Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thank God for Evolution: Micah Bournes as Modern Psalm for Lent (Week 2)

This past weekend I was introduced, quite literally, to spoken word artist, Micah Bournes. His raw and rhythmic lyrics provoke our Christian conscience and prophetic imagination with creativity and courage. In this montage, created for the Justice Conference 2013, Bournes contemplates the world around us that is not all that different than the world as it always has been. He pokes at evolution as an artistic image not a scientific theory; a metaphor for how humanity has not actually evolved as hoped. Still, the day will come when the dreary and sinful world around us will undergo a just evolution from evil, sin, and death that continues to hold so many in captivity and distress.

As we continue to journey through Lent, the verses of this spoken word lend us an honest confession. They bid us repentance. They beckon us a God-ordained evolution of justice that starts at the cross and propels us towards resurrection.

Read Mark 8:31-38; Romans 6:1-4

Thoughts to Ponder:

1. How does this spoken word illustrate human sin?

2. How does Micah Bournes' imagery of evolution draw us into Lenten disciplines of confession and repentance?

3. Contemplate the spoken word alongside Jesus' call to carry cross and Paul's reminder to those who have been baptized? How does this pertain to our lives as disciples of the crucified and resurrected Christ?

Related Citation from Andrew Root, "Talking About Sin with Young People" (The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry):

"We commit sins, of course, but this is because we live in a state of sin. Far too often, what adolescents understand about sin is only their actions of sinning. They fail to recognize that all humanity is under the shadow of sin, no matter how good or bad; if you are human, you live in the reality of sin, the reality of brokenness. Sin is the name used to describe the state of the broken relationship, at its most fundamental, between God and humanity. Therefore, while sin left unchecked can lead to deep and radical evil, it is primarily a reality born in tragedy."

This delivers fresh understanding of not only Jesus' carrying the cross, but also our call as disciples to pick up cross and travel the same cruciform road. The baptized carry and burry the evil and sin of this world, both within ourselves and the world around us, as we enter into and practice the evolutionary process called "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Justice Conference 2013: Evangelical Contribution to a Trending Yet Significant Movement

If you followed the tail end of the #Justice2013 feed you would have noticed a frequent retweet, "Justice trending on Twitter." It was a proud call for celebration as the conference had generated so much on-line energy that it was being noticed by the platform.

Is that what justice is for Evangelicals? Is it a trending passion and hipster movement that is here today and gone tomorrow? As pondered by Gary Haugen of IJM, will the causes and voices crying for advocacy be rolled in and out much like the varying conference frills wheeled in and out of the Philadelphia Convention Center?

While I still wonder, jaded by past experiences with evangelical congregations and popular voices who rejected justice then jumped on board just before the world around them passed them by, I was encouraged by those who challenged this real temptation of trend. Evangelicals in Philly confessed their past ignorance and gathered together for repentance as they turned towards a broader and much more wholistic gospel.

Brenda Salter McNeil preached, "We don't have an evangelical theology that can address the catastrophic events of the day. We need a new theology. How can we share with the world what is happening when we don't know ourselves?"


Yet, while Evangelicals struggle to develop a theology of justice with great depth, the innovation, creativity, and praxis are worthy of celebration and replication. Although not a competition, their efforts trump the tangible responses of many mainline denominations who have the rich tradition and deep theology of justice but slow and red-tape laden responses to human suffering and missional engagement. Brenda Salter McNeil again exposes truth:

"We have an idolatrous posture towards injustice and real human suffering. Our obsession with theological and political rationale can stunt compassion and empathy."

