Monday, September 22, 2014

Silly Questions of Faith: The Fault in Our Stars and Life According to Trey Part 3

There's a scene in The Fault in Our Stars when Hazel Grace is confronted by Van Houten, her once-beloved author now exposed drunk cynic.  Hazel Grace ventured with Gus to Amsterdam in pursuit of what she perceived to be an unfinished novel with too many questions left unanswered.  As they storm out of Van Houten's disheveled apartment, enraged and disappointed by their "hero's" crass and less-than-hospitable behavior, the author leaves them with a parting retort:
"Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you care so much about the answers to your silly questions?"
Silly questions? These questions had become the very rhythm of her cancer-laden life and now they were being labeled "silly."

I wonder if this is how many youth feel when their young minds rattle off question after question in a world not yet done with claims of certainty. I fear youth may balk at asking questions, faith, life, death, and despair questions, assuming they will be received by the adults in their life as silly.

So they write off church as Hazel Grace wrote off the one who wrote her most cherished story.

So as I prepared to write a youth talk for this past Sunday, I returned to a short story I wrote for youth this past May. Youth resonated with the brief narrative, who had quote a few silly questions of his own, so I added the chapter below.

I pray youth, who may be a lot like Hazel Grace, would always know even their silliest questions are welcome in the church.  Actually, these questions are not silly at all.  They are markers of faith.

Trey, Cora, and Questions of Faith: Life According to Trey Part 3 

Trey was entering his second year of high school.  His first year was not so bad, although he could've done without the absurd amounts of homework his history teacher, Mr. Franklin, had handed out the second semester.

His parents didn't seem to agree.

They felt Trey didn't push himself hard enough, apply himself often enough, and frequently told him he needed to spend more time in the books if he wanted to get into a good school.

"I'm 15," he would remind his parents. "Fifteen!"

The pressures of Trey's freshman year were unexpected and overwhelming.  They only increased his sophomore year.

Track. Academics. Clubs. Piano Lessons (Trey hated the piano).  Choir.

O, yea. church. There was also church and the Second Presbyterian youth group. Trey struggled to fit that in and often had to surrender youth group and time with his friends because of an endless list of other responsibilities that demanded his time and attention.

Yet Treys youth pastor, Hope, often reminded him that church and youth group were not to be one other pressure point. Actually, they were the very people Trey could count on to be there when the pressures were too much.  They wouldnt shun him if he missed a few weeks. 

That was always a breath of fresh air, but still, Trey felt bad he couldn't be as involved as he was over the summer.

And Trey had quite the summer, nothing that surpassed his week-long mission trip with the youth group to Baltimore. That was an experience he would never forget.

How could he? The questions were still wracking his brain.

And so was Cora.  Trey and Cora had struck up quite the friendship.  Cora was also a high school sophomore and was the type of person Trey found intriguing.  She was somewhat mysterious and didn't act as though she had everything figured out.  She wasn't a glass half-empty kind of girl, but certainly didn't think the glass was always full either.

Cora, much like Trey, was a bit of a skeptic and struggled to find her place in the youth group.  That was, until she met Hope, their youth pastor.  Hope and Cora had similar conversations as those Hope had with Trey.  Hope also encouraged her to come along on the summer mission trip.

That's where Cora and Trey met.  More specifically, the two met serving meals at an inner city ministry on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.   They spent a few afternoons in conversations with those who had called the streets their homes, most without a job.  These new friends, as Trey liked to call them, broke all kinds of stereotypes about the homeless. 

Sure, there were recovering addicts and others constantly looking for another way to collect disability checks.  Some with more legit explanations than others, of course.

But there were also former college professors in their fifties and sixties who had been let go and unable to find another gig.  There were parents of young kids who ended up on the streets after unexpected medical bills piled up because their employer didn't provide sufficient health insurance, leaving them bankrupt.  There were veterans who had so many traumatic memories that they couldn't hold a job since returning from the horrors of war, some pains inflicted by fellow soldiers who used their rank as a means to assure secrets could be kept far too long. There were even those who had a job, but the cost of rent was too high that not even minimum wage could help them get off the street. Let's not forget the teenagers who were homeless.  The stories were unbearable.  Youth shared about being kicked out of their homes when their moms new boyfriend moved in or fleeing their homes because they couldn't take the violence and abuse any longer.

