Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Week for Toddlers: What Do We Tell Our Children About the Cross and Empty Tomb?

I remember the moment like it was yesterday, even though it was almost ten years ago. I was sitting on the right side of the sanctuary, about six pews back, amidst a mass of children numbering about 250. We were nearing the end of VBS when the program coordinator went off script and "discerned" God was leading him to present the Gospel to preschoolers through third graders.

My palms got sweaty. The frog jumped into my throat. I rested my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. I was not the least bit comfortable with what was about to take place and there was not much I could do.

You know how the story goes.

The man with the mic began to tell the kids about heaven and hell, how we all deserved to be punished by God forever for being sinners. We broke God's rules and God could not have people like that in heaven. We all deserved to be punished. We all deserved hell.

The tension grew. Our self-proclaimed preacher continued and shared how we all should have been the ones nailed to the cross, which was akin to a modern-day electric chair. The gospel, according to VBS guy, was that just when we had been strapped in and they were (still not sure who "they" were) about to pull the voltage lever, God sent Jesus into the chair for us. Jesus became the punishment for us, he said. And just when you thought the cross/electric chair had killed Jesus, God raised him from the dead.

"Children, if you believe in Jesus you are saved from hell and get to go to heaven," he said with boldness and confidence.

I am not making this up, the dude even asked how many kids wanted to go to hell?

I think the only one was a teenage volunteer who raised his hand in jest.

Then when our brave storyteller asked how many wanted to go to heaven, not a tiny hand remained clasped. They shot up faster than the speed of light. Our evangelist went on to pray with these kids who were about "receive Jesus in their hearts" and be assured they could "go to heaven when they died."

The next morning our children's ministry coordinator walked into staff meeting, with tear-filled eyes, and shared about how many kids had accepted Jesus the day before.

I suggested more went home that night and wet the bed. I think I may have, too.

This is penal subsitution atonement theory (PSA) at it's finest, actually, at it's worst.

This brand of the gospel is reduced to a simple formula of retribution intended to lure us to faith and obedience.

It's what I used to believe was the most biblical, traditional, and effective way to share the good news with people.

But my post is not about critiquing PSA. This post is a collection of honest questions:

What should we tell our kids happened to Jesus on Good Friday?

What should we tell the youngest members of the Body of Christ really led to Jesus' death and made a resurrection necessary in the first place.

I have spent the better portion of two decades wrestling with the Bible, faith, theology, philosophy, and practical ministry. I was a young kid when I first started exploring the depths of Christianity and launching Bible studies with my peers.

Sharing my faith was easy then, even in the midst of uncertainty and intense questioning. When I became a father of two children, telling the story of Jesus suddenly became very difficult.

What do we say to them? What stories do we share and how do we share them?

My wife and I have taught our twins to be kind, because that's what we do and what Jesus taught was the best way to live.

We have shared about love, forgiveness, and even confession. For instance, when you pull your sister's hair or steal your brother's blankey and hall booty in the opposite direction, we say we are sorry. We also extend grace.

We pray before meals, at bed time, and even when people we love are not doing well.

We have written renditions of hymns as prayers with a Trinitarian flavor. Our kids already can recite these with ease.

Jesus Loves Me is also a fan favorite before being tucked in for the night.

Yet this year, when I started to talk to our young theologians masked as toddlers about why this weekend was so important to us, I balked.

I am continually perplexed still.

How do we talk to our chidren about death and dying when they are still so young. Would doing so even make sense or ultimately be what the Spirit would want us to teach such vulenarable and innocent reflections of the imago Dei?

At what point does the crucifixion become a part of a family's verbage and theological reflections with young ones?

How do we share about the horrow of the cross and our call to carry our own with those who still cry when soap gets in their eyes?

I am all for Easter. My kids have even practiced declaring, "Jesus Is Risen!"

While I believe the church must preach the cross, at this point, the good news of new life is all I am comfortable sharing with those under the age of 10.

I don't want my kids wetting the bed because of Jesus. One of two, who will remain nameless, already has a hard enough time waking up dry.

So, viral congregation of the interweb, what do we tell our children about Holy Week?

