Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faith as Story: Reclaiming Youth Ministry and the Art of Storytelling

One of the reasons the message of Jesus and the work of the church has gone so stale is because, for many, Christianity is about words, statements, and concepts we must agree to be true in order to belong. We have substituted Jesus’ riddles with elongated confessions. No wonder many are pondering, what’s the point?

But to follow Jesus is to be all about stories. Jesus' invitation is to become story-hearers and story-tellers, ridiculous role players and clumsy characters within an unfolding drama of love and generosity, reconciliation and promise for the world to be made new and right again.

This story is called Resurrection and we, this blogger included, have crucified it with our ecclesial confessions and dogmatics most of the world neither understands nor cares about.

Especially teenagers.

But story, now that’s another story.

Maybe that’s why the protagonist in the Biblical story, Jesus Messiah, told so many.

It’s also why youth workers and pastors must become better at not only telling stories,* but also equipping youth to share their faith stories. We need to reclaim, especially as mainline youth ministries, the lost art of testimony and narrative evangelism.

Actually, the whole church would benefit from such a paradigmatic shift.

“Our youth ministries are about trying to develop passionate students who will engage in the work of God and live as an extension of Jesus’ mission as understood through Luke 4:17-21. We’re consistently attempting to inspire the rising generations to be storytellers- God’s witnesses.”

Chris Folmsbee, Story, Signs. And Sacred Rhythms 139

Our youth ministries, mine included, are still situated within old paradigms where we open the craniums of teenagers, dump in all the information and theology we can, and expect when we seal that sucker back up youth will awaken from our programs as thoughtful and creative practioners of the faith.

We may then be left disappointed and confused when youth don't live up to such expectations, as if they needed yet another expectation to live up to. We are bewildered when they stop coming to youth group, unable to articulate faith language, increasingly disinterested in reading Scripture, and maybe even struggle to respond to the simple question, "why do you love Jesus?"

Maybe this is because the stories within the Story has not gripped them? Have we failed a generation of youth by not helping them see their life as a story interwoven within the Jesus story?

Kenda Dean says it, as usual, better than I can in what she calls the "pilgrim principle":

“Without a story to tell, there is no faith; without a language to tell our story, Christianity remains on mute- and the church’s missional imagination atrophies. The gospel is unambiguous: good news is meant to be shared. The pilgrim principle inherent in Christianity- the gospel's boundary-crossing imperative, the good news 'gone viral'- insists that God's message of good news is not just for us. Enacting the pilgrim principle in youth ministry means that families and congregations hand on the story of faith, not as a generic tale of niceness but as the revelation that God loves us too much to lose us, a story that comes to us through the messy particularity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the God-story that the church confesses, and that families and faith communities must articulate for teenagers called to run from the tomb to tell: ‘Here’s how it went, here’s what I saw. I’ve been there and I’m going back!” (Almost Christian 156)

I have been convicted of late by my lack of storytelling and the minimal amount of opportunities our youth ministry has provided for youth to contemplate and illustrate their faith stories. When we have, like this past Sunday or at the end of confirmation programs each year, the proclamation of the gospel through the individual faith stories of youth has more umph and influence than anything I can say as their youth pastor. Youth who listen are affirmed and their faithful imaginations are provoked. They are told, through the witness of their peers, yes, I can do this. I am a part of this. The Jesus story is my story, too.

So over the course of the next few weeks, as we continue our series of storytelling, "Why We Love Jesus," I am both looking for and developing a few resources to help youth with illustrating and sharing their faith stories.

I am so excited for what's ahead.

“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:8

“Being a Christian…isn’t about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.” Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town

“I think Jesus had in mind that we would not just be ‘believers’ but ‘participants.” Bob Goff, Love Does

Helpful Resources

Worksheet for Youth and Illustrating Faith Stories

My Faith Journey Written for Ordination

Why I Love Jesus and Red Minivans

* This is why when I do engage the confessions I tell the stories that surround them. When youth hear about the confessing church behind The Theological Declaration of Barmen, they are provoked to consider how the church speaks in the midst of present-day injustices.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

PCUSA Mission Co-Workers in South Sudan Interviewed on CNN

Ever since I watched God Grew Tired of Us with my friend Abraham Ayii, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the African nation has always been at the forefront of my prayers and concern. So I was thrilled when I learned of the recent publicity of PCUSA Mission Co-Workers, Rev. Shelvis and Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather, called to work for reconciliation and peace in an interview with their friend Brooke Baldwin and CNN.

The young nation of South Sudan has continued to face internal violence, economic distress, and increasing concerns related to poverty, hunger, and socio-political infrastructure since declaring independence in 2011. I am grateful and encouraged by the work being done by World Mission and many others called to advocacy and peacemaking efforts. All reminders of the beautiful, faithful, complicated, and prophetic work being done by PCUSA World Mission near and far.

Please keep your prayers South Sudan, the Sudanese people, and all who work towards reconciliation, justice, education, and peace. For more information check out these links:

Rev. Shelvis and Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather and Presbyterian Mission Agency
Call for Prayer for South Sudan
Principle for RECONCILE Peace Institute in South Sudan
Liberation for South Sudan?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why I Love Jesus and Big Red Minivans: A Little Bit of My Faith Story

I did not always love Jesus. I certainly did not always like church. My faith story and religious convictions have evolved over time. The same is true with my ethics.*

I hated Sunday mornings as kid, except for the ones when the person responsible for baking the communion bread slipped in a loaf with raisins.

It happened. It was awesome. Raisins went everywhere.

But raisin bread didn't exactly go with wine. I would have preferred orange juice or at least something less fermented.

Still, I was always somewhat of a good kid with a pretty strong conscience. There was even the time when I was angry with the bully on my bus who told me Santa wasn't real, to which I responded, "Shut up you balankety blank." Yep, I said "blankety blank." Unlike Ralphy in the Christmas Story, I didn't need to be edited. I took care of that myself. The bully in the back seat also took care of my ego the days that followed.

I desperately wanted to be the cool kid, maybe even the "bad kid." I wanted to get in trouble without feeling guilty. And I tried. Many times. But always ratted myself out or didn't try hard enough not to get caught. I would either end up in the principal's office or my living room hyperventaling in remorse and promising never to do whatever I did again. They knew I meant it, too. The inhaler was proof.

All my attempts to fit in, develop an image my peers would value, and maybe even to be welcomed at that lunch table so desired by so many, always failed in the end. The large ears and crustache in 4th grade didn't help either. And just when I thought I was breaking new ground and maybe even getting a bit edgy, my family relocated back to Maryland from Pennsylvania, where I had to start all over in a new middle school.

My mom always says it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me...and to her.

But it wasn't. Instead, one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me was when Mom tossed a Bible on my lap as we rode home from school in our Chevy Lumina minivan we named, "Big Red."

I was struggling to fit in again, to feel like I belonged in this new school with people I was convinced were way cooler than me. After being bullied a lot in my old school, I was nervous about the same happening in the new. I was contemplating my next move and how to refresh my identity. Certainly these were reasons why my mom wanted me to read the Good Book.

Maybe her son would find hope.

And I did. I am not sure what I read first- probably Genesis- but I started reading. I never stopped. The story gripped me and it all started with Mom throwing a Bible on my lap as I sat buckled in the front seat of Big Red.

One of the first Scriptures I committed to memory: Joshua 1:9.

"I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."

No doubt this was and is comfort for a teenager looking for assurance, courage, and promise that someone was on his side.

So I kept reading and wanted others to read with me.

I started a Bible study in middle school, meeting every Thursday morning before school, and a huddle of Fellowship of Christian Athletes when I was a junior in high school. And, not surprisingly to someone who lacked the cool factor, "cool" kids were not the ones who showed up. Instead, my new friends and community was made up of all those others considered not worth their time. I wasn't initially thrilled. I wanted those with stronger social status to stick around. But alas, they did not.

I guess I had not yet read enough of the Bible to realize Jesus never started with or drew the attention of the elite either. At least not the kind of attention I was looking for as a junior in high school. There are some youth ministries and programs that may need this reminder, too.

So, why do I love Jesus? As I look back at my adolescence, I love Jesus because as I have followed I have found a sense of belonging, significance, and affirmation that I am never, ever alone. God was with me wherever I went.

And I discovered, through my new faith communities, like the small Lutheran and Methodist youth groups, FCA, and that middle school Bible study, that I was quite good at talking to people about this good news. Now, all these years later, I get to tell youth every day: you belong. you are loved. you can do all Jesus said and did, especially to love and bless the poor and outcast.

I am blessed to be able to journey alongside teeangers and adults alike, echoing reminders I always longed to hear that even in the darkest times (and I have had my share of darkness), God is with you. When you mess up, Jesus will dust you off and give you another shot- God is with you. When you think you cannot go on another day in this world filled with so much madness, God will remind you not to be discouraged and that as Jesus rose from the dead, so too will you, me, and the whole world be lifted from death and dying.

God is with us, drawing us closer to the day when all will be made new and right and good again.

That's why I love Jesus.

And I love Jesus because of my mother tossing a Bible at her distressed teenager on the ride home from a long day of middle school.