The stories of Trey's new friends were endless.  The summer mission trip challenged and confronted Trey more than anything ever thrown his way by Mr. Franklin.  The same was true for Cora, which is why they became such good friends and were able to have conversations like the one on the bus on the way home from a day of serving one afternoon.

"Trey, I thought this mission trip was going to teach me a lot about faith, God, and Christianity.  Instead, I feel like everywhere I turn I am just faced with another story of despair," Cora said on the bus back to the retreat center where they were staying.

"You're not alone," Trey agreed. "I was hoping this summer would be an opportunity for me to deepen my faith, maybe even find the answers to the many questions I have had for so long.  But all I have come up with are..."

"....more questions?!" Cora interjected.

"Yes. More questions."  Trey was grateful for Cora.  While many in the youth group seemed more concerned about taking photos and posting to Instagram, Cora was really wrestling with each experience.

Cora pondered, "Yea, where is God when a kids home life is so bad that it would be safer to live on the streets of Baltimore than spend one more night in the midst of so much yelling, screaming, and violence?"

"What about when someone is diagnosed with a form of cancer but can't pay the mounting medical bills?" Trey wondered.

"And then they go bankrupt, leaving them homeless when they recover." Cora added.

"All of this also makes me think about stuff at our school. Like my friend, Chris," Trey began to whisper as though really uncomfortable, "who recently came out as gay to his family. Where is God in the midst of that?"

"Don't get me going on that one," Cora replied back in certainly more than a whisper.

"Easy, Cora."

They went on and on, listing everything from Christians who have been killed for their faith in the Middle East to natural disasters.  They even talked about the ridiculous pressures they face with homework and after school obligations.

People seem to forget we are kids not CEOs! Cora gritted her teeth.

Trey nodded, thinking of his parents reaction to any and all of his complaints about school work.

"Speaking of kids!  Trey knew Cora was on a roll now, so he just listened.  Child refugees! They are fleeing Honduras and Guatemala, without their parents, hoping to find safety in this country because the drug and gang wars have become too much for their parents to bear.  They think it's safer for their young children, even toddlers, to ride a freight train from Central America through Mexico and into Texas, ALONE, versus stay home with their parents. Where is God there? I thought the kingdom of God, like Jesus said, belonged to children?"

Trey chimed in, "Hope has said something before about Jesus being 'good news for the world.' Apparently gospel means good news.  All I see around us lately is bad news.  Is there any good news anymore?"

That's when they realized Hope was on the same bus with them.  Apparently she heard them chatting but didn't want to interrupt.  But this last remark by Trey, she couldn't help but jump in on the conversation.

"That's it," Hope whispered.

Startled, they turned to see Hope with a bit of a grin.

"That's what?" Trey asked.

"That's the point of all this mess we call Christianity.  That's the point of this trip to Baltimore.  That's the point of following Jesus," Hope shared.

"Gonna have to be a little more specific, Hope." Cora was obviously frustrated.

"Gospel means good news, Hope said. Because we are to be those who ask the question, 'what could, would, and should good news look like in all those places and experiences you just mentioned.  What does good news look like to gay youth or homeless cancer survivors?  What does good news look like to Christians in Iraq, whose lives are in jeopardy every day?  What does good news look like to families who have lost everything to a tornado, tsunami, hurricane, or fire? What does good news look like to the thousands of children fleeing Honduras and taking refuge in this country? What does good news mean for youth, like you, who are reduced to test scores and grade point averages in our achievement based culture?"

Trey and Cora were both perplexed, but intrigued nonetheless. The last one especially got a few nods from Cora and Trey.

"I don't know, Hope. Why don't you tell us? You seem to always have answers. I just have more questions," Trey lamented.

