Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rungs of Hope in World of Despair: Background Checks, Boston, and John 1:43-51

The past few weeks have been a steady stream of depressing news stories, mostly reporting the terrorist activity in Boston, tragic explosion in West, Texas, and legislation disappointment in Washington. When we are glued to televisions and subjected to endless musical photo montages intended to rope us into a particular station's coverage, the world looks dark and hopeless at best. When reporters ask passerbys and rescue workers questions that exploit their raw emotions, we wonder how long until the world is once and for all put to rights. When that same week our political leaders choose to kiss the billion-dollar rumps of lobbyists instead of embrace a bill that will make the world safer for everyone, especially our children, we feel powerless against violence and injustice.

We wonder why we need background checks to run a daycare but not to own a semi-automatic purchased at privately-organized conventions.

If we are not careful, we can become slaves to cynicism.

And when photos trend on Facebook and Twitter, reminding all of us that events like the Boston bombing happen everyday in Syria, it doesn't make us feel any better.

We actually wonder, can anything good come out of a world so saturated in heartache and sorrow?

This past week, Imago Dei Youth worked through the call story of Nathanael (John 1:43-51). Jesus had just captured the hope and imagination of Philip who became bent towards sharing this good news with his friend from Cana, "We have found the one we have been waiting for" (1:45-46)!

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" retorts the jaded Nathanael.

"Come and see!"

God has a habit of bursting good news of redemption and hope in the midst of the darkest, drearist, dullest, and most forsaken circumstances, people, and places. The coming of the world's deliver was no different.

Still, our questions today echo those of Nathanael, whose name means "God has given," can anything good come from ________?"

I don't think it is appropriate to pose this question to those who lost limbs or loved ones to terroist activity, homes and rescue workers to fertilizer fires, or children by guns easily purchased by killers. It's too raw and misses the opportunity to grieve with those who grieve. While God certainly can and often does resurrect goodness out of the worst of human suffering, we must not think for a second that God intended any of this to happen for some sort of divine purpose or affirmation of sovereignty.

I believe God wants this horrific activity to end. I believe Jesus announces to the world, it doesn't have to be like this.

I also believe when we embrace the Way of Jesus and the dreams of God as our very own, we dicover we are not powereless, things can be different, and good news can pop up all around us even when our minds are numb by so much bad news.

It's as though the gospel writer knew we needed to hear that God has given us hope when we encounter the mission, witness, and work of Jesus.*

I love how the gospel writer's anecdote ends. Nathanael stands in awe as Jesus responds with a brilliant play on the familiar story of Jacob's ladder:

"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (John 1:51; see Genesis 28:10-16)

Divine traffic, a holy collison of sacred messengers, rooted in this Human One called Jesus, Messiah, Immanuel, God with Us.

It's as though Jesus were saying, "What you'll see from now on is the reality towards which Jacob's ladder, and even the Temple itself, was pointing like a signpost. If you follow me, you'll be watching what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to each other." (N.T. Wright, John for Everyone 18).

In the midst of all the evil and injustice of this world, heaven and earth are still open to each other. God's love and concern are still deeply connected to the world and each one of us. Signposts are being constructed and illuminated everywhere as people live into the kingdom of God and offer their very lives as testament to the simple truth: love always wins.

The story of Nathanael is an invitation to come and see, follow Jesus, and join the holy traffic as you grasp rungs of hope and grace- even in the midst of the darkest of days.

And may we never be slaves to cynicism or fear.

As a part of the youth conversation, we wrote signs of heaven and earth being open to each other. Here are a few that caught my attention, and a few I added, which have carried me through these weeks. Maybe make your own list in the form of a ladder, grasping these rungs of hope during your own seasons of despair.

  • When youth in Honduras walk 4.5 hours through the mountains to catch public transportation and be a part of youth retreats and workshops where they learn about and worship Jesus alngside their fellow believers.
  • People rushing to the scene in Boston and West, Texas, willing to risk their lives to save another.
  • Broad Street Ministry and their solidarity and hospitality offered to the poor and homeless o Philly.
  • Young children entering remission after long battles with cancer.
  • Watching a middle school youth finally make it to the top of a rock climbing wall and high-fiving his youth pastor after repeated failed attempts and nearly given up.
  • Confirmation statements of faith.
  • The joy and love for life my kids demonstrate every single day.
  • When advocates and lawyers develop propositions to solve corruption in Honduras police forces.
  • The work my wife does to support and rehabilitate homeless women who are veterans.
  • When I meet with new friends in Coatesville who share about their ministry alongside at-risk youth.
  • When a high school youth sells all his violent video games and declares he wants to be God's peacemaker not agent of destruction.


*I wonder if John chooses to use the name Nathanael versus Bartholomew, as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for this very literary and metaphorical platform?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confirmation Questions: What I Wonder After a Decade of Youth Ministry

It's that time of year again. Youth all over the country are hard at work wrapping up necessary requirements so to be confirmed as members in their respective congregations.

