Blog post or novel, you decide.
Part One: The Setting
This past weekend went to the National Youth Workers Convention, hosted by Youth Specialties. I count on this gathering every year as a time to take a step back, read my map, and look at my compass to get my bearings. Every year they have great speakers, workshops, giveaways and worship that add up to make for an incredible experience. This year was no exception.
Those things are awesome, and always life-changing (or at least life-re-centering) but the thing I look forward to the most is my time with my friends in the SoCal Youth Ministry Mafia. We met up with the guys on Friday afternoon around lunch time and made our way over to ESPNZone, which is one of our favorite hangouts. (Something about 14 TVs and a projector simultaneously broadcasting every ESPN channel appeals to our crowd.) We had our usual make fun of each other time, then made our way to the opening session.
The opening session was pretty typical, great speaker, awesome worship, us figuring out where in a giant convention center we are going to sit… then came Friday night.
Part Two: $20
Our friend who is a former member of the Youth Ministry Mafia came by to spend the night with us and hang out with the crew. He’s one of those guys that stirs up the pot quite bit, so I was excited to have him along. We decided we wanted to go bowling that night, and there happened to be a bowling alley right by the convention center. The guys that were down for a late night all walked to the door, where we were turned away for not adhering to their dress code. Yes, this is LA, where bowling alley’s have a dress code. Side-note: I have a huge pet peeve of not being able to come back with something clever when needed. So when the guy at the door told me no shorts allowed, I asked him if he wanted me to remove them right there, or if there was a place inside to do that. Awkward smile, still no entrance. We hiked back to our cars, put on some jeans and a shirt (with no sports team logo) and made our way into the bowling alley. And when I say bowling alley, I mean downtown LA friday night bowling alley. Let’s just put it this way, we were out of place.
None of the lanes were open, but we had changed to be here and we weren’t about to leave, so we grabbed a table in the back. As we walked through the crowd it became more and more obvious how out of place we were. At least I felt that way. We were schlepping it in some beat up tees and jeans while most everyone else looked like they were going to the club, which we later realized they probably were, this being LA. Anyways, here we are just chilling, trying to talk over the crappy house music, when I decided to take a lap around to check out the crowd. The more I walked around, the more I felt out of place, especially since everyone that seemed remotely attractive was attached at the hip with her date. At this point I realized I was the guy wandering around by himself so I beelined it back to our table in the back. The guys looked at me knowing that something was off. It’s amazing how transparent you are when you are completely out of your comfort zone.
And then the dreaded question, “What’s wrong man?”
I could have come up with a witty line to put on heirs for anyone else buy my mafia friends. But I froze, decided to answer truthfully, and unload with something I had been too scared to say out loud for a while, “I feel way out of my element. My confidence level is zero, and I’m still pretty shook up about this whole [bellflower chica] thing.”
My friend nodded his head with an understanding look on his face, and replied,”You should go over there with [subway] and talk to those girls.”
I looked over, and sure enough the only other single guy in the group was talking with a group of girls. He was on fire too, every single one of them was laughing. I sank in my chair a little more because I was the one who told him he should go talk to them. I had no idea what I would say, even if I could muster up the courage to walk over there. I ran the scene through my head a few times, each one ending with blank stares after a bad joke.
I talked on and on for a while, trying to justify the fact that I was too scared to get off of my butt. All the while I’m realizing how infrequently I purposefully put myself into complicated situations. I live my life to avoid drama. There’s a reason I don’t go to downtown LA on a Friday night, and this is it. It’s that crippling fear and anxiety that I get only in trendy downtown places with attractive females I don’t know, and at the top of roller coasters.
[Subway] came back over with a huge smile on his face. I love this guy like a brother, but at that moment I was hoping he would wipe the grin off of his face and say how lame this place was. Nope, those girls he talked to were having a bachelorette party for their friend. Watching my friend smile at [Subway] triggered something in me. I didn’t want to let my friend down. He came to hang out with us because we always come back with a crazy story, and tonight, there would be no crazy story. I pictured our future conversations of this night being filled with ‘should have’ and ‘it would have been cool if’ language. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I got up to go get something to drink. I walked right past the bachelor party to place my order and something clicked.
These girls looked kind of out of place too. It’s a bachelor party on a Friday night in LA and they came here. And in that instant where I was sizing up their story, the most attractive one of the group caught my eye and smiled. I walked right over to her and asked, “which one of you is getting married?” She laughed and pointed to her friend. I walked over to the friend and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m your entertainment for the night”, and started doing some kind of awkward dance that screamed ‘white guy’.
They all laughed. And cheered.
I kept it the dance short, and clean. Because I’m a terrible dancer, because I’m a youth minister, and because if they weren’t laughing I didn’t want them to have time to get a good look at me.
But they laughed. And cheered.
