Why I Tried To Quit Working With Middle Schoolers, But Failed Miserably

What would happen if we affirmed what our kids did right instead of criticizing everything they did wrong?


I have just begun my third year leading a small group of middle school children during the Bible class hour on Sunday mornings.

One quick note: I often find it difficult to work with middle school children.

I struggle with patience.

I struggle with silence when a question is asked.

I struggle when I have to repeat myself with things like, “Please sit down.” “Please stop talking over one another.” “Please stop crawling on top of the furniture and trying to get on top of the refrigerator.”

In fact, I almost gave up on working with the middle schoolers this school year.

But something kept me coming back. This summer I did several things with the middle school group that were fun and enlightening. This past weekend, I got to spend time with 50 or so of the students at a retreat.

And something keeps amazing me in the greatest way: these kids love Jesus. Here is some proof:

  • No one was left alone this past weekend. Everyone was included.
  • The way these kids worship: singing, raising hands, listening to people read Scripture.
  • The heart they have for the outcast. I have heard these young men and women say things that some adults need to learn about loving those who are not a part of the “in crowd.”
  • I have watched them share communion together and wash one another’s feet as a sign of love and service.
  • They want to build relationships as they help people; they want to know who they are helping.

And it goes on and on. These kids are not perfect. There are still words spoken that should not be said. There are still jokes that are laughed at that would be better left untold. There are still moments when one person or a small group of people are excluded. Arguments break out. Crushes and “dating” at times threaten ongoing friendships. In other words, they are human. More specifically, they are humans going through an incredibly difficult time of biological and hormonal development.

I need to remind myself of this often, because too many times I get frustrated when they won’t quiet down soon enough. I watch the youth ministers and other adult volunteers and they seem to be much better at dealing with the chaos. They laugh and patiently wait as the noise dies down. (Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to yell and scream at the top of my lungs!)

They get something I don’t get: they see these young people as young people; complete with all the immaturity, silliness, and development that exists among them.


Back to my original question: what would happen if we did more affirming and less criticizing?

My default is to point out what needs to be corrected. What if I could change that to pointing out what was done right? When I am frustrated with noise and chaos, what would happen if I started with, “You know, I love the ways you all worship. I love how you care for one another.”

What about making those statements even where there is no chaos? Why do I forget to affirm the greatness I see when everything is normal?

Here is what I am going to try and do, and I hope you will try with me:

  1. I am going to acknowledge the good I see as soon as I see it. These 11, 12, 13, and 14 year olds hear enough about what they are doing wrong. I am going to tell them what I see them doing right.
  2. When I see something that needs to be corrected, I am going to start with a statement of affirmation. They do so much right; let’s remind them of it, especially in the midst of a time for learning.
  3. I am going to let parents know they are raising good kids and they are not doing it alone. As parents, we need to remember we are not walking through this journey alone. We can all do this together.


There is one more thing I need to remember when I work with middle school students:

It’s not about me.

One other thing I struggle with is my own sense of self perception. If the students are not listening to ME they are not respecting ME and missing out on all MY wisdom and life experience.

I don’t know exactly when I got so egotistical, but I really need to get over it. It is not my duty to mold all of these young men and women into spitting images of me (wow—that’s a scary thought). It is my job to walk with these young men and women as they grow more into the image of Jesus that God has called them to.

It is a privilege to walk through life with these middle school students and their parents. It is comforting to know that my own children are a part of this youth group with this leadership team and this group of volunteers. It is humbling to be a part of it all.

All it takes is to remember that these kids are sons and daughters of God. They need to be encouraged. They need to be taught. They need to be loved.

So let’s start catching them doing things right!

My Name Is Paul And I Am An Alcoholic, Step 9

One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 9. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle with what to do. My hope is that this series will help those who are not in recovery learn more about their friends and family members who are in recovery. I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns you may have!

“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” (Step 9).

“A remorseful rumbling that we are sorry won’t fill the bill at all….So we clean house  with the family, asking each morning in mediation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindness, and love. The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it….Our behavior will convince them more than our words. We must remember that ten or twenty years of drunkenness would make a skeptic out of anyone” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 83).

“Or we may just procrastinate, telling ourselves the time is not yet, when in reality we have already passed up many a fine chance to right a serious wrong. Let’s not talk prudence while practicing evasion” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 85).

“It does not lighten our burden when we recklessly make the crosses of others heavier” (Twelve and Twelve, p. 86).

“Above all, we should try to be absolutely sure that we are not delaying because we are afraid. For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine” (Twelve and Twelve, p. 87).

Let’s start with the brutal truth: making direct amends sucks.

But that is the beautiful poetry of the structure of the 12 Steps. If Step 9 was any earlier in the process, it likely would not work. Through the first 8 steps, the person in recovery has reconnected with God, dealt with past baggage and learned to forgive him or herself, and started the process of reconnecting with others.

After all that has been done, the foundation has been laid to make amends to those people our addictions have harmed.

Amends are more than saying, “I am sorry.” Amends are a way of showing by our words and actions that our lives are different. Bill Wilson uses the metaphor of street sweeping: we are cleaning up our side of the street. This carries two very significant ramifications:

First, I am cleaning my side of the street. When I make amends, I will be approaching people who also hurt me. They have garbage in their lives just like I have in mine. However, I am working on my sobriety. I am cleaning up the mess I made. When I am apologizing for my behavior, I am not looking for others to apologize to me. Maybe one day they will get to that point; but for now, I am taking responsibility for the wrongs I have done.

Second, not everyone is going to respond the way I want them to. I am making amends for the wrongs I have done. I have renewed my relationship with God. I have worked on myself. I have worked on changing behaviors so that I will not cause the same types of pain again. But that does not mean that I automatically deserve absolution from everyone I approach. Some people have been hurt too deeply to forgive. Some people are so lost in their own addictions or issues that they are unable to offer forgiveness. But that doesn’t matter. Making amends is me cleaning my side of the street regardless of how other people respond to it.

There is one exception: “when to do so would injure them or others.” In the process of making amends, the person in recovery needs to reflect on how the apology may hurt someone else. Amends-making does not mean dumping a whole lot of gory details in someone’s lap. These are often issues that need to be worked out with one’s sponsor and spiritual guides.

When these situations occur, the recovering addict needs to remember that he or she is cleaning up his or her life. It is not necessary to hurt other people. When speaking words would cause harm, the words are left unsaid and the amends are paid by the way one’s life is lived. (Side note: personally, I have two people on my “would injure them or others” list. There are days when those feel like the most difficult. I want to apologize as I have to others, but it would not be the right thing to do.)

Step 9 is about more than saying, “I’m sorry.” Step 9 is a way of life. Some people will reject our words asking for forgiveness. Some people would be harmed by our words, so we remain silent. Regardless, we make amends by our life. We have hurt people by the ways we acted in our addictions. But we are different now. We are leading a new life now. So even when our words cannot get through, our actions will reveal the new life, the spiritual life, we are living.

So how can Christians and other groups of people help those who are in recovery work through Step 9?

I believe there are two actions Christian communities can take to help recovering addicts through this phase of their recovery journey: receive and walk along.

Receive. When someone comes to you to offer their amends, receive it as a blessing. Remember the forgiveness you have received from God and others. Remember that asking for forgiveness is a difficult thing to do. Don’t respond with, “Yeah, but you also did this wrong.” Also, don’t respond with, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. Simply receive the humble gift that is being offered.

Walk along. Throughout an addict’s life of use, they drove themselves further and further into isolation by their actions. Working through the 12 Steps brings the recovering person into relationship: relationship with God, self, and others. Recovering addicts need people. They need encouragement. They need to hear kind words. They need to have a place of refuge where they can go and just be still and quiet in the presence of others. In other words, they are no different than any other human being in that regard. Offer your presence, just as you would to any member of your Christian family.

As people in recovery continue working on restoring relationships, we can all walk together and participate in the healing process together.


I Don’t Know What I Am Doing

Since the calendar has turned to September, I have told no fewer than 12 people that I do not know what I am doing as a parent. I think a lot of us joke about that: “Children don’t come with a set of instructions.” “Parenting doesn’t have a training manual.” But when I said it these past two weeks, I was actually admitting out loud that I do not believe I have what it takes to be a good father.

It was scary to make that confession. Sometimes, I hide behind the jokes because that reality is too difficult, too embarrassing, to say out loud.

But here is the thing: almost every person I spoke to said the same thing. They admitted that they have doubts, concerns, confusion, fear, etc. It wasn’t a surprise. I know all parents wonder if they do the best things and say the best things to their kids all the time.

But it was such a relief for me in three specific ways. It was a relief to speak the words out loud. It was a relief to receive the encouragement from so many. It was a relief to be reminded that I am not alone: others are not sure about what they are doing either.

As I reflect on this, several things come to mind:

Why do we keep silent?

Like I said, when other parents shared their struggles and questions with me, I was not surprised. I just kind of figured anyone that is charged with the responsibility of caring for another life is going to have some hard times. It is not surprising. Yet still I keep silent. Well, guess what: I need help from you! Also, I am willing to help you when I can! But we can’t help each other if we don’t speak our needs to one another.

This makes me think especially of single parents. My wife and I are doing this together and still I struggle. I hate to think what this would be like if I was on my own. So if I know any single parents that aren’t saying anything, maybe I need to be listening a little more closely. Or maybe I need to be approaching them and offering assistance.

Why don’t we call bullshit?

I have written before (here and here) about the dangers of telling people you are “fine.” But why do we let people tell us they are fine without calling them on it? If I use “fine” as a shield against revealing how I am truly feeling, chances are pretty good other people do, too. So not only do we need to stop being silent, we need to step letting other people be silent with us.

How can we break through the silence?

My friend, Terry, is annoying. When he shakes my hand and asks me how I’m doing and I give him an answer, he squeezes my hand tighter, pulls me closer, looks straight into my eyes, and says, “No. HOW are you doing?”

The first way we can break through the silence is to talk to each other. And by talk to each other, I mean actually be interested in talking to one another. Paying attention. Asking questions we really want the answer to. Being honest when people talk to us. When we are at a place where people gather, such as church, actually be attentive to the fact that other people exist and are present around you. (And before you think this is a blast at people on their cell phones, I have seen people use song books and Bibles as little more than excuses to keep their eyes averted from other human beings.)

Second, we can pray for people and then let them know it. This is not a bragging thing, either. Don’t approach someone and say, “I’m so holy that I prayed for you.” That’s missing the point. But pray for the people in your church or in your social circle or in your family. And let them know it. We need to hear that people are praying for us. If you are so led, let the person know how you are praying for them. Let them know what Holy Spirit has revealed to you about them. I just need to know that there are people who are praying for me. And I need to let you know that I have been praying for you.


I don’t know what I am doing. I am not equipped to be a father. I lack the knowledge to deal with all the different issues my kids throw at me.

But my guess is you don’t know, either. Alone, we will never figure it out. Together, we may have the ability to collectively pool our intelligence, our resources, our strength, and our energy to do this together.

Please tell me when you can’t do it. Because I am sure going to be telling you.

Talking About Same-Sex Attraction (A Book Review)

On the second Thursday of each month, I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is actually two books!  Torn by Justin Lee and Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill are essential reading for every Christian who knows someone who experiences same-sex attraction. These books can also help non-Christians understand the different viewpoints Christians have. You can purchase them here:



One of the most volatile issues facing the church today is same-sex attraction. When the topic comes up, walls go up almost as quickly. People who hold to the traditional understanding of the Bible and teaching of the church are adamant that homosexuality is a sin that must be purged from the church and from society. On the other side are people who think we should accept all people regardless of sexual preferences because the Bible is an outdated document and we know more now about biology than we did then.

People on either side often are intolerant; not only of people on the other side, but also of people who find themselves somewhere between these two extremes. However, the middle is where the majority of people reside (my opinion). And it is from this position of being in the middle that leads to so much doubt and confusion, especially for people in the church: how do we respond to people whose orientation is such that we have been taught they are sinful? How do maintain our scriptural integrity while still following the command to love others?

What’s more, this is a huge issue for straight people in the church. But what about for Christian men and women who experience same-sex attraction? How difficult is this journey for them? That is where these two books come. I highly recommend both Torn and Washed and Waiting. Both are personal memoirs the authors share; Torn is written more like a “traditional” book (beginning, middle, end) while Washed and Waiting is a little more choppy (though still put together in an excellent manner).

There are three lessons from each book that are vital for all Christians to acknowledge as we learn how to better interact with our brothers and sisters experiencing same-sex attraction:

  1. Orientation is not a choice.

This is huge. Orientation is NOT behavior. Both Lee and Hill share their journeys and pour out their hearts about nights spent in prayerful yearning for God to change what they felt, who they were attracted to, and how their lives were to be lived.

Hill describes it this way: “There was a time in my struggle with homosexuality when I felt that the world was caving in on me.” He goes on to say he sometimes felt as if his struggle was a “mindless, unobserved string of random disappointments.”

Lee says this: “It was, I thought, the worst secret in the world. It was the deepest, darkest secret I could ever imagine having, one that I could never tell anyone, not even my parents or best friends. It was the secret I would take to the grave…. I waited patiently to grow out of this phase.”

Both authors talk about sleepless nights, tears shed, prayers uttered, and a search for someone-anyone-they could share their struggle with. Reading both of their stories illustrates how their orientation is anything but a choice.