As a mainliner who is only now beginning to recover my relationship with evangelicalism, I envy the ability to act quickly and respond intuitively. You do not have the same institutional barriers we do. You do not obsess over polity and cling to stale patterns and systems. While you and I may disagree vehemently on the ins and outs of theology and doctrine, when God calls you respond. I am grateful that you do! I also hope we can collaborate together with greater frequency. We actually hold more in common than we may realize or care to admit.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. True, the speakers left much to be desired when it came to the intellect. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the only prominent academic to keynote, was given a mere 10 minutes. Despite the call to go deep and recover a theology of justice rooted in a theology of God, as hyped by founder Ken Wytsma, the conversations hovered on the surface.
Nonetheless, the conference was flooded with real life practitioners from all over the world who were transparent and accessible. The conference speakers drew an audience that probably never would have come if headlined by the likes of Brueggemann. [update: apparently he spoke last year. I stand corrected. We need more of that]
Churches brought their youth and parents brought their kids. There were folks in their 70's and 80's, youthful prospective and current college students, pastors and lay members. The room was packed with those who may be new to this conversation and simply needed something to grab onto other than trend.
They needed familiar, albeit seasoned, voices to remind them they were on the right path.

They needed those who were doing more than speaking about justice, but also and especially doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Viewed in that light, the conference was a major success, even if it was trending.

And I got to meet John Perkins. I was also introduced to Micah Bournes (spoken word below).

So thank you @justiceconference2013. I am grateful for the weekend break from main-line protestantism and fresh conversations with sisters and brothers living what I dream to practice sooner rather than later!

**Suggestion for 2014:

*How can we reframe how all of this pertains to youth ministry and those packaged short-term mission programs for summer youth ministry that perpetuate the non-profit industrial complex mentioned by Eugene Cho. But that's for another day.

**There was a void in engagement with LGBTQ justice issues. Really should invite PFLAG and Jay Bakker.


Here are a few notes from the conference for those interested. These notes do not assume I agree with all :)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mumford and Sons & Not with Haste: Modern Psalms for Lenten Journey

I know, I am a fanatic of these British poets whose concerts sell out in nano seconds. I know this because I have tried and failed multiple times. But it's hard not to be when they provide rich lyrics and creative instrumentation.

This Sunday begins the annual series, Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey, with Imago Dei Youth Ministry. Each week a song is selected that plucks the liturgical chords of our hearts and invites us to contemplate what the Spirit is up to during the sacred season. I thought it would be appropriate to begin, during a season when our rush to the empty tomb is slowed by the reminder of the cross, with Mumford's closing track on Babel- "Not with Haste."

Here are a few thoughts to ponder, feel free to post reflections:

1. How does this song speak to the season of Lent? How is Lent a means for God to "learn me hard and learn me right?"

2. What do you think is illustrated in the lyric, "this ain't no sham / I am what I am" and how does this pertain to Lent and the human experience?

3. What about this song bids us faint hope? How does this sustain us through our 40 days of Lent?

4. Consider listening to this song and then meditating upon a classic Lenten scripture, Psalm 51. How do they relate?

If interested, click here for lyrics.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Lent? DJesus Uncrossed, Tarantino, and Peter Rollins as Liturgical Reminders

The most recent episode of SNL cut from its live line-up of digital shorts a the full-length spoof on both Tarantino films and Jesus. The title: DJesus: Uncrossed. (warning: it's graphic) While many already have expressed fury over the potentially sacrilegious sketch, some Christians are pondering whether the film is actually more reflective of the Jesus we prefer and proclaim:

"That’s because even though the sketch satirized Tarantino, it also said something quite profound and revealing, if unintentionally, about how Americans have remade Jesus in our own violent images. Because, if truth be told, we’ve been trying to uncross Jesus for decades in this country, long before SNL got their pens into him."

--David Henson, DJesus: Uncrossed: Tarantino, Driscoll, and the Violent Remaking of Jesus in America)

As a constructive critic and propitious cynic, I actually was not all that offended. I actually found the short to be a perfect platform for Lenten reflections.

Lent is a season when we intentionally embark on a liturgical season of holy disturbance, repentance, and confession. We are invited to hold off on anxious bombardments of an empty Easter tomb. We hold in memory for forty days the reality that only through the sacrificial offering at the cross can we begin to consider the beauty of resurrection. We must first grieve the suffering and death of Jesus before we can ponder how God's raising the Messiah from his death validates the mission and ministry of Christ.