Youth have adventured through their particular tradition's contemporary rendition of catechesis, an early Christian practice when those to be baptized were prepared and instructed in the faith and Way of Jesus, and will soon share statements of faith before elders and peers.

It's that time of year again. Parents, elders, small group leaders, and youth pastors wonder- are they ready? Have we prepared them for life as a covenanted member within the local church? What will happen to the youth we have grown to know, love, admire, and embrace even through their awkward, anxious, and often unrelated curiosities that pop up at the strangest moments?

Will Confirmation Sunday be the last time we see the faces that have become so familiar?

As a youth pastor/director for the better part of a decade, a confirmation program coordinator and developer for the past six years, and a former confirmand in a mainline church tradition (ELCA), these questions have consistently rattled my brain. But there are others, too.

Here are a few confessed questions this youth pastor wrestles with every spring, in no particular order:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Are We Powerless? My Son's Seizure, Boston Marathon, and Brief Reflections on Nehemiah

This past January, I was in the middle of a church meeting when my wife's number showed up on my phone. My son's body temperature rapidly spiked and he had begun to seize. I will forever remember hitting triple digits and beating the ambulance home, ushering paramedics to my kids' room, and witnessing my wife on the floor with my son battling a febrile seizure. I experienced six of these fever-induced seizures as a child, each of which my mother vividly remembers. I am sure the same will be true for my wife and me.

While many affirm what was actually occurring in my son's little body was not as scary as it looked, the experience was nonetheless the most horrific I have had to date. We felt powerless. We feared there was nothing we could do.

Thankfully, our son recovered and within 24 hours was restored to his normal, mischievous, playful, and quirky self. Still, in those moments when we held him in his tiny hospital gown, restrained him as he received an IV, and even prayed for him and his body temperature to be restored to normal, my wife and I felt powerless.

The feeling of powerlessness is the most oppressive emotion and crippling fear a human can experience.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who Would Have Ever Dreamed? Final Reflections on Extended Weekend in Honduras

"Partnership implies a working relationship, an arrangement by which two parties share a vision and engage together in activity to meet shared goals...This friendship, however, must ultimately graduate to collaborative action- the final essential principal of partnership. Without it, the relationship never truly matures into a partnership, for the word partnership implies working together on the basis of shared vision and toward the fulfillment of shared goals. At the end of the day, a relationship that seeks to be a partnership must move on to shared action. (Linking Arms, Linking Lives, p. 52, 72).*

I don't think any of us knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into when this youth partnership began in 2010. I know we had high hopes and dreams to begin to "do youth mission differently," but we were not sure if it was going to "work." It's much easier to purchase group packages whereby mission is made easy and youth do not have to do much pre-trip preparation or make any post-trip commitments.

Neither do their parents.

But mission, ministry, and life lived as disciples of Jesus was never meant to be easy. Incarnations of God's dreams for the world was and is never meant to be short-term.

There is no need to wait until youth are adults to implement genuine and long-term partnerships.

As I sit here on our flight home from Tegus to Atlanta, then onward to Philadelphia, I am overwhelmed by what God has birthed out of our initial adventures of prayer and discernment years ago. Together, with our youthful sisters and brothers in Honduras and those of Imago Dei Youth Ministry, we have created something special. We are learning together, dreaming together, praying together, empowering together, and collaborating together how we can now pursue mission together.


Last night was yet another affirmation that what we are up to together is indeed good and beautiful. My traveling companion and I gathered together, alongside our PCUSA mission-co-worker, in the the upper room of Peña de Horeb. They had their computer and projector set up, pizza, soda, and ice cream on the table, and a video of our partnership through the years titled, "Nuestra Historia," paralleling the theme from our weekend together. We laughed. We smiled. I certainly cried.

And as we broke bread together, I could not help but think of yet another gathering in an upper room when bread was broken and stories were shared about in-breakings of God's dreams and realizations of God's kingdom happening right before their eyes. Shared hopes. Shared dreams. Shared mission.

They didn't know what was ahead. We don't necessarily either. What we do know is this is exactly what we are called to be doing right here, right now, and in the days ahead, too.

We also know it is time to move towards colaborative action.

In Linking Arms, Linking Lives, the authors write of three partnership essentials: deep reconciliation, authentic relationships, and collaborative action. Imbedded within each of these is also a concern for human dignity, equality, and mutual respect. In a word- YES. These have been the foundations of our partnership, especially as we converse together as youth in Honduras and Pennsylvania to develop a shared vision of partnership:

While we wrapped up conversations in that Honduran upper room along the highway, we recognized once again that now is the time for collaborative action. This was the year for shared mission. This summer we will create opportunities to serve even as we continue to learn together.

Water projects?

Tire gardens and sustainable food efforts?

Eco-stove construction?

Repairing homes of youth in the community?

Micro-loans and youth co-operatives?

Participation in workshops and programs with Association for a More Just Society?**

The sky's the limit...

We are not sure what this will look like over the summer or thereafter. What we do know is the mission will be shared and efforts will be collaborative. They will be initiated by youth in Honduras and actualized and sustained together through cross-cultural partnership.

