Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflections on Lectionary: Luke 18 and Luke 19

Musings from Luke 18:9-14 and Luke 19:1-10

Some of the more central components of the Imago Dei Youth Ministry are missional experiences and opportunities to be immersed, albeit temporarily, within diverse communities of faith. This often leads us to develop relationships and partnerships with those living in contexts of poverty, homelessness, racism, and other forms of systemic oppression. I confess, it is difficult for me to develop these partnerships, as I recognize that our ability to move into and out of these contexts flies in the face of incarnational paradigms; however, when working with suburban youth, it is not exactly possible to say, "I know you are a minor, but let's all move into X place and make our permanent dwelling here." That being said, short-term experiences are all we have to work with- and the fruits of such experiences are irreplaceable.

There are a variety of reasons why students participate in these missional experiences; many are genuine responses to the call to live into their deeply rooted faith and missional vocations. However, without fail, every year I hear parents (and sometimes their youth) explain their participation as follows, "I just want Joe/Beth to realize how much they have and to be grateful for where they live." I cringe as I attempt to paraphrase these explanations and rationales. In other words, not only do we exploit the poor and oppressed in order to arrive at particular situations of luxury, but we also exploit their condition in order to reaffirm and bask in our abundance and comfort.

These experiences are what first came to mind when I read through this Sunday's lectionary text and the stark contrast between the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the (un-named) tax collector. The Pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Said differently, "God, I thank you that I am not poor, that I am not an immigrant, that I do not have a criminal record, that I have never been addicted to drugs, that I am not a minority, that I do not live in contexts of oppression." As long as we bask in gratitude about whom we are not and where we are not we will fail to enter into genuine community with those that are, for to do so may jeopardize that which we have either worked so hard for or just so happened to possess merely through happenstance.

Then we hear the (un-named) tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" and Jesus' exaltation of this humbled other. But who is he? Is this really all there is to this little parable of Jesus within Luke's gospel? If you have been tracking with the gospel story up to this point you know that there is always something more that Luke is bearing witness to, constantly offering hints and guesses to a much larger picture and hoping the reader connects the dots. That's where we need to jump a week ahead to next Sunday's lectionary text: Luke 19:1-10. It is then that we realize, maybe this tax collector had a name after all- Zacchaeus.

As with many of Jesus' parables, we in the suburbs have hyper-spiritualized Jesus' parable and even this narrative so much that our crafting of clever nursery rhymes for children has rendered this subversive illustration irrelevant. We think it is nice that the tax collector was humble and repentant in Luke 18; we are quick to affirm his humble heart. We love Zacchaeus because he repents of his sins and turns to Jesus, and we should do the same; we even love that he was "a wee little man." While this is true, there seems to be so much more. Dare we miss that the humbled sinner and tax collector "standing far off" in prayer is also named Zacchaeus. After much contemplation and deliberation, even confession, he has climbed down from his elevated position in the tree, given reparations for his unjust and oppressive deeds (i.e. repents), and identified with the poor he once exploited. It is only after this sort of repentance that Jesus then says salvation has come to this son of Abraham. Said differently, is it possible that salvation in the economy of God is linked to our concern for and identification with the poor and oppressed? As Luke says elsewhere, "blessed are you who are poor…woe to you who are rich" (6:20,24); "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30); "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14).

Am I willing to make such reparations? Are we as a people of God willing to incarnate our confessions by actually identifying with the poor and oppressed and moving towards liberation and change? Is the church willing to come down from elevated positions in suburban trees and participate in God's kingdom of reconciliation and peace even though it may cost us much, maybe even everything? Luke's gospel suggests that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear the ways in which we can enter into the community of the oppressed and participate in God's kingdom of salvation. The reality is, we do not have to go very far. We may not even have to leave our neighborhoods, townships, or boroughs. And sometimes we may, possibly for longer than a week over the summer. And surely for reasons far greater than to affirm and give thanks for our contexts of wealth, acquisition of possessions, and statuses of privilege.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bullying: A Brief Word and Response

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words they can destroy me. This seems more appropriate in light of the continual rise in bullying and in-school violence. Even more, the recent bullying of gay students that has led to instances of suicide has caused me to pause once again and reflect on the violence of language and the abuse of speech. The students in my youth ministries over the years have heard time and again my constant rebuke of those who choose to use slang terms of sexuality as filler words or insults, even of their friends. This ought not to be so. Regardless of your theological convictions, the slurs that are tossed around at the expense of gay individuals and the gay community have repercussions that are sometimes irreversible. We are to be a people who promote peace, advocate for compassion, and give voice to those on the margins of society. Instead, we so often exclude and oppress, not only through our activity, but also and especially through our language.