We need the cross. But we prefer not to suffer.

We want life eternal. But we hesitate to crucify our sin.

We long to follow the way of Jesus. But DJesus seems to be our preferred religious leader...

...the gospels call him Jesus Barabbas, the rebel insurrectionist (Matt. 27:15-26; Mk. 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25).

When we encounter Lent and observe the sacred season en route to Holy Week, we consider the ways in which we have strayed from the mission of God in Christ. We contemplate our propensity to pursue the wide and easy road of destruction out of convenience, fear, and insecurity about the message Jesus proclaimed (Mt. 7:13-124). We lament the real manifestations of violence, injustice, and oppression all around us, many which we have turned a blind eye to and thus enabled their progress. We repent from our obsession with power, luxury, privilege, and comfort and turn towards (again and again) the pilgrimage of faith where we encounter and advocate on behalf of the poor, hungry, estranged, and different.

Lent is an invitation to remember that when Jesus bids us come and follow we pick up cross and travel the narrow and hard road of discipleship. This road assumes sacrifice. This adventure requires surrender. This way called the kingdom is pursued at a very high cost.

Even the cost of everything. Even the cost of our very lives.

In Peter Rollin's collection of modern parables, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, he tells the (fictitious) story of an early Christian community. They had left Jerusalem before the third day, "weighed down with sorrow," and founded a community far from the Holy City "where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness. just as [Jesus] had taught them" (67).

They left before the resurrection. They lived into the kingdom of God with no knowledge that life had once and for all conquered death. They followed as faithful disciples despite knowing that their commitment to the Way of Jesus may lead to their death.

They were willing to give Jesus their all even if it cost them all.

Then came missionaries to this village with "good news" of Jesus' resurrection.

But was it really good news?

While all celebrated this beautiful vindication of their Messiah, one of the elders confided through tears to a new friends:

"Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children's children may follow him, not becuase of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life" ("Being the Resurrection" 69).

In other words, when Jesus is uncrossed Christianity becomes a self-promoting, me-centered, other-world focused faith void of this-world influence and concern.

It can even become aggressive and violent in defense.

That's why Lent. Lent brings the cross back into the conversation and reminds us that Jesus' message is about the here and now, too. Lent focuses the discipleship lens on the crucifixion and proclaims the truth that following Christ is a transformative and life-altering sacrifice. Lent confronts our tendency to uncross Christ and reject confrontations with evil and sin that needs to die.

But thanks be to God for the resurrection. The empty tomb is our only, although sometimes faint, hope that cruciform Lenten journeys are not the end of the road. They are not the end of life.

They are only the beginning.

But Lent is a cross-carrying journey that cannot and should not be avoided.

After all, Jesus was crossed.


My Confession: I Deny the Resurrection (a blogpost by Peter Rollins)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Even from the Ash: An Ash Wednesday Liturgical Poem

I love the seasons of the church calendar. They give my life a sacred rhythm and keep me focused and centered on my identity as a disciple of Jesus dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit.

Yet this year It feels like I have encountered a liturgical slap to the face. One minute, "God with us" at Advent; a month and a half later we are dust and launch into Lent.

Nonetheless, I love Ash Wenesday. I am reminded that Jesus meets my ashen self and draws me close as I seek to follow the Messiah on the dusty road. So here is some liturgical poetry I wrote for worship tonight:

Even from the Ash (liturgy as poetry)

Remember you are dust
to dust you shall return

What about resurrection
What about life everlasting
What about all things being made new

Remember you are dust
to dust you shall return

40 days of confession
40 days of repentance
40 days of longing

for light
for hope
for promised new creation

Remember you are dust
to dust you shall return

We are the created
not the Creator
we were made from the earth
the earth we did not make