 

*Image above from: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/let-the-little-children-come-old-karl-barth-comes-back-to-the-matter-itself/

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jesus Had a Twin: Coupling Faith and Doubt During Holy Week

Jesus had a twin.

His name: Thomas.

Syrian believers knew the name alone connotated this disciple as one who was not the only one to take up residence in his mother's womb.

Greek speakers knew him by another name, "Didymus," for the same reason.

Thomas or Didymus, both mean twin.

We are not certain of the identity of Thomas' gestational roommate, but the early Gnostics had a theory. Thomas was Jesus' twin whose birth-story went untold. That's right, while innkeepers may not have been able to squeeze the Holy Family into their shelter, Mary's womb apparently had room for one more.

I guess being betrothed to a virgin carrying the Messiah was not enough of a shocker for Joseph.

It's also a minor element of the incarnation the angel left out of his Advent declaration.

Details.

I am not sure if Jesus and Thomas really were womb-mates (sorry for the parent of twins joke). Actually, as much as it would make for a great story and build on the Jacob and Esau motif within the Jewish narrative, I doubt this was Thomas' identity.

Pun intended.

Regardless of the legend, Jesus did have a twin within his cast of followers who was doubly perplexed and coupled both extradordinary faith and raw skepticism.

We are more than familiar with Thomas' hesistancy to believe in Jesus' resurrection, demanding to see evidence before trusting the Messianic mission for even one more day.

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe." (John 20: 25)

We are not as familiar with Thomas' zeal and willingness to actually die with his beloved Teacher, who was about to return to hostile territory in efforts to resurrect his friend, Lazarus. You can say that before "Doubting" Thomas, there was Didymus, the purest proclamant of unfading and radical obedience.

"Let us also go; that we may die with him." (John 11:16)

This sort of bold declaration is not recorded anywhere else by any other disciple. Yet no other disciple is labeled as a doubter.

So, which is it?

Skepticism or trust?

Fear or obedience?

Doubt or faith?

Maybe they are meant to be paired together.

Maybe our spiritual gestation couples both within the womb of discipleship.

Maybe Thomas is us. Maybe we are Thomas' twin. Doubly willing and yet doubly perplexed.

As Holy Week begins, may we both confront and embrace our dual identity as believers and doubters. May we trust God's ability to work through our darkest doubts. May we give thanks for how the Spirit propels us towards faithful obedience.

May we hold on hope and believe just enough that God will once and for all reveal to us not only the resurrected Christ, but also a world made new and right.

Thomas did. That's why he went to India.

But you have to look that up for yourself.

"We often think that if we have doubt, we don’t have faith. In reality, they are inextricably tied to each other in the human experience, each one helping make the other more real. The presence of doubt doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith. It creates the space to actually find it...Doubt and faith need each other; any faith that can't hold up to doubt isn't faith at all."

Kathy Escobar, Down We Go, pp. 138-139

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**Here is an intriguing excerpt from Bart Ehrman's, Lost Christianities. I say intriguing, but I am not sold :)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Noah Movie: The Most Faithful and Biblical Interpretation of the Ancient Myth?

If the church wants to learn how to get a generation of skeptics, cynics, and postmodern critics to engage the narratives of Scripture, I suggest we consult Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. The director and screen writer (respectively) of the recent box office smash, Noah, have reminded us flat and reductionist approaches to the Bible have grown tired only for the prophetic, existential imagination to be awakened by seasoned and novice readers alike.

The recent work of Aronofsky and Handel has also refreshed the ancient story and enabled one of the greatest and most familiar religious and cultural myths to jump off the pages of sacred texts with renewed energy and zest. Noah challenges viewers to surrender the great "arkey, arkey" of children's folklore and instead consider a wide variety of ecological, ethical, religious, and basic human questions provoked by the flood fable.

These are all good things. This is a very biblical shift, better said, return to how Scripture has been and maybe was originally read for generations.

So the best thing I can say in light of Noah, "thank you."

While Aronofsky has suggested this film is "the most unbiblical biblical film," his self-critique is an inaccurate overstatement. Instead, Noah is both an example of cinematic brilliance and Scriputural fidelity. This is not to say his Watchers, i.e. Nephilim gone ancient Transformers, or a stowe away descendant of Cain who attempts a mutiny onboard the ark are consistent with every jot and tittle of the Genesis motif.