This leads to another point. On the issue of homosexuality it is common to hear those in opposition say, "hate the sin and love the sinner." I am afraid that such a posture towards homosexuals will never allow for authentic community to take place between gays and straights. Homosexuality is not necessarily that which can be removed as an isolated characteristic of a particular individual as though to say I hate your red shirt, but I love you. That is, their sexuality is a portion of who they are just as much as I am a heterosexual male. Moreover, the reductionist statement not only assures that homosexuals will forever be kept at arm's length (if that), but also assumes that we as a people are actually capable of separating our opinions of homosexuality from those of homosexual people. To put it bluntly, "hate the sin and love the sinner" becomes breeding grounds for hatred of the "sinner," as the "sin" and the "sinner" are no longer able to be distinguished. Again, in light of the devastating consequences of our irresponsible speech, individual and communal theological convictions and reductionist statements must be reevaluated. The consequences of anything less is unacceptable and unfaithful as people who claim to be witnesses to the liberating gospel of Jesus.

I would be amiss if I did not end this brief reflection with a call for intercession. Last week our church and youth ministry participated in Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As a part of this collaboration, we invited a counselor from the local domestic violence center to share with our high school and middle school youth about the reality of domestic and dating violence as well as bullying. In light of recent events, we are so grateful that we did this. But the hosting of a one-day event is not enough. We must continue to be agents of peace in contexts of abuse; voices of hope in circumstances of suffering; advocates of justice and compassion in the midst of oppression and hatred. And we do not have to leave the country to do so. In the days ahead, may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear those who are in need of our intervention. May we be on the lookout for those in need of our intercession. Even more, may we look inward and be challenged to consider how we have been the inflictors or bystanders of discrimination, hatred, and violence and then act towards change. And for those of you who continue to suffer at the hands of the naïve and the cold-hearted, rest assured that you are not alone and that there is help and hope for you. Even more, you were made in the beautiful imago Dei (image of God),which is not something that can ever be separated or taken away from you.

Here is a great post by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, "Christians and Bullying: Standing by Gays and Lesbians":

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Inward/Outward: Fall Retreat 2010 Reflections

The vision began on a road trip among friends as we returned from a conference in Illinois that included many of our favorite theologians and scholars, most notably N.T. Wright. It could be said that we were returning from a sort of retreat ourselves. My good friend Tim was in roughly the fourth hour of his driving shift on the PA turnpike when we began to share the celebrations and laments, among other things, that often accompany the life of a youth pastor. We particularly grieved the intense pressures that our students face on a day-to-day basis- school, work, scholarships, college applications, peers, image and identity, parents, and the media, just to name a few. We also shared our common heartaches over these pressures that often distort adolescents’ ability not only to see the kingdom of God, but also to participate in it. In other words, their schedules and calendars are already so full that to even begin to consider taking a weekend off for a spiritual formation retreat or missional experience is difficult and nearly “impossible.” After all, what return would there be on their investment in a week(end) away? Would their time not be better spent studying, writing, working, competing, practicing, researching, and filling out forms? We live in a culture that considers any form of prolonged rest lazy and recess from scheduled obligations irresponsible. And the sources of such critique and pressure often comes from those closest to them, making any sort of break from the idolatrous and exhaustive rhythms of suburban America all the more difficult for Christian youth. So we thought, we prayed, we dreamed, and decided…let’s develop a subversive retreat where we expose these pressures and provide youth with a weekend where they are free to rest and engage Christian spirituality within the context of community. And yes, a Presbyterian and Evangelical Free Youth Pastor would do this together.

