Monday, December 17, 2012

What Can We Do In the Wake of Newtown? Advent-ing Cries for Change...

The horrific events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary this past Friday are not the first, nor will they be the last, attestations to a world torn by violence. The real temptation is to grow weary and lose hope when every day we read stories about heinous crimes against humanity, abduction of child soldiers, manifestations of genocide, and the all-too-common shootings that are taking place in our public schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, and even churches. We are especially aghast when the victims are young children and defenseless kindergartners who had a whole future ahead of them.

As I have previously mentioned, my initial reaction to any realization of suffering and injustice is to cry out, How long, O Lord? Even so, come Lord Jesus. My first response is to demand that God would act, that God would intervene, that God would also say enough. Much like the Psalmist whose tears drench his couch (Psalm 6:6-7), the widowed prophet Anna who fasts and prays in anticipation (Luke 2), and bereaved Rachel because of massacred children in Ramah, I also expect God to bring a new day (Matthew 2:18).

Advent is a liturgical reminder that we are a people in waiting for the world to be made new and right. Yet we wait not on our hands. Our Advent-ing is active. We have a living hope (1 Pt 1:3) that must be embodied, pursued, and lived into for the sake of our neighbors near and far. We inaugurate our future hopes in the present, the hear and now.

That said, my other response to suffering at the hands of the violent is to remember our call as the church. Advent awakens our memory to be peace-makers, hope-givers, dream-sharers, burden-carriers, and soul-tenders.

This begs the question- how? What can we do in the face of such atrocities as what took place on Friday? How can we live out our identity as Jesus' disciples within a world yet to be healed of senseless violence? How can we live into the peaceable kingdom of God in the midst of a society bent on aggression and assault?

Pray. We often undervalue and lose sight of the reality that our prayers do matter. I am not sure how. I am not sure why some prayers seem to be met with circumstantial and social change and others seem as though they have fallen on def ears, but I keep praying...I hope you will, too. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Look in the Mirror: We all need to consider how we perpetuate cycles and patterns of violence. Our language, sources of entertainment, video games, movies, music, and manners in which we deal with personal conflict also deeply matter. It can even be said that the purchases and investments we make sometimes sustain industries and promote cultural narratives that feed on violence and weapons wielded in war. So we must take a look and ponder our own contributions to a violent world and choose instead to speak life. We must take a look at our laws. We must be willing to change, "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change." (President Barack Obama, 12/17/12)

Listen and Learn: Ignorance is not bliss. Instead, learn about how violence is crippling individuals and communities locally and globally. Make space to listen to the stories of victims of violence. Celebrate the heroes and sheroes who have worked towards past and present change without resorting to violence. Allow yourself to develop a prophetic imagination that sees beyond the myths of redemptive violence that only breed more violence.

Speak Up and Advocate: Stand on the side of those victimized by violence and work towards social policies that help alleviate violence. Research gun control laws, anti-bullying campaigns, peacemaking organizations, and justice programs. Even more practically, befriend those often pushed to the margins of your school, place of work, neighborhood, and city. When you have a hunch that something is not right and the seeds of violence are being planted- speak up and work with those who can move towards possible prevention.

Create Opportunities to Partner: Rally together with others who share a passion for peacemaking and organize together for the purpose of educating others about and supporting victims of violence. Partner with organizations that share your convictions and work towards wholistic change.

Dare to Hope: One of the most subversive disciplines of Christian life is that we hope in a God whose promise is for the whole world to be made new and right. We have a hope and confidence that the Way of Jesus- a way of non-violence and peace, of justice and compassion, and the beginnings of a world where tears and sorrow are no more- will win out in the end. This is a hope that we live into just as much as we hold onto it, especially at Advent. This is a hope we proclaim, especially in the aftermath of gross tragedies.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.Where there is hatred, let me sow love;where there is injury, pardon;where there is doubt, faith;where there is despair, hope;where there is darkness, light;and where there is sadness, joy.O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seekto be consoled as to console;to be understood as to understand;to be loved as to love.For it is in giving that we receive;it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
---St. Francis of Assisi

[1] Silver Surfer comic above found in Walter Winks, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, p. 230).

[2] I do not usually post videos of politicians. I tend to try to stay out of the public support/condemnation of partisan issues, but this video of Joe Scarborough (R) from Morning Joe bears witness to political and personal change needed for these tragedies to end. So while I may typically vote ____, I am grateful for his a-partisan voice here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Enough Advent Already: Prayers for Newtown


They say Advent is a season of waiting. They say Advent is a season of hoping. They say Advent is about expectation for Christ to come again and make all things new.

I say this. I believe this. I expect this.