They probably are not.

But the viewer is challenged not to be distracted by these directorial adaptations and expansions. On the contrary, we are invited to take notice of how Aronofsky has allowed the story to reside within his person and be birthed afresh as he not only retells the story but also brings the story to life.

That's exactly what Biblical stories were inspired to do from their earliest beginnings.

It's as though Aronofsky has joined a host of other great teachers and storytellers by crafting his own midrash of the biblical account.

The Bible and all related narratives were never intended as specimens awaiting dissection, formulas holding out for solution, or even rigid theological insights breading absolute certainty. The biblical narrative was and is a grand collection of illustrative questions to be engaged, wrestled, confronted, inherited, beheld, treasured, critiqued, contextualized, and awakened as God's living and active word to us and the whole world.

The Bible is ultimately to be practiced and reenacted.

Barth said it this way, “[The Bible] must not speak and think in the manner of a timeless Church discipline, but with full participation in the energies and hopes, the cares and struggles of the Church of its own age.”

Walsh and Middleton take it one step farther with what they term faithful improvisation:

"The church's praxis or 'performance' must be faithful to the thrust, momentum, and direction of the biblical story...But if our praxis is to be faithful to the story, this requires taking the risk of improvisation that is creative, innovative and flexible. It is important that our performance not simply repeat verbatim earlier passages from the biblical script. That would nnot be faithfulness for the simple reason that these earlier passages are not a script intended for our performance in a postmodern world but are the record or transcript of past performances of God's people. While we can see how our ancestors in the faith responded to God with varying degrees of faithfulness in a variety of circmstances, much of our difficulty in living as Christians today is that the concrete shape of our lives in the world is quite literally unscripted."

Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age 183*

We have, for far too long, done violence to God's story and stories, scavenging them for this or that agenda or claim to modern certainty. We have forsaken the reality of the Bible as drama in favor of dogmatic idolatry.

We have dilluted the Bible in favor of more palatable and controllable document void of questions, ambiguity, paradox, and struggle about what God is really up to in the past, present, and future.

What Noah has done, and what many other readers and adherents to Scripture have been doing for years, is lift the text above these chaotic waters of modernity and liberate the sacred motifs as great conversation partners in practical and public theology discourse. The conversation: what do these stories mean for us TODAY as God's people who dwell within a world caught between beauty and devastation, good and evil, God's all-encompassing dreams and God's greatest despair.

What do stories like Noah reveal to us about present-day tensions between justice and mercy?

How do aged biblical stories like Noah propel us into faithful improvisation of the kingdom of God in the twenty-first century?

How do these epics confront our environmental and ethical consciences in the midst of so much negligence of both the earth and our most vulnerable neighbors around the globe?

What new questions does Noah raise in the here and now as we all wait for the return of Eden and God's new creation?

Aronofsky has received a large share of criticism for Noah, mostly from tweets, blogs, and pulpits of conservative Evangelicals who fear the director and screen writer have been unfaithful and unbiblical to such a beloved story hedged within a mere four chapters of the book of beginnings.

Actually, I think Noah's critics and all who have tamed this ancient epic may be the ones who have missed the boat.

But it's not too late to jump on board.

The world around us is already there.

 

A few questions raised for me by Noah:

How have we corrupted the world around us through our obsession with power, technology, convenience, and misappropriated quests to dominate creation versus care for and serve the world God made as good?

What would it mean if we began to foster intimacy with creation and valued every created thing as though it served a valuable purpose within God's world and ecosystem?

How can we begin to reclaim a sacred imagination that views the world as enchanted and interconnected versus static and serving all-purposes human? (See Bo Sanders below)

What do we make of God actually sending a flood to wipe out corrupt humanity? When we hear people use this rationale today we, rightly, reject such "natural" theology. Then there's this story. I would have, like Noah's family, wondered why we could not lower ropes to drowning victims. Further, I grieve how God's people today, myself included, often isolate ourselves from suffering that surround us on all sides.

How does the fatalist mentality of Noah, convinced God is finished with humanity altogether, leak into our own psyche and leave us cynical, jaded, and apathetic at best?