"Trey," Hope's voice softened. "Christianity is not about answers. Christianity is about questions. Asking good and faithful questions.  I have way more of them than you could even begin to imagine. I have doubts, too.  Lots of doubts, especially because of all the bad news we hear, see, and personally experience."

Cora jumped in, "I thought Christianity was about right belief? You know, getting the answers right."

"Cora, replied Hope. If you think you have all the answers you are not a Christian."

"You're not?" Cora asked.

"No, said Hope. You're arrogant. A good follower of Jesus, a disciple, is someone who asks the right questions.  Good news questions.  Questions of despair and heart ache.  Questions that center on the longing for the world to be better, newer, safer, cleaner, more equal, just, fair, and drenched in peace.  Questions that ask, where is Jesus in this place and who is Jesus calling me to be alongside my neighbors near and far? Questions about evil, sin, suffering, forgiveness, life, and death, even life after death."

Trey thought for a moment, "Is that why Jesus' disciples asked so many questions? Were they actually more faithful than we give them credit for?"

Hope let out a breath as though refreshed by Trey's youthful moment of enlightenment, "Yes. Sure, they were cynics and critics, missing the mark more frequently than they got it, but they were full of faith.  Their questions were a strong mark of faith.  And Jesus asked questions, too.  Like what does good news mean for the man possessed with a demon and isolated by family, friends, and anyone within arms reach?  Good news meant being greeted with an embrace and healed of the possession.  What did good news mean for the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years? It meant she finally could be made clean and able to participate in her religious community and welcomed at the family dinner table.  What was good news for the 5000-plus men, women, and children who gathered hillside when Jesus was teaching? Good news meant being fed until they were satisfied. Good news meant all those who were labeled sinners and outcasts were forgiven and invited to the table.  Jesus even responded to the greatest question of all: what about death? The good news for all of us is that death does not win in the end, but, through Jesus, resurrected life is gifted to all.

Trey started to get it.  "So we are supposed to ask not avoid questions? Like, what does good news mean to my neighbor whose parents just split up and is not sure what life will look like in the days and weeks ahead?" Trey immediately began to think of his friend, Sam, who didnt talk much about his parents recent decision to split up. But he knew it was always on his mind.

Exactly! My favorite line of Scripture comes right after Jesus healed a paralytic and is confronted by critics.  He said, My Father is still working, and I also am working.  While others found every reason to avoid the bad news of suffering, even using religion as an excuse, Jesus questioned human suffering and then entered into it.  Jesus knew that even in the darkest of human experiences, God was, no, God is somehow, someway still working.  God is there. 

Cora thought for a moment, Sorry to be a bit blunt, but what does that have to do with us, with what we do? Sure, we trust God is working- although I often question that- but even if God is, what does that have to do with us?

Hope nodded in agreement, I hear you.  I also frequently question Gods presence. But I keep working, hoping, praying, and believing good news is out there somewhere. So, as those who follow Jesus, when we see others suffering and in the depths of the worst kind of news, we are called to hear their questions, ask versus avoid many of our own questions, and then consider how can we begin to work towards good news much in the same way Jesus did.  So, what might that look like for your friends you met this week or your friends, Sam and Chris, back home?"

Trey paused. Cora looked at Trey, hoping maybe he would have a response. They both shrugged.

"I'm not sure.  All I have right now are a lot of questions, and we still have two more days on this trip.'" Trey said this, wondering if he was going to frustrate his youth pastor.

"And if Trey has six questions. I have ten." Cora said, as though she wanted to back up her friend.

Hope grinned again.  "That's why I love teenagers. That's why I will never stop serving alongside teenagers."

Again, the two friends were confused. 

"Why?" They asked.

"Because you ask the best questions.  You're not afraid of questions. You challenge adults who all-too-often think they have all the answers and life figured out.  In those moments, you push us.  I think that's maybe why Jesus said we needed to have faith like a child.  Not because of blind obedience, but because kids are always asking questions. And by asking questions, good news questions in the midst of so much bad news, only then do we begin to see the face of Christ. Only then do we actually demonstrate child-like faith."

