13 Reasons Why – The Difficulty of Pain

“Welcome to your tape”

Several weeks ago I heard about “13 Reasons Why” from a friend who is a youth pastor in Ohio. Before that moment I hadn’t heard about the series, the book, or any of the controversy surrounding it. When he explained the idea behind the show I responded with one word – “nope”. I didn’t want to watch this show. I didn’t want to continue watching it after I’d made it through the first couple of episodes. I really didn’t want to finish the series because I had heard about the ending of episode 13. There are a lot of things about my job at Hope that I truly enjoy, and generally speaking watching videos or listening to music to try and engage students in conversation is one of my favorite parts. This was a major challenge for me. That doesn’t mean everything about the show is bad or that you shouldn’t watch it, you’ll read more about that at the end of the blog, but I found myself emotionally drained, deeply saddened, and crying afterwards. And not the good, weeping for joy crying, but the ugly-sobbing-and-snotting-everywhere-hoping-no-one-is-around-to-see-you crying. That being said, before we get into everything that is “13 Reasons Why”, I feel I need to explain a few things.

First, I am not an expert on suicide, nor do I have a social work or counseling degree. And while I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with students who have struggled with self-harm, I, like many of you, contact licensed counselors when I encounter students who are dealing with these thoughts.

Second, I am presenting this as a part of a much larger conversation. I would hope, if you’re trying to fully understand the issues surrounding this book/show, that you would seek a multitude of sources before forming your own conclusions. I’ve spent the past week immersed in articles, books, podcasts, and conversations with youth workers and students trying to get a better grasp on what people are thinking/feeling. I’ve listed many of the resources I used in the resource section below for your consideration.

Third, I have watched the TV series, but only read a few excerpts from the book. I focused on sections of the book that were changed when it was adapted to a series.

Fourth, this issue hits close to home for me. In the almost three years I’ve been working at Hope close to 10 youth have died by self-harm in the tri-cities area. Not all of these teenagers went to our church, but the ripples that these deaths caused have been really difficult on our community. I can’t sit here and say that I’m not a little biased about stories that include self-harm.

Fifth, and maybe I don’t have to say this, this is my opinion. That opinion comes from a specific worldview that may be different than yours. I’m aware we’re different and you may disagree with everything I’m about to express. That’s “ok”. At the very least let’s dialogue about what you believe I was wrong about. I am hopeful those conversations happen after writing this.

“I’m about to tell you the story of my life”

Let’s start at the beginning. The premise of “13 Reasons Why” surround a girl (Hannah Baker) who dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes which explain why she chose to end her life. Each tape focuses on a different person and how their actions played a part in her suicide.

To get an idea of the atmosphere our story takes place in, less than two minutes into episode one several girls walk up to Hannah’s old locker, which is covered in notes about how beautiful, special, and wonderful she was. The girls take selfies pretending to look sad, and post them on Twitter with the hashtag “neverforget”. The next scene shows different students looking through all the Twitter posts of fellow classmates who used the same hashtag. There is a sense that people are posting and viewing these pictures as a way to garner likes or retweets instead of for Hannah. The audience is very quickly painted a picture of a school that doesn’t seem to care much about this loss. Or at the very least, didn’t care for very long.

As we move further into the episode our main character, Clay, discovers a box of tapes on his porch from Hannah and upon listening to the first one is sent on a whirlwind of a journey trying to learn of his part in her death. Along the way Clay discovers how other students at the school hurt Hannah and pushed her towards taking her own life. Clay navigates his way through the tapes, the people on them, and his response to their actions. Things seem to slowly spiral further and further out of control for our main character episode by episode until he gets to his own tape in episode 11. Once he discovers his part in Hannah’s story he comes to terms with it and passes on the box to the 13th person on the tapes, Mr. Porter. Clay then decides to try and do something positive at his school by reacquainting himself with an old friend who seems to be hurting, and they drive off into the “sunset” to end things. There are huge moments in between those points, but that’s the general story.

“When you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it.”

I had a rollercoaster ride watching this series. I found myself struggling to watch another episode one moment and unable to stop watching the next. I’m going to separate this into some positive and negative elements of the show and then give some thoughts on how to use(or not use) the material presented in “13 Reasons Why” at the end. Here are a few things I found to be helpful about the show.

  • Your actions have consequences: One of the most dominant themes in the show centers around this point. In episode 12 many of the students on the tapes are sitting around a table at the local coffee shop discussing how they should handle testifying for a law suit Hannah’s parents bring against the school. One of the students, Marcus, says “The first thing we have to do is find out what they know[the Baker family].” But Alex, a one time good friend of Hannah’s responds by saying “Or the first thing we have to do is tell the truth.” Most of the students come to the realization that they can’t simply brush what they did under the rug. They need to face up to the consequences of their actions. This is seen repeatedly throughout the show with specific emphasis on family obligations/responsibilities and friendship.

 

  • Bullying comes in many shapes and sizes: When I ask middle school students what bullying looks like I get pretty similar answers. I hear that bullying is pushing kids around, saying mean things about their appearance, or making jokes to friends about them. All of these are seen during the course of “13 Reason Why” as well as cyber bullying (sending nude photos of classmates), gossip, peer pressure, the list goes on. I think it’s important to validate the difficulties students face and the anxiety that they can feel from social interactions. This regularly pops up in both narration and dialogue between the students.

 

  • You CAN make a difference: It’s unfortunate that this really only comes across fully in episode 13, but Clay gives a speech to the counselor, Mr. Porter, in that episode which ends with the statement “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” The underlying sentiment is that students can make a difference in the lives of their peers by how they treat each other.

 

  • Self-harm (not just suicide) is real: While the show is all about a girl who dies by suicide, there are other forms of self-harm that we see throughout the episodes. Jessica becomes an alcoholic, Justin abuses drugs, and Skye self-mutilates. The consequences of these actions are highlighted in each persons life, and none of them are glorified. When Clay confronts Skye about her cutting she says “suicide is for the weak”, indicating that she self-mutilates to cope. Clay realizes the severity of the situation and in episode 13 decides that he’s going to make a difference in Skye’s life.

