Thursday, August 29, 2013

Syria and Cyrus: Quick Tips for Talking About Both

I clicked on my blog stats yesterday and noticed my post on Cyrus and Thicke had quickly, and easily, trumped any previous posts in my three-plus years of blogging. Thanks, Miley, I guess?

Then I was asked by a few others to explain what was taking place in Syria, the significant decisions the President had to make, and what my thoughts were on the current event taking place not in Brooklyn but in the Middle East.

I had little to offer.

Then I wondered, if I wrote a post on Syria not Cyrus, would my blog have lit up as it did yesterday and the day before?


But isn't Syria just as significant as Cyrus and Thicke and dancing teddy bears and the exploitation and degradation of black women used as props for white pleasure and entertainment? (click here: warning expletives)


Both stories play a pivotal role in the formation of human imagination, conscience, ethic, morality, and the ability to live into God's dreams for the world. This is especially true of young people.

The misnomer is that youth don't want to talk about both. One of the most popular electives when I was in high school was "Issues," which required students to bring a current event each week and talk about their thought, opinions, and affect on their social values. I think Miley and Robin are an "issue," but so are Syria, Honduras, Philly, Iran, etc.

Granted, we cannot talk about them all. But we must be careful not to assume the VMAs are more significant than foreign affairs in the formation of youthful imaginations. To be naive to global concerns that break the heart of God or to model socio-political ignorance as adults (myself included) is just as formative for young people as to provide quick commentary on twerking Disney stars.

So while I would love to offer my thoughts on Syria, I confess, I am a novice. I have been distracted by all the twerking. Instead, I offer these thoughts on how to engage these issues with young people along with a growing list of helpful resources, please add a few of your own:

Quick Tips for Talking About Syria and Cyrus

1. Talk About Them: Find places where youth and adults alike can engage in faithful and honest conversations. We cannot learn about what we are not talking about...

2. Welcome Questions and Assume You Don't Have All the Answers: Be willing to say, "I don't know." Be quick to listen and slow to react and speak. Invite others who know more than you to join the conversation.

3. Allow Diversity in Opinion: We don't all agree. Welcome dialogue and difference and discover how God's love and grace can lead us to faithful witness together. What binds us together is not an answer but a commitment to love like Jesus loved.

4. Provide Resources to Youth and Parents: talk with others about what they are watching and reading and then invite them to participate in conversations.

5. Engage Scripture: This is not a place for Bible thumping. Instead, open the Bible with wide-eyed curiosity an consider what the Spirit of God has to say to us. What does the Bible say about violence, sex, justice, peace, racism, classism, blurred lines, and hard commands? Let the Bible read you versus you flatly reading the Bible.

6. Speak into Their Lives: Allow the stories to be drawn into the question, "what does this mean for us, for me?" How does Syria and Cyrus relate to my self-worth and the self-worth of others? How am I called to act in light of all this? What does this mean for me and my interactions with ________?

7. Point Them Beyond Themselves: It's important to remember that, because our encounters with these stories typically occur via television and the internet, we may be tempted to trivialize and dehumanize what is actually taking place, these stories are about real places, real people, real families, and real consequences. Our concern is rooted in a broader concern for humanity, not only a concern for our ideas, opions, and taste in pop-culture or political affiliation.

8. Remember, Nobody and Nothing Is Beyond Redemption: Jesus' hardest words were about non-violence, enemy love, and how to deal with conflict and those who act in ways we disapprove. While Christians may initially react with disgust and condemnation, we must never lose sight that there is nothing or noone beyond God's ability to transform and renew. The good news of Jesus is all things hold together in his life, death, and resurrection. This means both Syria and Cyrus, political figures and pop-star misogynists can be delivered from oppressive and irresponsible behaviors. We must pray for this to be true.

9. Above All, Love and Pray: Consider what this means for us as a people of God here and there, near and far. How can we love our neighbors on stage in Brooklyn and on the streets in Syria? We must at least pray.

10. Rinse and Repeat: Always be sensitive to the issues bubbling up locally and globally. Listen to what youth and young adults consider relevant and important and talk about that. Pray God gives you the eyes to see and the ears to hear how the kingdom of God is breaking open all around you...and them...and all of us!

