Sunday, November 13, 2011

On being a free radical: thoughts from a Teen Mania mom

I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I shall preface my further thoughts on that with a few musings.

First, I missed you all last week.  I failed to blog because I was busy working on losing my home, a very 21st century boomer thing to be working on, I'm afraid.  This, too, will be a blessing.

As a result of and in spite of losing my home, I'm free today, thank you Jesus.  I will now not have the encumbrances of crushing financial obligation, heavy repairs, yard maintenance, refurbishment, or other such earthly chains on me when I retire in two years.  I can very simply go back to my roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, if I time my lease right.

That's the free part.  And yes, I'm still a radical in many ways, too, albeit lost temporarily in the Great Central Valley of California.  Like free radicals which are found in the wild, my nature is to drive processes, regulate them, or flip them on their ear till they're free-wheeling in black space.  Sometimes, I get trapped in a box.

I'm a mom.  I'm a born again Christian.  I'm a hippie.  I'm a pro-lifer.  I have run for office.  I'm a Democrat, sometimes.  I support PFLAG.  Nuff said.

If you have any further questions, link up with my main character, who lives in my novel Corners, blogged in full below, from bottom to top.

Back to business.  As a former Teen Mania mom, I was dismayed when I found I had missed last week's MSNBC special, "Mind Over Mania," especially now that it has been pulled down from You Tube.  My daughter saw it, though, and she had a few things to say about it.  From what I have heard, the special reviles Teen Mania without mercy.  I will have to see it one day to decide for myself what it does.

My daughter was class of 2006 from Teen Mania's Honor Academy, the focus of the MSNBC documentary.  My son was almost, within two weeks, class of 2007.  They had very different experiences, my daughter and son.  In the end, I believe both benefited from it greatly, in radically different ways.  My son may tell you different, but the best part of him has Mania written all over it.

The Honor Academy (HA) is the youth-driven engine behind the traveling teen revival, "Acquire the Fire," and the worldwide missions program "Global Expeditions."  Run virtually exclusively by kids between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four (there are usually no more than two people older than 24 on the 400-student campus at any given time, and those two are nearly impossible to reach), the isolated HA campus possesses an aura, even an undergirding value system, of radical youth, much like the communes of the '70's that my cohorts and I frequented in our younger days.  And these kids are radical, know it - souled out believers in Jesus Christ, and they are as youthfully human as the day is long.

We learned of the HA at a packed Acquire the Fire (ATF) event at Sacramento's Arco Arena, on one of those junkets my church used to roll out to in the '90's and early 2000's, my Sequoia stuffed to the gills with youth of every stripe.  ATF is designed, staged, recruited and put on the road by teams of youth, your kids and mine, who have signed on for a one-year stint or more at the HA.  My daughter was ATF Call Center when she was there, my son Global Expeditions (GE) Call Center.  HA interns do everything from recruiting and deploying missionaries and youth pastors, to booking speakers and musicians, to rolling out buses filled with intern cast and crew.  They stage hand it, act it, clean it up, fundraise it, train it, acquire passports and visas for it, you name it.

They have a Teen Mania Board and donor list studded with the greats in modern Christian leadership to back them up every step of the way, too.  Endorsements come from the likes of Jack Hayford (Former President of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel and now President of The Kings University), Josh McDowell, TD Jakes, Randy Phillips (Promise Keepers, President), Mike Bickle (Director, International House of Prayer), Joyce Meyers, George Barna.  And the list goes on.

The Honor Academy campus is located in pretty doggone deep East Texas, about forty minutes east of Tyler between Van and Lindale, out in the land of unannounced hot August T-storms.  It is the former home of legendary worship musician Keith Green, a man known to many as the daddy of modern worship.  Green was killed there on his own airstrip in a small plane crash, still young and at the peak of his career.  The Vineyard Church which he helped inspire, now a denomination found in places across the country, remains a Sunday morning destination for HA interns to this day.

Ron Luce, a born-again believer who grew up raised by Jesus with no earthly father figure, acquired Green's property and converted it into the HA, which features brick buildings constructed to withstand the rural East Texas winters, and a miraculous monster pool featuring a towering water slide and recreation area.  The "Back Forty" is acreage on the property using for trainings and exercise, as well as for meditation.  The Back Forty is where ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime), the activity now made infamous by the MSNBC special, takes place each year.

