Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Letter to Youth: Hopes for a New Year

Dear Back-to-School Youth,
Yes, it’s that time of year again. I can tell by the inactivity of my Facebook news feed between the hours of 9-3, with the exception of a sporadic post at lunch or via your smart phone held at your side or under your desk during math. Yes, it is time to stand at the bus stop and wait, to run through the halls because you are late, to fill out endless forms (your parents actually have more work this week than you do), to struggle with locker combinations, and to consume the dreaded mystery meat at lunch (I always preferred to pack). Yet, I also know that late August and into September are not always welcomed months and seasons. For some Billy Madison is more than comic relief by another hilarious Sandler character, “Back to school, back to school,to prove to dad that I’m not a fool. I got my lunch packed up, my boots tied tight; I hope that I don’t get in a fight.” Instead, this is your reality. Pressures begin to creep from a variety of angles. The quest to live into a myth of achievement and keep pace in the race to somewhere may leave you exhausted and worn. Even worse, some feel the need to look over shoulders en route to class, wondering if or when a heavy shove or harsh word will be delivered. I wish “back-to-school" could always maintain the celebratory nature and sacred wonder that enveloped your very first day. Unfortunately, as we grow up we come face to face with the reality that all is not right, all is not good, and back-to-school may mean back to fear. But it does not have to be that way. We can live into a greater hope and claim an alternative reality. It can get betterSo as the 2011-2012 school year has already begun, I thought I would issue a youth pastor’s hopes for the year.
Claim one.
Live into a few.
Add your own…
Maybe then God’s dreams for the world, which includes your schools, will become our only known reality…
My Hopes for the 2011-2012 School Year
Education will be education versus competition. We are created to be learners so we can be contributors to the world God created good. My prayer is for education to serve and strengthen the next generation's ability to contribute to the whole of the world versus satisfy individual and institutional lusts to outdue, out-succeed, and outlast one's neighbor or rival district.
Students' identity will generate from the imago Dei versus numbers and statistics. You are not a 3.5 or 1350. You are not an A or a C. Do well. Work hard. Give thanks for the opportunities we have in this region to study and learn with excellence. But always know, your identity is wrapped up not in your success as determined by exams, averages, and scores, but by the very God who loves you and calls you by name.
We will study and tolerate violence and bullying NO MORE. I firmly believe that one of the most courageous means for adolescents to carry their cross and follow Jesus is by befriending a stranger and interceding for those isolated, marginalized, betrayed, and abused by another. Even more, for those who are bullied, you are worth more than that! You do not have to live in fear...find refuge and an advocate in a teacher, a peer, a counselor, a parent, or a pastor. See a related post...
A rhythm of rest will replace the chaos and confusion of hurry. I pray for students to find sabbath in weekends and youth ministries; in suffient sleep and time outside; through real conversations and shared meals over tables. I long for youth to be able to say no, not only to drugs and alcohol, but also to the most addictive "product" on the market- busy schedules.
Sporadic acts of kindness...even when they don't count for service hours. Youth are incredibly gifted and creative. Even more, youth have an imagination that has yet to be over come by "I can't" and "that's not possible." Still, our concern for others and our will for change often come with an attached document that is to be turned into the proper club authority. Love. Serve. Dream. Transform. But find a way to do so not for credit but because you believe and live into God's dreams for the whole world.
Begin each day as if it were on purpose. Yes, that is a borrowed line from a great flick, Hitch. But it is spot on. There are many ways that we begin the school day and rituals that form and shape our hearts, minds, and souls. Try one that sends you into your schools as the people of God. Write a prayer. Meditate on a Scripture. Claim the Lord's prayer as your own... or live into one like it...
I could type an endless list of hopes...these are just a few. Blessings in the year ahead and may the peace of God guard all of your hearts and minds in Jesus, this day and every day...
Related Posts:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Refreshing Revisions: PCUSA Book of Order as Missional Theology?

