Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wait, Advent's Here Already? A Few Helpful Resources for the Liturgical Season

Advent is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the waiting and anticipating. I look forward to each week's unique encounter with the Christmas narrative. Like Lent, I appreciate the sacred rhythm and unique liturgy that draws us into and sends us from the Jesus story.

Advent reminds us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, God is indeed among us, with us, for us, and before us. We can confess this because God came as one of us.

Karl Barth says it best,

"But is Christ in us? Is Christ even in present-day society? We hesitate to answer and we know why we hesitate....But if Christ is in us, then society, in spite of its being on the wrong course, is not forsaken of God. The 'image of the invisible God,' the 'firstborn of every creature' in us (Col. 1:15), indicates a goal and a future...So: we bid you hope" (The Word of God and The Word of Man 274-275).
The first Advent reminds us to hold on hope for the second Advent, when Christ will come again and make all things new. Our encounter with Advent awakens us to live into this future hope in our ever-day present.

"Advent is also a pilgrimage. A time of sacred travel. It is a way that we answer what Goethe called "the holy longing." During Advent we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another. It is an invitation to be born again." (Rose Marie Berg)
Advent is also a unique opportunity to engage in creative and comtemplative expressions of holy ritual. Whether it be lighting and Advent wreath on Sunday mornings and each night at dinner, reading a particular devotional each evening before bed, or listening to favorite seasonal music, the formative traditions of Advent must not be bypassed. They are playful yet sacred reminders of who we are as the pilgrim people of God.

That said, I thought I would share a few of my favorite Advent practices that guide me to December 25th.

Christmas Albums

Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens (any of the volumes or sing-along are good!)

Snow Angel by Over the Rhine (free on

Advent Songs by Sojourn

Christmas Songs by Jars of Clay

Devotionals/Spiritual Disciplines

Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent

Advent and Christmas: Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen

Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle (section for Advent)

Daily Readings for Advent 2012 (Revised Common Lectionary & PCUSA Book of Common Worship)

Non-Traditional Advent Songs and Dinner-Table Reflection Discussion Starters

Alternative Giving

Ideas for Reclaiming Advent and Christmas (PCUSA Just Living)

Advent Conspiracy:

Other Interesting Seasonal Reads/Listens

It's Not Christmas Yet by Rob Bell (Relevant Magazine)

Advent TNT Extravaganza (Homebrewed Christianity Podcast)

Advent in a Crumbling Empire by Shelley Douglass (

The Habit of Advent by Rose Marie Berg (

Top 10 Resources for Advent 2012 (

St. Nicholas Wasn't White and Other Thoughts on the Bishop of Myra 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Do Youth Trust Adults? Response to a Recent Conversation with Ministry Colleagues

There's nothing like returning to the church office after Thanksgiving vacation and responding to a few emails that have sat dormant for a few days..uh...weeks.

One of those emails was sent by a friend and colleague in ministry who continues to reflect on the current generation of youth and their supposed (lack of) connection to and/or potential distrust of adults and the church. My friend wrote:

"Have [youth] made vows (either consciously or unconsciously) that they will not trust adults, adult systems/institutions, and perhaps God? [Are] these trauma-initiated vows keeping this generation away from church more than anything else we are talking about?"

I found this question to be incredibly provocative and pertinent. I also was in need of a fresh blog post. That said, below is an edited and expanded response to my pastor friend. I can think of no better way to recover from tryptophan and prepare for the fast-approaching Advent season than to contemplate the relationship between this generation of youth, adults, and related church systems and institutions. I would love to hear your reflections...

Happy Thanksgiving. Blessed Advent.

Pastor Friend and Youth Advocate,

There is clear probability for contemporary youth to be traumatized by the lack of advocacy and intervention by adults in regards to the increasingly violent and oppressive rhythms of contemporary society and media-driven, consumer culture. That's why I often recommend to adults in my suburban context, Death by Suburb, by David Goetz. He argues that, especially in the 'burbs, youth have tragically become collateral for adults, utilized to buy particular "immortality symbols," prestigious status, and much desired glory. Youth are crucified upon crosses of AP classes, endless travel sports teams, music lessons, college tours, etc. They face so much pressure to achieve not always for their benefit, but frequently for the benefit of the adults who are lauded when their sons and daughters "succeed."