 

  • Issues-a-plenty: If you can think of an issue affecting students today, it’s probably discussed in some way during the show. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are – suicide, drinking, drinking and driving, responsibility, peer pressure, drugs, violence, bullying, depression, voyeurism, sexual assault, rape, self-worth, vulgar language, self-harm, intimacy, friendship, technology, social status, parenting. I’m sure that I’ve missed some. While the show covers a multitude of issues, many of them are not covered in very helpful ways. For example, while everyone seems to agree that Hannah was severely picked on, Tyler, the school photography and resident creep, is regularly shoved to the ground and picked on. And while the people that bully him are often stopped short of major violence by a passerby, more often than not the passerby also says some derogatory comment about him before leaving. So this one is more neutral to me than a positive.

 

  • Being a teenager can be really really difficult: Maybe I don’t need to include this, but I regularly see students getting a lot of criticism from people because they “have it easy”. I get some of this criticism. The difference between a 40 year olds responsibilities and the responsibilities of a 16 year old is pretty massive. But so is the age gap. And the maturity gap. And the intellectual gap. If nothing else, “13 Reasons Why” expresses in awful clarity how difficult it can be to navigate the battlefield of a high school. The decision to go or not go to a party paralyzes Clay. The decision to kiss or not kiss a boy consumes Hannah. We have to understand that as students develop these things become easier but as late adolescence occurs later and later, the difficulty of high school is only going to increase for students.

 

  • The other stuff: I enjoyed the vast majority of the acting, the music was beautifully integrated into the scenes, and the general quality of the production was really high. It didn’t feel like an average teenage movie/show. The characters of Alex, Justin, and Jessica were incredibly well done and the depth of emotion you felt about them when they weren’t always on screen was telling.

“I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.”

While there were some very clear positives throughout the series, I found myself more often than not frustrated or sad with how things were portrayed. Here are some things about “13 Reasons Why” that were difficult to swallow.

  • You can’t root for anyone but Clay and Hannah: This was a big problem for me. The other characters, specifically Justin and Jessica, have terrible stories. They experience things that no one should ever have to, and I wanted to feel sorry for them, but found myself unable to do so because of how they were portrayed. It felt like I wasn’t allowed to appreciate the other characters because they were “bad”, even though Clay and Hannah did things themselves that weren’t great. Specifically Hannah tells Jessica in her tape that Jessica quit coming to Monet’s for hot chocolate dates, and that’s what started the break in their friendship. But when Clay is speaking with Jessica about the tape she indicates that it was in fact Hannah who stopped coming. Unfortunately, because we see so much junk that Jessica has done we’re forced to believe Hannah.
    Tony mentions this to Clay later on in the series. He says “from the tapes, I know her[Hannah’s] truth… [but] I don’t know what your truth is”. I wish this message had been presented before episode 11. As the narrator and victim in the series, we’re automatically going to gain trust with Hannah, but the other stories involved are just as important to remember.

 

  • Revenge suicide is a problem: Hannah put a lot of effort into hurting every person that hurt her while she was alive. She even ensures that her plan is going to be carried out by threatening to have someone(Tony) release all the tapes if they don’t go through the agony of listening to all 13. I agree that the students on the tapes did some awful things both to Hannah and the people around them, but there are far better ways to go about enacting change than the method Hannah chose. That’s really the problem in general though, did Hannah actually want the kids on the tapes to change? Or was she doing it just to cause them pain. It feels far more like the latter.

 

  • Alex’s decision: I think this might be one of the most overlooked things that happens in the series. As episode 13 is ending we find out that Alex has tried to take his own life by shooting himself in the head. This is left unresolved as the credits roll. It’s actually kind of an afterthought to the whole story. As the series progressed it felt like other students on the tapes were also feeling like they too should kill themselves. Justin finds himself homeless with no friends and running away with a loaded gun. Clay stands on the edge of a cliff and says “Why shouldn’t I just jump, just let go?”

    Suicide ideation is something that occurs in people who are close to another individual who dies by suicide. The idea becomes a focal point for them and it’s difficult to shake. Imagine how much more difficult it would become if the person who died recorded a tape telling you (and everyone else) how you’re responsible for their death. It’s really difficult to separate Hannah’s tapes from Alex’s suicide attempt. We may get more clarification on this if there is a season two, but currently we don’t know what he was struggling with.

 

  • Hannah died, but feels alive: This was pointed out to me by a friend of mine, and when I went back to take notes on the series it struck me. It’s really unfair to the people watching as well as the people in the show that she narrates the episodes. I found myself on numerous occasions thinking “No, she’s going to be ok… Clay loves her… they’ll figure it out…” And then episode 13 happens and you experience Hannah’s suicide. Everything comes crashing down. The audience spends so much time seeing Hannah in flashbacks and Clay’s dreams she not only lingers in the show she becomes as much a central figure as Clay, who is still alive.

    This method, while being an incredible effect for a director to pull off, gives the impression that someone who dies by suicide can still be present in people’s lives after they’re gone. And while we have memories, pictures, and videos of the people who decide to go this route, their decision has a permanence that is not expressed well in the show. Despite multiple people saying “she’s gone” you don’t believe it until the very end. And with the producers leaving open the possibility of a second season off of another series of tapes from Hannah, who knows when it will feel like she’s gone. I think this sends a mixed message to kids who are dealing with thoughts of self harm. If they planned it as well as Hannah, is it possible they could have as much of an impact as her? Would it be worth doing if they could?

 

  • Parents are useless(mostly): While there are a few interactions between the parents and students that show genuine interest and care, most of the parental units aren’t very present in their kids lives. Bryce’s parents are absent in all 13 episodes of the show while they’re off skiing in Aspen or partying in Ibiza. Hannah’s parents are so worried about their store and finances they aren’t there for her in the midst of really difficult moments. Clay’s parents are the most engaged throughout the show, but that seems to only happen after Hannah’s death. Clay identifies this as well when his parents start behaving differently by wanting to have family breakfasts. It’s pretty clear that Clay hasn’t ever experienced this type of intentional interest in him or his well being. His dad is shown as always being distracted or on his iPad, while his Mom misses some of their breakfasts due to her job as a lawyer.