If you have had any conversations with me about theology, missional vocations, social and political issues, and the prophetic nature of the church and biblical witness, then you may find it obscure for me to make a post about Part II of the PCUSA Constitution, i.e. The Book of Order. In fact, I also am quite amused by the hilarity of God and God's ability to lead me to read what I once wrote off as superfluity. I can still hear some of the echoes of my colleagues in ministry, Greg, just read it. I think you may actually like it. Yet, I wanted to wait until the newest edition came out, which did as of July 10, 2011, not only to be relevant and because of its slightly condensed nature, but also because this is the edition that I will be tested on come time for ordination exams. In other words, no sense in reading BOO twice...that would be superfluity.

I have written before about how I do indeed appreciate the language and contextual tradition of the Reformed Faith that frames my PCUSA denomination. In all sincerity, I have developed quite a love and fascination for the confessional history, especially what comes to us in Part I of the Constitution. i.e. The Book of Confessions. I have even taught a course on the relationship between the Missional Church and Reformed Theology, which significantly engaged the Confessions. I would even consider myself a "Reformed theologian." However, The Book of Order always frightened me. Then I began to read it. Speaking of confessions, I confess that I have not made it past the first eight pages. In fact, I have found myself so enamored by these pages that I have read and re-read, dare I say meditated, on these pages and left unable to move forward. Yes, it is true, The Book of Order is Missional Theology, at least the first eight pages. Moreover, I am confident that I could post citations, which I will, and those familiar with the current conversations related to missional theology and church paradigms, would probably attirbute them to the likes of Barth, Guder, Wright, Keesmaat, McLaren, or Brueggemann.[2] But alas, they are from the section, "The Mission of the Church." Furthermore, in great missional reformation, the section that was previously buried after "Preliminary Principles," now holds a position of primacy, i.e. it is the first section to be read. I am eager to continue to explore this once feared and dreaded text. Even more, my hope and prayer is for the language and witness of the PCUSA Book of Order to move off the shelves, be rid of their dust, and begin to [or continue, depending on context] form the church for real incarnations of gospel witness in and for the world. Then we may begin [or continue] to live into the old language from the previous edition of BOO, "The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity."[1]

For now, here are a few excerpts from the first eight pages...maybe I can now read further? Maybe you can join me in this missional adventure...

A PDF of the 2011-2013 Edition

"The mission of God in Christ gives shape an substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God's mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God's love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God's mission." (F-1.01)

"The Church's life and mission are a joyful participation in Christ's ongoing ife and work." (F-1.02)

"In Christ's name, therefore, the Church is sent out to bear witness to the good news of reconciliation with God, with others, and with all creation." (F-1.0205)

"The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation." (F-1.0301)

"The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy its benefits of Christian community for itself alone." (F-1.0302)

"The holiness of the Church comes from Christ who sets it apart to bear witness to his love, and not from the purity of its doctrine or the righteousness of its actions." (F-1.0302, b)

"In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the gospel of God's redemption of all things and people." (F- 1.0302, d)

"The Church bears witness in word and work that in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God's new creation, God's kingdom drawing the present into itself." (F-1.0302, d)

[1] I do grieve, however, that this brilliant and beautiful line was removed, at least stated differently, in the latest edition. I will still use it, that's for sure.
[2] This is most likely the case because the 'missional church' conversation is nothing new. Instead, it is the recovery of what always has been and the challenge to live into it with faithfulness, integrity, and a real conviction that the church is called not to glory, but to solidarity with the gospel that is first and foremost for the poor and oppressed and then also for the whole world. However, as the church has become so entrenched within and wed to Christendom and other incarnations of empire, the missional nature of the Church has often been expended, because it demands that the Church carry a cross of suffering versus wield a sword of power. I will save these thoughts for a post to come on Douglas John Hall's, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unlikely Reconciliation: Genesis 33:1-17