ESOAL is something like boot camp - REAL boot camp, without the bullets. There is mud. There are blisters.  There are teams charged with surviving together and pulling buses out of the mud with nothing but boards and ropes and each other.  In ESOAL, they become prepared to be missionaries in the field, to find their way home with no direction, to literally carry their crosses beside one another, to be humble.  In ESOAL, they know exactly who has their back and exactly who holds them accountable.  It is only one of the many stretching experiences interns sign on for when they enroll.  My daughter made it most of the way through ESOAL, but rang out at the disgusting food opportunity.  My son had to opt out of the whole thing for health reasons, and his reasons were honored.

During my daughter's ESOAL experience, Hurricane Rita hooked northeast right into their event and dumped buckets of rain, then fizzled.  I remember watching the white whorl on the Weather Channel and praying.  They marched on.

This is one of the times when the grownups show up, and there they stay for the duration.

At the HA, you commit to a code of honor.  You promise purity while you are there.  No smoking.  No drinking or drugs.  No inappropriate fraternizing with the opposite sex.  No lying, cheating, stealing.  No internet.  If you fall, you are honor bound to confess first to God and then to the Honor Council - the Council is kids, true - who will make a recommendation on your behalf about what is best for you.  These recommendations can be harsh, no question.

I have grieved over many of the recommendations - precious young men and women sent home for kissing.  A downtrodden street child who had paid his own way and now glowed from head to toe with the Holy Spirit, sent home for sneaking a cigarette.  A boy almost at the end of his year, sent home for reading his lessons from the forbidden internet instead of from the book.  Still, all of these young people had ridden the edge before.  Many more were forgiven and given study activities or work detail to help reset their habits.

During my son's year, he struck out on a driving trip to Arkansas with a fellow intern, keeping a promise to visit a childhood friend who also had wanted to attend the HA.  The only problem was, there was a tornado watch in effect.  Somewhere around Texarkana, his car spun out along with about three other cars, fishtailing and whipping around 180 degrees, then sliding sideways and slamming into a road sign against the passenger door.  As he told it to me from his cell phone at the roadside, his door had simply popped open and he was standing on the road, absolutely safe, he knew not how, beside his car when it was over.  And so was his friend Oscar, somehow.  Saved by grace?  I believe so, as does he.

My daughter believes she was similarly blessed while out there.  A big rig apparently passed through their car from its right to its left as they rode in the left lane on Highway 20 back from Dallas in the rain, three little girls crammed in the back seat reading their Bibles.  They were sure they would die.  They are convinced of what they saw instead, all five of them.

Is Teen Mania a cult?  I have several rules for declaring something a cult.  In a cult, the leader declares himself Lord. He stops at nothing to keep you tied to him - lies, theft, denial of your basic human needs.  Nothing is voluntary.  The leader wants your very life, forever.  A cult never ends.  In a cult, you can't go home, because they will find you.  In a cult, even your parents can't get you out without a paid kidnapper and a de-programmer.

Does Teen Mania engage in these practices?  Absolutely not.  Are the young people highly zealous in their pursuit of recruits, and highly zealous in holding them accountable once they are there?  To be sure. Highly.

Anyone signing up for the HA or an overseas mission who is younger than twenty-one should in no uncertain terms have a parent on deck who is prepared to step up and BE A GROWNUP; a parent who is ready to stay tight with the two grownups on campus, if you can find them (be ready to HUNT if necessary); a parent who is ready to send a car if possible, to send care packages, to send cash for sundries, to make sure the minimal monthly payments for food and lodging are attended to.  Your child will need a parent who is ready to be there on the phone in the wee hours of the morning when your child's determination begins to flag, to assure him that he has your earthly love as well as the love of Jesus.

Yes, I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I will be the first to tell you that Teen Mania is not perfect, because nothing earthly is perfect.  It is a radical experience, no doubt.  But then, that's how we roll, my babies and I.  That's how we roll.  Radical to the bone.

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