YL Hard Thoughts

In Young Life, we do a great job of celebrating the successes. The kids whose lives went from nowhere to somewhere, from dead-end to star-studded. Jesus has a way of making glorious redemption stories, and we love to celebrate those times and those kids.

But maybe we don’t always do the best job of communicating the failures, the heart-aches, and the tragedies. Yesterday, we celebrated the life of a young man who touched the lives of many in a way that few could, yet we also mourned the loss of a life with more potential than we had probably ever seen in our years of ministry. Jake came into our lives bigger than life itself, wearing a batting helmet and a 10,000 watt smile. His was a life on a collision-course with disaster, but through the efforts of numerous teachers, coaches, friends, Young Life leaders, and pastors, Jake came to know Christ at Malibu. Jake grew quickly and devoured the gospel ferociously. He loved Christ, and his transformation sparked a school-wide surge in Young Life attendance, youth group growth, and numerous friends who came to Christ. In spite of his growth, however, Jake continued to struggle with his inner demons, and though he led Young Life and continued to inspire others, Jake himself struggled to believe all that the gospel claimed. A brilliant intellect, Jake took philosophy courses in college and rationalized himself completely away from Christ. He spent the next 10 years spiraling downward, simultaneously loving others and destroying himself. Two weeks ago in the early pre-dawn hours of the Bay Area, Jake’s body was found on the light rail line. The news article listed him a transient, his body identifiable only through fingerprints.

In my 20 years of Young Life ministry, I have never been around a young man who was as well-loved by others as Jake. He inspired dozens, if not hundreds of others. Why could he not depend upon the truth Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 21.26.05that, for a short while, he shared so forcefully with others? A truth which changed the lives of those around him? His previously lost, directionless high school friends now are teachers, coaches, pastors, Young Life leaders, missionaries, and faithful Christian parents. Their lives were forever changed by the impact of Jake’s life, but his life, though it bore fruit a hundred-fold, did not come to the end we had hoped for. Jake himself knew he wouldn’t die of old age; it was the last thing he wanted. Ultimately, I believe Jake rejected God’s love for him because he was never able to love himself. He wanted to be better than he was, but Jake’s standards were perfection. God’s offer of perfection for Jake through Christ, however, somehow rang hollow whenever Jake looked in the mirror and realized he never measured up.

Of course I ask the question, “What more could I have done?” Could I have stayed in touch with Jake more closely through college? Could I have argued the gospel more forcefully, more effectively? Could I have loved him with more endurance, more wisdom, more patience? Certainly. And I know I’m not the only one asking these questions today. Probably hundreds of people are asking the same question of themselves. What could I have done differently that would have led to a different end for Jake?

Why do some kids who have no hope and no future suddenly grasp onto the gospel and have their lives become shining examples of God’s goodness? And why do other kids make quick starts and then flounder around, spiral out of control, and destroy themselves? If we give God the glory in one instance, it might seem right to give God the blame for the other, but I can’t quite go there. We can be super-spiritual and say that, “God works in mysterious ways,” but that’s pretty unsatisfactory to me as well. The truth lies somewhere in between, and is unfathomably complex.

In the end, I suppose all I can do is remain faithful to God’s calling, and you know what? I’m not really very good at that. But I leave it in God’s hands. Jake was a lesson in what could have been.

And today, I was at the baptism of another “Jake” in another time and another place. Her name is Grace, and she is every bit as full of life as Jake was. Grace is a work in progress, rough around the edges, full of questions and controversy and a deep sense of justice that is outraged at the reality of life around her. And Grace, too, is widely loved by everyone that comes in contact with her. She seems bigger than life itself sometimes. And now the question comes again: how do we make sure Grace walks the straight and narrow, that she reaches her full potential, that she becomes all that God Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 21.25.06has in store for her? How do we ensure that He who has begun a good work in her will truly bring it to completion? How do we make sure she isn’t derailed by the empty philosophies of the world when she goes off to college next fall?

We can certainly do things better, but ultimately, of course, free will is a tricky thing, and we have an adversary.  There are no guarantees except to continue to trust God and pray for Grace, and grace for all the kids that we work with. We can be available, insert ourselves into their lives, ask the nosy questions, live lives of real faith that can’t be glossed over easily by cynical students. When it comes down to it, it never gets easier to let go of students and send them off to university and out into the world, like first-day-kindergartners disappearing down the road on the bus as our eyes mist over.

Please pray for me as I work through this. Pray for Grace. Pray for all of us in the business of presuming to work with kids’ souls, that we won’t shy away from the hard work and the harsh reality that although we may prefer to celebrate the successes and share the wondrous God-stories, sometimes we need to grapple with the “what-ifs” of kids like Jake who taste the gospel and know it is good, yet choose to walk away from it nonetheless and girls like Grace who may, or who may not, be the ones to change the world.

Until then,

Spread the Word.



HK Christmas Season


December 4, 2011
If sparkling pink trees aren’t enough to convince you, the stick-thin-Asian-model Santas at the mall should make it clear that Christmas is on its way to Hong Kong.  Many people here may not understand the true meaning of Christmas, but it’s everywhere, even if carols playing in empty train stations late at night deliver a slightly creepy, surrealistic feel to the season.
And cold! Boy has it gotten cold.  Over the weekend, it was a downright chilly 48 degrees…but yesterday afternoon I think it was back up in the 70’s.  So much for our hopes of snow.
The biggest news in the Nollan household is that after much discussion, several meetings, and lots of prayer, Michael withdrew from school.  We’re exploring options for him, including internships, online courses, or getting a job.  Don’t know where it will lead, and for now he’s kind of become our servant-in-training, running errands, cleaning house, and baking the world’s best peanut butter cookies.  He asked Elyn the other day, “If I sign up for online classes, do you think Dad will stop despising me?”  Rather than argue the point, she simply answered, “Yes.”  I don’t despise him, of course, but I think that’s hard for him to see.  I’m a life-long school lover and teacher…it’s not easy when your own kid withdraws from school.  Intellectually, I know that school isn’t the best fit for everyone, and Michael has never liked school, EVER.  So he made it through 11.3275 years of school.  Well, pray for me, that I’ll figure out how to handle it (c’mon, Dad, get over it, it’s not that big of a deal) but more importantly, pray that Michael will gain a sense of purpose and direction in his life post-school.  He’s certainly happier now!
Elyn has been substitute teaching and helping in the office.  There is currently something of a bidding war for her services, but one way or another it looks like she’ll be working next semester.  Ideally, she’d like to work 25 hours a week or less even though office staff in Hong Kong typically work 12-hour days!  In the meantime, Elyn has un-boxed all our Christmas stuff from home, but not all of it… “What? Where’d that tree skirt go?” she exclaimed. “And what happened to the Christmas apron your mom gave me?  I was sure I brought those along!”  But she’s broken out the Christmas dishes, which is better than breaking the Christmas dishes, and she has her 87 hours of Christmas music on endless repeat, which at this point is still very joyful and Christmasy.
Daniel has mastered the schedule and workload of school in Hong Kong.  He’s even having success in Mandarin, Biology, and Algebra II.  He switched to baritone in band, and he says it’s way easier to play baritone than trumpet with braces.  He’s got a big Christmas concert coming up at the end of the week.  Daniel also joined a group of guys in a lunchtime discipleship group, and we’re talking about the “Battlefield of the Mind.”  Please pray for these five young men, that they can seek God and begin to think His thoughts to change the way they live and view the world.
My classes are working furiously to finish up multiple projects, all of which I will collect on December 12th.  Right now my inbox is empty, so I can help referee some basketball games and eat Christmas cookies for anyone that needs help.  I’ve been reading some Christmas thoughts by Max Lucado, and I hope that you will also have the chance to sit down and reflect on the depth of meaning behind all the gift wrap and tinsel this year.  Pretty simple, really.  No Jesus, no life.  More Jesus, more life.  All Jesus, eternal life.  Yep.  That’s good news for a good season.  May it be a joyous season of celebration for you and your family.  Merry Christmas!
Until then,
Spread the Word!

HK Sept. 13

September 13, 2011

I’ve had a few people ask for a new Nollan update, and here it is! (Cheering and applause.)  Lots has happened since we’ve arrived in Hong Kong, but I will try to keep the newsletter short. (Louder cheering and applause.)

Here’s the lowdown: life in Hong Kong moves at a fast pace.  People crowd by us on the street, in the train, on the escalators, in the store.  Very few make eye contact.  How can you possibly try to smile and connect with everyone when you pass 1.5 million people on the street every time you step out of your home?  You can’t.  So people don’t try.

But…if you take the time to interrupt the busy lives of people, you find that they are really quite friendly and helpful.  I have not found anybody yet who LIKES the pace of life, but most people feel it is outside their control.  They aren’t working hard to get ahead; they work hard just to keep up and not get left behind.