Then we will know this friendship has truly matured, even as the growth continues into something far more beautiful than any of us ever dreamed possible.

"This type of partnership requires hard work, sustained vision, strong commitment, and relentless perseverance in the midst of huge relational and ministry challenges...they also readily testify to the gratifying fruit it produces" (Linking Arms, Linking Lives, p. 111).

"Tranformemos Honduras" is the education reform initiative through AJS. The tag line of "Orar. Señar. Trabajar." Translates to "Pray. Dream. Work." Fits quite well with our vision for partnership, eh?


Top Photo: Celebrating together in the upper room of Peña de Horeb. Love this group of youth leadership!

*The subtitle of this book is, "How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities." While the collection of authors (Ron Sider, John Perkins, Wayne Ordon, and Albert Tizon) intended this as a domestic resource, the implications are beneficial for international partnerships just as well.

**Be sure to check out Association for a More Just Society. They are in partnership with International Justice Mission and are making significant progress in areas of education reform, security and peace advocacy, youth and family support, and political corruption alleviation. We met with their staffers this week, but there is not enough room on this blog to share of how God is at work here. www.ajs-us.org

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Generación C: Reflections on Youth Workshop in Honduras

"I want to be more than a taker. I want to discover how I can give back, too." These were the words of one of the members of the youth leadership who gathered together this past weekend in Ojojona, Honduras. We, i.e. one of our college youth and I, were invited by the Presbytery of Honduras and PCUSA mission co-worker to aid in the facilitation of conversations, Bible studies, prayer, and play as we explored what it can look like to empower the voices of youth in churches throughout the country.

Here are a few reflections from the weekend:

What's Your Story?

There is great hope and power when we discover we are known and have value. When we are given a chance to share our story, passions, talents, and God-given gifts, we are reminded of our significance in God's dreams for the world. When it comes to youth in Honduras, they are not always given this sort of space and validation. They're expected to fit within particular norms and traditions. Dreams of anything different come as affronts to older leadership fearful of losing [control] of youth in the church.

This may not sound all that unfamiliar. But the ramifications are far greater....or at least different.

It was a joy and privilege to listen to and read their personal stories and passions that they can then use to make a difference in their churches and communities.

What's the Gospel?

This is a question Christians need to ask over and over again. We need to ask not only what we mean when we talk about the good news of Jesus Christ as illustrated in the Scriptures, but also what the good news of Jesus looks like in a particular community, demographic, and cultural context. What is the good news for a teenager in suburban Philadelphia? What does good news mean for youth who live in urban and rural Honduras?

This week we spent significant time reflecting on this very question, related stories in the gospels, and illustrated how theses stories could speak good news into their congregations and communities.

We also explored how the gospel is not only about personal salvation, although that's deeply true, but also an announcement of God's concern for social change and community development. The gospel is an inward and outward journey, for us and the whole world.

For many of the Honduran youth leaders, this was a refreshing reinforcement of the inner longings often silenced by many in leadership. For others, this was a difficult message that they are still pondering in light of the understandings they have inherited generation after generation. Wait, God is concerned about those beyond the walls of my church?

Again, this is not only a challenge for those in Honduras.

What's In a Name?

When I arrived in Tegucigalpa and returned to Peña de Horeb, our primary contact within our youth partnership, I was encouraged to learn they had named their youth group: Generación C.

"The 'c' is for change," said one of their youth leaders.

There is something about a name that gives power, ownership, and a sense that we belong to something worthwhile and influential. This is why, in 2008, we shifted our identity to "Imago Dei Youth Ministry."

That said, at the conclusion of our gathering, each group was invited to share what they would name their group as a means to propel them not only to believe the gospel, but also animate it. How could they put the good news of Jesus into action?

They responded with great enthusiasm, as they considered new identities of affirmation and mission.

I am excited by what has taken place this weekend. I am grateful to be a part of a new way of doing youth mission with long term dreams and aspirations. I am grateful that we have moved away from service blitzes and into real partnership. I am honored we were invited to share leadership this weekend.

I am also grateful that Imago Dei Youth Ministry and the Presbytery of Honduras can together be givers of the good news of Jesus- to one another and to our neighbors near and far.

Dios Te Bendiga


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Resurrection as Idle Tale: Moving Beyond Myth and Legend

One of the things pastors are quite good at is storytelling. We are able, some better than others, to transform random encounters with family members, congregants, youth, or cashiers at local grocery stores into anecdotes for our next sermon.

My wife knows this. She also knows that we are quite good at adding details, or at least hyperbolizing them, so to make our point and solidify a theological platform. "That didn't really happen as you told it," she will say as we reflect on the sermon. "It at least didn't happen like that."

When we are aware of this trend in pulpit fables, myself included, we become suspicious of anything and everything being said by the preacher or teacher.

But when we find out that the event really did happen in that way, we discover the preacher was able to awaken our senses and give fresh movement to the biblical text of the day.

These stories have the potential to change us, transform us, and awaken us to how God is indeed alive and well in both every day moments and innovative expressions of love and compassion. They are more than idle tales and nonsense.