The idea for Elementary Ninja dropped into my heart during a season of confusion, mourning, and insecurity in my life. I’d been on a desperate search for clarity, asking why God would give me what seemed like a random smorgasbord of gifts and skills, all of which felt completely unrelated most days.
As hard as it is for me to admit, I’m someone who finds comfort in everything having its place. The butter either lives on the top shelf of the fridge or in the butter box on the side door, but it can’t go back and forth. In my brain, that is a recipe for disaster. I would rather have two things of butter. That’s crazy, right?
To be completely transparent, over the last 12 years of my career I’ve felt like I’ve spent a huge chunk of time struggling to find “my place in the fridge.”
I’ve been bouncing around from field to field – from the darkroom to the dance studio, from the stage to, in most recent years, the kids’ ministry wing of the church. I’ve been honing my leadership and speaking skills, deepening my passion for kids’ ministry and mentor culture, while also finding a sense of identity in sharing my artistry – writing, leading kids in worship, choreography and graphic design. Somewhere in between all of this, I also became a dad, enrolled in seminary, and traveled overseas as a missionary. A.D.D. is real.
Certainly, at some point, I would have to choose, right? I can’t be the butter jumping from shelf to shelf. Have I missed something? And how is it that everyone else around me seems to have a crystal clear picture of what I should be doing, while somehow I remained stuck like Chuck? I bet even Chuck himself eventually wiggled himself free from whatever he was stuck in. Did he use butter? In short, I had become overwhelmed with myself.
Then one day in February 2016, my life seemed to come to a complete standstill. I received the news that my grandmother, who had been fighting heart disease for several years, finally lost her battle. The news devastated me. Not only did she raise me for a season of my life, but she was the only other follower of Jesus in my immediate family and the very first person to introduce me to the love of God at age 6. She was my favorite person in the world.
My grandmother taught me to pray and she taught me to sing. She taught me to fish and she taught me to serve. She was wise and gracious and funny and giving and fearless. She was clearly not skilled in just one thing, but a master teacher in many. My grandmother could do anything. She was like a ninja. And just like that, she was gone from my world and welcomed into the arms of Jesus – angels belting out coritos in Spanish, no doubt.
The same week I learned of my grandmother’s passing, I also learned that I was becoming ordained as a pastor at my church. Those who know me well know that I’ve always thought my “pastor hat” was slightly too big for my narrow head – always leaving me somewhat stumbling around in the dark and unsure of where I was supposed to go. In short, I’ve always questioned my call as a pastor.
But if there’s one thing that’s plain as day, it’s the date on my ordination certificate that matches the date of my grandma’s death. Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m not one to over-spiritualize things, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bittersweet moment in my life symbolized a kind of “passing of the faith torch”. It was as if I could hear my grandmother’s scratchy voice yelling in broken English, “Your turn, Felipé Daniél!” My grandmother wasn’t much of a whisperer, even in her last days.
Two weeks later, the ministry team I work with decided they would spend the last half of our monthly meeting celebrating my ordination, a sweet shot of emotional anesthetic given the painful rollercoaster I’d been on. Each of them went around the circle, sharing memories, speaking into my life, making me laugh, encouraging me and challenging me to lean into the way God wired me. Pretty unreal, right? They’re the best.
Then, to my surprise, they placed a royal blue pullover sweater in my lap. First of all, sweaters are life to me and also my sixth love language. An eclectic mix of white, block-letters were splashed across the front of it reading, “Children’s Pastor – only because full-time, multitasking ninja is not an actual job title.” I immediately tossed my head back and laughed in agreement.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that “Children’s Pastor” is the most complicated job (although it’s debatable). You’ve seen this sweater pop up on your Facebook feed. You can order one for virtually any and every occupation. Chefs, firefighters, even the scary lady at the DMV proudly wears hers to acknowledge the circus that is her job. But, as silly as this might sound, the message on this mass-produced pullover was both oddly affirming and comforting.
Most days, I do feel like a ninja.
Maybe I hadn’t actually missed anything. Maybe I wasn’t made for just one thing. Maybe I was never meant to fit perfectly inside the butter box that I so desperately had been trying to squeeze myself into for the last several years in the name of “finding my place in the fridge”.
Truth be told, I’d been acting less like myself and more like Troy Bolton struggling to reconcile his love for high school musicals while desperately trying to meet his existing obligations to the basketball team and the academic decathlon (shout out to Disney Channel Original movies). Eventually, though, like Troy, I started to take my eyes off of everyone else and turn them toward who I was meant to be. After all, my own grandmother was a “full-time multitasking ninja” in her own right, so what made me think the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
A ninja is known for being trained in a variety of fighting styles, all that is required of them “unable to be named under a single discipline but rather distributed among a variety of covered espionage and survival skills.” (Wikipedia, ladies and gentleman!)
I don’t want to be just one thing. I can’t be. I certainly don’t have any aspirations to be an undercover spy in feudal Japan, much less save the world, but I do want to make a difference. More specifically, I want to give kids a better future.
After all the praying, pleading and listening, I’ve discovered at least one commonality between all the random things I love – they draw the hearts and minds of kids. And kids are my jam. They’ve always been.
I’m an Elementary Pastor and I’ve become mega-passionate about this 6 – 10 year phase of a kid’s life. I mentor kids. I dance with kids. I speak and sing for kids. I write and I travel and lead to inspire those who work with kids. Once I settled on that, I no longer had to worry about who I was supposed to be or who everyone else wanted me to be.
I’m an elementary ninja. Because if I want to be used to give kids a better future, I not only need survival skills (for real) but I’m going to need all the gift and skills I’ve been given and learn to use them wisely.
“…Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus, and he’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything—encores to the end of time. Oh, yes!” -1 Peter 4:10-11, The Message.
Can I seriously be a hip-hop dancing pastor? Is that even biblical? Am I allowed to design graphics for the conference before I jump onstage to host it? Can I learn to not be annoyed with my “lack of focus” because I just choreographed the bride and groom’s first dance before officially pronouncing them husband and wife?
The answer is yes. Because there are way fewer rules than we think. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you can only be one thing. Don’t stick to the status quo. (Why did the message of High School Musical take so long to stick!?)
Choose to be unpredictable, dynamic and multi-faceted and definitely don’t let the wrong voices deter you from leaning into the creativity you were born with. Choose to be a ninja and watch God use your skills to bring about the change you want to see in the world.
Also, please leave the butter in one place.
Elementary Ninja exists to serve those who lead 6 – 10 year olds in school, church, home or mentor relationships, in an effort to give them a better future. I’ll be sharing stories from my life and ministry as well as resources, creative ideas, and best practices for all who are in the fight to capture the hearts of the next generation.