    There are some redemptive moments mixed in to the different storylines, such as Jessica’s dad taking an active interest in her when she finally opens up about being raped, but they’re so few and far between I was left feeling like none of the parents did much right or wanted to do much.

 

  • Hannah didn’t take the high road: This hinges on believing that Hannah becoming someone we grow to trust and believe as the show goes on. I think that Hannah making the tapes was as much about convincing herself that she had no other choice as it was to convince everyone else this was her only course of action. It has the potential to leave us thinking that she chose to end her life to make people wake up to the problems in the high school. I may be being too harsh here, but I don’t believe it’s healthy to believe Hannah was a martyr. Her decision was one that didn’t benefit anyone around her, nor herself.

 

  • Showing an accurate depiction of a suicide may be harmful: If you haven’t seen episode 13 of 13 Reasons Why it’s difficult to describe how real Hannah’s suicide actually is. It’s clear she researched how to kill herself in the most effective way. There were multiple times in the three or so minute scene that depicts Hannah ending her life and being discovered by her parents that I had to look away or close my eyes.

    On the one hand, I see why showing her death makes sense. Because we’ve grown so close to her over the course of the show and have this sense that she’s still alive there is a need to be very clear about the reality of her decision. The scene provides a real ending to her story and solidifies to the viewer that she actually is gone.

    On the other hand, I think it’s incredibly dangerous to show such a vivid recreation of a suicide as it could give people who are considering similar actions a plan for accomplishing it. Along with that, Hannah’s suicide goes very “smoothly” in regard to the actual act of cutting herself. She has no problem breaking the skin or going deep enough to penetrate her veins. In other words, it seems pretty easy. As I said above it’s a three minute scene, with the actual act of cutting herself only taking up around 30-45 seconds of that. Having read many accounts of people who tried to die by suicide with a razor blade in a similar manor, it’s not always easy, and often incredibly painful. I worry people may follow Hannah’s example but wind up giving themselves long lasting injuries.

 

  • Was it all necessary: There are two brutal rape scenes, Hannah’s suicide, and a several day dream moments from Clay’s perspective where Hannah is covered in blood. My initial reaction to these moments was the thought “man, that seemed unnecessary to get the point across.” But a conversation with my good friend Andrew(that Youth Pastor from Ohio) changed some of that thinking.          What if the point of 13 Reasons Why is primarily to educate guys on the realities of being powerless? Hannah’s rape scene in episode 12 starts with what could be taken as a fairly erotic situation. There’s a teenage girl in her bra and underwear sitting in a hot tub. There are millions of middle and high school boys who deal with fantasies about things like this. Bryce’s initial come on to Hannah even seems fairly playful, but as the scene continues it soon turns into something horrifying. Despite Hannah’s efforts to get away from Bryce, he is bigger, stronger, and inebriated. What happens next immediately destroys any fantasy of a consensual encounter and we’re left with the dehumanizing act of rape. It’s not a short scene, and as it continues we see Hannah slowly give up. It’s heartbreaking.
    Andrew’s perspective, which I agree with, is that the scene may not have been necessary for a female audience to see. Witnessing Hannah arriving at the party, and seeing the initial interaction with Bryce may have been enough. But to truly convince a male audience of the realities of rape and how it affects women, it may have been beneficial.

 

  • Binge Watching TV: This is not expressly about 13 Reasons Why, although I think it shares in the problem. When you watch a traditional television show you view it for 30 minutes or an hour and then have a week in between before you see it again. With this show and other shows like it on apps like Netflix or Hulu, there isn’t necessarily any breaks at all. For example, I watched the first few episodes with my wife and then powered through the remaining 6 or 7 by myself in a work day. I stood up afterwards and felt like I had run a marathon. Why was I so drained? And how come I felt drained for the rest of the day? The problems with binge watching are time and distance. For 13 Reasons Why I went from heavy episode to heavy episode with no time in between to process what I had just seen. If I had watched it as a traditional television show I would have had a week to wrap my head around what was going on and how to respond to it. When Kari and I watched Friday Night Lights (easily my favorite television show ever made), there were multiples times where we would finish an episode and I would ask to take a break. I couldn’t handle back to back moments that wrenched my heart.

    Unfortunately for most high school and middle school students, time and distance aren’t things they’re too concerned about. The majority of the students I spoke to or heard about that watched this show watched it in the span of a few days. I think that has the danger of compounding the already heavy nature of 13 Reasons Why and making it difficult for kids to have good perspective on what’s going on. If you’re planning on watching this show with your kids I highly suggest taking breaks in between to process what’s happening on the screen. Powering through it like I did has the potential to be as hard on them as it was for me.

“We all killed Hannah Baker”

Clay says this repeatedly in episodes 11 through 13, and is the most problematic statement I heard throughout the show. It’s problematic for a few reasons(that are really all the same reason):

  1. The only person that killed Hannah Baker, is Hannah Baker
  2. While you are responsible for your actions, and your actions have consequences, unless you picked up a gun/knife and used it to kill Hannah Baker, you did not kill her.
  3. Being a decent human being should be a requirement of every person everywhere, and the things you say or do to people have lasting impact on them. But that does not mean that if you said something harsh to a classmate and then they decided to kill themselves, that you are responsible for that act. This type of language has the potential to cause soul crushing guilt to a person.
  4. The only person that killed Hannah Baker, is Hannah Baker.

My heart broke for Hannah during the duration of the show. As each episode ended I hoped that the next one would be better for her. I hoped that somehow things would be different than I heard and episode 13 would actually be a story of redemption and hope. But when the credits rolled on episode 13 Hannah was gone. It’s a tragic story. But there were other avenues that Hannah didn’t explore even though she said the counselor was the last option.

She never told her parents.

Let’s not miss that.

She never told them.