Sermon Text from Today

I have always found it strange that when you purchase a new car you begin to see that car everywhere. The same is true when you have twins (as my wife and I did in April), you begin to recognize them everywhere. What once seemed to be such a rarity begins to become a common observation. In fact, last weekend my wife and I were at our family reunion and Amber commented, "Have you noticed how many twins there are here?" So I looked around and, much like when I feel like every other car is a 2006 CR-V, I began to see all over the place- double strollers. And we compared ours with theirs. What worked better, side by side or front and back? What wheels were able to endure the Knoebels gravel terrain the best? Who else looked like they were carting around a mini circus? Did they look as crazy as we felt? All in all, we recognized that our story was not as uncommon as we may have first thought. Then I look at the text I am preaching, twins again. And as I have said before, I hope Noah and Lily's story does not follow the same sort of path, or at least require the same sort of encounter, as today's text. For it is indeed a story of unlikely, at least unexpected, reconciliation that stems from a history of deception, distrust, and conflict.

If you have followed this summer's series on Genesis, maybe reading the stories in between at home, you may be well aware that Genesis, i.e. the book of beginnings, is everything but a clean text. Instead, the narratives that make up the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of Israel, i.e. what we call the Old Testament, is complicated, twisted, seductive, racy, and would be rated TV-14 if the ancient writers would have followed our cable parental codes. And remember, Genesis was the story that was told from generation to generation by the Jewish people about their beginnings, their history. These stories are often difficult to comprehend, especially those that concern the patriarch Jacob. Jacob, the younger twin brother to Esau and the offspring of Isaac and Rebekah, has moved through not one, but two plots of deception, graciously aided by his mother, so to claim for himself the birthright and blessing of not only his father, Isaac, but also and especially of God. He demands to be the called, chosen, and elected. And the narrators of Genesis claim that God's hand is at work in and through it all.

We come to today's text and, like a criminal on the run, Jacob is on the move and has discovered that his deception could be reasonable cause for his brother Esau to post WANTED signs throughout the Transjordan region. He lives in fear and anxiety, constantly looking over his shoulder for a vengeful Esau, and goes to great lengths en route to Canaan, the land promised to his ancestors, to defend and protect this blessing. In just a chapter earlier, we also read of Jacob's offering of a prayer, as Gordon Wenham notes, mixed with "faith, fear, and doubt" (291).[1] It is a prayer that looks all too familiar, maybe you have prayed one similar, God, although I may not be worthy, deliver me in my distress, fear, and uncertainty.

Jacob's prayer, though, is not his final move. Instead, unsure if God will be faithful, he sends a contingent of his fleet to investigate Esau's camp, and should they encounter the feared twin, they are to assure Esau that Jacob comes bearing gifts, a "present", an offering of atonement to make apparent amends. While this fleet marches ahead, Jacob stays behind, wrestles with a divine agent, and once again demands a blessing, this time not from Isaac or Esau, but from God. In this dramatic aside, Jacob's hip is displaced and his name changed to Israel, meaning "struggles with God." These are new marks of the patriarch's struggle with faith, fear, and doubt. Yet, Jacob presses on towards Esau, limping in anxiety and trembling in uncertainty.

This is where it gets messy. It has often been suggested that Jacob is questing for reconciliation because he has been convicted of his errant ways in the past and humbled by his encounter with God. We have often heard that Jacob is longing to make things right between himself and Esau, genuinely transformed. Jacob is the good guy? Maybe this is the case? But I also wonder, while Jacob may appear to long for amends to be made, does he expect it, i.e. is it an unlikely and risky reconciliation? Jacob expects nothing short of a frontal attack from his brother and so maybe his offerings and posture of surrender are actually further attempts to protect, defend, and secure the promise and blessing? And when he draws near to his twin brother he charges to the front of the line and is prepared for the worst, hoping for at least a partial pardon, so he can then get on his way.

Then we read of Esau's posture and response, which, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, may sound somewhat familiar. The one who had been slighted, deceived, and displaced, offers an unlikely response to the deceiver: prodigal grace and uncommon embrace. The text reads, when seeing Jacob in the distance, bowed in surrender and submission, "Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept." Can you hear the echoes? Jacob, much like the younger son who has demanded then spoiled an inheritance in Luke's telling of Jesus' prodigal parable, approaches with a rehearsed plan of protection and preservation in the guise of surrender and submission, only to be welcomed by an unlikely and uncommon reconciliation.[2] Like Jesus' prodigal in Luke, Jacob is greeted, a la the father in the prodigal parable, by a once-perceived obstacle and enemy running towards him not to attack, condemn, confront, or shame, but instead to make right what was once a broken relationship. And through the actions of Esau and the father, Jacob, the prodigal son, and you and I witness the very face of God.