Remember we are dust
to dust we shall return

six days of the week
we fast
we pray
we remember

the world is not all right
children are hungry
violence and war are everywhere
suffering and injustice plague God's image bearers

Remember we are dust
to dust we shall return

Each Sunday a glimpse of resurrection
Easter yet to come
almost here
but not quite yet

So grieve and lament
become unsettled
not paralyzed by fear
live into God's dreams for a different world

Remember you are dust
to dust you shall return

Ashes bid us humility
Lent beckons us forgiveness
Solemn liturgy illumines the cross
Somber season directs us to our Savior's cost

Remember we are dust
to dust we shall return

So we wait and ponder
We linger and consider
We trust God's promise
Confident God will deliver

Remember you are dust
to dust you shall return

God goes with us on our Lenten journeys
Sustains us through our fasts
Jesus meets us in our wanderings
Holy Spirit comforts us at last

Remember we are dust
to dust we shall return

Today we pick up cross and carry
We follow Christ as dusty travelers
Yet we don't lose hope as Lenten pilgrims
God can resurrect us

even from the ash.

Related Posts

Matisyahu and Ash Wednesday
Between the Panes: Wendell Berry and Ash Wednesday
Why Ash Wednesday (Relevant Magazine)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

But I Don't Know Anyone? Overcoming a Key Barrier to Church and Youth Ministry Involvement

We want to be known.

In an age of 24/7 transparency and on-line streaming of statuses, photos, check-ins, and tweets, we are more connected to more people than ever before in human history. We have absurd amounts of "friends" and "followers" and are tempted to allow these lists to define who we are and what we do. There is not much left to the imagination and some would even wonder why we talk anymore when what we would say in person has already been posted and made public on-line.

In a sense, we are known.

Yet, youth ministry directors and church pastors continue to hear, when pressed about lack of involvement in related activities and formation opportunities, the common refrain from adults and youth alike: "I don't know anyone."

Is it possible that in this technological age we are paradoxically more connected than ever before and more disconnected than ever before?

Despite instant access to the masses across diverse cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers, we still fear anonymity. We are anxious about the unfamiliar. We struggle with being the new guy or new girl. We don't like not knowing anyone.

We wonder if we are really known.

When we combine not knowing and not being known the real tremptation is to not engage and assume not being welcome. That said, I offer below a few words for fence sitters and actively involved participants in the hopes of fostering opportunities to overcome a key barrier to church and youth ministry involvement: But I don't know anyone.

Words for Fence Sitters

I start here not because you bear the brunt of responsibility, but because you deeply matter. I once heard that the future does not come from the front of the room, but from the back. The real voice of influence is not the one spoken most and with the greatest force, but the real voice of influence often has yet to be spoken, heard, or considered. Faith communities need you. While we may not always come across as though we value your presence and long for your gifts, we do. So with humility and recognition of our tendency to hinder your desire to engage, we dare you and invite you once again (or for the first time) to:

Take a Risk: The first step is often the hardest. The fear of not knowing and not being known are difficult and seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome. It takes courage and risk to walk into a crowd without the comfort of a familiar face. But we are praying for you, we are looking for you, churches and youth ministries are hoping for you to come. And then, just maybe, you won't be so unfamiliar...and neither will we.

Invite Someone to Come with You: The best way to defeat the fear of not knowing and not being known is to bring someone with you who you do know. Don't travel alone. Bring a friend.

Come More Than Once: The only thing more difficult than risk taking is to build relationships and become familiar when you only have experienced a particular community once. True- first impressions are very telling of what you may be getting into, but come a second, third, fourth time and discover what these communities are really all about. We are so grateful for those who offer second chances...

Share Your Gifts: We not only want you to come, we would love for you to share what makes you uniquely you. What gifts can you bring to our community that can shed light in a new way what it means to be alive, to be human, and to be created in the imago Dei.