I have 11 freshmen in my 9th grade advisory, and my individual conversations with them reveal a shocking reality in their lives: they are pushed, and pushed, and pushed to achieve lofty goals.  But they don’t have any goals of their own.

“What do you like to do when you have free time?” I ask.

“Free time?” one boy asks in return.  “I never have free time.”

“Well, what do you do on vacation?”

“My parents make me study.”

“Okay,” I continue, “what would you do if you had free time?”


When most of my students get home from school, they begin homework and tutoring.  If they finish their homework early, they have additional assignments that their parents or their tutors give them, like extra math lessons to prepare them for next year’s SAT, or Mandarin lessons where they’re memorizing thousands of characters.  I have one student who wrote in her College Writing essay, “You’re probably wondering why I’m starting this paper at 11 p.m…” And then she proceeded to explain how she practices ballet EIGHT HOURS every day…in addition to school, studies, extra-curricular activities, and music lessons.

Our boys have been tossed into this environment, and we’re trying to preach a healthy dose of balance.  Michael had several classmates in our apartment making a video for class.  They spent hours and hours and hours filming and re-filming every scene, making sure it was perfect.  Michael grew quite frustrated with their perfectionism, although he managed to squeeze in a black-and-white “horror” scene that was quite hilarious.  They were all laughing quite hard when it was finished.  Daniel is adjusting to the demanding standards as he takes biology class…he spent a fair amount of time preparing for a test by studying the teacher’s powerpoint presentation, only to find out that a whole section of the test contained questions he had never studied.  But he’ll learn.

Elyn helped in the library a couple days last week, and she’s scheduled to sub a couple other classes in the future.  She’s particularly excited about filling in for the pre-K teacher, who will be taking leave for surgery.

I really enjoy the College Writing, Composition, and Journalism classes I teach.  There are advantages to having a school full of high achievers, because their papers are really very good.  On the flip side is how many of those papers I have to grade.  Michael and Daniel try to remind me, “Dad, there’s an easy solution: quite assigning homework!”  Yeah, well.  Wish it were that easy.

In the hectic schedule of people’s lives, I’m trying to evaluate whether there is space for Young Life in Hong Kong.  There probably is, but I’m not sure where or how.  Saturday, we are meeting a Hong Kong woman and her family for dinner.  She has extensive Young Life background, and her 8th grade son went to YL camp in the States last summer.  I’m hoping that I can gain some insight during this meeting into how YL might fit into the HK culture here.

This week, a friend who is the YL National Director in Nepal will be in Hong Kong for some meetings, and we hope to connect somewhere along the line.  Saturday morning, I’m running in the local Coca-Cola 10K with a few friends from school.  Daniel has a cross country meet Thursday.  And today is the Harvest Festival, so we have the day off from school.  Elyn wants to see lanterns and eat moon cakes!

We feel kinda disconnected right now…our friendships here aren’t very close yet, and our friendships back in the States or in Malaysia seem even farther away.  I’m sure there will be more of that as we continue our transition to Hong Kong life over the next few months.  Hopefully you can glean a few tidbits from this newsletter to pray about.  We appreciate your prayers, and we’ve definitely enjoyed talking with some of you on Skype.  Thank you so much for your ongoing encouragement and love.  As always, we look forward to hearing back from you!

Until then,

Spread the Word.