Here are a few reflections from the weekend appropriately titled: Inward/Outward: For Us and the Whole World:

1. Bel and the Dragon, Elijah and the Priests at Mt. Carmel
Believe it or not, even the apocrypha can preach. If we can use media clips from contemporary films and pop-music, why not the ancient story of Daniel who exposed the fallacy of Bel, a foreign idol who was fed everything the king had? [1] Why not parallel this story with the Protestant Scriptural narrative of Elijah (1 Kings 18) who did much the same with the priests of Baal? Moreover, why not draw parallels from both as we remind youth that so often we feed cultural idols all our energies, time, talents, and resources only to have the “expiration dates” (as Tim cleverly noted) of these deities exposed? So we did! It was incredible to see the youth take advantage of and be refreshed by being granted freedom and permission to expose the root of their pressures and anxieties, i.e. cultural idolatry, that have threatened to drain them of their life energy.

2. Outward Journey: For the Whole World
Tim led a beautiful reflection on the myth that we have to have everything figured out before we consider engaging in the mission of God. Many of us, teenagers included, have a superhero complex by which we both think we have to and believe we can solve all the world’s problems on our own. Our obsession with individualism has infringed even our altruistic aspirations. Yet we were meant to live in community, serve in community, worship in community, and work towards change and justice, which are markers of God’s kingdom, in community. I greatly appreciated Tim’s beginning with a communal emphasis, from which individual participation stems. Furthermore, his reminder that God calls all, including youth, as they are versus when they figure everything out or get their lives in perfect order.

3. Baptism: Sacred and Sending Waters
We do not often discuss the divine mysteries, i.e. sacraments, within our youth ministries specifically, or our church communities generally. It is often assumed we know what they are all about. So we created space to reflect on the baptismal waters that are both sacred and sending, for us and the whole world. Aided by the echoes from early Christians like Aristides and Tertullian, we compared and contrasted the ethos of ancient Christian communities and that of contemporary, consumer-driven religious clubs. How far had the church come, or strayed? Are these ancient communities really a part of the gospel story we claim as our own? However, the bulk of the conversation came as the product of intentional small group and ecumenical conversation generated by youth who have the eyes and ears of the kingdom.

4. Eucharist: Sacred and Sending Table
Is the Eucharist just another meal? While we were sure to once again tap into the legacy of alternative heroes and sheroes, such as Perpetua, Felicitas and Justin Martyr, we also allowed the recent episode of Glee, “Grilled Cheesus,” [2] to provide a platform for ecumenical dialogue about the sacred and sending Eucharistic table. Again, the bulk of the conversation was generated by the small group conversations. However, after noting the plurality within the gospels related to the Last Supper [3], the most significant part of the weekend for me was when we gathered around the table as Tim instituted the sacrament [4]. What a beautiful picture as over 50 youth and their leaders gathered around the table, reminded that the body and blood of Jesus is for us and the whole world.

5. Inward Journey: For Us
And the beauty of the gospel is that while it is for the whole world, it also includes each of us! Tim’s natural ability to tell stories and engage students with a pastoral heart provided an appropriate end to what was an incredible weekend! He even was creative in his challenge for the students to take the time to pursue personal formation and spiritual disciplines that are markers of a relationship with the God who created all and is in all. Moreover, as we live into our inward journey we are then sustained for our ouward journey, for us and the whole world.

I could go on and on with witnesses to how God was at work this weekend. The weather. The conversations. Football games and bonfires. Picnic table reflections. Disco parties in bunkrooms. Walks along the Chesapeake Bay. Frost’s incredible ability to lead us in worship and song. Random appearances of Lady GaGa (who oddly enough looks like Tim Ghali). Even the annual (Un)Talent show, a fresh reminder that part of kingdom life includes laughter. For we are indeed fools for the gospel who have a diverse collection of gifts and abilities, some which continue to make me laugh as I think back, and all which can be transformed into gifts for us and the whole world.