Provide Feedback: Again, your voice matters. Share with those connected about your experience. If you have taken the risk and decided to stay involved and connected, share with others why. Reflect with those in your community about what kept you coming. If your experience with a particular community was poor and you have decided not to return, please take a final risk and provide feedback. Communities depend on such reflections in order to improve their witness and welcome.

Words for Active Participants

Take a Risk | Extend Invitations: Consider how it was that you first got involved and then offer that to another. Dare to move beyond the assumption that church friends are for church and school and work friends are for those places out there. Take a risk and respond to the call to invite someone in your neighborhood or on your sports team to be a part of the community you love so much.

Don't Hoard the Good Stuff: Jesus said it this way, and your choir teach may have, too: don't hide your light under a bushel- No! Look for ways to share the blessings of Christian community with others. Remember, the good news is not only for us, but also and especially for the whole world.

Look for the New Person: It's easy to get caught up in what's familiar and miss the person walking in for the first time. Have the eyes to see those who are taking a risk and daring to be a part of what the Spirit is up to in this place. Introduce them to others in the community and be willing to listen.

Names and Stories: Nothing says I know you like actually asking for and remembering a name. Take it a step farther and ask about who they are, what they like, and be willing to share a little about yourself, too. When it comes down to it, Christian community is an art of massive storytelling and story sharing. Know yours. Share it. Listen to those of others. Youth ministries and churches must do a better job to create space for these sorts of real human interactions and storytelling.

Follow-Up: Send a note of welcome. Post an encouraging comment on a Facebook timeline. Tweet a shout out. I hear phone calls still are possible, too :) Remind new friends and neighbors that they matter and their risk to participate was noticed and appreciated. We would love to have you back!

Pray: Know that God is the one who provokes us by the Spirit to follow Jesus. Pray for those who have yet to come. Pray for courage to extend invitations, especially to those labeled as "outsiders." Pray for those who have taken the risk and shown up. Pray for them to stay connected.

"The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone."

PCUSA Book of Order F.1.0302a

Friday, February 8, 2013

Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen (A Brief Review)

Poverty is complex. While many attempt to minimize factors and reduce root causes to the work ethics and morals of the poor, the pervasiveness of poverty in the United States is a multi-layered and systematic dilemma that transcends such naïveté. In David Hilfker's, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, [1] the misnomers and false assumptions are exposed and a thorough exposition is presented in efforts to educate readers and call all citizens to action. In essence, poverty alleviation is illustrated as a communal pursuit that requires informed citizens, elimination of stereotypes, and desegregation of neighborhoods in our nation, particularly our cities.

One of the primary failures of our population is to assume that poverty is an individual problem. In other words, when we promote the mentality that poverty is an experience solely caused by poor decisions, bad habits, and the lack of motivation to work by individuals, we ignore social and systematic factors that also contribute to and sustain economic insecurity. Hilfiker writes, "It is not surprising, of course, that a nation so strongly committed to individualism should so often search for the roots of poverty within the poor persons themselves" (xi). We must be lower pointed fingers at those who, although not completely void of personal responsibility, are caught in a broken social system of which each of us contributes.

When we consider poverty in the United States, we are reminded there is not one single root cause or generalized population at risk. That said, in efforts to combat poverty, Hilfiker is diligent to educate the reader so to become a more informed and responsible advocate and activist. Hilfiker reaches back into presidential administrations, especially those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, and underscores the positive and negative social reform policies of the past that have contributed to urban poverty in the present (71-75). A primary intention is to expose myths about welfare, medicare, and medicaid, especially those that have been promoted throughout recent history concerning "welfare queens" and "free money" (87).

Urban Injustice also highlights the vast array of real contributing factors to poverty that are often overlooked. The lack of quality education, high costs of childcare, insufficient access to reasonable and affordable healthcare, declining environmental conditions that lead to poor health, increase in populations of people who are 'food insecure,' and families of those who are incarcerated, etc. remind the reader that poverty is multi-layered (32-34).