Nollans in Hong Kong week 1

August 2, 2011
Greetings from Hong Kong!
We’ve been here nearly a week, and the time has flown by.  Much of our time has been spent in meetings and trying to set up our home, and for most of the last week my brain has been on overload.  All the little things that we do on routine autopilot are gone, and even deciding whether I want to eat or sleep seems like a daunting decision.
We are over our jet lag and I was up at my usual 5 a.m. today. (Instead of 2 or 3 a.m. like last week.)  The boys stay in bed until at least 9 a.m. so they’ve obviously adjusted to the usual teenage schedule!
International Christian School of Hong Kong is an incredibly awesome place.  The facilities are first-rate: a new, eight-story complex with beautiful classrooms, swimming pool, theater, music rooms, two indoor gymnasiums, and computers, projectors, and all the technology a teacher could want in the classrooms.  More importantly, I have been very impressed with the vision of the administration here.  Hong Kong is a fast-paced, stressful place with hordes of people, but our administration continues to reassure us that we must take a balanced approach with a spiritual emphasis in our lives as well as in our teaching.  It seems like we will receive plenty of encouragement and support. Nevertheless, we are expected to work hard.  I will be teaching two College Writing classes, two Composition classes, and a Journalism class.  Five writing classes will be fun to teach with lots of reading!
Michael and Daniel will be tested today to see which classes they should take.  Their schedules will include ten classes: five a day on alternate days in a rotating block schedule.  Nearly all of their classmates will be Chinese students.  Half of the students are Hong Kong citizens, and though the others might have American, Canadian, or Australian passports, they are almost all ethnically Chinese.  The boys are okay with this, but please pray that they would make friends and fit in as much as a couple of skinny white kids can in this predominantly Asian culture!
Today is Michael’s 18th birthday!  What a blessing he has been to us.  He has really taken to Hong Kong with enthusiasm…trying all kinds of crazy dishes, and eagerly tackling the subway system.  He’s the best one in the family at deciphering the labyrinthine system of train tracks.
Elyn is in the process of making our apartment a home.  Lugging storage bins and rolling pins home from IKEA in the humidity has been a wearying experience, and so we’re taking it slowly.  But in comparison to our first time around in Malaysia, living in Hong Kong seems almost normal.  Air-conditioning is very common, and Elyn vows to not battle the heat if she doesn’t have to…still easier said than done.
We have new mobile phones and numbers, but it will probably be easier to connect with most of you by e-mail, Facebook, or Skype because Hong Kong is 15 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time, and because I lost all your contact numbers in the switch.  (Go figure.)  There’s obviously much more to tell you, but after a week of chaotic transition and training, my brain is having trouble making sense of most of it.  God is at work around us here in Hong Kong, however!  Please pray that we would discern how we can best join him in it!
Thank you so much for your continued prayers and encouragement.  We love you very much, and always look forward to hearing from you.
Until then,
Spread the Word!
Rob, Elyn, Michael, and Daniel Nollan

Dinner near the Jordan MTR stop

a few photos are available online at my Facebook page:

When in Hong Kong…

July 1, 2011

Good morning!

It’s been awhile since you’ve received a Nollan family update, so I’ll make this quick and to the point:

We fly to Hong Kong on July 23 to teach at International Christian School in Hong Kong.

ICS teaches a typical American curriculum from a Christian perspective, and I will be teaching high school English classes like College Writing and Journalism.  Elyn will possibly volunteer at the school.  Michael will be in 11th grade and Daniel begins 9th grade.  We arrive on the 24th of July, and my work begins the 25th.  The boys begin school August 9th.

Today, we are finishing up Vacation Bible School at Toledo First Baptist.  It’s been very exciting to see God work in the lives of young people this week.  Many students have made first-time decisions to follow Jesus, including our 4th grade neighbor boy who is in the class Daniel helps teach.  Please pray with us that more students would come to know Jesus today, and that they would grow in their relationships with him.

As we move from Toledo to Hong Kong, I want Young Life here to be able to transition smoothly to new leadership.  I will meet over the next few weeks with those who helped with YL this year to discuss what roles people will play.  Please pray with me that God will move in the hearts of his people to step up and take active leadership roles so that Young Life can continue to reach kids here in Toledo.

In Hong Kong, there are already pieces in place to help bring Young Life into action.  There is no Young Life ministry in HK at this time, but it is a high-priority city for International Young Life.  I have already been in contact with several people in Young Life and in Hong Kong about the possibilities there.  We will take a cautious but expectant approach:  I want to make sure that Young Life starts off in a way that will be successful, and so the first year will be spent getting to know the culture, meeting key individuals, and planning strategically with YL leadership.  Please pray that God will open exactly the right doors, and that I would have the wisdom to recognize and respond to his timing!

If you would like to continue to support us as we move to Hong Kong, we would greatly appreciate and humbly accept your prayers, your correspondence, and your financial help.  The school will be paying us a salary which should adequately cover our living expenses, so  any financial support we receive from you will help us to begin establishing Young Life in Hong Kong.  Expenses might include travel, recruitment and training of leaders, and the inherent cost of hanging out with teenage kids…like food!  Please send your support for us directly through Toledo First Baptist Church, indicating on a separate note that your support is for the Nollans in Hong Kong.

Over the next three weeks, please pray for our transition.  We have large lists on the refrigerator of chores to do and things to pack.  If you would like to see us in person before we go, now’s the time to catch us for lunch or dinner or a chat in the hallway.  We’re never too busy to spend time with people we love.  Of course, once we’re in Hong Kong, you’re heartily invited to come visit us!

Thank you so much for your prayers and encouragement as we begin our new adventure.  As always, we look forward to hearing about how God has been working in your lives, too.

Until then,

Spread the Word!

Rob, Elyn, Michael, and Daniel NollanLooking out from the balcony our apartment.