Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Are We There Yet? Overcoming Ascension Deficit Disorder as those Belonging to God's Future

Sunday's Sermon on Acts 1:6-11


Full Sermon Text

Ascension Deficit Disorder: Youth MInistry as a Laboratory for Hope by Kenda Creasy Dean

"[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. Tthey seie 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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What I Would Tell My Graduate: Letter to Class of 2014, 2029, & 2032

Amber and I are still new to this parenting thing. We fumble our way through most days and have yet to find a published parenting "model" that doesn't cause us to raise eyebrows and think, do any of these people even have kids. Needless to say, our parenting books have either been relegated to dust collectors or co-opted as coloring pages by our toddler twins.

We are hoping our baby boy en route, due this November, will benefit from what we have learned through raw experience in parenting this Twinado. They have found ways to make sure we have experienced nothing short of everything.

In the last three years I have discovered this profound truth: parenting is hard and exhausting. Parenting is life changing, life altering, life threatening, and life-giving madness. Parenting is simultaneously the most strenuous and most beautiful experience of my entire life.

Glennon Melton calls it, brutiful.

Parenting is also a sacred discipline in identity and spiritual formation that does not begin when children grow-up and start going to youth group. Spiritual formation begins when parents first introduce intentional rhythms and rituals like bed-time prayers and storytelling.

Yet, a parent is not the only voice or facilitator of formation. I have always known this. I have always taught this. Now as a parent, it is becoming all the more real and evident. On the one hand, we take comfort and find assurance in not being alone in this madness. We have resources to pull from in family, friends, and faith communities who claim the child as their own. On the other hand, it's a scary truth to know our children cannot be fully protected and guarded against a variety of influences and competing narratives we may may consider vain at best and destructive at worse.

So now, as a youth pastor and parent, I view my work and calling with greater significance. I also think about graduation from high school with new lenses. Every June, I wonder not only what I want to say to youth who graduate high school and head off to whatever is next for their young lives, but also what will be said to my children when they make their own rite of passage.

Who will speak to them?

What will be said to them?

Who will they listen to?

What will be their primary voices and mediums of influence?

Who and what will most significantly shape their identity and view of the world around them?

What will they invest their young lives into and how will they choose to use their time, talents, resources, passions, and what they have learned from us and others?

Will they have a youth pastor or some sort of adult mentor? If so, what would I want her or him to say to them?

So this year, I drafted a brief letter to my children and their graduating Classes of 2029 and 2032 (pending they turn in all course-work or start preschool on time). Should the blogosphere still exist, I pray they read it from their iPhone 12 while riding their hoverboard to graduation practice.

I am still holding out that Marty McFly's mode of transportation will come to fruition.

O yea, Class of 2014, this letter applies to you, too.


Dear Noah, Lily, and Baby Yet-to-Be-Named

Hop off that hoverboard and listen to me, please, for one moment before you head off to whatever is next for you. Also, hug your mother, she's probably an emotional wreck right now. I on the other hand am fine, I cried as I typed this 15 years ago, so should be good by now.

Anyway, here is a brief burst of wisdom from your old man. Most of this you have heard before. Some of it has probably stuck with you; some of it you have heard before and you may roll your eyes and think, here he goes again. Some of it (hopefully not all), you have possibly forgotten.

So humor me for a second.

You Belong. Yes, you are our kids. But really, you belong to the One who made you in an image, thankfully, far greater and more whole than even the reflections of us that you are. There is nothing that can ever take that away from you. Nothing. Even if you are reading this and one of you is not graduating in the year we thought you would- you are still made in God's image and we love you. I pray you always know you belong, especially when others tell you otherwise. Even more, I pray you would be the voice of belonging to those so often relegated to the margins of a world both good and cruel at the same time. Welcome others as you have been the recipients of welcome.

You Never Walk Alone. The Irish and Celtic Prayer says it best:

May you see God’s light on the path ahead. When the road you walk is dark, may you always hear. Even in your hour of sorrow, the gentle singing of the lark. When times are hard may hardness never turn your heart to stone. May you always remember when the shadows fall—You do not walk alone.

You were created to be in community just as the God who made you is a community in and of Godself. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Rely on others to help you through seasons of struggle. Refuse to believe the myth that life is about you and only you.

Carry Your Cross: Many have probably told you life is about acquisition, success, and achieving some sort of cultural ideal about comfort and security. I pray you do not buy into this lie, for it will kill your soul. Even more, your call is cruciform. We have been instructed to carry a cross, to enter into the suffering of others and expend ourselves for the sake of those who are victims of all forms of injustice, oppression, hatred, violence, and human ignorance. Take risks for the sake of your rejected, despised, and ignored neighbors. That may look different than it did for your mother and I, so please help us to see what that looks like and means in the now. Help us remember to carry our crosses alongside you.

Practice Resurrection: I got this line from a great poet (and it's not Dr. Seuss). As you carry your cross, do so with God's hope as the carrot before you. When darkness surrounds you on all sides and you are tempted to fall victim to despair alone, trust God's promise of a day coming when all things and all people will be made new and right. Live now as though this is true. Be those who are willing to enter darkness and all signs of death and shed light and love, with humility and grace, alongside those who long to hear even the faintest whispers of a better and brighter day just over the horizon. Then grab the wings of God's Spirit as she draws that day into the present.

Forgive. Endless grace. It is easy to love those who return the favor. Your calling is also to love those who have wronged you and others. But be careful, forgiveness does not mean tolerance or dismissal of the wrongdoing. Forgiveness is sending away the evil and refusing to respond in the same manner that wreaked havoc on you or others in the first place. Forgiveness may also mean taking up the cause of a wounded neighbor and carrying a cross alongside them.

Fall in love with stories...and learn to tell them. I hope we have shared with you endless stories that have saturated your imagination. I pray you have fallen in love with stories, especially the story God is writing in and through and for the world God is working to restore and make whole again. I pray you have listened to the stories of great heroes and sheroes of the faith, some who may be your family members. I pray you have learned to read and engage the stories in books and movies and how God may be using them to teach you and others about what it means to be fully human. I pray you become a storyteller, especially to the younger generations. I pray you view your life as a story, one where you are not always the protagonist. I pray you hear the stories of others and learn to love them as much as your own, for to listen to someone else's story can be the greatest display of compassion and love.

I could go on and on, but you have probably started skimming by now. I could tell you that you are not what you do for a living, but living out who you are. I could remind you that your stuff is not your own, but a resource God has called you to share. I so deeply want to tell you to trust God has given you enough and to pray for daily bread- especially on behalf of those who are unsure about their next meal.

But really, I want you to know I love you. We love you. God loves you. So after you walk across that stage and begin to dream about what's next, know you are loved.

There is nothing that can ever take that away.

Congratulations Class of 20__! But you have only just begun!




Related: 10 Living Hopes for the Class of 2012

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Beautiful Collision Here and Now: Life According to Trey (Part 2)

The youth were pretty upset when they found out I only wrote one part of Life According to Trey. They had so many questions and curiosities, more than I anticipated. So I left the beach a bit early and, while they prepped for dinner, I wrote Part 2. Enjoy, better said, be perplexed...

Trey was devastated, for sure, with what happened back in June. He was grateful the President, as a sort of consolation prize, invited him to a convention he was speaking at in a small town about 4 hours away.

But it wasn't his town. It wasn't his home.

Trey felt like he had missed his only opportunity to engage in a thoughtful and potentially critical conversation about his hopes and dreams, questions and concerns related to his community. Trey feared he would no longer be able to make the difference he had dreamed of for so long.

Dreams he had also kept hidden for far too long.

True, Trey had not been very active in the life of his church or volunteer and mission opportunities offered by the youth ministry. But that was only because he felt like they never really made any sort of difference. And being the introvert he was, he was never sure the youth pastor was interested in what he had to say.

Trey had always assumed the church and the youth mission trips were only about "spiritual" things.

Big churches like his own were only concerned about budget and butts. How many could we pack into this service, this trip, this program, this campaign, yada, yada...

Trey also had struggled with how people had reduced Jesus into a formula.

Trey once talked with one of the confirmation youth in the church, wait, maybe it was an elder, it doesn't matter. The point was, he asked one of them why they were a Christian and they said, because Jesus died for them so they could be forgiven of their sins and go to heaven when they die.

Seemed kind of boring in his mind. What's the point of the next 80 years if I am just living as though in a waiting room for the nurse to invite me into some pie-in-the sky, cloud-obsessed dwelling with naked angel babies playing harps.

Trey hated harps.

Trey also recalled when his grandmother passed away back in the fall. She wasn't that old, so not one of those, "she lived a good life" passings.

She was only in her 50s and died of an aneurism.

When the family was listed on the prayer chain, people would come up to him in good faith and tell him, "God was working for the good and had a plan."

"God was in control," they said, "and had let this happen for a reason."

Was the reason for his grandfather to quit Jesus? Because that's what happened. Trey feared, after this event, the same would happen to his father.

Trey feared it would happen to him. Would he quit Jesus, too?

It's not that he didn't believe God was there, but he doubted God "let this happen for a reason." Otherwise, God is a pretty lousy God. What good parent would let one of their children die, even ordain it to pass, so something else could happen for the benefit of another child?

Bogus, he thought.

Trey was laying on his bed, tossing a baseball up in the air, as he reflected on all that had happened this summer. He thought about his friends being away on a variety of service projects, youth retreats, and mission trips. Most he was not attending for a variety of reasons.

That's when the phone rang.

It was the youth pastor. She spoke with a sense of compassion that Trey had never heard before.

"Trey, I know you have been through a lot this past year. Baseball did not go the way you had planned, being cut from the sport you love. Your grandmother's passing, I can tell it still ways on you as it should. And while I am sure seeing the President was great, you were obviously burdened by what you have said was a missed opportunity by a simple misunderstanding of a letter. I am praying for you my friend, and want you to know we are here for you."

Trey didn't want to show too much emotion, but he felt the frog climbing up his throat and he fought back tears.

"Thanks, Hope. Really. Thanks."

"Trey," Hope replied. "I was wondering why you didn't sign up for our trip to Baltimore this summer? We'd love for you to come and a spot has recently opened up. Want to join?"
Trey began to share much about his concerns related to church, especially about how he never felt like what the trips were up to really made any difference. He even shared about why he was so frustrated about missing the dinner with the President.

"That was my chance to really make change happen. I came up with so many ideas."

Hope began to listen more and more, "Trey, we need you. The church is actually the very place for people like you to share your hopes and dreams. You don't need to wait for the President...or even a pastor. Youth are not only the future of the church, you are what God is doing now. Today. The Spirit is whispering, sometimes shouting, through teenagers who are passionate and view the world in a way many of us adults fail to notice. We need you. Now."

Trey had always thought Hope was like everyone else, but apparently not. She seemed to care about here and now, life on earth not only heaven. She even seemed to care about him. In fact, she said something he had never heard before.

"Trey, you have heard me say you are the temple of the Holy Spirit right? Do you know what that means?"

"Yea, I have heard that many times. Take care of your body and don't get tattoos, because you wouldn't spray paint the church."

"Seriously, that's what you have thought I meant? We need to get coffee sometime, I'll even show you my tattoo of 1 Peter 1:3-4 on my ankle...you may have never noticed."

Nope. That was a new one, Trey thought.

"Trey, you being a temple is a reminder that you are a mobile version of a collision between heaven and earth. The temple for God's people in ancient days was where heaven and earth met. The temple was like a miniature version of God's dreams for the world. It's where God dwelled. It was also originally a tent, and so it moved. That is, until God's people wanted to settle down and rival other nations and religions. So they turned it into a big building... "

"...kind of like what we have done with churches, right. Bigger is better?" Trey interjected.

"That's another conversation. But Jesus came into the world, as John says in his gospel, and templed among us- tabernacled actually. Jesus was the heaven-and-earth tent in human form. He came to show us what it could really look like. Then he invited us to be the same. That's why Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:16, "do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" That's why God's people and the church are on mission. We go places near and far pointing others to where God's kingdom is come, Gods will is being done, and where heaven and earth are colliding together. We follow Jesus as miniature movements of Gods dream for the world. I guess you can even say we practice now, in the present, what we believe to be true about God's promised future."

Trey's mind was racing. He had never heard it explained like this before.

"Hope, hold up...you are blowing my mind right now. I need a notebook...gotta write some of this down."

"Trey, why don't we go grab some coffee. I want to share more, but I really want to hear from you. I want you to teach me about how heaven and earth may be colliding in and through you. Where do you long for God's justice, peace, and renewal to bust into the here and now as we follow Jesus, not without our fair share of doubts, together."

Trey thought for a minute.

"Hope, could we grab coffee in Baltimore?"

Hope was confused a bit, "why not the Starbucks down the road?"

"I was thinking we could talk on the mission trip."

Hope chuckled a bit.

"Yes, Trey. That would be great."

Trey hung up the fun and resumed tossing the baseball up in the air. Then it came to him, maybe Hope's invitation was going to be even better than the one he received on June 20th?

So he hopped on the youth ministry's website and was sure to read all the paperwork more thoroughly than the letter he pulled out from the mail.

Trey wanted to make sure he knew where he was supposed to be this time.

Thoughts to Ponder
1. How does this story illustrate the significance of being God's temple? What does this mean for the mission of the church?
2. How does this story illustrate the role of youth in living out the mission of the church?
3. What are some of the hoeps and dreams you have for your neighborhood, local cities, and even other parts of the world? How may God be calling you to embody a beautiful collision of heaven and earth in these places?

Part 1: A Rare and Bold Invitation

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Rare and Bold Invitation: Life According to Trey (Part 1)

This weekend on the annual Beach Retreat, our youth engaged in conversations about heaven and earth. What I consider to be a perfect platform for contextualized eschatology with teenagers evolved into a weekend of storytelling and a rare attempt on my part to write a short tale.

What resulted was Life According to Trey, short stories of faith and doubt. I never imagined my youth would be so captivated and intrigued, adopting this fictitious character as though a member of the youth ministry. It even forced me to write Part 2 on the whim while they ate dinner. That will be posted tomorrow.

So, without further delay, meet Trey...

Trey lived in a small town just outside Washington, D.C. He was a junior at the local public high school and probably registered as ordinary according to the social standards of his peers. There was nothing about Trey that made him stand out or draw a crowd. Trey was cut from his JV baseball team as a freshman and so never tried out again. Many said he was smart, but B+ smart. So smart enough to keep his parents off his back but also only smart enough not to be invited to those end-of-semester breakfasts the principle held for all those on the honor role.

Trey also attended his youth group, but he was the quiet type. Trey participated enough to be known by name but apparently not enough to capture the attention of the youth pastor. He assumed this is why he was never asked to share his story at the local fundraising event. He often came home lamenting to his parents about how he wished the youth group would, maybe just once, recognize that you didn't have to be loud and out-going to be evidence of something good going on in your life or able to contribute interesting ideas.

Trey was not eager for attention, but also appreciated when someone acknowledged his existence. That's why he was so thrilled and stunned when he received a particular invitation. Trey's mother had asked he run down the drive-way and get the mail, sure to be mostly junk that would either be recycled or used as kindling next time his dad couldn't catch the match-n-light charcoal on fire.

But this time was different.

Trey opened the mailbox and, wedged between the grocery ads and the Community Courier, was cream-colored envelope addressed to him. The return address:

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington D.C. 20500.

On the reverse, the presidential seal.

It wasn't an election year. Trey was not old enough to vote. Trey was a B+ student and he had not even been active in too many service projects or volunteer opportunities. He was also certain his parent's were so jaded by politics that neither of them cast a ballot.

So why would the President send Trey a letter?

He walked into his house, ran up the stairs, and dismissed any and all questions from his mother about what he was up to. Trey shut the door behind him, sat at his desk chair, flicked on the lamp, and held the letter in his hand.

He knew he wanted to carefully open this letter so not to rip it. Trey expected a card, but instead it was a hand-written note. Trey doubted whether this was a legit letter, but then he kept seeing the seal:

Dear, Trey

I am making my rounds with some local teens and wanted to see if you would be willing to have dinner with me on June 20th at 6 p.m. I would love to have the chance to hear about your community, your family, your questions, concerns, hopes and dreams. If interested, please mail in the card included within this letter and we will see you then.


The President of the United States

The President's left-handed, loopy signature just above the title confirmed this was a real letter.

Trey had not realized his hands were shaking, and so the card lay on the floor after falling from the envelope. He quickly filled out the card, not wasting a second with this rare invitation, and ran right back out to the mailbox and put up the red flag.

The next few weeks he told everyone he new about this incredible invitation. Trey shared about the greatest news ever to come to his mailbox. All his friends and family knew about June 20th at 6 p.m., so when that day came Trey had more than enough help getting himself ready for the occasion and the 35-minute ride to the White House. The family hopped in the car and headed to Pennsylvania Avenue, assuming they would know what to do once they pulled up to security.

They arrived right at 6 p.m. Nothing.

Paged the security guard. Their names were not on the list.

The President wasn't even there at the moment.

Then they received a phone call from their neighbor.

"Trey, the President and his entourage are here in our neighborhood. They said they sent you a letter and you confirmed your availability for dinner. They were wondering where you were. I told them you were in Washington. Has there been a mix up?"

Trey had been so eager about the invitation that he failed to recognize the letter was actually an invitation to dine at his home. The President wanted to sit at table in the rawness of his hometown. The President was willing to come to his place and, in his zeal, Trey had assumed he was supposed to head to the White House.

Trey thought the purpose all along was to leave his neighborhood and head to Washington, where he would be greeted with all sorts of flair.

This was more than a mix up, Trey thought. It was a confusion that could have been prevented had he actually read the letter.*

Thoughts to Ponder

How does Trey's story pertain to the way the church and Christians have frequently understood the goal of faith in Christ?

What about this story challenges your own discipleship and perceptions about what it means to be the church on mission?

What could have prevented Trey's blunder? How does this relate to the way many, maybe you, have read Scripture and the especially the New Testament?

N.T. Wright suggests the Apostle's Creed has played a role in our negligence of the life of Jesus Messiah and on-earth-as-in-heaven theology. How so?

What do you believe contributes to our neglect of God's kingdom already here and still to come?


*This story is an adaption and expansion of an illustration within N.T. Wright's, How God Became King. Wright suggests the popular assumption of the goal of Christianity as "going to heaven when we die" is "as though you were to get a letter from the president of the United States inviting himself to stay at your home, and in your excitement you misread it and assumed that he was inviting you to stay at the White House" (44). This is a fantastic read that challenges many on what Wright calls, "the forgotten story," which deeply affects the Church's theology and praxis of mission.

**The story above was embraced with so much enthusiasm on this past weekend's youth retreat, I had to write a second part on the whim while they ate dinner. Stay tuned tomorrow for more of Life According to Trey (Part II). The illustration was also crafted by a 9th grader while I told the story. Kind of fun, huh...