Yes, her parents were distracted. Yes, they had tons of stress from their business. And yes, they yelled at her when she messed up the bank deposit for the store. But telling them may have been a step in the right direction. And now we don’t know how they would have responded because she took away that opportunity. Not you, not me, not Clay…Hannah took away that option.

“I guess that’s the point of it all: No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”

So, what now? Well, I think you have three options.

  1. You can choose to ban the show from your house and not engage it
  2. You can watch the show yourself
  3. You can watch the show with your kids

My two kids are five months old and about to turn three, so when it comes to this show it won’t be around or relevant when they’re old enough to watch shows other than Octonauts, PJ Mask, and Daniel Tiger. I’m grateful for that given the amount of turmoil this show has caused. For some of you with older families, your kids have already watched the series. For others, your kids have heard about if from their friends but haven’t seen it themselves. As a family you’ll have to decide how you want to handle what happens from here on out. I wanted to write this (longwinded) review to give you an idea of what to expect regardless of the route you take. I’ve provided what I believe are some helpful options depending on what route you take.

Option 1 – Ban and ignore it: Of the three options, I think this is the least helpful, because it leaves you(the parent) at a disadvantage. Your children will most likely hear about the show in class, in the lunch room, or on the practice field. Knowing what is and is not true about the show gives you the ability to have a truthful conversation with you kid if they come to you with questions. If your first pick is option one, I’d like to suggest instead you go with option two.

Option 2 – Watch it yourself: You don’t have to experience something that is evil to know that it is evil. And while I’m not saying 13 Reasons Why is evil, I understand that argument being used. However, what we’re discussing here relates to your job as a parent to raise your kids in a way that prepares them to be healthy adults, while also honoring God.

If you were to take a look at the history of music I’ve listened to on Spotify in the last year you would notice some oddities. I’ve listened to “Bad and Boujee”, the entirety of Drake’s “Views” album, Shawn Mendes, and unfortunately some Harry Styles. I listen to this music because having kids say “rain drop, drop top” and having no idea what they’re talking about makes it tough to engage them. That doesn’t mean I love the music, although “stitches” is really catchy, but it helps understand where they’re coming from more easily. Similarly, when your kids come home from school and are talking about “tape 3 side 2” and how it perfectly describes their friend Sarah, it has the potential for you to feel disconnected and uncertain of what’s really going on in their world. But if you can engage them in that conversation having watched episode six and knowing what it includes, it gives you an advantage.

The difficulty of this is that it exposes you to something that you can’t get out of your brain. As a parent I’m sure you’re used to sacrificing things for your children, but I want to caution you from diving in head first to this show. I would watch an episode and give yourself time and distance to think it through before you get into another one. Especially if you have a history of self-harm or depression. If you’re married, decide if your partner should watch the shows instead. Gaining an understanding of what your kids may be facing but harming yourself isn’t ideal in any way.

Option 3 – Watch if with your kids: I think this option is useful with a few stipulations.

  1. They ask about it.
    -This is a big one for me. It may not be helpful to introduce the content of the series to them if they’re not already engaging it. Ask them if they’ve heard of the series and if they say they don’t really care about it, don’t push the issue. I think you should still be aware of what happens in 13 Reasons Why in case they later change their minds.
  2. Your kids are old enough to engage the material in a healthy way.
    -If I was talking about my own kids I wouldn’t show this to them if they were under the age of 15. This is my number, but you’ll have to come up with what makes sense for you and your kids. Some kids mature faster and can handle things at a younger age. Others need more time.
  3. You engage them in conversation the entire time.
    -“We can watch this show, but after each episode we’re going to talk about what we saw and how that affects you.” Maybe say it in less of a lame way, but let them know you don’t get to shut off the tv and leave the room. Follow up on things you saw that troubled you. See if it troubled them as well.
  4. Give yourselves time and distance.
    -Watch an episode. Talk. Give it a couple days. Repeat. This will allow your kids time to process the material and dialogue about it with their peers at school if they want. Let them know if they have questions during the break they can always ask.
  5. Consider censoring the more graphic scenes
    -I am hesitant to suggest this, but as a 30 year old I struggled watching the two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide. If you think your kids can handle the show, but you don’t want to expose them to something that graphic, you might want to avoid those few scenes. Episodes 12 and 13 are the most egregious in this regard. You’ll have to watch them ahead of time (and tell your kids ahead of time as well so they don’t flip out) and be prepared to move past them. Netflix makes it easy to do this because their timeline shows you a preview of what is on screen as you scroll past it.
  6. Break it all down after episode 13
    -Have an extended conversation after the series ends. Give them a chance to tell you how the series made them feel. What struck them as helpful or harmful. How it challenges their thinking or actions. You’ve just watched something really powerful, they’re going to be affected in some way, shape, or form.

“You can’t go back to how things were. How you thought they were. All you really have is…now.”

I hope this was helpful. 13 Reasons Why is a series that deeply affected me, and from talking with students in our youth group, it affected them deeply as well. If you choose to engage this material, I’ll be praying for you, and I hope you’ll approach the material with a posture of prayer as well. The things that is missing from Hannah’s story is hope. And we have a hope that can transcend crappy friends, hurtful actions, and painful memories. As you walk with your kids through this content be sure to remind them that Hannah’s story is missing a relationship with Jesus. It’s missing someone reminding her that she was uniquely and specifically created by a God that cared and cares for her so deeply. This series as a whole is missing people who are motivated by a love of God to reach out to the broken and downcast to give them hope. If there is one thing we’ve learned from 13 Reasons Why it’s that we need to be people who are willing to go into dark places and tell people about the love of Jesus. If we can do that, I believe there will be less people who feel as lost and hopeless as Hannah.

 

-Matt

 

Resources:

The National Association of School Psychologists Guidance for Educators/Parents/Students on 13RW

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education(SAVE) Talking Points for 13RW

NY Times Article on the dangers of 13RW for teens at risk

CNN article on 13RW potential dangers mixed with a helpful message?

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Bust out your orange, it’s that time of year again.

Imagine walking up the steps to an enormous stadium and seeing the vast majority of people there wearing orange wigs, suits, sweaters, hats, and an assortment of other crazy accessories. This sort of fanatical excitement surrounds the last day of the Orange Conference that takes place in Atlanta, Georgia every year. When you pair that immense excitement with excellent speakers and engaging content it makes for a pretty incredible experience.

Kari and I had the opportunity to attend the Orange Conference last year, and we’re looking forward to seeing what this years conference has in store. The theme for this year conference, For Our Neighbors, is designed to give youth leaders a greater understanding of where their “neighbors” are at and how they can be best reached. For me, this is one of the area’s I’m constantly having to evaluate.

Some of the questions I regularly ask are:

Are we creating the right kind of experiences for students to be engaged and come to a better understanding of who God is?
Is our content useful?
Do parents appreciate what we’re teaching?
Are we providing the support that parents want/need?
Are we fostering lasting relationships?

I am expecting this years Orange conference and the breakouts that will be happening over the course of the event to hit on many of these points.

The Orange conference takes place April 26-28, and I would be incredibly grateful if you would pray for Kari and I as we head down to Atlanta to attend it. Youth conferences are often incredibly encouraging experiences and offer great perspective on which things are and are not important in ministry. They can also be a kick in the pants and require change within a ministry and ministry team. I hope that we’re able to handle both of those things well!

I’m looking forward to updating you all on what we picked up from the experiences in a few weeks. It’s going to be an awesome opportunity, even if I don’t have an orange wig to wear!

 

-Matt

How we grieve matters…

More than we think, and certainly more than we want.

I’ll never forget walking up to the classroom door and seeing the sign that said class was canceled for the day. I cheered silently to myself, did a little fist pump, and walked back to my dorm room for a nap I was more excited about than any I can remember. This nap was amazing because it replaced something I wasn’t super excited about – 2 hours of sitting in a classroom. And any nap that replaces something you’re kind of dreading feels like Heaven.

The following week when I went back to that same classroom for Biblical Interpretation class my teacher, Jessica Maddox, was there although she looked like she had been crying and didn’t have any tears left. Maybe you’ve seen eyes like these before. The kind where you look tired rather than sad because you’ve exhausted the ability to form new tears but your body is still wanting to produce them. As the class settled into their seats Professor Maddox got up in front of us and shared that she had miscarried. That while I was taking my nap that felt like Heaven she was experiencing a moment that felt like hell. Guilt immediately washed over me as I remembered my fist pump and silent cheer. Professor Maddox continued and I’ll never forget the way she explained to the class what she was going through. While I don’t remember the way she expressed herself word for word it sounded something like this:

“I’m mourning. My husband and I have experienced a tremendous loss and we are going through the process of grieving for our child that is no longer with us. I will be here, and I will do my very best to teach this course, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m unaffected by what transpired last week. As Christian’s we struggle to support people who are going through difficult times because we move past this part too quickly. I don’t know how long I’ll be grieving, it may be a few weeks or a few months, but I’m not going to pretend to be happy in the midst of this pain. God is still good, but I am also still hurting.”

I left class in total amazement. I’d never heard anyone say anything like that before in my life. I can only remember seeing the polarized experiences of pain within Christianity, either total rejection of God and movement away from Him, or a total rejection of pain and blind movement towards God. I believe both of these movements does a disservice to who God is and how He created us to exist in the world. As I’ve been studying and preparing for our current series on Job I’ve spent a lot of time processing how Job responds to the devastating losses of his family, servants, livestock, and health. At the end of the first chapter Job’s servants have delivered the terrible news that he’s lost everything and then he does three incredible things.

  1. He tears his robe and shaves his head
  2. He worships God
  3. Delivers the lines “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

The order here is really significant and often missed in our reading of the book. I hear a lot of sermons that talk about how Job praises God after he loses everything and how that’s a tremendous demonstration of faith, which it is. But it’s also not the first thing he does. The first thing he does is tear his robe and shave his head. Before he worships God he mourns. He demonstrates that life is not ok. He demonstrates that he is in the midst of pain and shows it visibly. If you knew Job you wouldn’t walk by him and think “man… that new hair style is crazy… guess he wanted to change.”. His torn robe and shaved head would clearly express that he was in mourning.

The tricky thing with mourning is that it’s not really an enjoyable experience. And as we are people who strive on a daily basis to experience happiness it makes sense that we’re bad at grieving. It’s much easier to pretend that we are ‘ok’ and try to ignore or forget the painful moments in life. We do this so much that it’s become a taboo thing in the Church. The first century Jews had a much better understanding of grief that we witness a chapter later in Job. When Job’s three friends see him they tear their clothes, weep openly, put dust on their heads, and (this is the crazy part) sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. They didn’t offer empty words like “God wanted another angel (or ten) in Heaven!” or “They’re in a better place.” They just sat there. And after they mourned for a long period of time they finally speak to him. They unfortunately give him some pretty terrible advice, but they don’t rush into the situation and try to give a quick fix to his pain. They acknowledge it, sit in it with him, and then speak.

My hope for you and my hope for me is that we would be people who are willing to sit in the sadness with our loved ones. I hope we will forego the easy road of empty words and instead be willing to invest in people long term. This second road is difficult, and we’re likely going to get a little dirty, but if I learned anything from Professor Maddox, it’s that being honest about our pain is the only way to truly get through it.

Love you all,

-Matt

Pursuit

I love Field of Dreams. It’s easily in my top ten favorite movies list and potentially number one on that list depending on my mood. There are a lot of reasons to like Field of Dreams. It’s a movie about Baseball(I love Baseball), it has James Earl Jones(I love Star Wars and his voice is amazing), Kevin Costner is a pretty fantastic actor(aside from that whole Waterworld fiasco), and it contains a story that revolves around the loss of something significant and the drive to gain it back.

These type of stories are easy to identify with because we as a people often experience the rise and fall of emotions surrounding loss. My son goes through a world of emotions when his beloved “puppy” falls out of his crib at night. If my wife and I were sleeping there is no possible way to remain asleep amidst the panicked cries and body wracking sobs he experiences over the loss and the absolute need to have it back. As we grow older loss looks different from person to person but continues to show up in our lives. Friends move away or are sometimes lost to tragedy, parents divorce, we lose a job, a relationship explodes, the list goes on and on. But through all of this there is a constant pursuit of something whole in the midst of these broken situations.

And so, when I watch Field of Dreams and see Kevin Costner’s character make absolutely insane decisions in pursuit of something whole I don’t find it ludicrous or even weird. I get it. I identify whole heartedly with his drive to find a peace within himself and in the world. Because at some point a long long time ago something broke inside of us and ever since we’ve been trying to get it back. We’ve been searching and searching for the thing that will make us whole again. We discover at the end of the movie that the thing Ray(Costner’s character) needed peace about was the way he’d said his last goodbye to his father. And in what may be the most heart wrenching scene I’ve ever seen in a movie(outside of Blood Diamond, because how do you compete with this), Ray asks the ghost of his father to “have a catch“. There is this expression on Ray’s face when his dad says yes that tells you everything you need to know about the desire for wholeness – it’s everything. The problem with Field of Dreams, and the problem with cinema in general, is that the ending is a fairy tale. More often than not in life we don’t get to have a “have a catch” moment with the thing we lost. When a high school student experiences the loss of a friend to self harm there is no amount of crazy decisions and hope that can bring them back. There is just this massive void.

So what does it look like to pursue wholeness in the real world when we can’t follow the road map that Costner set’s up in Field of Dreams? I think first and foremost it requires a change in perspective from finite to infinite. Everything we see around us from the people to the environment we live in is finite and has the potential to disappoint or be lost. If we have a relationship there is an absolute certainty that I will say or do something that is going to disappoint you. Partially because the filter I have often works slower than my tongue does, and partially because I’m just a broken human being who is fallible. That’s not to say we disengage with those things/people, it just means we can’t find our identity in them. We still pursue wholeness in all of our relationships, our jobs, and ourselves, but when those things let us down we can’t also allow them to bring our journey to a screeching halt. We have to keep moving, keep driving, keep trying, because there is something bigger at work in you and I. Our identity comes from who made us, and it is in Him that we find wholeness. Psalm 139 talks about how God knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs before we were born. It speaks to your and my identity as a beloved child of God and an heir to a throne and a kingdom that is so much bigger than what we see around us. And while we may never be able to attain wholeness in some areas of our lives, this is one where we can be completely full and living into who we are supposed to be. It is in that relationship that we can fix the brokenness we feel from so long ago. 

One day, after we’ve given everything we have and made crazy insane decisions in pursuit of our creator we’ll get to have our “have a catch” moment. And standing face to face we will know just like Ray did with his Dad, that it’s everything.

-Matt

When you say “yes” to a student…

You say “yes” to a lot.

As summer has been moving along I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of volunteers, youth pastors, and leaders to discuss and brainstorm how to do ministry effectively. I always walk away from these conversations grateful for the time and energy that people put into loving students well. Because honestly, students can be tough to love. Not because they’re bad people or sinners, but because they’re regularly more honest with where they’re at and what they need. They’re more open and honest because they haven’t learned the art of hiding their feelings or closing themselves off like many adults have. For most students they learn what it means to be betrayed, left behind, or hurt in middle school or high school and they cope with that by raising up walls. Maybe you can relate to this experience. By the time I reached high school graduation and the world of college I knew to hold back a lot of what was most vulnerable so I was less likely to be hurt.

As student ministry leaders and volunteers swim in this world of raw emotion and urgent crisis, it has the potential to become part of their everyday lives. I can remember numerous times where I lay awake restlessly trying to find a solution to a problem a student was having or worrying about what school would look like for them tomorrow, and I’m certainly not alone in these experiences. Too often I hear jokes about how youth ministry is just “dodgeball and fun”(which it is) without appreciating what it looks like to be a part of someones life in their best, and worst, possible moments. I’ve had youth ministry friends take pictures for prom, chaperone dances, coach baseball teams, take spontaneous road trips across the country, and meet up at coney island at 3AM for a chili dog and conversation. But I’ve also had youth ministry friends bail a student out of jail because no one else would, or sit in a bedroom with a girl who was trying to remember what happened the night before. Broken relationships, drug problems, school suspensions, parents divorcing, abuse, sports injuries, the list goes on and on.

The crazy thing about all of this is that these people choose to step into the mess that is student’s lives voluntarily. The volunteers we have at our church are not paid to be a shoulder to cry on. They’re not compensated for the hours of sleep they lack because someone needed to talk till 1AM. They’re not banging on my door asking to be reimbursed for the coffee they purchased and brought to a student during finals(although they could). They simply felt the call to say “yes” to students – and did.

There is so much that comes with saying “yes” to a student. And honestly, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What do you say “yes” to?

-Matt

I Wish I Could

Seeing ourselves the way God sees us.

I was incredibly insecure in high school. I didn’t know how to dress, what to say, or how to act, so I spent a lot of time emulating other people and trying to find acceptance in those relationships. The main problem with behavior like that is a healthy relationship has two willing participants, where as most of my “relationships” involved me latching onto someone to try and become like them whether they wanted me to or not. Relationships like that don’t last very long and mine were no different. It wasn’t until I met a couple guys who didn’t seem to care how I dressed, talked, or acted, that I found out who I was and how I wanted to live my life. It was through those relationships that I realized my identity was not found in who people saw me to be, but in how God saw me.

This past year the tri-cities area experienced a number of tragedies where students took their lives as a result of losing sight of who they were and how they were created. In most of the cases bullying from peers on social media was thought to have contributed. And while the idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” sounds great we all know it’s the furthest thing from the truth. All the memories I have that cause me pain to recall are related to verbal conflict instead of a physical altercation. It’s no wonder that students struggle with self-image in a world where Instagram likes and Snapchat streaks are so important.

The difficulty  in trying to live into how God sees us is that it takes a lot of effort. Effort to continually turn to scripture when we feel down, effort to not allow the barrage of negativity from the world to cloud our vision, and effort from our friend groups to remind us of who we are when we’re lost.

As a person who has sarcastic tendencies I’ve been really challenged lately to roll back the quickness of my tongue to be uplifting instead of critical. With the amount of negativity students face on a daily basis there is no need to add to it by throwing in some jab or comment. I don’t think thats enough though, because as much as I can be a force of positive reinforcement I may not be part of a students life forever. The only way for someone to be content with who they are is to look to how God sees them. This next year we’re going to try and do just that. Each week we’re going to be taking a look at how God sees us, and how we can live into that calling. The hope in all of this is that our students would walk away from our ministry with a better understanding of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” Eph 3:18 and that they would live with the knowledge that God sees them as a perfect creation that bears the image of his son, Jesus.

Would you be willing to pray for us as we carefully plan out that journey this summer? It’s definitely not something we can do on our own.

-Matt

It’s Just a Phase

Why is everyone wearing bright orange?

Almost two months ago my wife Kari and I traveled to Atlanta to attend the Orange Conference. The conference is put on by ReThink, an organization that creates curriculum and small group material for churches. They also develop resources to train volunteers, equip church leaders, and support parents. This years conference hosted some big name speakers such as Jon Acuff, Reggie Joiner, Kara Powell, Doug Fields, Virginia Ward, Andy Stanley, Carlos Whittaker, and Perry Noble. It was pretty incredible in terms of the people they had come speak. They also had Tripp and Tyler MC the fun night, which was filled with lots of jokes you probably wouldn’t tell on Sunday morning, but all of which were true and hilarious.

The purpose of the trip was to refuel and strategize on future ministry at Hope, both of which were accomplished. Several months have passed since we came back from Atlanta, and I have had a chance to go back and revisit a lot of the material I picked up. I wanted to take a couple minute and highlight a few takeaways from the conference in the hopes that you would find it encouraging, but also because I think you should go next year! You don’t have to be in charge of a ministry to find value in what is being presented.

4 Take-Aways from Orange:

1. The Church saved my life
Andy Stanley took a Bill Hybel-ism and used it in his message. He started with the idea that “The local church is the hope for the world”, and connected that with his story. His story, which includes a LOT of sitting in church services, confirmed that there is more to Church than the Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening events. The Church informs the conscious of people, instills a sense of purpose, provides lifelong friendship, teaches people to be generous, and serves as a window into God’s activity all over the world. So when he talked about the Church saving his life, he truly meant that without the church he didn’t think he would have made it. With all of that he very clearly explained that the cumulative affect of people pouring into him over and over made the difference, because relationships are required for life change to occur. And the Church is a place for real relationships to begin.

I LOVE that.

2. Define your win
This was a really difficult one for me for a couple of reasons. First, it was the last breakout on day two. Meaning that I’d already been sitting for a really long time, my brain was overloaded, and I was tired. Second, I was really hungry. I don’t do very well when I’m hungry and tired. Third, It’s really difficult to look at a ministry and try to define what “winning” is. There are lots of different standards for winning and chances are there are people in your church and/or ministry who feel your standards should be something else, probably their standards.

For the youth pastor presenting, “winning” was making sure that every parent received a sheet of paper on a weekly basis that explained what they were doing, why they were doing it, and how the parent unit could engage their student(s) over the course of the week. There are lots of reasons why that’s a phenomenal “win”, but my favorite is that it allows parents to become invested in what their students are learning. They effectively get to become partners in ministry passing on their own knowledge and wisdom to their kids. As a youth ministry you not only set up parents to “win”, you set them up to learn themselves. I think the Church as a whole “wins” when parents and students learn together.

3. Sometimes ministries need to die for life to begin
Outside of doctrinal issues, I believe that most church splits happen because the leaders of the church decide that a change needs to be made, and people become divided on whether that change should occur or not. Some of these issues include pews or chairs, hymns or contemporary songs, take a loan or don’t take a loan, the list goes on.  As Jon Acuff said it “the enemy loves for us to argue about what matters and what doesn’t.” And we’re really good at arguing. We try to make the Bible say that we’re right and they’re wrong, that our way is the best way, and it’s more like what Jesus would have wanted if he was still around throwing parties and turning water into expensive wine.

But here’s the thing. There are lots of things that you can do to occupy your time. And then there are some things that you should do to occupy your time. It’s better to pay your taxes when they’re due than to sit on the couch and binge watch Game of Thrones and then hastily file an extension. The distinction may be small, but it’s real. And the same is true in ministry. We have the ability to fill our calendars with really cool things that don’t do a whole lot of anything for our students. And we also have the ability to create really great, really well thought out events that end up being ok, but we never make them exceptional because they weren’t terrible. Complacency is not something that encourages growth. It may maintain, but it’s not likely to make something thrive.

4. Jesus wasn’t a day a week Messiah.
Jon Acuff is one of my favorite people. I’ve never met the man or spoken with him, but I’m pretty sure we would be best friends. Our friendship would look similar to the way Schwarzenegger and Devito look on the cover of Twins, but we’d still be best friends. Partially because he likes queso as much as I do, and partially because he thinks in a way that I really appreciate.

He shared this point on the main stage and I couldn’t let it go. Multiple speakers mentioned this idea, but the wording of Jesus being anything but a day a week Messiah captivated me. We regularly talk about the idea of relational ministry and what that looks like, and this lines up perfectly with it. If I never get outside the walls of the church or my office, I’m not doing my job very well. As a youth ministry we have to be thinking about ministry as a week long thing instead of a one night/morning experience. We have to think about and plan for what students are going through on Monday morning, Thursday evening, and Saturday morning. This sort of engagement not only validates their struggle but encourages them that there is hope throughout the week and they don’t have to wait for next Sunday to feel loved again.

So… See you next year?
I hope that even if you don’t make it to the conference next year, but seriously – you should make it, you would begin to think about what it means to be a church and a youth ministry that deals in week long ministry. The conference title was “Monday is coming”, and we need to be a part of the conversation when it does. Don’t abandon students after they walk out of your doors Sunday evening. Walk with them into tomorrow.

 

-Matt

Fake

Masking who we are, for who we think we should be

When Robin Williams passed away I got a copy of the Time’s magazine that commemorated his life. It’s sat on my desk since his death, usually covered in papers and random Nerf bullets. Today as I was cleaning things up and organizing the random papers I glanced at the magazine and was struck by the look on his face.

Here is the cover:
Time - Robin Williams
I remember Robin as the alien on Mork & Mindy, John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, Peter Pan in Hook, and the Genie in Aladdin. These roles, which helped shape my worldview, are the way I remember a man I continue to see as one of the most genius minds in acting. And yet the look on his face on the cover of Time reminds me that he was acting the entire time. The roles that helped me grow up were not who Robin Williams was as a person, they were all different masks that he happened to wear exceptionally well.

I couldn’t help but make the connection between the different roles he’s played and the masks we put on on a daily basis. Robin’s masks hid a man fractured by depression, alcoholism, anxiety, and fear. But as a society we enjoyed the masks he wore and even when they would slip off and a story would arise about his underlying issues we would sweep it under the rug and say “He’s the genie from aladdin, remember? He’ll be fine.”

But he wasn’t fine, just like many of the students in our ministry are not fine. They’re dealing with the same depression Robin dealt with, the same alcoholism (whether in their parents, or themselves) that Robin experienced, the same anxiety he struggled to handle, and the same fear of being unlovable.

I don’t have the answers when it comes to these issues. They’re complex, multi-layered, and emotionally charged. But I know if we do nothing then we witness the same end Robin experienced.

My prayer for our ministry, for our parents, and for our church is that we would be willing to drop the masks we wear and be real with each other. That we would extend our arms and embrace the hurt these masks hide even if it’s messy and unattractive. I pray that we would be able to look down at our snot and tear covered clothes and rejoice that we were able to be part of the process, however small a part it may be.

There is too much pain to do nothing, so would you join with me and do something to help?

-Matt

 

Why We Laugh

I walked into my first Young Life club, located in a barn in the Forest Hills area, unsure of what would happen and what I was supposed to do as a leader. As the 7th and 8th grade students arrived I found myself timidly making small talk and playing basketball with them. It was difficult to talk to students that I didn’t know at all, and to try and get them to open up about what they were interested in and liked seemed even further away. All of the students stuck with their friend groups, talked with each other, and in general avoided interacting with other students. And then club started, and something miraculous happened.

We played a game called Princess, Rider, Pony, a pretty basic game where you get a partner, wander around the room away from that partner, and then when the music stops the person in charge calls out one of the three names and you race to your partner to preform that action. Do it fast or you’re out. As this game was being played the kids who moments earlier seemed timid and scared were suddenly running around like crazy people, joking with people they were bumping into, and eventually falling down in heaps of laughter because they couldn’t keep up. By the time the actual talk portion of the night started our kids were sitting in completely different places from where they started, next to people they didn’t know, and were focused on what a 40 year old guy was saying. It was magical.

We played games at Young Life because students have walls they build up. These walls, which are a means of protecting them from probing eyes and wandering questions, make it almost impossible to have real conversation. Games, and in turn, laughter, have the ability to break down many of these walls. And while this may seem like some hokey mysticism, it solidly grounded in science. As you laugh your body releases endorphins into your system that do wonders for nerves, tension, and in general make you feel good. These endorphins are wall breakers. They remove the rigid frostiness that many teens cling to for protection and once it’s gone you can have some genuine conversation.

So if you ever come up to the student ministry center and see us playing a game that is filled with laughter, know that what we’re doing is breaking down the walls that surround kids hearts so that the message of Hope can find it’s way home. We hope that you’ll join us for a game of Princess, Rider, Pony, if you’re ever in the neighborhood on a Wednesday/Sunday evening. It’s good for body, after all.

 

-Matt

When your feet stop moving

It’s been almost 10 years since I felt the heavy weight in my legs. The invisible, unexpected burden that keeps your feet from taking their next step and weakens your resolve to keep moving. I found myself thinking “just turn around…get back in the car and go home…play video games for a while…you have lots of homework and a big test coming up… come back next week.” I was standing outside Forest Hills Eastern’s impressive front entrance that seems to stretch upwards forever. It was the first time I was supposed to do contact work by myself, and all the energy I had felt in the car while driving was suddenly sapped from my soul. I was terrified. Middle school kids were scary and in large numbers they devour things in their path. Why would I ever willingly throw myself at their mercy? This was insanity.

And then, almost outside of my control, my feet began moving towards the doors. I felt my body being dragged up the long staircase that leads to the lunch room the whole time praying that God would be merciful and allow me to see just one kid whose face I recognized and name I knew. I scanned the tables for faces I remembered and came up blank. I looked again a little slower while trying to not look like a creeper and bang, there he was, Matt DeVries. With a pretty awkward wave and a cocked smile he was sitting at a table with some guys I knew and invited me to sit down. I was grateful for the seat because it felt like I had just run a marathon and needed to slow down my heart rate.

I remember that moment because it was really difficult, but it was also a major shift for me ideologically. I had been part of the “path of least resistance” social group for a long time, often known as lazy people. I had grown up in a large family and after heading to college decided I wanted to put myself first for a change. When I found my way back to Christ it radically shifted how I viewed the world and other people. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still selfish and I still struggle with putting people ahead of myself, but the experience and freedom I felt in Christ captivated me and is continuing to change how I see and operate in the world.

As I was standing in front of the doors to Forest Hill’s Eastern I felt the weight of whom I had once been pulling at me to go back to that path of least resistance. But I had been on that path once before, and it didn’t work out very well. Sitting with Matt and his friends at that table I finally understood what it meant to overcome the world and live into a calling. It’s a calling that at times in terrifying and uncomfortable, and at the same time beautiful and captivating. It’s uncomfortable because no matter what you believe about me I need to make it clear that I don’t actually enjoy getting pied in the face, having eggs smashed on my head, or being the only 30(almost) year old in the lunch room. I do it because it is through those moments, those uncomfortable situations, that the person of Christ reveals himself in the lives of students and captures them. And that’s really what we’re fighting for.

-Matt