While poverty is not limited to a particular gender, ethnicity, generation, or geographic location, Hilfiker is quick to highlight that there are those who are at greater risk to no fault of their own. In other words, those who are born into contexts of poverty are more likely to become poor themselves versus those who grow up in contexts of affluence and luxury. Hilfiker reminds the reader that "poverty tends to be self-reinforcing" and a cycle difficult to escape or end altogether (26). It is also true that the gender inequality in our job market, whereby men are frequently paid more for the same position than women, leads to the "feminization of poverty" and women becoming at greater risk for economic insecurity (47). The same holds true for those who commit nonviolent financial crimes, e.g. shoplifting, in urban ghettos versus those who commit financial crimes as affluent executives, e.g. fudging expense accounts (36). This is not to suggest a need to be more lax towards one offender over the other; rather, we are reminded that an inconsistent and unbalanced judicial system may result in minimal financial consequences for one individual and the beginnings of generational poverty for another.

When contemplating the factors of poverty and effective strategies for alleviation, Hilfiker is adamant about the need to eliminate stereotypes and pervasive racism directed towards the poor and those who live in urban ghettos. He writes:

"In attacking poverty we certainly must confront the realities of 'ghetto-related behavior,' but we must not become confused about root causes. Mere survival within the 'surround' indicates enormous strength and resilience. Observe carefully in any inner-city neighborhood, and you will see many strong, resourceful, independent people who are not only keeping their heads above water but doing their best to strengthen the community as well. the problem is that these people are swimming against an overwhelming current of forces that constantly threatens to overpower even the strongest" (61).

There is a sure level of personal accountability that must be maintained within contexts of poverty, but reformations of social systems and the eradication of stereotypes are also crucial to poverty alleviation. When the poor are labeled as unequivocally undeserving and lazy, we marginalize those who are willing and able to be lifted out of the depths of poverty when aided and supported by social programs (71). Furthermore, it is imperative to develop social strategies that utilize the often-overlooked giftedness and resolve of the urban poor as a means towards long-term personal and neighborhood transformation.

A final layer within Urban Injustice regards Hilfiker's call for the on-going desegregation of communities, both racially and economically. Hifiker suggests, "there are ways of revitalizing neighborhoods without removing the poor" (117). Drawing on the work of Robert D. Lupton, he suggests intentional 'reneighboring,' whereby individuals work across racial, ethnic, and economic lines and move into, versus out of, communities susceptible to poverty for the sake of collaboration and revitalization. However, this approach must only be pursued as partnership alongside the local poor and as a means to share resources and insights versus manifest oppressive coercion and imposition. In church speak, this is the very nature and theological thrust of the incarnation, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, The Message).

Poverty is complex. Poverty alleviation is even more complex. David Hilfiker's, Urban Injustice, is a vital resource for anyone who seeks to walk alongside the poor in efforts to revitalize communities and alleviate economic injustice in urban contexts. However, Hilfiker's work is not only a resource for those who work in U.S. cities. Instead, Urban Injustice is also a vital resource for all those who long to understand the root causes of poverty, work against a continually segregated society, and expose the myths and stereotypes about poverty that inhibit the progress and transformation of individuals and communities caught within oppressive cycles of scarcity.

"Even if we lift people out of poverty, of course, much of the damage that has already been done by generations of impoverishment and oppression remains and there will be much left to do"

David Hilfiker, Urban Injustice, p.127

[1] I first stumbled upon this book when immersed within the ministry of Church of the Saviour and The Potter's House community in Washington, D.C. Here is the bio from Seven Stories Press website:

"Physician and writer DAVID HILFIKER, M.D. has committed his life to social justice in the practice of his two professions. In 1983, after seven years as a rural physician in north-eastern Minnesota, he moved to Washington, D.C., to practice medicine in the center of the city at Christ House, a medical recovery shelter for homeless men, where he and his family also lived. In 1990, he cofounded Joseph’s House, a community and hospice for formerly homeless men dying with AIDS. He lived there for three years, and continues to work there today."