This is a difficult concept for many in the church to grasp. Orientation and behavior are not the same thing. The Bible says absolutely nothing about orientation, although it does address behavior.

Lee expresses in his book how he heard a lot about the church’s response to homosexuality, but he never actually knew anyone who was gay. I think that is indicative of the issue many Christians have today: we view same-attraction as an issue instead of viewing the people that are affected.

  1. Sharing one’s story is powerful.

The best part of both books is the vulnerability shared by both authors. I am a huge fan of sharing one’s story. I believe confession within community is sorely lacking in our churches. I believe that with too many issues we have dehumanized the topic and argued about who was right instead of making sure people were loved.

Lee writes, “I believe our goal should be truth, not ideology, and that we must have the humility to admit that we still don’t have all the answers.” Hill explains how he learned from his friends that sharing his story with them made them realized they were loved.

We think we do not know people who are struggling with same-sex attraction. I suggest the issue is we have not been open to listening to people’s stories. Both of these authors are exhibiting bravery by talking about their same-sex attraction so openly and publicly.

  1. Not everyone agrees.

I suggest reading these two books together. Both are valuable stories. Both authors have websites that serve as great resources. Both authors talk plainly about how orientation is not a choice.

But there is one area which they fall on different sides: Justin Lee believes it is biblically acceptable for same-sex attracted people to enter into committed, monogamous relationships. Hill believes the Bible teaches same-sex behavior is always wrong; therefore individuals experiencing same-sex attraction must commit to a life of celibacy.

(Sarcasm alert.) How can two gay men disagree? Aren’t all people with same-sex attraction committed to some subversive agenda to make everyone accept their lifestyle?

In many churches, “homosexuals” have been lumped into one camp. And that camp is outside the walls of the church. What these two books illustrate is that there is no one “gay lifestyle.” Both men are intelligent. Both men are Godly. Both men are trying to live out their spiritual lives as God is leading them. Yet they disagree on this issue of same-sex behavior.

I encourage you to read both books and keep an open mind as you read each one. Neither comes across as trying to justify their position. Both have spent time in study and in community. Both have approached this prayerfully. They have set an example for how all Christians should approach this, or any, issue.

I cannot recommend these two books highly enough. I hope all of you will read them. If you have questions about this topic or these books, please reply to this post. Or email me privately. This is a conversation that we must have.

Justin Lee’s website: http://www.gaychristian.net/

Wesley Hill’s website: http://spiritualfriendship.org/

What Would You Think About Me If…

What would you think about me if you knew…

…I am a parent. And some days I have no idea what I am doing. I am afraid that my words will cut down instead of build up. I am afraid that my frustration shows through and my kids are uncomfortable coming to me. I am afraid to answer their tough, deep questions because I wonder what might happen if I tell them the wrong thing. I am afraid about the things they are going to face in life because I do not know if I am equipped to deal with their issues.

…I am a husband. And some days it is really hard to be married. I love my wife but some days I have to remind myself of that fact. I struggle with what to say and what not to say. I want to be taken care of and not concern myself with her well-being: physical or emotional. Other times, I feel like I cannot love her enough. I am not worthy enough to deserve her love.

…I am a teacher. And some days I am terrified to stand up in front of my class because I feel I have nothing to offer. Do I really know what I am doing? Or what I am talking about? What happens if I make the wrong suggestion or say the wrong thing? What if one of my students challenges me? Am I ready to explain why I teach what I teach? Am I really the best person for this job?

…I am a friend. And some days I dread hearing my phone ring because talking to other people takes a lot of energy. I really love my friends, but quite often I love from a distance and with silence. So many times I think about and pray about my friends, but I don’t say anything out loud. Do they know that I still care?

…I am a recovering alcoholic. And some days I wonder if taking a drink would really be that big of a deal. I don’t want to drink, but sometimes I want to know that I can have the option to drink. Would anyone notice? Would all that crap actually come back and rear its ugly head again?

…I am a man with faith in God. And some days I wonder exactly what I believe and Who I believe in. I believe. But some days the pain, hurt, and confusion leaves me asking if there really is anything to believe in. New information and new understanding of old information leads me to question things I have believed most of my life, and if I can question anything then shouldn’t I question everything?

…I am a Christian. And some days I do and say things I am ashamed of. I hate to admit that I struggle with temptation. I hate that some days I am selfish and prideful. Some days my lust is stronger than my desire for intimacy. Sometimes I even say bad words. Too often, I am silent when I should speak up. Some days I even ask, “How long before my portion of grace runs out?”

Let me tell you what I would think about you if I knew those things about you: I would think you are just like me.

And some days, that is all I need to know.