How are we any better today than the violent world that God wiped out ages ago? When will the violence of today be wiped out once and for all?

Should I be a vegetarian? If not, should I at least have a better awareness of where my food comes from and the life taken to nourish my body?

What seeds am I planting today that can be a part of Eden's return? How am I living out my responsibility and call as God's image bearer and caretaker of all God made?

What bitterness do I harbor, like Ham, that pushes me to isolate myself from others or wreak havoc as a means of self-preservation?

Where was Jesus in this film? (just kidding)

I could go on...

 

Related Resources

*Scripture as Missional Narrative

Podcast: Movie and Conversations with Aronofsky and Handel by Homebrewed Christianity

Noah: Inhabiting a ReEnchanted World by Bo Sanders

Noah: The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative by Bo Sanders

Relevant Magazine: Movie Review

Noah: the Beautiful and the Haunting by J. Ryan Parker

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Youth Ministry, Wild Geese, and God's Spirit as Uncaged Bird

Celtic Christians have a unique image for the Holy Spirit: the wild goose.

Yep, the honking, flapping, nipping-at-your heels bird who refuses to be tamed has framed the theological imaginations of believers for generations in regions surrounding Ireland and Scotland.

The imagery is spot on and brilliant.

Like a wild goose, God nips at us and provokes us to travel to obscure places as a collection of practitioners of the kingdom unconfined by convention. God’s Spirit, like these obnoxious long-necked creatures, can even be somewhat aggravating and difficult to ignore when pushing us to defy logic and comfort. The nudging of the Divine Presence is not always graceful or welcome either, disrupting our conscience and disturbing our assumptions about what is good, right, just, and biblical.

The Holy Spirit, like our feathered friends, lives in freedom and refuses to be contained and controlled by even the most astute theologian:

"Theology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight, in contrast to a caged bird" (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology)

Still more, beauty is in the flight of these strange birds. They refuse to travel alone and instead fill the skies in gaggles shaped like the letter "V." This provides yet another seemless symbol for individuals and gaggles of God's people who trust the whims of the Spirit as they follow Jesus as the head of rather rambunctious flock.

There have been books, legends, intentional communities, and music festivals developed via the inspiration of the wild goose.*

I have also adopted and extended the metaphor for the youth worker.

That's right, the wild goose is likely a teenager.

Youth frequently gather in clumps, are often dismissed as pesky and somewhat rambunctious, and adults are accustomed to head for cover whenever they see a gaggle of teenagers headed their way.

I am also pretty sure these noisy birds and middle school boys on retreat share a similar fragrance.

Wild Goose by Axe Body Spray.

Youth are also beautiful to witness in flight. Their questions nip at the heels of religious absolutes. Their desires to move to new and uncharted territories challenge settled assumptions about where the church exists in the world. The adolescent desire to take risks and listen to the sounds of their neighbors, including those frequently dismissed as distasteful, causes youth leaders to wonder where we have missed opportunities to love God as we love and give voice to others.

I have been in youth ministry for over a dacade and have had my share of crap thrown my way, another uncouth characteristic of geese. There have been moments when I have cursed under my breath God's strange and beloved creatures and questioned why God made the teenage years last for so long.

I have even pondered fleeing from the presence of youth ministry all together.

Then I watch teenagers soar. I see them spread their wings and follow the Spirit's movement in their lives. I am instantly drawn back into my vocation as though I was just beginning.

Youth ministry is hard, being an adolescent is even harder.

The Holy Spirit is difficult to comprehend, containing God's Spirit is an impossible task.

Still, whenever I follow Jesus alongside some of the youngest members of God's flock, I sense somehow the Holy Spirit is there, in the middle, drawing us closer and closer to what it means to be a part of God's dreams for the world.

Maybe that's because, like God's Spirit, youth are wild geese.

May we never try to tame them, only fly alongside them.

 

Notes:

*Consider the Iona Community and the book about their existence, Chasing the Wild Goose. Also, a festival I hope to attend one day, The Wild Goose Festival.

**A great interview from a friend of Westminster, who tells a story about The Wild Goose with shere brilliance: http://westminsterpc.org/filerequest/8630

***Photo above is from the cover of Chasing the Wild Goose.