Yet, how long, O Lord!?

Liturgical seasons serve to help the church and God's people live into and remember the sacred rhythm of our shared story of promise.

Still, as I continue to watch the newsfeeds and live streamings of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, which took the lives of 20 innocent children and 6 adults, I am not sure we need a liturgical calendar to remind us of our waiting, hoping, longing, and expecting for the world to be be be new. The stories of mass shootings in movie theaters and elementary schools, prank calls to hospitals that exploit helpful nurses, bombings in the Holy Land, bullying in public schools, and a whole host of other rhythmic tragedies seem to serve the same sort of purpose. This does not even include other personal stories and experiences of pain and suffering.

I have a whole host of thoughts running rampant through my mind, but the only one that seems pertinent today and every day, Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

On the cusp of this third week of Advent, which typically hinges on joy, we are reminded of the many who instead sit in sorrow and weep over victims of violence and injustice. We lift in prayer those who wait this advent not because of liturgy but due to tragic reality. We are reminded that Christ cannot come soon enough. So while we may hold a confidence and trust that God can and will make all things new and right with the second Advent, the time in between the two is often difficult to endure.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! How long, O Lord!

I was reading this just before my wife texted me to turn on the news today:

"Let us not fail to see that the people of our times stand in anxiety and need before the closed wall of death, hardly aware in any way of the world that may be waiting behind it, and that in any case we do not do well to hurry on before them, building our speculative dreams, attending to our much business of evangelism or social service and asserting the immediacy of our religious experience. For the sake of the suffering of the millions, for the sake of the blood shed for many that cries against us all, for the sake of the fear of God, let us not be so sure! Such sureness is only a synonymn for smugness."

Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, 85

May the liturgy of Advent not turn into sacred smugness. Instead, may we grieve with those who grieve, mourn with those who mourn, and wait with those who wait.

May we also work towards whatever changes are necessary, both in legislation and personal transformation, to see that violence is lessened and children are no longer victimized.

Enough with guns! Enough with mediums and messages that promote aggression!

We can do better. We must do better.

Our children depend upon it. They can no longer wait.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

"As we mourn, we must sound a call for our leaders to stand up and do what is right. This time our response must consist of more than regret, sorrow, and condolence. The children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and all victims of gun violence deserve leaders who have the courage to participate in a meaningful discussion about our gun laws - and how they can be reformed and better enforced to prevent gun violence and death in America. This can no longer wait."

Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

A Few Resources:

Prayer of Confession by Marian Wright Edelman

PCUSA Resources in Response to Gun Violence

Let's About Talk Guns by Bruce Reyes-Chow

Questions of Faith in the Face of Fear Ministering with and for young people in the wake of tragedy (

Monday, December 10, 2012

What Are Your Hopes for Youth This Advent? Whispers of Encouragement Across Generational Lines

"However we may be justified in wagging our heads over modern youth's fantastic drive for freedom, it is certain that our final attitude cannot be surprise and opposition; the youth movement of the present time in all its phases is directed against authority for its own sake, and whoever desires to be an educator today must...stand in principle upon the side of our younger people" ---Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 292

We youth pastors and youth directors are all-too-familiar with the assumption that youth ministry is a temporary gig, a junior level position, and the first rung on the ladder to higher vocational aspirations. We are often asked if we consider ourselves to be "lifers" in youth ministry, which is really another way of saying, when are you leaving here to be a "real" pastor.

This sort of posture towards youth pastors and youth directors relegates the spiritual formation and discipleship of young people to second-rate ministry in the church. It also further widens the already-existing gap between generations, communicating that the "real" work of the church belongs to adults.

The opening citation by one of the church's greatest theologians suggests that anytime youth ministry and those called to labor alongside young people are denigrated and devalued, the Swiss pastor rolls in his grave. The church must always be on the side of "our younger people." We must learn from their longings for freedom and their thirsts for justice. We must encourage their creativity and innovation as they live out the gospel in ways we may never have dreamed possible.

We must also be sure they hear our words of hope, our whispers of encouragement, and our advocacy for their ability to do far more than we, and maybe they, ever dreamed possible. In a world that constantly streams negativity and anxiety-laden messages, our words of support and solidarity will be welcomed messages of relief and liberation.

As I prayed and contemplated about what text to speak about to youth on the second Sunday of Advent, I stumbled upon Luke 2:22-38. Luke's narration of the Messianic family's encounter with Simeon and Anna is an invitation to lean into the gospel that knows no limits to age or gender. That is, the voices of hope and deliverance are from the mouths of the older members of the faithful people of God. And they speak promise to the next generation. They know the message of this child will not be received by all. They know the road ahead my be difficult and filled with seasons of sorrow. Still, they invite the new parents, who hold the Christ child in their arms, to hold onto the same hope that sustained them into their old age. This hope that was now awakened in the Christ child, "God with us."

This story led me to invite a few of our seasoned members in our congregation to share some of their echoes of hope with the youth of our congregation. What are their dreams for the younger generations as they follow Jesus in this world? Where and how do they already witness young people as faithful disciples of Jesus the Messiah? Here are a few of their beautiful and hope-filled responses that may resonate with our spirits this Advent:

"I hope they don't get stuck, and if they do I hope they don't stay that way. I hope they never fight a new way of being. I hope that when their dreams change, they stay passionate. My dream for them is that they dream big, that they realize this is their time and they should do everything in their power to work and make the difference God put them on earth to make.

I pray they remember the people Jesus hung out with...I pray they remember they were sent into this world with the promise of peace and they are to share this promise with others. I pray they remember it is not about them; it is about Jesus, and they are to be the example. I pray they remember it is about forgiveness." ---Jeanne

"...take the actions we should have [for the planet]. Another concern is the prevailing feeling that today's youth can't hope to "live" as well as their parents. I would say that that's baloney. Don't define yourself by comparisons with the past; define yourself by your own dreams based on today's and tomorrow's realities and strive to achieve those dreams. One of my favorite sayings is "Today is the first day of the rest of your life..." [Youth's] strength and clarity of purpose always amazes me and affirms to me that they are on the path Jesus wanted in spite of all the roadblocks we "elders" have put in their path. I've seen many examples of how their experiences in youth group - retreats, mission trips, and the like - have changed them into disciples. I also see the strength that being a part of a group that follows Jesus brings, since I know that following Jesus isn't always seen as "cool" ---Burt

"My hopes for today's youth are that their lives would be lived around those enduring true narratives--God is good--all the time! God is trustworthy--even and especially in those crappy times when He seems far away. I would hope that they learn to look at their world, their lives, their blessings, the things that bring them joy, the past worries that have worked out, and see God's hand in all of it....Our hope would be that our youth would continue to find ways to do acts of goodness--their expression of loving God and loving their neighbors. It makes me think of learning to "be in the world but not of the world". This is an area where I believe youth already are often way ahead of us "elders". They question the values the world puts out there, and in doing so, can learn a better way. One that works for peace, justice, and brings the message of God's love through Jesus to the world." ---Jay & Judy

"I want youth to be the church that is the community of faith, community of hope, community of love and community of witness. I pray that youth find in their congregation [and] in our life together, such a witness. I see our youth witnessing to each other and to our community as they participate in worship, in mission trips, in interactions with our members, as they share statements of faith through Confirmation and as they live out those statements. I want to see youth challenge us to be the body we say we are or that we strive to be." ---Leah Johnson

There were others, too. Thanks to all who shared. My prayer is for youth in our congregations to be affirmed over and again of their missional call in and for the world. I pray they hear whispers of hope, not only at Advent, but throughout the year.

I pray we as adults and educators alike stand on the side of youth not only in principle, but also in action. May we listen to their unique contributions to theology, their innovative expressions of the church, and their deepest longoings to live into the gospel of justice and peace near and far.

May we do life together as a diverse and inter-generational community of faith, which hinges on amazement found in the person and work of this One they called Jesus.

Related Post: "Do Youth Trust Adults?"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Malls, Unicorns, and a Liturgical Season for Hipsters: Week 1 Advent Reflections

I know that I should not be surprised by this, but I was.

This past October, my wife and I took our kids to the new play yard at the local mall. We had been more or less trapped indoors due to the immense rainfall related to Superstorm Sandy and, to put it mildly, our kids needed to burn off energy. Actually, WE needed them to burn off the energy.

After we had carted our mini-circus into the last-place-on-earth I want to spend a Saturday afternoon, I immediately noticed the awkward array of seasonal decorations. Halloween and Christmas decor intermingled throughout this local temple of consumer America. Ads for costume sales right next to Kris Kringle. Festive lights nearby jack-o-lanterns and black cats. Cheery cliches buttressed with trick-or-treat necessities.

It was not even Halloween and the advertisers and marketing specialists were pushing Christmas into October. So what we were left with was a mix between joy to the world and Friday the 13th. Hope and fear were strung up together.

I love the recent tweet by @occupyadvent, which was accompanied by the photo above:








This tweet suggests, then, that celebrating Christmas in October is ludicrous.

We are a culture that does not like to wait, especially at Christmas. Yet that's precisely what the liturgical season of Advent calls for- waiting. We are invited to rest in anticipation and expectation.