Thanks Mom. Thanks Big Red Chevy Lumina.


*I shared versions of this on Sunday night with youth as we begun a new series of storytelling based on the question, "Why Do We Love Jesus?"

**Click here for a little related poetry I wrote, "Love to Say We Love"

Below is a video of my college professor, now on hospice, sharing about why he loves Jesus. Thank you, Dr. Peterson! Eee more from:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Now That's a Pastor to Model Your Ministry After!

When I am ordained, and I am hopeful the day will eventually come, I pray my ministry has at least hint of the same fragrance of Reverend Dr. King. Even if it's only a whiff of the same scent of advocacy, justice, and love for friend and foe alike, my prayer is for my pastoral witness to take on the same flavor of the gospel that defined the greatest Baptist minister ever to live (sorry Billy Graham).

I pray to follow King as King followed Christ.

I pray I never sell my soul to the institution that has become the church and instead leverage the institutional elements for the sake of influence on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors.

I pray I remember the gospel cannot be removed from real human experience and present manifestations of injustice (see his critique of Barth below)

I pray I always have my ear opened to the cries of the poor, oppressed, and all who are relegated to the margins of church and culture.

I pray I always remember that the greatest human and even religious question is, as King said, what can I do for others?

I pray I always remember Dr. King was a Pastor. The Baptist minister's convictions were rooted in the teachings of Jesus and promise of universal reconciliation and redemption able to break into the very real and occasionally dark present.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday, I pray I pay attention to the echoes of his witness, meditate on the plethora of memes streaming his one-liners of compassion, and even consider re-reading some of his greatest writings of socio-political and theological change that continue to transform hearts, minds, and imaginations over a half-a-century later.

And I pray the words would jump off the page and nudge us all towards ordinary and extradordinary acts of love and generosity that would make the Pastor proud, even if You are a Youth Ministry Director.

"We are outnumbered; we do not have access to the instruments of violence. Even more than that, not only is violence impractical, but it is immoral; for it is my firm conviction that to seek to retaliate with violence does nothing but intensify the existence of evil and hate in the universe... I believe firmly that love is a transforming power that can lift a whole community to new horizons of fair play, good will and justice."

"God is also immanent, expressing his creative genius throughout the universe which he is ever creating and always sustaining as well as through the essential goodness of the world and human life." (see King on Barth below)

A Few Related Resources

Letter from Birmingham Jail

What Is Peace? (a confirmation lesson and a Bible study on Dr. King)

Karl Barth's Conception of God by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Your Image of Dr. Martin Luther King I Likely Wring by Drew Hart

Photo Above of Dr. King with Karl Barth from Center for Barth Studies

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Modern Family and Youth Under Pressure: An Episode Worth Watching

Once again Modern Family delivered a brilliant episode ("Under Pressure," Season 5, Episode 12) able to expose great truth to adolescent life and experience.  Yet what made this episode special was not the cameos by Jesse Eisenberg, playing an overzealous environmentalist, or Jane Krakowski, a manipulative mother who also happens to be quite good at dodgeball.  No, what made this episode special was the way the writers portrayed Alex Dunphy as a vulnerable teen unable to keep pace with academic and social pressures.

The producers, without warning, broke the hearts and provoked the consciences of viewers by concluding with a beautiful embrace between an empathetic mother and a tired teen. My eyes welled up a bit, certain I would fair no better than Claire Dunphy if I were to spend a few hours in youthful shoes within the oppressive climate of our mythical American dream turned nightmare.

The credits rolled and I wanted to call every single one of the youth of Imago Dei Youth Ministry and remind them they are not a number, test score, college application, or athletic award.

I wanted to hug them and say to them, you are not alone.

I also wanted to write about a few other insights from an episode saturated with relevance for youth, parents of youth, and all those who work with youth:

Children as Immortality Symbols of Adults
The competitive angst was no longer able to be contained when the parents broke into a therapeutic game of dodgeball. I guess you could say that's when the s#!t got real.  We witnessed what we know to be true all too frequently, parental zeal is often less about our kids and more about our own thirst to be on top. We want to be the victors and our children are simply the most efficient pawns in our game of success and race towards achievement.  David Goetz says it this way:
An immortality symbol is not really about the thing.  it's not about baseball.  it's not really about my child.  it's about the glory that the thing bestows on me.  I will be famous finally....Successful children are the ultimate glory in today's Park District and Travel Team culture...They are the ultimate extension of our selves. If glory means covering for your seventh grader, then so be it.  Parenting is hard these days; perhaps it truly is, as the saying goes, today's most competitive adult sport. (Death by Suburb 42)
This certainly is not true of all parents.  But it is true of enough to make this episode both comical and pertinent for formative conversations.

No Time for Cake; We Have Tests to Study For
The opening segment is priceless, "No time. No stories. I have SAT's...There is a sixteen-year old prodigy studying cancer research at Johns Hopkins. Sixteen! What am I doing? I'm eating cake! Cake! Cake!" Alex Dunphy reached a boiling point, fully aware her schedule and race to somewhere left no time for celebration or silly rituals like blowing out birthday candles.  There were people out there ahead of her and she needed to keep pace.

But at what cost?

Society's unrealistic and increasingly impossible academic, athletic, and economic demands, especially within the last 5-10 years, is draining the life energy and creative edge out of the next generation.  Teenagers no longer have time to stop, rest, play, and even celebrate what is because there is always what could be.  They cannot contemplate who they are because someone is always pushing them towards who they should be.

Then we are surprised when we learn of teenage angst, exhaustion, depression, and suicide. Many fear that's the only way to escape this race to nowhere.

Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Spirit, intervene in and through those whom the care of youth is entrusted.

Where's the Empathy?
A few months ago I heard a speaker tell a group of youth, "I know what it's like to be in your shoes. I've been through what you've been through."  No, my friend, you have not. We have not a clue what it's like to be a teenager in today's climate.  And if we were to enter into it, even if just for a few hours, there is not a single one of us adults who would fair any better than Claire Dunphy. 

That said, we must not shy away from the frequent embrace of compassion and remind youth, while we may not understand, they are not not alone. Even better, maybe we could grant them permission to say no, wave an occasional flag of surrender, or simply be told it's o.k. not to want to dance for six days a week or play on that travel baseball team.  We may even dare them not to sign up for AP classes as 15 year-olds and encourage them to take lunch instead (yes, some kids don't have lunch on their blocked schedules).

I would be remiss if I didn't drop a theological reference in light of Claire's concluding remarks, "I had no idea the kind of pressure you're under.  I was just you for two hours and I could barely hold it together.  I don't know how you don't have a meltdown everyday." While we may not be able to offer the purest empathy to youth in 2014, there is good news.  The God who dwelled among us, as one of us, also spoke words of subversion to all cultural narratives of pressure and angst,
"‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’" (Matthew 11:28-30)
And this Jesus is also the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-20), including the anxious lives of youth and adults alike.

So hug a teenager. Text a word of love to a teenager. Call a teenager and remind them they are not a number or test score. Maybe even take a teenager out to lunch and share with them that it's o.k. to rest and play, because they are made in God's beloved image regardless of their success and failures.  By all means, carve out time to simply listen to a teenager and hear their story.

May we do so before they crack under pressure.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Elijah Was Wrong: God's Voice Must Be in the Chaos Because I Can't Find Silence

That's right, I said it: Elijah was wrong.  The Bible was wrong. 1 Kings 19 was wrong:
"Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (11-13).
I was determined to read through 1 Kings (and possibly 2 Kings, too) during Advent and by Christmas. Yet, despite being employed by a church and extending my "deadline" for the discipline to include the full 12 Days of Christmas, I still missed my goal by twenty-four hours. 

I read 1 Kings 22 on January 7th, the morning after Epiphany. 

I am not guilted by this, merely reminded once again how difficult it is to find sacred space and periods of "sheer silence" for meditaiton and to practice of the presence of Jesus. Even when I miraculously manage to find periods of solitude, I get nervous and somewhat uncomfortable.  Actually, I  frequently fall asleep a few verses in and only for a few minutes. 

I guess you can say daily devotional time has not been working out for me. And when I think I have woken up early enough, something or someone proves me wrong (hint: the culprit usually wears 3T footies). 

We live in a culture of hurry and clutter and my life is no exception. 
Now there was the sound of a great box of crayons and markers being dumped on the floor...
Caillou whining about his sister on the t.v. in the background....
The neighbors' heat pump rattling in rhythm....
Text message alerts and email rings reverberating from our smartphones...
Social network timelines updating and newsfeeds growing by the minute...
Daily chores and bill payments piling up...
Calendars filled, leaving few days without scheduling...
Current events and news stories bombarding us with daily reminders that the world is still so very far away from God's dreams...
Work and ministry commitments, family obligations, grocery shopping, and car repairs... 
Then I heard the sound of sheer silence...and woke up because I had been dreaming. 
 And I wondered, is the LORD in any of this? Where can God be found? 
One of my greatest reads of the last decade is Brother Lawrence's, The Practice of the Presence of God. The great Catholic monk humbly reminds all saints and sinners of the tendency to idolize brief or prolonged devotional time. We become obsessed with compartamentalized rituals and left depressed when we neglect them, confusing the disicpline and the Divine.*  Brother Lawrence, instead, invites all to practice the presence in the mundane and ordinary, while washing dishes or doing laundry, changing diapers or walking your dog, driving to work or typing a blog, and maybe even while cleaning up the reminents of Playdough scattered by your children like confetti on the floor.