Cora smiled. "I have one more question, Hope."


"Is this our stop?"

"No, smiled Hope. Our stop was the last one.  Whoops."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Play Like a Raven? How #RayRice has exposed a society still naive to the realities of domestic violence

I have been a Ravens fan since they moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996.

I was at their inaugural game.

I celebrated, with a housefull of family and friends, their first and second Super Bowl championships.

I have endless memorabilia (or what my wife calls, "junk") related to their history and success as an NFL franchise.

And that is what the Ravens are known as around the league: a successful and model professional football organization. The Ravens are frequently lauded for their professionalism and ingenuity, solid draft picks and stellar defense.

They have warranted praise for consistent success over the last two decades.

That is, until they failed. The Ravens failed. The NFL failed. Many sports pundits failed. Fans have failed. Social media trolls continue to fail.

The organizational mantra, "Play Like a Raven," is under review.

The Ravens and NFL eventually got the call right by cutting and indefinitely suspending Ray Rice, but their response was much too slow. A tragic parallel to most incidents of domestic violence.

Slow. Belated. Hesitant. Too Late.

Ray Rice exposed the ignorance we continue to demonstrate as a society when it comes to Domestic Violence and Abuse. Ray Rice also exposed how we are all mere pawns in corporate games of capital gain and empire construction.

I am grateful Domestic Violence is a trending topic on social media platforms, stirring awareness, funds, and much needed advocacy on those who frequently suffer in silence. Still, I am throwing my yellow flags of caution and concern as #RayRice continues to dominate our news feeds.

Blame Shifting: Janay Rice is the victim (better said, survivor) of a horrific offense and crime known as domestic violence. Let's say that again, Janay Rice is the victim and survivor. Yes, she did go on to marry her abuser. Yes, she has been quoted as defending "the man she loves." Yes, she has been seen at Ray Rice's side in press conferences and interviews. But Janay Rice is the victim and survivor.

The questioning of why she stayed with and wed the very man who threw a right hook and drug her unconcious body out of an elevator only shifts blame upon the victim. Abusers and their lawyers, even employers, wickedly navigate ways to maintain control and soften the blow of responsibility and consequece. A victim's economic circumstance, parental responsibilities, and simple uncertainty and fear about life without their spouse or partner (read: abuser) are frequently leveraged against them as yet another means to ensure power and control.

Ray Rice is the offender. Janay Rice is the offended. Let's not shift blame and play into the very hand of those who are paid a pretty penny to acquit the assailant. Even when and if she continues to defend her abusive husband. [Check out a Related Post on #WhyIStayed and #WhyILEft]

Addressed Only When Caught: This tweet says it all.

The NFL, like many institutions, organizations, corporations, and political figures, has a lot of dirty laundry. They don't like it aired out, but sometimes the public catches a whiff of the odor and only then do they consider possibilities for washing away the residue of responsibility or responding to social demands for change. We are naive to think the NFL is as innocent as we are, as though TMZ has more access to elevator video than a multi-billion dollar industry. Football runs this country from September, nay April, through the first Sunday in February. It's worse than corporate Christmas. It's time we held them accountable and said enough.

Which doesn't mean burning your Ray Rice jersey only to purchase a new one. The NFL would love that.

Maybe consider something like what this Baltimore pizza shop is doing with every jersey turned in- donating to a local DV Center.

Hold Athletes Accountable to Higher Standards: I know guys like Charles Barkley dismiss their role model status. I beg to differ. While my kids will be cautioned not use the likes of football players and celebrities as their unquestioned heroes, they still are public figures. When you are in the entertainment industry, you bear certain responsibility to your audience who makes your profession possible. And many of the fans in sold-out stadiums are children and youth who have instant access to off-the-field antics, too.

You are accountable. So are the teams and leagues who employ you.