Growing List of Helpful Resources (links here does not suggest endorsement)

Dinner Table Discussion Guide and Scripture References

Prayer for Syria: World Communion of Reformed Churches

PCUSA Partners Call for No Military Action in Syria

Which Bad Syria Option Do You Prefer? (Via NPR)

9 Questions About Syria You Were Embarassed to Ask

Obama: Syrian Gov't Carried Out Chemical Attack via NPR

Intelligence on Chemical Weapons 'No Slam Dunk" via Huffington Post

Vimeo by Fareed Zamaria: "Stay Out of Syria"

Syria Crisis: UK Puts Forward UN Proposal via BBC

PCUSA Office of Public Wittness: Letter to President Obama

An Open Letter to Miley Cyrus

What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting- But Not for Reasons You Might Think via Huffington Post (warning: expletives)

How to Talk to Your Sons About Robin Thicke by Casey Thompson

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Youth Pastor's Response to Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke

I confess: I do not watch the MTV Video Music Awards. I never have. I never will.

And this year's VMAs did not exactly entice me to tune in next year.

Yet when I woke up this morning and saw Miley Cyrus trending on Twitter and Facebook, I decided to click the link and find out what the buzz was all about...

...then I went to the nearest eye washing station, those located in high school chemistry labs, and attempted to wash the images from my memory.

I am not sure it worked.

I am also not surprised by the fiasco. I am more so grieved. Cyrus is merely another illustration of a teenage celebrity who has grown up and acquiesced to the demands of pop-culture so to increase profit and generate revenue for their evolving brand.

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears have come a long way since their Mickey Mouse Club days.

Bieber has grown up to urinate in a custodian's mop bucket and elicit expletives to a poster of President Bill Clinton.

Miley Cyrus simply followed suit with her "twerking" at the VMAs, which Anderson Cooper called "an affront to stuffed animals everywhere" (The Riduculist 8/26/13)

Well said.

Again, I am looking for the nearest eye washing station.

While the "choreographed" twerking was certainly disturbing, the lyrics to the songs of both Cyrus and Thicke are even more telling of what's going on in the world around us. "We Can't Stop" and "Blurred Lines" are significant attestations to an increasingly autonomous and individualistic ideology celebrated by pop-culture that co-opts imaginations and behaviors of young people all around:

"It's our party we can do what we want/ It's our party we can say what we want/ It's our party we can love who we want/ We can kiss who we want/ We can sing what we want...So la da di da di / We like to party/ Dancing with Molly/ Doing whatever we want/ This is our house/ This is our rules" ("We Can't Stop")

When this becomes the real mindset of young people, they really don't know how to stop. The repercussions of this anarchist mentality are deeply tragic, twisting the self worth and human dignity of God's children everywhere. When young people (and anyone, for that matter) think they can and should "write their own rules," the result is never progression towards more authentic expressions of neighborly love. Instead, the individual replaces the other and we drift farther away for God's dreams for you, me, and the whole world.

After all, we belong to one another. Actually, our greatest hope and comfort in life and death is that we belong to God.*

So if there are any youth reading this post: you were created for more than what you saw illustrated at the VMAs. God made you for something far better and far more brilliant than what buzzes through your ear buds. You can do better. You deserve better. Strive to be better. Don't settle for anything lesser than the reality that you are the imago Dei and your body is a living temple of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, shame on you Robin Thicke for attempting to link chauvinism with liberation:

"Ok, now he was close, tried to domesticate you/ But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature/ Just let me liberate you/ Hey, hey, hey/ You don't need no papers/ Hey, hey, hey/ That man is not your maker" ("Blurred Lines")

Sure, while Miley is now an adult, her papers will tell you she could be your daughter. Even more, relegating women, especially young women, to the status of an animal in need of being liberated by some sort of sexual prowess demeans real liberation pursued and achieved by brave, courageous, and heroic women throughout distant and recent history.

Again, if there are young people reading this post, your liberator does not lure you with sweet talk and sex. Your Liberator, who is also your Maker and the God of love and grace, invites you into a vision of a world where we are defined not by our sexuality but by the love of the One who lived, died, and resurrected for the whole world. And this world is in the process of being made new and right again.

There is a whole lot more that could be said, but I will leave that to other bloggers, writers, preachers, and teachers. The VMAs are not going to change. The performers and choreographers will only strive harder to shock viewers- it makes them money.

But I pray we do not feed into their twisted plot. Instead, I pray we resurrect fresh conversations about a greater story, a more creative lyric, and a much more life-giving dance each of us has been invited into through the person and work of Jesus Christ. I pray we celebrate versus exploit the humanity in one another and the reality that we live under the reign of God, which cannot be stopped.

For that I am grateful.

I also am grateful for eye washing stations.


*Note: One of my favorite statements in the Heidelberg Catechism proclaims:

"Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death? A: That I am not my Own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death- to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ...Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him."

**A great post from Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity, It's Not Miley That I'm Worried About.

***A woman's perspective, by Kristen Howerton:

****An Open Letter to Miley from a Youth Pastor:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Annual Letter to Youth: Prayers for the New School Year

Dear Back-to-School Youth,

I know you may just now be starting your summer reading, but vacation is almost a wrap and school is almost back. While your parents may be rejoicing, you probably don't feel ready. True, some of you may be eager to see your friends again and enjoy the rhythms and rituals of middle and high school life. But most of you probably prefer the pace and privilege of summer break. Yet, like most good things, your sabbatical is coming to an end and mid-terms are right around the corner.

I admit, I don't envy you. I am grateful my public education days are in the past and the pressures of exams, peers, lunch tables, homework, and whether or not I brought my gym uniform or protractor are bygones.

I also admit, I do envy you. There is a part of me that misses the days when every day I was surrounded by loads of people. Granted, some of my peers caused great fear, angst, and stress. Still, every day was an opportunity to be in the presence of another individual who was questioning, struggling, wrestling, celebrating, and walking through life in a way similar to me. It was also an incredible age of self-discovery.

So however you feel about back-to-school season, my prayer is for you to live in the moment. The future will be here before you know it (which is 2015 according to Marty McFly) and you won't be able to get the precious days of your youth back. So make the most of it, not YOLO style with irresponsible and reckless behavior, but with the realization that NOW is your time to reflect the love and light of Christ.

So before I drop a few hopes and prayers for your 2013-14 school year, make this one of your final end-of-summer readings:

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Hopes and Prayers for 2013-14 School Year

Friday, August 2, 2013

Are We the Innkeeper? A Closer Look at the Story of the Good Samaritan

When I was in high school I really messed up an opportunity to love thy neighbor. I became rather good friends with Arthur, one of the most introverted kids I have ever met, who sat next to me in Ms. Bobbit's sociology class (yep, that was her real name). We had many good laughs in class, I usually getting the blame for disrupting discussions or yet another of Ms. Bobbit's conspiracy laden rants about the U.S. government. We had our fun, a sort of Penn and Teller high school friendship.

As the year went on, I mustered up an invitation for Arthur to join us on a youth retreat. He came and over time developed into one of the more active members in the youth ministry. Arthur even came to know Jesus and committed his life to follow Christ. It was awesome to witness.

Then we learned something. As many of us had earned his trust and friendship, also being blessed by his wisdom and generosity, Arthur shared with us that he was gay. He thought he could let us in on something that made up a bit about who he was, nothing extravagant or flamboyant, just a part of his identity he wanted us to know. After all, we were friends and fellow travelers on the Christian Way.

This was almost 14 years ago and our youth group did not know how to respond. I am not sure he knew how we would respond. But I know we did not respond as he hoped, certainly prayed for, and definitely not how Jesus would have invited us to extend love and grace. We were unwilling to be friends with him anymore, choosing our religious and social reputations over Jesus' call to love neighbor.

We were not harsh. We were not vocal. We were actually quite silent. We said nothing. Just slowly distanced ourselves from him. We just passed him by from there on out. And he never returned to our youth group or church...

I recently shared this story with a group of teenagers at the Philadelphia Project, as we reflected on the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. An anonymous man mugged in Jericho, left for dead in a ditch, becomes a prophetic platform for Jesus' interaction with an inquisitive lawyer looking for a loophole to eternal life.

Who will offer this victim of violence in the space between Samaria and Jerusalem?

The man in the ditch, with blurred vision from being nearly knocked unconscious, can barely make out the first passerby. But his religious attire gives him hope- a priest. Surely someone who deals with sacred rituals of the temple will care for this victim. But alas, he is unwilling to jeopardize his religious status to help someone he does not know, who may or may not be dead. This would risk his ability to perform his sacred duties in the house of God.

But what about the next passerby, a Levite. Surely someone who knows the religious law, blesses the religious law, and is even a descendant of Aaron, present when the law was first given, would offer compassion and concern. Yet he was also unwilling to risk his elite status and enter into the suffering of this man.

But then comes another passerby. Who knows why the Samaritan was in Jericho, but given their reputation, if a priest and Levite from Israel are unwilling to rescue this victim of abuse, there is no way the Samaritan will be willing. The Samaritan's were written off as mutts of society, they were the offspring of Jewish folk who married foreigners, taboo according to their history and law. They worshipped at the wrong place, i.e. Samaria versus Jerusalem, and read the wrong stuff, or not enough, i.e. they only counted the first five books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. Needless to say, there is no way the hero of Jesus' story, who was merely a first-century Jewish rabbi in the mind of this lawyer hearing the fable, will be a Samaritan.

But alas, the Samaritan is the only character who offered compassion to the man in the ditch. The religious leaders were unwilling. They were more concerned about piety. They chose law over love, unwilling to identify with the suffering of this man in the ditch.

The same was true for members of my high school youth group when we learned of Arthur's story. The same was true when we witnessed him being verbally assaulted by our peers.

But that's not all there is to the story. The Samaritan does more than offer a hand up. He comes near, bandages his wounds, pours expensive ointments of cleansing and healing upon his injuries, saddles him on his animal (Philly Project youth suggested a seagull), takes him to the nearest inn, and leaves two days wages for the innkeeper to care for him until he returns and can pay the remainder of accrued debt and medical fees. .

It's as though this Samaritan says to the innkeeper, this man does not have medical coverage, but here, I have found a way to put him on my plan as my dependent. I will pay all co-pays, all prescription fees, all deductibles. Protect him from further harm. Care for him as if he was a member of my very own family.

And I will return to settle up and make sure this man can get back on his feet. Things will be right again.

I think something is often missed in this parable. This story is really about the storyteller himself. The real punchline of this parable is Jesus' identifying himself with the Samaritan. Jesus is the one who came near to broken and abused humanity, took pity and exercised compassion on those the rest of the world, to include the religious elite, had written off for dead, and was willing to not only claim us as his own, but also pay all present and future debts through his death and resurrection.

Jesus is the one who neighbors among us and shows radical mercy to all those abused by and caught within systems of exclusion and violence. And Jesus, like the Samaritan, will return to make all things right in the end.

But I think there is a character who is overlooked in this story. What about the innkeeper?

I wonder if Jesus is inviting the lawyer, the priest, the Levite, and you and I to consider another question. Are we the innkeeper, those charged by the willing Jesus to be willing caretakers and justice pursuers as we look after and speak up for those victimized by all sorts of violence, oppression, poverty, and manifestations of evil? Are we charged to use the gifts and resources God has given us to care for others written off for dead until Christ returns and makes all things new and right?

I wish the parable of the Good Samaritan would have been told to me this way when I was in 10th grade. I wish somebody would have invited me to consider Jesus as the Samaritan and all of us in our little Methodist youth group as the innkeepers. Maybe then we would have treated Arthur differently. Maybe then we would have identified him as our own, one of us, versus the "other" who jeopardizes our reputations in school and church. Maybe then we would not carry the question with us, what happened to Arthur?

I pray this generation of youth does better than I, as Jesus' innkeepers in a world with way too many Jericho-like assaults. I pray they draw near, take risks, extend radical hospitality, and pursue justice for all those victimized by systems, assumptions, and labels bent on marginalization and oppression.

I pray they read Luke 10 and then go and do likewise until Jesus returns and makes all new and right.

I pray they never just pass by.


**Note: Photo above is from a great post by Theresa E Cho, which includes contemplative exercises that engage this parable: