrow’s summit; I feel slightly encouraged that NATO leaders are actually sitting down and talking about what NATO actually is, to hopefully avoid the knee-jerk reactions that  have characterized NATO in the recent past.

Of course, I’m not an insider into international politics. Perhaps the whole thing is corrupt, like they say. What I witnessed today was not the NATO summit, but rather a protest movement in reaction to the NATO summit.

The NATO protest has an interesting history. This last fall, it was obvious that military and peace issues had been overshadowed by economic issues: anti-war protests had given way to the Occupy movement. So when the G8 summit – a meeting of elite economic interests – was promised to be in Chicago the days before the NATO summit, wheels started turning to create the most intense protest that Chicago could remember in recent history. Even though the G8 summit was ultimately not held here, the fight against economic inequality still married and brought new life into the anti-war crusade: as one protest motto rang, “NATO is the army of the 1%”.

Throughout the rallies, personal testimonies were juxtaposed with conspiracy theories. I could hear the sincere story of a veteran solider suffering from PSTD, moments later see someone wearing a “9/11 was an inside job” button. In the midst of the noise, it was hard to separate the fact from the fiction.

Many believed today’s demonstration could be ushering in an era of peace. I am skeptical about this. At one point, the crowd started cheering for the various groups represented. The speaker mentioned an umbrella of groups, and after mentioning the labor unions and ethnic solidarity groups, got cheers for “my socialist brothers, my communist brothers, and my anarchist brothers…” It was a moment that revealed the inadequacy of this protest, as it should be general knowledge that there is an inevitable ideological conflict between socialists and communists on one side, anarchists on the other. But here they were, united.

At the end of the rally, the more organized protestors were shouting for the crowd to go west – towards a large field with porta-potties and mass transit. But other protestors, the “black bloc”, were pushing towards the east, towards McCormick Place, where the NATO summit was being held and security was ridiculously high. This was the tense moment – around 5:00pm, when the street permit for the rally expired – that I decided to get the heck out of there. Apparently there were some scuffles with police following my departure.

The protestors today could benefit from learning the lesson NATO didn’t. NATO ended the Cold War, but soon learned that anti-war is not the same thing as pro-peace. Because peace is something that has to be constructed, through relationships of trust, channels of communication, and rituals of conflict resolution. Perhaps even divine intervention. The protestors may aspire to end the Afghan War, or a NATO-dominated world order, but I am pessimistic about their odds for unity once the conflict that kept them united has disappeared.

I yearn for a day without warfare. Maybe that desire is what motivated me to stroll the crowds today. But, despite some bright moments achieved by particular individuals, what I saw overall left me with little hope, and instead the bitter taste of witnessing a mass identity crisis.

A number of downtown Chicago streets were closed for security and traffic purposes. The ghost-town feel was undeniably eerie.
The sign on the left of the frame is telling of the marriage of the anti-war and Occupy movements that came together in this particular protest movement.

Continue reading “Military alliance, popular defiance, identity crisis”

Military alliance, popular defiance, identity crisis