I also believe most youth are too busy to be kids, too tired to play, and too overworked academically that they do not have the brain power left to contemplate other pertinent and formative conversations beyond the walls of their high schools. They come to church drained...if they come at all. Then you talk to their parents. They either throw their hands in the air because they don't know how to escape or they toss out lines to young parents like myself, "you will understand how tough it is one day." This is a fatalist mentality that has co-opted the conscience of adults. They have, sometimes unknowingly, exchanged their identity as disciples for myths of achievement within this rat race to nowhere. As a result, their kids are losing their minds. They have also begun to lose their primary advocates within the church, i.e. the adults who are called to form, shape, and send them as participants within the liberating kingdom of God.

So, to answer your question, do I think youth "distrust" adults? No.

I think they long for adults to step in as advocates of a different way of being in the world. They crave adult attention and intervention within a culture that victimizes them through mass media and technology. They are looking for good news of rest and acceptance, to be called beloved with no strings attached, in a world saturated with pressure, anxiety, and increasingly high demands. They want to be told they are not defined by numbers, letters, extra curricular activities, or class schedules. Hence our youth ministry's name: imago Dei.

That said, I actually think youth do trust adults. Which is why they continue to flounder in the very sea of anxiety that adults (and the church?) are telling them is either acceptable or unavoidable. They are listening, watching, and waiting for their message. Yet these same adults are also beginning to evaporate from a larger and more meaningful participation in church life, mission, and formative practices.

This is why it is imperative for youth ministry not to exist in isolation form the broader mission, vision, and activity of the larger congregation. While we may charge youth pastors to teach youth about the Bible, related ethics, faith, commitment to the church, etc., we often forget that we cannot cure cancer with tylenol. In other words, when larger tumors of passivity and idolatry are growing in the adult populous, we cannot expect to alleviate the reoccurring symptoms of adolescent fatigue, depression, and disinterest in matters of faith and discipleship within the church. We must look for a better and more effective treatment that works to shrink the root cause of these symptoms.

In essence, your question affirms my hypotheses that the church needs a broader narrative for Sunday morning liturgy, preaching, adult ed courses, fellowship events, missional partnerships, and discipleship programs. We need to reinvision our institutional language and paradigms. We need to see our investment in the spiritual formation of adults within our congregations, many who are parents of teenagers, as deeply connected to the vision and goals of youth (and children's) ministries. Better said, our youth depend upon the spiritual formation of the adult populous because they do trust them...

They trust them so much that when they stop being involved in the do they...

When adults stop innovating and creating fresh church do they...

When those they look up to and admire hesitate to consider radical opportunities to incarnate the gospel in their neighborhoods, communities, and places of do they...

These are all reasons why youth not only struggle to be the much needed missional players in the ecclesial present, but also grow weary in the quest to be those whom God calls and sends to form and shape our ecclesial future.

Again, do I think youth are leaving or will leave the church because they don't trust us as adults? No.

But they may leave because the adults they do trust never offered them anything unique, substantive, or imaginative.

I look forward to on-going conversations...


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Book of Ruth: Yahweh's Obscure Redemption through a Foreigner, Widow, and Wealthy Landowner

The story could not start off any worse. Famine in Judah has forced a small Hebrew family to flee their beloved homeland and find refuge in Moab. Yes, Moab. Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, are forced to shift residency and dwell among a foreign people.

It would be easy for us, as readers far removed from the foreign relations of ancient Israel, to skip over this detail and miss the intensity and offense that launches this biblical narrative into its subversive plot. But a Jewish reader or hearer living in antiquity would certainly not miss the punch that has been thrown.

The Moabites are enemies to Israel. They are dreaded dwellers in the region just opposite of Judah and across the Dead Sea. They are a people whose biblical ancestry stems from the incestual relations Lot had with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). The Moabites have not once demonstrated compassion or neighborly love towards God's covenanted people, actually their king sent Balaam to curse the numerous people who had "come out of Egypt" (Num. 22). They are ultimately remembered for leading Israelites into Baal worship through the seduction of a few of their women (Num. 25:1-3). They are then forever shunned and forbidden from the worshipping community and assembly of the pilgrimaging Israelites (Deut. 23:3-6; Nehemiah 13:1-3). That said, the writer of Deuteronomy incorporates among the miscelaneous laws for the nomadic Hebrews:

"You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live" (23:6).