The bride-to-be looked more embarrassed than me, so I smiled and assured her that she would never have to endure that again. I turned around to see what the friends were doing, and I was met with the kind of cheer reserved for boy bands from shivering crowds outside of TRL. Arms were up in the air, people were jumping around. Everyone was excited. I was too confused to think, I was still trying to figure out what possessed me to do this. I stopped thinking and just smiled when the attractive grabbed my arm and smiled at me.
“That was just what she needed. Thank you so much!”
“No problem, (lie) I just thought you guys could use a little fun”. This is me, in my bright shining moment appearing confident.
“Oh yeah, we’re all nurses… and she’s super shy… so that was perfect.”
And we talked. We did the kind of talking you do over loud, crappy house music when you meet someone on a Friday night in LA. She was awesome, touching the back of my arm when she leaned in to talk, and and using her eyes as part of her smile when I made an attempt at being funny. I think I was pretty on too, I complemented her on her dress, smiled a lot, and laughed when she made a nervous joke too. She liked the fact that I’m a youth minister, and seemed to relax a little when she told me she was a Christian, but didn’t get to go to church much, since her and her friends all worked the night shift at children’s hospital. I smiled and told her I liked that she worked with kids.
We talked for a while. There were moments of including the other friends in on the conversation, Subway came back over and joined the mix for a while, and there were awkward pauses where we turned to the bride-to-be and tried to make her laugh. She said they were heading out soon, and said if she was ever in san diego she’d like to visit. I told her that would be cool, so she gave me her number.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve picked up a phone number. I’ve met women in some pretty random places, and some pretty typical places, and have come away with just enough phone numbers that I can’t brag, but I can’t remember how many. But this one was pretty sweet. It was a victory when I needed a victory. I had never felt more out of my element and had come out with a number. My friend came over as we were all leaving and introduced himself to the the girls. He talked to the attractive one for a minute, I think just to size up if she had a good time meeting me. His eyes lit up when she said, “call me or find me on facebook…” as they walked out the door.
I enjoyed talking to the attractive girl. I liked the look I got from some of the other guys there as I was putting her number into my cell phone. I was stoked when her friends gave me a hug good-bye. But the best part of the night was looking at my friend knowing that none of those things could be taken away. We would not be using ‘should have’ language when talking about this night. Then he reached into his pocket and handed me a twenty dollar bill.
“I told [Subway] I would give you twenty bucks if you came away with a number”.
Part Three: A Polite Addition
Saturday arrived with [Subway] changing in front of me, not realizing I was awake. It startled me too. We made our way down the street to meet up with the rest of the crew. We talked about the lineup of speakers and sessions for the day, mapping out where we were going to go. I made the first mention about the previous night. “Last night was fun.”
“Yeah, it was. Did you call [attractive girl] yet?”
I smiled because this is the type of conversation they have in Swingers. I smiled because people walking down the street were going to overhear us talking about our fun night. I smiled because I had texted [attractive girl] just to see if she had given me the right number, and she texted me back almost instantly. She even remembered my name.
We met up with the crew inside and listened to another amazing speaker. he talked about the value of youth ministry and the impact that we can have on the world. He made everyone laugh telling the story about the teen who fell out of the window while listening to a sermon. After the session we grabbed a quick bite and headed our separate ways. Most of the guys skipped the Saturday afternoon session to check out the exhibitors or the convention store. It’s okay, Youth Specialties encourages this kind of behavior.
I had seen on the schedule a special session on ‘Art as Prayer’ and decided to check it out. I took my place on the floor in the low lit room filled with candles, and read over the handout the ‘session leader’ had provided us. We’ve done 8 out of the 10 things listed in the past 4 months. As we started our art time, I noticed this girl who had sat in front of me a couple of times the previous day. I smiled because I was glad that I had not introduced myself the day before. I knew exactly what I was going to say, and as soon as class was over I stood up and she was gone. Lame. I took solace in knowing that I would have said something if I had the chance. I tried to leave to see if she was just meandering in the hall, but the ‘session leader’ really liked my artwork and bombarded me with questions. As soon as I could figure out a polite way to leave with out using the words ‘ruining’ and ‘chances’ together in a sarcastic sentence, I checked the hallways outside of the class. She was gone.
I shrugged and went on with my day. I bought a bunch of books, used my spam email to sign up for prizes at different merch booths, and sat and prayed for a while. I did the kind of praying you do while walking around the Staples Center in downtown LA on a beautiful, warm day. I prayed, but mostly listened. I felt good. I felt like those times when I used to sleep in way too late on a Saturday, and stumble into the kitchen at a time when I knew if I had a bowl cheerios then, I wouldn’t eat lunch till 4, but mom smiled because she was glad I was rested and feeling like myself.
I met up with the guys, and we ate a quick dinner and hustled back to the convention center because there was no way we were going to miss Donald Miller. We got there early, and decided it was worth while to sit closer to the stage than we ever had.