Because Elijah was wrong.  2 Kings was wrong.  God is indeed present where there is clutter and quakes, thunder and confusion, even hurry and distress. If God were not, we would all be in trouble.

But God is also in the sheer silence that may come once in a blue moon, or every few days if fortunate.  And these moments must not be taken for granted, rather pursued and embraced, for this too is where and when God speaks. 
"There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voice of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of 'common sense,' of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self...The true faith journey only begins at this point" (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward 48)
So thanks, Elijah and the writer of 1 Kings, for the reminder that God meets us in sheer silence, when we least expect it, when we may even wonder if God is present at all. I will strive to be attentive and alert, even look to slow down and seek solitude.

But remember, Elijah and writer of 1 Kings, God is also present in the chaos and confusion, when we are about to throw in the towel because all the noise and madness has made it difficult to hear.

After all, God was born to us as an infant, in a manger, to a teenager betrothed to a common man, in the presence of shepherds and magi from an oppressive part of the world, all who were concerned about pending genocide from a violent and jealous ruler.

So they fled to Egypt.

It doesn't get much more ruckous than that.

And God was there. And God is here. 

Thanks be to God. 

* See a great post by Kathy Escobar, "Missing God,"":

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Happy New Year: Carpe Spem

Every January I make my own variation of a New Year's Resolution. While I could dig myself a proverbial hole with some sort of goal unlikely to be reached, e.g. run more, eat better, lose weight, write a book, or watch the Orioles win the World Series, I go abstract and attempt a sacred posture to frame the next 365. This is much more realistic and becomes a personal means of accountability and spiritual formation, a discipline intended to affect my perspective and behavior as I follow Jesus the best I can each day.

That said, I declare 2014 as The Year of Hope.

Why hope?

We live in a world that bombards us with bad news, dreary statistics, tragic realizations, and oppressive narratives capable of rebranding even the most optimistic opportunist into a fatalist cynic. We read of the ongoing battles over oil in the Middle East and Sudan, genocide in Darfur and chemical warfare in Syria, rising healthcare costs and narcissistic politics in the U.S., bankrupt school systems in urban and suburban communities, drug wars and related violence in Honduras, and personal finances that seem barely able to keep up with cost of childcare, infinite student loans, medical bills, gas prices, mortgages or rent, and even groceries.

This is not even the tip of the iceberg of all that can cause a soul to be wearied and a spirit broken.

There is cancer and infertility, child abuse and gang violence, increasing academic and athletic pressures on adolescents, racism, sexism, homophobia masked and marketed as conservative Christian theology via cable television, and the list goes on...

These are all reasons to grieve, for sure. Yet, as Paul writes, we are not to grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We are not to be paralyzed and overcome by our grief, rather resurrected by the realization that in Jesus and through those who choose to follow, God is in the process of making all things new and right.

This is the essence of God's promise, a promise I am quick to forget whenever I turn on the news or scroll through my Twitter feed, learn of a friend's diagnosis, or get anxious about a whole host of personal obstacles and ambiguities.

And when I forget the promise, I lose hope. When I lose hope, I become jaded. When I am jaded, I do not reflect the love and grace of Jesus and quickly turn into somebody nobody wants to be around. My life energy, as Richard Rohr suggests, is drained and leaves a trail of "gossip, cynicism, and mistrust hiding behind every action" (Falling Upward xiv).

Therefore, in 2014, I am claiming hope as a fresh breath of life energy. I strive to live as though God's promises are true and carpe spem, or seize hope.
"[Christians] do not merely live under the promise, which could be said of all men [and women]. They live in and with and by the promise. They seize it. They apprehend it. They conform themselves to it. And therefore in their present life they live as those who belong to the future."
---Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, p. 120
May this hope grounded in God's promise move beyond mere abstraction and become fresh expressions of love and generosity, justice and reconciliation all year long and every day of every year thereafter. 

And may these stories, for there are many, flood our imaginations, news stations, social network feeds, and daily conversations.  Even more, may they be proclaimed from our pulpits and lived out by our congregations.

"True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it"
---Richard Rohr, Falling Upward x


See also "2012 Year of Gratitude":

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