Yet this is precisely where this family from Judah now calls home. Their welfare is wrapped up in the welfare of Moab. But it gets worse, especially for Naomi.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sex, Sexuality, Youth Ministry, and The Church: Moving Beyond Accountability Groups

The high school youth ministry I grew up in was obsessed with conversations about sex and sexuality. Whenever we were polled by leadership on potential retreat topics, this one received a high percentage of votes. Whenever it lost, it was either to its companion, "relationships," or obsessions with the apocalypse.

What was also very popular was the "accountability group." I was a part of several. They never seemed to last for more than a few months, if that. Same-gender youth, often with an adult leader, would meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and share about life. We read Scripture, prayed, and encouraged one another. But mostly these groups evolved into conversations about sexual "temptations," how to avoid them, and what to do if we "stumbled." These gatherings got real interesting whenever someone was dating another member of the youth group.

I am grateful for the willingness of my peers to be so vulnerable and open about a delicate and awkward topic. However, what resulted was a hyper-sexualized theology that was all about fear, avoidance, and unending anxiety whenever in the presence of a member of the opposite sex. God, faith, Christianity, and the church became about codes of conduct for co-ed interactions, especially romantic ones.

Then, many years later, I became a Presbyterian youth pastor. While sexuality was an important and highly debated point of conversation at the denominational level, it was not one the youth ministry was as interested in having corporately. It certainly was not at the top of desired retreat topics. We definitely refrained from preaching about it from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. As a youth pastor, I was somewhat relieved. Sex and sexuality are not exactly on my list of "Favorite Things to Preach About with Regularity."

This new reality was not because the youth or larger congregation did not have their opinions on the sensitive topic. It just seemed to be too delicate of a conversation to engage publicly, especially in a denomination where there is a beholder of every opinion and convictiction under the sun.

I venture to say that what prevented the topic from being discussed was/is fear.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Brief Word to Encourage Relief Efforts

Just over seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

I remember being glued to the television set, as I viewed endless footage of mind-boggling and surreal photos and videos.

I remember members of churches, to include my own, being eager and willing to rent and load trucks full of relief supplies. They even drove straight through the night to deliver the load and investigate opportunities to partner and serve.

I remember our youth ministry spending a week with an eager and hopeful pastor and the remnants of her congregation. She rallied together every last resource, volunteer, service organization, and prayer, confident that NOLA could and would rebuild.

There were phone-a-thons and benefit concerts. There were prayer services and food and water drives. Even George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton partnered for the sake of Katrina victims.

But that was seven years ago. That was a three-hour flight away.

Hurricane Sandy was this week. Hurricane Sandy was here on the Northeast Coast.

I was challenged this morning as I watched more footage of the Jersey Shore, Manhattan, and Staten Island devastated by this freakish storm. Places I have visited, streets I have walked, boardwalks I have perused, and beaches I have layed upon were under water and washed away.

I began to wonder: would the passion and energy invested in the development of partnerships and relief efforts to a region far away be matched by compassion and solidarity offered to neighbors a quick drive across the Ben Franklin Bridge?

My hope and prayer is that we would rally together as a people to support all our neighbors whenever they are drenched in despair. We are to offer endless compassion in the wake of overwhelming suffering near and far.

"What we call sympathy or in German Mitleid- literally, with-suffering. To feel compassion, deeply and sincerely, is to overcome the subject/object division; it is to suffer with the other...Etymologically, of course, the word compassion contains the same thrust as does the German Mitleid: com(with) + passio (suffering)." ---Douglass John Hall

That said, I encourage all to look for opportunities to donate time, talent, and resources to extend a "with-suffering" spirit to victims of Superstorm Sandy. Every little bit helps.

Here are a few ways you can be off aid:



[1] Taken from a great read, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World.