I don’t know where to begin to unpack Donald Miller’s talk. We were mesmerized, hanging on every word he said. I was jealous of his ability to tell a story. I was jealous and amazed that someone so interesting was sharing his journey with so many people. They say the average attention span for someone my age is under 20 minutes. I have no clue how long he talked, but it was over twenty minutes long, and the only time broke my focus was to try and soak in what he had just said and look over at my mafia crew and just shake our heads.
I’ll put up another post with more details, but the focus of Donald Miller’s talk was this; does your life make a good story?
Donald Miler wrote a great book, Blue Like Jazz, a few years ago, and it has become a classic due to Miller’s insight into faith vs religion. He has a unique gift of weaving faith into his stories of life in a way that makes God very real and substantial. It’s been on my recommend list for years. After his success, he fell into a rut that was highlighted by eating ‘copious amounts of ice cream and watching Oprah’. When he was approached about turning his life into a movie, he started realizing that the character in to movie was way more interesting than the real him. So he started owing things in real life that we typically add to a script to make it compelling.
For a guy who stepped out on a limb the previous night to make his life a story worth telling, I was pretty wide open to what Miller had to say. I listened as he challenged us to lead the interesting life that God has written for us. He closed with this image of us sitting in heaven with God talking about all of the great stories from our life. Looking around, it was obvious that the message was hitting home with others as well. When the session was over, everyone talked a lot quieter than we had before. I walked over to the booth in the back to get my copy of Miller’s latest book autographed.
I never made it though, because the girl from the art session was walking right towards me. I stopped her and her friend, and introduced myself. We laughed, talked about art in ministry and our different jobs working with youth. Her friend was polite, and let us do most of the talking, mostly just smiling at out interaction. I invited them out for coffee, and they declined, saying their staff got together every night to process the day. She said she’d like to run into me sometime the next day, and maybe we could get some ice cream instead. We kept talking, and as we figured out that we lived really, really far apart, it became pretty apparent that this was just going to be one of these things that stayed within the confines of the convention. She was really cool and all, but I don’t really seeing us staying in contact. We hung out a couple of times over the next day and a half, but I left with being stoked with the simple satisfaction that I had said hello. Although, if I’m ever in the Pismo Beach area, I won’t hesitate to give her a call.
Part Four: The Death of Cynicism.
Saturday closed with the crew back in the hotel, watching movie and laughing at our attempts to play Tiger Woods Golf on the Wii. There were a lot of open sodas, candy wrappers all over the room, farts, scratches, and jokes that we have agreed to keep between us. It was a great night. I think we all realized that we had a significant part in the story of the weekend, and we didn’t want the night to end. Most of us, the oldest of the group kicked us out of his room eventually.
They sang, and I could feel the cynicism that comes with ministry washing away. In that moment of my story I wanted to cry. And I did. There is a joy in listening to that kind of beauty, and I knew I needed to be in that moment. The session closed out with the stories of three teens who aren’t doing much but providing shoes to orphans in Africa, mosquito nets to malaria plagued villages, and trying to abolish modern-day slavery. I left inspired. God writes some amazing stories in our lives. I enjoy watching people realize that.
I spent the afternoon talking with [Subway]. We talked about important things, and unimportant things. We were kind to the waitress, and respectful to each other. There was no sense of urgency to finish our meal, and there was no stress in our words. I realized that not every moment of a great story had to be something worth bragging about. Some moments are great because two characters sit down and talk.
The session Sunday night was cool. We heard Liz Murray tell her story about going from being homeless, to graduating from Harvard. She told her story with an authenticity that more than made up for the fact that it seemed like she went on forever. We were all pretty wiped out from eating too much that day, so we headed back to the hotel for a much shorter round this time. We made fun of each other, joked bout our friend threeve and his hatred of the musical/comedy act that always closes out Sunday Nights at the convention. We drank a few sodas, told stories on each other, and went to bed.
Part Five: Smiling
Waking up Monday morning I felt like the first day you try and get back on a normal schedule after a lock-in. I had plenty of rest, but I was still moving like I was tired. We packed up our stuff, checked out and went to grab a quick bite before the last session. We scrubbed it out in some gym shorts, walking around downtown to the convention center. We were out of our element but totally comfortable. The last session was good this year, because they skipped all of the sentimental closings and let us simply say goodbye. Francis Chan gave a great talk, albeit somewhat dialed-in compared to years past. The mafia walked back towards the hotels, we ate one last meal at subway together, and parted ways. I drove back home to San Diego listening to some of my surf/jazz albums. I prayed for a while. And then my prayer time turned into me simply smiling.
I like a good story. I love God. I’m grateful for weekends like this when He writes in some powerful moments with some great characters.
One love, One heart.
Backspacer / Pearl Jam
OK Computer / Radiohead
ST / John Coltrane & Thelonious Monk
Sprout: The Official Movie Soundtrack
Stockholm Syndrome / Derek Webb
Through The Devil Softly / Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions