Friday, March 29, 2013

My Name's in the Bible?! Three Reasons We May Fall Asleep During Holy Week

I sleep like a rock. I always have and probably always will.

Not exactly a good character trait when you have toddler twins who frequently wake up in the middle of the night (or so I have been told by my wife). Instead, sleeping like a rock means that you occasionally feel like you got walloped by a rock when your partner-in-child-rearing is trying to call in backup.

"Greg! Wake up!"

I fumble for my glasses, knocking over the lamp, alarm clock, and anything else in the way of my clumsy reach, as I make my way towards the kids room. I imagine I look like a cross between a zombie from Walking Dead and the mummies in those Brendan Frazier movies.

"Greg! Wake up!"

I try. Seriously, I try! I am willing to wake up, just not always able.

As I was meditating on Mark 13:32-36 and 14:32-42, passages frequently lumped into Maundy Thursday and Good Friday narrations of the Jesus story's final chapters, I could not help but hear echoes of this familiar midnight plea:

"He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake. He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him." (Mk. 14:33-40)

The Greek of Jesus' request, "Keep awake," are variations of the verb, γρηγορέω or grēgoreō, i.e. where we get the English name, Gregory, meaning "watchful one."

Yep, my name is in the Bible.

It's as if Jesus were saying, "Gregory, keep alert! Gregory, stay awake! Gregory, pay attention!"

Three times in both passages.

But the purpose of γρηγορέω is for reasons beyond making me feel as though my name had broader significance than resemblances of the 70's t.v. character and retro heart throb (a story for another day).

γρηγορέω is Jesus' call for disciples to be always alert to the in-breaking of God's kingdom. In the midst of so many temptations to stray from, soften, or be lulled to sleep by weakened messages of the kingdom, we are provoked to radical and subversive obedience.

"To journey deeply into history, to experiment with a political practice that will break, not perpetuate, the reign of domination in the world -- that is the meaning of Mark's final call to "Watch!" (13:37). It is a call to nonviolent resistance to the powers. (Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman 343).

Still I wonder, if we were to slip back in time and find ourselves on the fringe of Gethsemane, would we be any better than those sleepy, cat-napping disciples. Even worse, if Jesus were to walk into our sanctuaries, youth groups, Bible studies, and church leadership gatherings, would he need to usher a similar statement,

grēgoreō. Wake up!

This is the great challenge of our day, especially for individual Christians and discipleship communities situated within contexts of luxury and privilege. This is the hard word of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday that perplexes and maybe offends us in our elaborate and polished services that warm our sentiment yet leave us still numb to the hard and offensive nature of Table and Cross.

grēgoreō. Wake up!

But why have we fallen asleep in the first place? I suggest three possibilities:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jennifer Knapp On Love and Lent and the Emmaus Road: Modern Psalm for Holy Week

" I have waited long

But never given up

On love

Never on love" (JENNIFER KNAPP - ON LOVE LYRICS)

When I was in high school, Jennifer Knapp was it! Our little Methodist youth worship band covered her songs with greater frequency than I currently quote Karl Barth. But that's another story.

I have always loved her music and was grieved when she faded out of her professional career for a prolonged sabbath from an industry that drained her life energy. I was not grieved because she took a break, I was saddened because she was talented.

Then she came out.

No, not with a new book like a previous post, she came out as a lesbian in a committed relationship. She shocked the Evangelical world, or at least many within, while still confessing she was a faithful Christian.

I believe she is (not that my opinion matters). Yet her witness now speaks life and love into a far different audience than those once seated on the lawn at such events as Creation East.

Maybe this is the audience God had in mind for her all long.

God knows they need good news of God's love. And maybe youth groups will cover her new songs, even if they are not endorsed by Chrisian labels and marketers.

I hope they do. They're fantastic.

While I am just now getting to her memoir-ish album, Letting Go, I believe it only fitting, given trending news about SCOTUS, Proposition 8, and DOMA, to engage Knapp as the final track to this year's "Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey." J.Knapp's (as my youth group called her) lyric, "On Love," draws us (unintentionally) into a Holy Week of waiting at the table, lamenting at the cross, and lingering through Holy Saturday, confident that healing and hope will meet us on the other side. "On Love" pleas with us never to give up, especially on love.

This Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday, my prayer is for all people to encounter the good news of God's love in Christ. My prayer is for all people to walk into sanctuaries, maybe for the first time or at least the first time in a long time, and breathe in liturgies of hope and healing. I pray all find welcome, embrace, and relief in the good news of a God who entered this world, was rejected by the powerful and privileged of this world, was crucified by the political and religious of this world, and yet resurrected on the otherside of oppression and injustice in this world.

May the same be true today for all those who identify with the Oppressed One named Jesus.

May the church proclaim to all those who have felt rejected for so long and on the verge of running away, "Stay. Please. Stay."

 

Read Luke 24:13-35

Thoughts to Ponder:

1. Those who journeyed towards Emmaus said "they had hoped" Jesus was the one to redeem the long suffering of the people. Yet, in between the cross and empty tomb, they were disappointed. In what ways have you felt let down by God? How have you been disappointed by the church? Confess these feelings of heartache. Dare you to stay with God through these seasons of sorrow.

2. When Jesus journeyed alongside these dusty travelers, their eyes were opened as the Scriptures were read in a completely new way. Jesus reclaimed a hope many had given up on. How do you need to re-read the Scriptures with new eyes and hear hope in fresh perspective? Celebrate the presence of Christ in these very moments.

3. In light of both the story in Luke and Jennifer Knapp's, "On Love," consider what it means to stay with Jesus and the mission of the church in the midst of hard questions and crisis of faith? What does it mean to invite others not to give up on God's love for them in Christ? Who are those people, maybe it's you, who need to hear Jesus invitation to come and stay and listen to the story of the gospel in a new way?

If interested in reading more of her story check out these links:

Acknowledging Faith Voices Crucial for LGBT Civil Rights by Jennifer Knapp via Huffington Post

Jennifer Knapp Comes Clean (Relevant Magazine)

Jennifer Knapp Leaving Christian Music Behind (The Blaze)

Jennifer Knapp Comes Out (Christianity Today)

www.jenniferknapp.com

www.insideoutfaith.com

Monday, March 25, 2013

Steubenville through the Eyes of a Youth Pastor

In 2008, our youth ministry shifted its name from "The Cove" to "Imago Dei." We adjusted our identity from place to person. The move was intentional. We believe that, if nothing else, our call as youth workers is to walk alongside youth as they discover their God-given identity and shared story. We long to unveil an image of worth, purpose, promise, and grace rooted in the love of their Creator and person of Jesus, an image that trumps all others up for sale in our culture. We challenge youth to live into this imago Dei as they quest to follow this Jesus, the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20).

We also remind youth they are not the only image bearers. All of humanity are created this way, which calls all of us to hold human dignity and worth at the forefront of all we say and do.

This is true regardless of who they are, what they have done, what they have failed to do, what they drank, what they were forced to drink, how much they drank, their family history, their gender, their sexual orientation, their social class, their athletic ability (or lack thereof), their faith, their doubt...the list goes on.

Imago Dei. Human dignity. Shared identity.

We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Love God. Love Neighbor.

So as I poured over the articles last week regarding the Steubenville trial, two high school football players convicted of the rape of a teenage girl and defamation of the beloved imago Dei via social media, text messages, and a whole host of other evil and gross _________ (there's not a word in the English language that can do justice), I decided I would wait a bit to post.

Then the trial came up this past Sunday in a variety of conversations with middle and high school youth. I am not interested in raw commentary. Instead, here are a few reflections that I encourage all youth to consider in light of this monstrosity. Feel free to add your own.

Speak Up for Those Who Cannot Speak for Themselves (Proverbs 31:8)

We have a tendency to assume that we are only responsible for our actions. We neglect to hold ourselves accountable when we fail to act (James 4:17). Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." We have a very real obligation to do something when face-to-face with horrific acts of evil and injustice. My prayer for young people is to do something. When at a party, in the hallways, in locker rooms, on Facebook or Twitter, and when you receive a text message that you know is not right- do something about it. Right a wrong. Speak up for the victim of hate and violence. You may not have to do much, but do something.

Beware of Social Media and Text Messaging

It is a sad reality that privacy is somewhat a thing of the past. It's also horrifying to know that what we tweet, post, or text has an ability to go viral before we bat an eyelash. Remember that what may seem innocent, harmless, humorous, or playful can be devastating and destructive, and for much longer than that moment you decide to press send. Even more, what could it mean to love God and love neighbor through the technology we possess in our hands and at our finger tips? How can we use these platforms for good versus evil? My prayer for young people is to use censorship, sound judgment, and recognize the opportunities to use technology for sharing good news of God's love versus offensive images, unrecoverable statements, and hateful rhetoric that can tear a person down for a long, long time.

Nothing Good Ever Happens with Under-Age Drinking

I have yet to hear a story of someone attending a party and having a few "harmless" drinks and then saying, "yes, I was able to love God and love neighbor better." On the flip side, I can recollect an endless trail of reports and tragedies that have occurred when sober judgment was not exercised and young men and young women were violated and abused. Say no. For the love of God, say no. Parents, say no. For the love of God and neighbor, be a parent and not a buddy. Still, if you are somewhere where drinking is taking place, don't drink. Speak up. Do something. Look out for victims who may wake up and not remember what could have happened or what may have happened. Prevent something from happening. Be a whistle blower.

Sports Are Not That Important

Some of the worse statements that have come out of Steubenville were those made to defend star athletes. Society has placed athletics upon an idolatrous pedestal, whether at the professional or youth level. We sacrifice our children upon altars of oppressive practice schedules and expectations of greatness and full scholarships. We also elevate athletes to a social status that no longer holds them or their coaches accountable to their actions, their academics, their ethics, or treatment of young women, young men, and gay kids. We use rhetoric on sports fields that I hesitate to ever post publicly. I was a coach and a player on both the high school and college level and cringe when I remember what has been said in locker rooms and between the lines. Sports are not that important nor are they beyond reproach. Human dignity is worth more than a touchdown, a goal, or a state championship.

God Is Always on the Side of the Victim and the Oppressed

As much as we may enjoy the Friday night lights, God's preference is for those who have been pushed to the margins of our communities, our schools, our stadiums, and our parties. We must take a good look in the mirror and consider, what are we doing as parents, mentors, coaches, teachers, pastors, and peers to advocate for the victims of all sorts of heinous crimes against humanity? What are we doing to foster an environment where kids can feel safe, protected, heard, respected, loved, welcomed, and treated as though they had worth and value? How can we communicate a message that violence against another will never be tolerated and that victims always have an advocate? God is always on the side of the victim because God, in the person of Jesus, was victimized by the system. Jesus also resurrected from it. May the same be true of youth victimized by our own oppressive and naive systems of power and privilege. Side note: It's ridiculous to hold those who have had their dignity violated, abused, raped and tweeted away more accountable than those who sought that person's ruin.

You Are Loved

If youth hear nothing else when they are in my youth ministry, I hope and pray they hear the message of God's love for them in Jesus. There is nothing more powerful and hopeful than to know that you have worth and value in a world that defines us by our possessions, performances, appearances, and achievements. You are not a number. You are not a letter. You are not a scholarship. You are not an athlete. You are not product. You are not property. You are not shame. You are not failure. You are not beyond redemption. You are not without hope.

You are the imago Dei. So are your peers.

That's something to celebrate.

That's something to put on a t-shirt.

That's something to name a youth ministry.

I am so glad we did.

 

Few Articles:

Steubenville Rape Case: From Blame to Responsibility by Adam Ericksen via Sojo.net

There Was Only One Victim at Steubenville by Clementine Ford

10 Living Hopes for Youth (an old post)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rob Bell Has Come Out...with a new book. O yea, and as affirming of gay marriage, too.

Rob Bell has come out...

...with a new book.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God is more or less a culmination of Rob Bell's progressive and evolving theological convictions that eventually led to his departure from Mars Hill Bible Church. While the Evangelical world tends to stop and quiver anytime Bell speaks, or writes, or releases yet another vignette with dramatic pauses and obscure metaphors (like Oldsmobiles), I found his latest publication everything but controversial, ground-breaking, or worth Tweeting statements like "Farewell, Rob Bell" or "R.I.P. Rob Bell."

Instead, per the usual, I consider his work a welcome resource within my library of What I Try to Talk About When I Try to Talk About God with those who may not be interested in pouring their life into dense theology, philosophy and cultural exegesis.

That is, I liked it. Not as much as some of his others, but I liked it. I will recommend it, with fair warning- he talks a lot about quantum physics. But hang in there.

Bell has a knack for communicating complexity with clarity, for which I am envious and grateful. The pastor/film maker/writer/innovator/preacher/practitioner cleverly draws readers into the good news of God's love, which wins every single time.

However, what many readers often miss is that Rob is not saying anything new. Instead, books like Love Wins and What We Talk About... are rephrasings and anthologies of Christian theology that have been reduced to the margins by Evangelicals, yet embraced by mainliners and progressives for centuries. Just read his endnotes :) And if you are looking for more well-versed theology, read the primary sources instead.

Origen.

Paul Tillich.

Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Richard Rohr.

And my favorite, Karl Barth.

That's right, while some claim that Rob Bell is spitting out reverberations of Process Theology, which he certainly may, I find his work also reflective of the greatest theologian of the twentieth century- Karl Barth.

The thrust of his book hinges on God being forever for us in the person of Jesus. Better said, Jesus is God's universal YES to humanity and NO to anything that distorts God's intentions for all that God made as good and beautiful. See Barth.

Bell also reiterates much of his rhetoric from his speaking tour, The God's Aren't Angry, by underscoring God as "pulling us forward." That is, God continually propels us into God's new creation work and reconciliation of all things. God is not situated in the past. God is on the move and in the process of changing the world; a process that culminated in the resurrection of Christ. Barth says it this way:

“As such and with independent truth and power calling is man’s forward direction to God as his future, his new creation as a being which not only derives from the sentence of God in faith and is placed under his present direction in love but beyond that receives and embraces His promise in hope, looking forward therefore and moving forward to Him” (Church Dogmatics, IV. 4 p. 109).

Yet the most telling affirmation of Bell and Barth as (should be) "dance partners," to borrow yet another of his favorite images, is his insistence that God cannot be fully possessed or contained. The moment we think we have fully understood or possessed God, we have actually missed God altogether. We will have turned God into another idol, maybe the worst kind- absolute theological and dogmatic certainty.

Ah, Barth would be proud, "Theology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight, in contrast to a caged bird" (Evangelical Theology 10).

God is free and uncontainable, neither by Barth nor Bell. Not by this blogger or any Evangelical critic.

Still more, while Rob Bell may be trying to give a nod to his good friend, Peter Rollins by citing him:

"When it comes to talking about God, that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop talking" (96).

Again, that's Barth, not Rollins or Bell:

"As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give glory to God” (The Word of God and the Word of Man, 186).

I say all this not because I am disappointed, rather thankful. I am not frustrated, simply bewildered. What others talk about when they talk about the rejection of Bell and his theology is actually nothing new. I also don't think it's honest.

What others are really talking about is the rejection of what has already been said before.

I also think what many are talking about is envy and fear. Critics are envious of his ability to speak with authenticity and clarity what many of us, maybe most of us, are actually thinking. They envy his ability to communicate the gospel in a way that actually draws cynics and skeptics into the community of faith others have been trying to preserve and defend for so long. Many envy his creativity and reputation with artists, poets, film makers, the Dalai Lama, and Desmund Tutu, who are working for the transformation of creation. Many may envy that God is actually at work in the other, the different, the liberal, and those who do not fit within labeled theological boxes.

Many may also fear he may actually be on to something that challenges how we go about our work, our witness, and our approach to Christian theology and mission.

O yea, and Rob Bell also came out...

..as affirming of gay marriage. (listen to the excellent interview here)

Many fear that, too.

But I am grateful, because what he talks about when he talks about God is extremely helpful for furthering the conversation about faith, gospel, and life lived as a disciple of Jesus within an ever-changing world that still longs for good news.

That's what I want to talk about. What about you?

"The beautiful thing would be if evangelical came to mean buoyant, joyful, honest announcement about all of us receiving the grace of God and then together giving back to make the world the kind of place God always dreamed it could be."

---Rob Bell


Related Posts:

An Invitation to Rob Bell by Greg Carey (Huffington Post)

Rob Bell Comes Out for Marriage Equality by Greg Carey (Huffington Post)

Why Rob Bell Still Matters to Me by Tim Ghali

Why Rob Bell Still Matters by Tony Jones

Karl Barth and the Doctrine of the Word of God: The Beginning and End of Missional Proclamation

Thursday, March 21, 2013

N. Gordon Cosby: Death of a Personal Hero and Church Innovator

"At this point in my life, and at this point in our world's life, I am asking what is to be my focus- to what am I to be giving my limited time and energy? What is the new thing, the genuine thing, that God wants me to be learning, doing, being now?

For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?"

---Gordon Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church

N. Gordon Cosby was missional before being missional was cool. N. Gordon Cosby was innovative before innovation sold books. N. Gordon Cosby dared the church to be different, take risks, carry its cross, and follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Read any book on missional theology or missional church paradigms, you are almost certain to see his work cited in footnotes or endnotes.

Just ask Darrell Guder, who wrote Missional Church. Yet many still do not even know the name. His deep legacy cannot even be discovered on Wikipedia! Still, I consider him to be the most influential writer, pastor, teacher, preacher, practitioner, and innovator I have ever read or met. He ranks among the top within my list of personal heroes.

Those at Church of the Saviour told me that Cosby was on MLK's proverbial "speed-dial," as a white voice for racial reconciliation during the Civil Rights Movement.

N. Gordon Cosby believed the church was called to transform the very communities and neighborhoods it called home. He cried with prophetic vigor for the church to journey inwardly so to serve outwardly.

Church of the Saviour, the ecumenical Christian community he founded in Washington D.C. in 1947, has continued to do just that. I am grateful that I was able to spend a week immersed in their community life in 2009. I look forward to on-going returns.

But today...today I am saddened that Gordon will no longer be huddled around a table at The Potter's House with eager listeners, learners, and practitioners of the faith. I grieve that he will no longer write pamphlets or speak hunched over a podium. I lament that I will not have an opportunity to have a prolonged conversation with such an influential voice.

N. Gordon Cosby died yesterday at the age of 95. Gordon's journey inward, which propelled him outward, has now launched him onward, where he rests until Christ comes again and makes all things new and right!

I am certain he will innovate even then! But for now, let's keep dreaming his dreams.

"If you love the church but are disillusioned, disheartened, discouraged by what it has become- we invite you to dream with us. If you are weighted down by the choices you have made for your own life, and you long to become the freed and freeing person that God desires, unleashing the gift of who you really are- we want you to dream with us. If you are hungry for the passionate, healing way of Jesus and would be our companion on the journey- we need you to dream with us."

---N. Gordon Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

"The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits." ---N. Gordon Cosby in Elizabeth O'Connor's, Eighth Day of Creation

 

If interested in learning more about this faithful servant to the church and the world:

Call to Commitment: The Story of Church of the Saviour by Elizabeth O'Connor

Becoming the Authentic Church: A Guide Toward Being in Diverse, Healing Community Rooted in Reconciliation and Justice by N. Gordon Cosby and Kayla McClurg

Handbook for Churches and Mission Groups by Dorothy Devers and N.Gordon Cosby

By Grace Transformed by N. Gordon Cosby

Gordon Cosby: Teaching Us How to Live and How to Die by Jim Wallis via Sojo.net

Visit them in person or on-line: www.inwardoutward.org

 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Daylight, Twilight, and Waiting for the Resurrection: John Mark McMillan, Karl Barth, and Modern Psalm for Lent

"We live on the edge

On the edge of a darkness oh

We live on the edge

On the edge of a darkness oh

But daylight is coming on" (full lyrics here)

As we draw towards Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are indeed living on the edge of Lenten darkness and holding onto the hope for Resurrection Sunday to come. This week's Modern Psalm for Lent comes from John Mark McMillan, known mostly for his popular song sung in many congregations around the country, "How He Loves." However, "Daylight" spins a different edge and draws attention to the tension of the gospel: life and death, darkness and light, sorrow and hope, twilight and daylight, cross and empty tomb. Relevant Magazine featured McMillan a few years ago, stating:

"McMillan adds that the Church should incorporate more songs dealing with tragedy, loss and despair into its worship. He points to one of his favorites—Bruce Springsteen—as an example of someone who sings about hope to those who don’t have it." (Kevin Selders, July 2010)

Interesting. Springsteen as inspiration for liturgy and worship?

I find Karl Barth a little more helpful for framing this Lenten worship experience, who reminds us that the Christian hope and life "sometimes resembles the dawn, sometimes the end of day, but is always wrapped in twilight." (Church Dogmatics IV.3, p. 907).

So while we wait for the dawning of the new day to come, both at Easter and when Christ will return to make all things new, may we also "hasten toward it" as we live out our concern for all those whom daylight could not come soon enough:

"No, [Christians] wait and hasten toward the dawn of God's day, the appearing of his righteousness, the parousia of Jesus Christ. They not only wait but also hasten. They wait by hastening. Their waiting takes place in the hastening. Aiming at God's kingdom, established on its coming and not on the status quo, they do not just look toward it but run toward it as fast as their feet will carry them. This is inevitable if in their hearts and on their lips the petition, 'thy kingdom come' is not an indolent and despondent prayer but one that is zealous and brave." (Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 263).

May this be so, because daylight is coming on...

Read Luke 15

Thoughts to ponder

1. In what ways do you see the world around you, especially locally, "on the edge of darkness?" What would it look like to hasten towards new light alongside your neighbors there?

2. In what ways do you see the world around you reflective of God's coming light and promised resurrection? What would it look like to share these stories of hope with your neighbors?

3. In light of McMillan, Barth, and the parables of Jesus, what does it mean to engage in these sorts of discoveries and elaborate pursuits of welcome, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation? How have you experienced this kind of embrace? When have you extended the same to another?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

John Perkins Said It Right: Take Off Your Wooden Shoe, Carry Your Cross, and Follow Jesus (and a modern psalm for Lent)

"That's something worse than sin."

We had just had a Lent-driven conversation about the cross, sin, and present manifestations of injustice and oppression when a few youth asked this very bold question. Human sex-slave trafficking. Mass genocide in Sudan. The Holocaust. Bullying of gay kids. Imbalance of the world's wealth and resources. There was not a soul in the room who was not absolutely opposed to these systemic evils. Still, they wondered if these horrific realities were "sins" or something completely other. Was/is there a separate category for these sorts of gross realities.

Were they worse than sin?

I responded, "Is there anything worse than sin? If so, was Jesus' death on a cross enough or did it leave something to be desired? If they were sins, what did it mean for Jesus to die on a cross for the sins of the world? What did Jesus mean when he invited us to carry our cross and follow him to Golgotha?"

The questions poured out from the youth as they began to recognize sin had become a church word disconnected from real manifestations of evil. It was not that they didn't condemn heinous acts against their brothers and sisters near and far- they do! It's not as though they didn't long for their definitive end- they do! The word sin just seemed too small, too weak, and too hollow. Sin had been reduced to personal mistakes, offenses, and infractions we confess on Sunday mornings. The bold claim of Christians throughout history- Jesus died for the sins of the world- had been buried in a well of Western individualism and swept away in a sea of religious piety.

Yet this ancient confession was awakening within the theological and prophetic imaginations of these youth.

Injustice- sin.

Oppression- sin.

Hatred of others- sin.

Racism. Homophobia. Sin.

Sexual violence and abuse- sin.

Imbalance of resources and not sharing with those in need- sin.

Bullying- sin.

Youth ministry was once again transformed into another theological laboratory; this time the experiment was unpacking sin as social evil. Sin was illustrated as anything that conflicts with God's intentions for humanity and God's dreams for the world.

Still, what did this mean for the questions I posed about the cross and our call to carry and follow?

I think John Perkins provides us with a brilliant illustration:

"When the Nazi's conquered Holland, I am told that they forced the Dutch factories and factory workers to produce war materials. I have heard that members of the Dutch resistance would take jobs in these factories in order to obstruct productivity and deliberately subvert the German war movement. One way of doing this was to take of their wooden shoes, called sabots, and throw them into the gears and the turbines of the industrial engines or machines, causing them to breakdown. That, supposedly, is where we get our word sabbotage...[Jesus's] 'sabot' was himself, and by throwing himself into the machinery of sin, he caused the ultimate breakdown of Satan's whole movement of destruction" (A Quiet Revolution 184-185).

The dutch workers took off their wooden shoes and followed Jesus in their efforts to break down real sins of violence, oppression, and injustice in their midst.

What about us?

What about now?

When we begin to expose the broader impact of the gospel, which includes both individual and social liberation from sin, we hear our call to follow in a new way. We are reminded that the invitation of Jesus is to tune our hearts and minds, our eyes and ears, to the sounds of the underground. Jesus' beckoning to carry our cross, or take off our wooden shoe, moves us to look for local and global crisis that distort God's intentions for humanity and break them down. We pursue, no matter what the cost, opportunities to thrust our cross and our shoes into real life encounters with oppression, seeking an end to anything that robs our fellow humans from a dignified and full life as God intended.

We seek to undo the effects and overcome systemic and individual incarnations of sin.

John Perkins knows exactly what this means. Read his story in A Quiet Revolution and Let Justice Roll Down.

John Perkins knows there is nothing worse than sin.

There is also nothing better than resurrection.

We just sometimes need to break open and recover a biblical theology of both, which is broader than the ole wag of the finger and pretty flowers on Easter.

 

Read Mark 8:31-38 and Luke 18:1-8

Thoughts to Ponder

1. In light of John Perkins' illustration, how do you now understand Jesus' call to carry your cross and follow?

2. Listen to Switchfoot's song below, "The Sound (John Perkins Blues). Lyrics here.

3. What are some local and global sins that are in need of being broken down so your neighbors can experience life and life as God intended? What can you do to contribute to the alleviation of related suffering echoed by the cries of the underground?

4. The widow in Luke prays for justice. Jesus says we are to pray for the same. Lift up prayers to God related to anything above. Ask God to stir within you and those around you the passion and ability to carry your cross and follow Jesus in these places. Never cease to pray this prayer. Never cease to hear the sound of the desperation bound.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Youth Ministry as Lab for Vocational Discernment: Make Room to Discern Their Calling

[A supplemental read to a column I published within Immerse Journal, "They Pay Me to Do This?" Nov/Dec 2012]

We were driving home from a service day in Philly when one of the youth shared about his dinner conversation with a homeless veteran and the ins and outs of war that lead this man to become an avid peacemaker. "I think I can be more creative than violence," Alex said.

This remark would be powerful on its own, but it was particularly beautiful when it came from the mouth of a young man who had expressed earlier that evening that he longed to pursue a career as an Army Ranger. The remainder of the car ride was filled with reflections on alternative “careers” whereby he could live into his vocation as a disciple of Jesus and utilize his gifts of creativity, ingenuity, film, and social advocacy to pursue peace and justice.

We talked about everything from the Peace Corps, International Justice Mission, and denominational programs that can be engaged post-high school. What Alex experienced that night was an opportunity for vocational discernment. Space was created among homeless vets and car rides down 95 South to explore how God may call Alex to love God and love neighbor with the very gifts he had been given.

Then there was Christina. Our youth ministry hosted a Sunday Morning class called, “College. Career. Calling.” The course was intended to be a conversation with youth as they contemplated how to live into their discipleship and discern God’s leading post-high school. Christina chimed in, “I am going to school for fashion design. It is a pretty materialistic field. How in the world am I supposed to live out my calling and vocation in this industry? I am kind of ashamed.”

There with about eight other students we began to consider that very question. We spoke about the variety of injustices and exploitative working conditions that are associated with fashion and design. We underscored how the industry is often known for how it objectifies women and turns beauty into a commodity. Together we came to the conclusion that Christina was not only a very creative and gifted young lady, but also had a conscience that was concerned for the weak. We then asked, what would it look like for her to work towards transformation and kingdom ethics within the fashion industry? How could Christina not retreat from a popular industry she was drawn to but instead pursue the industry’s reformation and reconciliation? We introduced her to a great read, Where Am I Wearing? (Kelsey Timmerman, Wiley 2008) and encouraged her to think outside the box.

It was indeed possible, actually probable, that Christina could love God and love neighbor by being called to fashion design. Yes, Christina was also experiencing a moment of vocational discernment.

​Youth are incredibly intuitive, creative, risky, outside-the-box thinkers, who are encouraged to use these gifts for a variety of youth activities, liturgical expressions, and missional partnerships while in middle and high school. Then, after graduation, they are tragically roped into get-a-good-job and make-good-money narratives that determine their next 40 years. They are capable of so much more. They thirst for so much more. The world longs for so much more. The church is called for this purpose of vocational discovery:

"A primary purpose of the Church is to help us discover and develop our gifts and, in the face of our fears, to hold us accountable for them so that we can enter into the joy of creating. The major obligation of the Church to children is to enjoy them and to listen to them so that each can grow according to the design which is written into the being of each and emerges only under the care and warmth of another." ---Elizabeth O'Connor, Eighth Day of Creation, Washington, D.C.: Potter’s House Books, 2007. p.16

One of the lost arts of youth ministry is the ability to uncover the gifts of youth so to facilitate vocational discernment beyond their teen years as they explore Christian life post weekend retreats and Sunday night worship. One can only imagine what it would look like to challenge youth within our congregations not to do whatever they can to get paid, but to explore radically new possibilities to utilize their gifts in cahoots with God's work of redemption and liberation. Actually, many of them are already having these vocational conversations with one another. Maybe, then, the calling of the church is to begin to listen and encourage youth like Alex and Christina.

I recently stumbled upon these words within the PCUSA Book of Order:

“As the church ministers to people who are discovering Christian vocation, so it offers nurture to those who are living out Christian vocation in public, active life” (W-6.2003).

This is nowhere more important than within the field of youth ministry. Youth pastors are there to nurture youth not only in their personal formation as young disciples on The Way, but also in the “living out” of their Christian vocation in public, active life during and after adolescence. Youth ministries must create space for these conversations and foster environments where they can explore what it would look like to live into their discipleship in public places and professional careers. Our youth curriculums must make room for students to discern how their unique gifts, deepest passions, biblical reflections, and social consciences can be used by God for kingdom incarnations beyond the walls of the church and in their neighborhoods, campuses, work places, and careers.

I remind youth over and again upon graduation that their callings are greater than or equal to their pending careers; their vocations supersede their professions. Some of the youth may incarnate their vocations as pastors and preachers. Yet most are not called to wear the collar or dawn the stole. And that's a good thing! Can you imagine a world, or a church, made up solely of pastors and preachers? Actually, don't do that. Instead, invite youth to dream bigger, to take risks, and to live life for more than the 15th and end-of-month.

Make room for youth like Alex and Christina to consider how they can be more creative than violence, transformative within trend-setting industries, and innovative in loving God and loving neighbor. May we send students from our youth ministries and equip them to live out their Christian vocation and callings in their public, active lives.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Song for My Family: Güngör as Modern Psalm for Lent

A few weeks ago, Michael Güngör led a few songs as closing set for The Justice Conference 2013. Most attendees were able to sing along with "Beautiful Things," a fresh reminder that a world flooded with injustice is also in the process of being made new. However, his opening ballad, "Song for My Family," was not as easily recognized. The closing track to The Michael Gungor Band's (now simply Güngör), Ancient Skies, was a provocative melody for all of us who were wrestling with the tension between what goes on within the walls of the church often at the expense of what is going on beyond the walls, in the real and broken world. (full lyrics here)

Please forgive our ignorance

In looking down on you

Please forgive our selfishness

For hiding in our pews while the world bleeds

While the world needs us to be what we should be

I could not help but add this older lyric to my 2013 Lenten playlist, a humble confession of the body of Christ's negligence and confusion in regards to where the concerns of the church really should hinge. It is reminiscent of both the prophet Amos and Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.

Read Amos 5:21-24 and Luke 10:25-37

Thoughts to Ponder:

1. In what ways has the church, to include you as an individual, mistaken the things of the church for the mission of the church?

2. How would you respond to Güngör's charge to the church, "be what you should be?" What is the church called to be?

3. How have we been "hiding in pews while the world bleeds?" What does this mean for the church locally and globally?

4. How do both the prophetic words of Amos and the parable of Jesus in Luke pertain to this modern psalm by Güngör?

Close with a prayer of confession and invite God to confront you and call you to shift your eyes and ears to the concerns of your neighbors near and far.

Maybe invite those outside the walls of the church to participate within the walls.

Even better, go beyond the walls of your church and enter into community with your neighbors.

Consider what it would look like, and then embody it, to serve alongside the most vulnerable of your town, city, community, etc.

After all, we are all a part of the same human family.

 

Related Post: Dry Bones: Güngör and Lenten Worship

Also check out Homebrewed Christianity's Interview:

The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse with Michael Gungor

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Middle School Ministry and the Knuckle Ball: Reentering the World of 6-8 Grade

The 2012 Major League Baseball season witnessed something unprecedented in it's history. The CY Young Award, i.e. best pitcher in their respected league, was given to Met's pitcher, R.A. Dickey.

What made this unprecedented?

Why is this marked as historic?

R.A. Dickey was the first predominantly knuckle-ball hurler to win the coveted award.

After years of conventional pitches, minimal success, and an eventual demotion to the minor leagues, Dickey changed his entire approach on the mound with the hopes of rebirthing his professional career. Instead of fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, fork-ball, etc., he perfected the wobbler, which ranges from a mere 53mph to high 70mph. Every now and then Dickey mixes in a change-up or fastball, but nothing ever blows a hitter away. They are simply fooled. R.A. Dickey looks brilliant.

The knuckler baffles hitters, slows swings down, and forces the elite to completely change their approach. Hitters talk of the knuckle ball as a pitch that will quickly humble even the most impressive and accomplished player. Most hate it, but a selected few love it. They find it to be a fresh challenge within their beloved sport and profession. And every now and then they get a sweet pitch they can sit back on and launch into the seats.

But most find it to be a challenge.

The other day a parent walked into my office and asked me about how I felt about middle school ministry. Aware of my love for theology and my passion for teaching, she assumed that I was "beyond" sixth through eighth graders. I quickly retorted, with a brand new analogy I pulled out of God knows where, "I love middle school ministry. I find it to be comparable to an accomplished hitter facing the perplexity of the knuckle ball." She asked for some clarification, apparently unaware of R.A. Dickey, so I responded with something like this:

We Have to Slow Our Swing Down

The temptation most youth pastors face, especially those who have been theologically trained in the academy, is to speak over and above the heads of youth. We neglect the reality that our journey of faith and understanding of related language has more years behind it than those of adolescents. While high school students may be able to hang in there with our discourse, and even provoke us to fresh insight, middle school ministry forces us to slow down our approach, be patient in our rhetoric, and wait for and invite the questions of young people to wobble toward us. We cannot swing the same way we do when in conversation with a 17 year-old. We need to adjust.

Endure the Knuckler...Look for the Heater

The best approach to the knuckle ball is to be ready for the fastball. The knuckle ball is really designed to distract and throw off hitters' timing so that when the fastball comes they are unprepared and whiff at the 80mph cheese. Yet, when a hitter is patient, prepared, and has their weight back, there is no telling where that fastball can land beyond the outfield wall. The game can change in an instant.

The same is true with middle school ministry. We can easily become distracted by the absurdity of middle school rhetoric and inability to hold a thought for much longer than five minutes (on a good day). But when they ask that one question or deliver an observation that is indeed related to the lesson, sermon, Bible passage, or theological truth- be ready. In fact, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, if you are patient and sit back, these moments can forever alter a young persons perspective on faith, God, and life lived within Christian community. These sacred moments can be real game changers they remember for a lifetime. You will, too.

Can Frustrate and Ruin a Hitter

There are many hitters who take the day off from knuckle ball pitchers. They fear it will ruin their swing.

"Perfect love drives out all fear" (1 John 4:18).

While we certainly may want to be intentional about how much we combine middle school and high school events and programs, as they require unique approaches and preparation, we cannot neglect one for the sake of another. We must be engaged with both in order for youth ministry to be effective, sustainable, holistic, and faithful. We cannot allow frustration with the rawest form of adolescent behavior to overshadow the beauty and unapologetic childlike behavior that can really teach us a lot about what it means to be fully human and alive. In fact, youth pastors who do not pay careful attention to middle school youth will not only ruin their programs and "careers," but also can ruin the image a young person has of the church.

Silly Pitch Is Fun to Watch

I loved watching Tim Wakefield and I love watching R.A. Dickey (athough, I am not exactly thrilled he is now in the AL East and will challenge my beloved Orioles). It's a fun change of pace to witness these pitchers get a ball to dance it's way to the plate. The knuckler floats towards the dish and defies all physics. Some even deem pitchers like Dickey to be artists and magicians. This particular pitch is so entertaining and baffling that, every time two people have a catch in their back yard, someone is bound to break the rhythm and make their shameless attempt at the ole wobbler.

The same holds true in youth ministry. There is something about middle school youth that is inviting and contagious. Yes, their germs, but also their zeal for life. They defy logic and challenge our obsessions with certainty and order. They know how to laugh and they know how to create. They find joy in the simplest of things.

So while I often approach middle school ministry with a bit of anxiety, I welcome it as a fresh challenge.

Sure, many youth directors and volunteers may balk at the opportunity to engage 12-14 year-olds, but I see them full of possibility to reflect the kingdom of God and the imago Dei.

Actually, I look forward to middle school ministry. Middle school ministry keeps me humble and teaches me so much about life, love, and what it means to follow Jesus with a raw and child-like faith.

So, I say, bring it on! Middle school ministry is a fresh challenge that may even rebirth my love for my particular expression of Christian vocation.

But pray for me still...

Friday, March 1, 2013

When Helping Hurts: Must Read for All Interested and Engaged in Short-Term Youth and Adult Mission

"What are we doing this year?" asked several of my youth who continued to wrestle with whether they wanted to participate in year three of our youth-to-youth missional partnership in Honduras.

"I understand partnership. I agree with our definition of partnership. But when are we going to do something?"

In 2010, the Imago Dei Youth ministry embarked on a new adventure and claimed a new paradigm for youth summer and short-term mission: partnership. Instead of purchasing a packaged program that "makes mission easy," often at the expense of the poor, we were called into a more long-term partnership with youth in a developing nation contexts. We were invited by the Presbytery of Honduras and PCUSA World Mission to chart new ground and a more holistic and healthy approach to cross-cultural engagement.

We no longer wanted to assume that we could "bring Jesus" somewhere Jesus was already hard at work. We no longer wanted to assume that we had all the answers that simply needed to be implemented among the poor. We no longer wanted to worship our North American idols of projects and instead chose to enter into meaningful relationships with people who are gifted and called just as much as we are.

We no longer wanted to assume we were helping the poor through week-long service blitzes when in fact we may be hurting them and their human dignity.

In preparation for our initial partnership, and regularly consulted since, our leadership team read, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. They write:

"One of the biggest problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor- their feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates- albeit unintentionally- that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves" (65).
This is particularly the case in naive, yet popular, approaches of suburban youth ministries. We often serve not because we are interested in long-term development and holistic transformation of whole people. Instead, we serve because we have an inner-longing to feel needed, wanted, and as though we have "made a difference." We chase after the rush that comes with quick charity and at the same time does not demand much sacrifice and surrender on our part. We are obsessed with the idea of justice and the possibility of change, but not always willing to endure what is really required for sustainable growth and transformation.

We teach our youth and church members that following and serving Jesus is really about us. We proclaim that discipleship and the way of the kingdom is easy.

"‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it'" (Matthew 7:13).
What Corbett and Fikkert remind us is that the desire to help and serve is not enough. We must be willing to contemplate how we can break open our limited understandings of the gospel and revolutionize the task and call of the church and youth ministry service projects and mission trips. We must shed our god-complexes, reject paternalistic tendencies, and explore how to empower those in developing contexts through new paradigms of partnership:

"Development is not done to people or for people but with people. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all people involved- both the 'helpers' and the 'helped'- become more of what God created them to be" (105).
"We assume that we have all the best ideas about how to do things...the truth is that we often do have knowledge that can help the materially poor. But we must recognize that the materially poor also have unique insights into their own cultural contexts and are facing circumstances that we do not understand very well" (116).
This sort of shift in youth ministry service and summer mission is not necessarily popular and may not draw the masses. Youth-to-youth partnerships run the risk of generating more questions from parents and church leaders who are motivated by results. It's hard to measure human dignity, which is often sacrificed for the sake of stories and photos shared with mission and outreach committees.

"While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness." (53)
I am grateful for Corbett and Fikkert's contribution to the missional and community development conversation. I am particularly enamored with their ability to make their wisdom and insights accessible to a broad audience, to include youth and their parents. However, there is a danger. Once you open this book and read it together in the context of a community, there is no going back. You will once and for all crucify old and destructive paradigms of youth mission and service.

You will also resurrect new opportunities to serve alongside neighbors in the developing world with much more lasting and holistic results.

You will live into the kingdom of God together...and for much longer than a week over the summer.

"What are we doing this year?" asked my youth.

I am grateful they have submitted their deposits, some not even from their parents' bank accounts, so they can continue to find out.

Other Beneficial Excerpts:

"North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world" (28).

"Rather than fleeing these urban cesspools, the early church found its niche there...the Christian concept of self-sacrificial love of others, emanating from God's love for them, was a revolutionary concept to the pagan mind, which viewed the extension of mercy as an emotional act to be avoided by rationale people" (44).

"The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well." (54)

"Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings" (62)

Another great read, with a pending review and blogpost:

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert D. Lupton