Yet, this reconciliation does not appear to last long, as the twin brothers ultimately part ways when Jacob refuses to travel "alongside" Esau; the older brother in Jesus' prodigal parable refuses the father's celebration of a once dead, and now alive lost son. The world around us, and maybe our own circumstances, are not fully right and good. Even today, the economy has been downgraded, the housing market still struggles, budgets are tight, wars and rumors of wars flood the airwaves, jobs are diamonds in a rough, and you and I may experience a wide range of other pressured experiences of anxiety and conflict. Again, reconciliation of our lives, let alone the whole world often feels unlikely and unfinished at best.

When I read today’s story my heart wants to celebrate with Jacob. But are his motives twisted? I want Esau to be the hero. Yet, despite his efforts, Jacob and Esau still part ways. This narrative is instead a reminder that reconciliation is hard, complicated, often unfinished and incomplete, and maybe unlikely or uncommon. But disciples of a crucified and resurrected Christ pursue it nonetheless. We believe, through the life and work of this unlikely Messiah, that the day will come when Esau will travel alongside Jacob; the older brother will enter the celebration of his younger prodigal brother; the lion will lay down with the lamb; wars will cease; crying will be no more; God will make a dwelling among all of us in a new and universally reconciled creation. And this is our story handed down to us. We call it the gospel..

Many of you are aware, and may have read about through the various blog posts, the recent pilgrimage our youth took to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We traveled as listeners and learners and were blown away by the many stories shared about how Christians in Honduras longed to live into the unlikely, maybe an unfinished, reconciliation of God.

There was the Micah Project. Their director, Mike, had begun an outreach to the street kids in the city. These kids, for a wide variety of reasons, have been orphaned by their families and forced to call the streets their home. The youth often turn to yellow-glue as the drug of choice to connect them to a false sense of community and bring temporary relief to their pain. The Micah Project brings these boys in, offers them a place to call home, reconciles their addictions, and provides them an education that trumps the national average of fifth grade. In fact, many have gone on to college and become teachers. Lives are transformed by those who are living into an uncommon and unlikely story of reconciliation.

We also learned about Association for a More Just Society. Their director of communications, Abe, spoke to our group about the efforts of their ministry to enter into difficult and dangerous environments to pursue peace in violent neighborhoods, abusive homes, and corrupt political systems. However, they also have advocated for the reconciliation of a corrupt education system that has placed money and power over the development of Honduran youth. If you read through their website, they have experienced many victories, both large and small, because they live into a gospel story of uncommon and unlikely reconciliation, even though their work is unfinished.

Still more, we spent the entire week in community with youth from a Presbyterian church in Teguc, Peña de Horeb. They live under a simple confession: desañando tu futuro bajo la voluntad de Dios (designing your future under the will of God). They long to bridge the gap between what they believe to be a gospel of peace and the present realities of struggle, violence, and injustice around them. They shared of their hopes and dreams to be the people of God in Tegucigalpa and beyond, because they believe in an uncommon and unlikely Messiah named Jesus who is in the process of designing an alternative future in Honduras and will eventually reconcile the whole world.

I can see the same in our youth who gave up a week to learn of these stories, to partner with Honduran youth, and dream together about how to not only pursue reconciliation in Teguc, but also back home in Philadelphia and West Chester. Imago Dei Youth have their eyes and ears tuned into an unlikely and uncommon reconciliation. And, like Esau, many run towards it.

There may be a few Esaus among us, even some Jacobs, as we do not expect reconciliation. Yet, when the story of God's quest for reconciliation becomes our story, we begin to take notice of the uncommon and unlikely signs and symbols of an already and not-yet hope unfolding around us in Honduras, Pittsburgh, D.C., Mexico, Philly, and West Chester. Even more, when we embrace the prodigal story of reconciliation and peace as our own, we begin to live into it with regularity. Where and how is God calling you to do just that, to pursue unlikely and uncommon reconciliation?

If you flip to the front of your bulletin you will read a quote from a source you may find to be uncommon and unlikely, the PCUSA Book of Order, i.e. Part II of our denominational constitution. In its section on "The Church and Its Mission," it states our reconciliatory call better than anything I have said previously, "The church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (PCUSA Book of Order, G- 3.0200). May we live into this provisional demonstration this day and every day. And may reconciliation then cease to be so unlikely and uncommon.

We are reminded today that as we are a people who pursue reconciliation, we only do so because we are covered in God's grace that has gone ahead of us in Jesus.  Reconciliation is difficult, and will sometimes be left unfinished.  yet we still hold on hope for the day to come when the whole world, to include you and I, will be reconciled in the new creation.  Until that day, le us live as God's provisional demonstration.

[1] See Wenham's commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary Series
[2] This contrast is credited to Ken Bailey's and his work in Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story. The image from this post appears on the cover of Bailey's excellent contribution to Christian theology and biblical scholarship.

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Stay-cation: Bottles, Coffee, and Naps

The past nine summers have incorporated a week-long family getaway in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. The week is spent doing a whole lot of nothing, just the way I like it. Aside from reading theology on the beach, walks on the shore line, and evening crab hunts, vacation in the Klimovitz family requires one thing: abandon schedules and expectations. Nonetheless, for a wide variety of reasons, this year marks the first in which we will watch Shark Week not from the confines of a beach house, but in our living room...does not have the same effect ;) That said, I chose this year, after returning from a week in Honduras, an already busy summer with much time away from family, and almost a month after my wife returned to work after maternity leave, to take my first ever "stay-cation." The requirements are the same, no schedule or expectations, except to care for the two greatest blessings my wife and I have ever known, our twins, Noah and Lily.

It is quite an adventure caring for fraternal twins, and sleep comes at a premium. Yet, I can say without hesitation, that I would have it no other way. Each morning I fill three bottles, two for the kids and a dark-roast brew for myself, which gets me to my 10 o'clock nap (my parental obligation for tired twins after a morning feed). I am not one who likes to slow down, do nothing, or take a break from work, ministry, reading, or writing (blogging about a stay-cation has to be a violation of some sort). Yet I have been pretty disciplined to do just that- nothing. I confess that I have tried many times to get through a chapter of my summer read, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World by Douglas John Hall, with not much luck. And this is a good thing. Instead, I have spent every waking moment taking in all the subtleties of newborns.

I am reminded of Chesteron's comments about our need to grow-down as believers, i.e. to reclaim our ability to be left in awe, wonder, and amazement by even the simplest of experiences. We must become like a child who says, "do it again" to either a sunrise or a rainforest bouncy seat. As each day passes, I go to bed grateful that on my stay-cation I get to "do it again" and take in each discovery made by the youngest of Klimovitz imaginations, to witness their fresh experiences, hear their newest of sounds, and watch their minds take everything in as it is the first time...because maybe it is.

I was not sure what to expect when Amber and I became parents. I was not sure how our lives would change as a mom and dad of not just one, but of two, newborn babies. Despite all the horror stories shared by well-intentioned and experienced parents, the inital sleepless weeks, and a life that looks much akin to a circus, especially with twin beagles to accompany twin humans, I agree with Amber, I have never been happier than I am in these days. And this stay-cation has been a beautiful opportunity to bask in just that feeling and God-given reality that has become our new life.

I look forward to the days, weeks, years, and caffeinated bottles ahead. Even more, I hope to take more stay-cations in the future so not only to refresh and recharge before another ministry season, but also and especially to hold onto the simple wonders that come alive again and again through the eyes, ears, and lips of Noah and Lily. Because, if you ask me, they are the greatest theologians I know...

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