I look forward to next year’s adventures. I look forward to future interactions with Montvale Evangelical Free youth. I am grateful that my travels to a conference in Illinois with an E-Free friend turned out to be so much more than just a conference…

[1] After all, this story is considered Scripture by a large portion of the Christian Church around the globe, i.e. Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox.
[2] See Kenda Creasy-Dean’s blog for a great review of this episode:“grilled-cheesus”-glee-and-teenage-spirituality/
[3] This includes a reflection on the apparent absence of the Eucharist in the Gospel of John and the writer’s replacement with the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13). However, when one reads John 6 with Eucharistic eyes we discover that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is actually a Eucharistic celebration that extends beyond the disciples and out to the multitudes. In other words, the gospel writer reminds the church that the table is for us and the whole world.
[4] It is funny the hoops you have to jump through in Presbyterian polity in order to have the Eucharist celebrated on a youth retreat. Thanks be to God for the plurality of truth and the diversity of denominations that allows for Tim to give our ministry a gift by instituting the sacrament, in accordance with the PCUSA Book of Order of course ;)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Columbus Day: Cause for Celebration or Confession?

“Our people were decimated by war and disease from some 50 million in 1400 to barely 230,000 in 1895. There are numbers of documented cases where small pox infected blankets were sent to villages (biological terrorism) and bounties were paid for the heads and scalps of Native men, women and children. Today we are 2.4 million in the USA and 1.2 in Canada. But, perhaps what makes the story most tragic is that so much of this was the result of the misappropriation of the biblical narrative that was co-opted as a tool of colonial imperialism. However, the story is not finished” (Richard Twiss, “All My Relatives”). [1]

Is this really a cause for celebration every second Monday in October? How is it that we can have a federal holiday that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the beginning of the year and another towards the end that underscores ignorance in regards to one of the most heinous demonstrations of genocide in recorded Western and human history? Again, we are reminded that at the forefront of both these movements were confessing Christians and the Church. Said differently, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

It seems that it is not much different in the theological arena, where the voice of Native American and First-Nation Christians continues to be left out of the conversation in favor of Western, white theological colonialism. And I am guilty just the same. Richard Twiss is the founder of Wiconi International, a community of First-Nation Christians, and a leading voice in First-Nation Christian theology. Yet I confess, his address to the World Communion of Reformed Churches Uniting General Council was my first real exposure to this significant attestation to the on-going activity of God’s Spirit and the gospel of Jesus. Moreover, Twiss reminds us that our cathedrals and churches, fellowship halls and sanctuaries, sacred spaces and youth rooms are built on land that is not our own:

"A close examination of the national Christian speaking platforms across the land reveal the glaring absence of native men and women who are ascribed a place spiritual stature in our own land. And I repeat in our own land. And I repeat again, in our own land!"

The Christian hope is not for a monoculture, hegemonic kingdom of God whereby everyone looks the same, worships the same, prays the same, interprets the same, or even thinks the same. N. Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., once wrote, "The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits." [2] How tragic, then, that our versions of Christian theology strive for such sameness and assume the posture of Western, white theology, i.e. Anglo-Protestant theology, as the way, the truth, and the life. This is not to say that Western theology has neither a place at the table, nor a valid contribution to the Christian faith, for indeed it does. Even more, I am deeply grateful for the traditions and confessions made by the likes of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth, for they are my own. We just must not assume for a second that any one person, culture, or system “can write theology for all times, places, and persons” (Cone xi). To do so would be yet another demonstration of cultural imperialism headed by individuals and communities of faith naïve to the plurality of truth that is not a hindrance, rather witness to the cultural mosaic called the kingdom of God. And this kingdom is already here and yet to come, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

So Columbus Day- a cause for celebration or a call to confession? Maybe both. Christians must confess the realities of an oppressive history that has paralleled ecclesial traditions, missions, and confessions. We must repent of the expansion of the faith that has often come through the abuse of power, the co-option of local cultures by Western ideals, and the exploitation of indigenous and tribal peoples. It should also be a cause for celebration. However, instead of the second Monday in October commemorating Columbus’ stumbling over “new” territory, it should be an opportunity to acknowledge the first-nations and Native Americans, many who are our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose history, tradition, culture, and gospel witness have so often been trumped by the stranger and foreigner in their midst, i.e. people like me. It is about time I listen to their theological and ecclesial contributions.

[1] For the full text of Richard Twiss' address:
[2] See O'Connor, Elizabeth. Eighth Day of Creation. Washington, D.C.: The Potter's House Bookservice, 1971. This is yet another beautiful publication from the communities apart of Church of the Saviour. This missional church community has been around since the early 1950's and is a brilliant example of incarnational, intentional, and holistic faith communities:
[3] See Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Aristides and Youth Ministry?

As I get ready for yet another high school formation retreat I stumbled across the writings of the ancient Athenian philosopher, Aristides, and his letter to the emperor in the latter portions of the second century A.D.   Aristides would come to faith not long after this writing and it serves as a great illustration for youth to wrestle with within conversations on the nature of Christian community, spiritual formation, and the missional vocation.  Even more, it is exciting to link youth to the history of the faith that calls them to live into the redemptive narrative called the gospel that has gone on long before them and will continue on after them. 

It is intriguing to compare and contrast the words of an ancient secular philosopher with those of contemporary critics as they pertain to observations about Christian communities and witness.

It is the Christians, O emperor, who have sought and found the truth. We have realized it from their writings; they are closer to the truth and to a right understanding than all the other peoples, for they acknowledge God. They believe in him, the creator and builder of the universe, in whom all things are and from whom everything comes. They worship no other God. They have his commandments imprinted on their hearts… They show love to their neighbors. They pronounce judgments which are just. They do not worship idols in human form. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They do not eat the food sacrificed to idols, for they are pure. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies… They worship no alien gods. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If one of them sees that one of their poor must leave this world, he provides for his burial as well as he can. And if they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed by their opponents for the sake of their Christ’s name, all of them take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. They are ready to give up their lives for Christ, for they observe the words of their Christ with much care. Their life is one of consecration and justice, as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning, yes, every hour, they give praise and honor to their God for all the good things he gives to them. They thank him for their food and drink… This, O emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this their manner of life. As men and women who know God, they ask of him the things that are proper for God to give and right for them to receive. Thus they run the course of their lives. They acknowledge the good deeds of God towards them. And see, because of them, good flows on in the world! Truly it is they who have sought and have found the truth, and from what we have understood here we must conclude that they alone are close to the knowledge of truth. Yet they do not cry out in the ears of the masses the good deeds they do. Rather, they take care that no one should notice them. They hide their giving like someone who conceals a treasure he has found. They strive for righteousness because they live in the expectation of seeing Christ in his radiance and receiving from him the fulfillment of the promises he made to them. Take their writings and read in them, and you will see that I have not invented anything here and that I have not spoken as their partisan. Rather, through reading their writings I came to these firm convictions, also regarding the future things to which they bear witness. It is for this reason that I felt urged to declare the truth to those who are ready for the truth and ready to seek the world of the future.

Aristides, Apology 15, 16; ca. A.D. 137.

Taken from: Arnold, Eberhardt. The Early Christians in Their Own Words, Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2003.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah

Another great resource for those interested in the Missional Church.  Below is the introduction to a review I wrote this past week.  If interested in the full-length review, click on this link: The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah: A Brief Review.

The twenty-first century has posed a wide variety of cultural challenges and changes for the Christian Church and related witness in the world. The ability of the church to adapt and respond to these changes without either lagging behind or surrendering to the culture will influence both the effectiveness and faithfulness of the Body of Christ. In Soong-Chan Rah’s, The Next Evangelicalism, he indicts the Christian church for a failure to keep pace with the rising cultural and ethnic diversity and the co-option of the gospel by dominant Western, white traditions. Rah terms this contemporary reality as the Western, white cultural captivity of the church. This captivity continues to infringe on the church’s ability to bear witness to the gospel within the increased demographic and cultural plurality of American Christianity. In The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah exposes the nature of the church’s exilic condition, underscores the pervasiveness of Western, white captivity in evangelical and emergent churches, and provides attestations to the next evangelicalism that derives from multicultural Christian communities. The collective work of The Next Evangelicalism provides a significant resource for the Christian church in its quest for liberation from imperialistic theology and colonialist paradigms that have co-opted the Christian prophetic and missional imaginations.