Player conduct, even away from the locker room, must become a greater concern. And not only as a good business plan, although it probably is, but also and especially because it's your human obligation. Domestic violence is a very real problem that many children, youth, young men and women know all too well. We must have a consistent message from playground to fifty yard-line, high school hallways to casino elevators, violence is never to be tolerated. Victims of assault are never the ones to be blamed. We are forever on the side of the abused and offended.

This past Sunday I missed the Ravens game. Apparently I didn't miss much. Instead, I was at a fall kickoff event at our church where attendees could make their attempt to dunk this Youth Pastor in one of those carnival-esque dunk tanks.

Way too many succeeded.

Funds raised went to support the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County. We laid out a purple table cloth and gave away purple wristbands as a simple move of solidarity with those in our community who are victims, better said, survivors of domestic violence.

Purple was the color of my Sunday. And not because I was wearing Ravens gear, which may not occur again for a while.

Purple was the color of advocacy and awareness.

Maybe the Ravens should consider the same.

[updated at 11:00pm: Ravens Owner did just that and delivered a letter of apology and announce a partnership with local DV program and advocacy center in Baltimore. Click here]

Helpful Links Related to Domestic Violence

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Holy Crap, My Kids Are in Preschool: Annual Back to School Letter

This summer, my wife and I reached a new milestone in parenting. Some claim the event is a rite of passage. Others say the experience is the final nail in a coffin that burries your man card and any cool factor you may have once held dear.

I feared this looming possibility, nay, probability, [naively] convinced my cool factor was just beginning to peak.

So, like many dads, I tried to avoid the inevitible- not wanting to be forever-marked with the giant "M" sure to prevent me from being invited to future neighborhood BBQs.

Then the Hyundai died. Then I realized a family of (almost) five can't exactly cram into a Mazda 6. Then I got the needle and thread out and began to stitch the dreaded letter to my polo shirt now properly tucked into my dad jeans versus left free-flowing.

You guessed it, we bought a minivan.

We thought we were officially parents when the Twinado was delivered some three-plus years ago. That was before we started rolling up in the Black Mamba (my name for the man van) and pulling out our dual stroller and cooler of snacks from the automatic hatchback and dual-sliding side doors.

Now we are real parents.

And in just over a week we will reach another milestone- our kids will begin school. Sure, it is preschool and only twice a week, but they begin school nonetheless. We will join the fraternity of parents who entrust the care of our chldren's education and formation into the hands of other thoughtful adults.

This year we are going back to school, not as students or a youth pastor, but as parents.

And we have our own anxiety.

So while this time of year I typically write a letter addressing youth, this one is for parents. Not because I work with some of your kids, but because I have kids, too. I write as a parent not a pastor. I write in solidarity versus from afar. I write pleading for your prayers even as I offer my own.


Dear Back-to-School Parents

I write this letter because we just received one. We got that letter in the mail written in the same comic sans font I remember my preschool-teacher mother using in her mailings to parents. We got the letter not addressed primarily to us, rather to our kids from their first-ever teacher.

And we cried.

We didn't weep and sob, we just shed a few tears.

We cried, not because of what the letter said, but because of what the letter meant. It was a nice letter. Actually, it was a beautiful letter saturated in kindness and welcome.

But still, we cried.

We cried because the letter served as another reminder that our kids are no longer babies. Our children, like yours, are rapidly evolving into persons unprotected from this world that is a holy mess, a hybrid of sacred and painful wonder.

And we have realized in a whole new way the value of that hard little word, trust, and it's faithful companion, prayer.

We have to trust and pray for the parenting of others. We have made our humble attempts to raise our kids in the kindness of Christ, which celebrates the value of every person made in the image of God and called a child of the kingdom. We have to trust and pray other parents are seeking to instill a similar kindness that, while not always lived out by adults let alone preschoolers, enables children to co-exist within a classroom.

We have to trust and pray for our kids. We pray they become those kids who befriend versus bully, demonstrating they have already been schooled in peacemaking. We pray our children learn to use their imaginations as they practice the delicate art of love and compassion. We pray they are the ones who look after the kid others may steer clear of because of some sort of difference. We pray they offer kid-sized forgiveness when others don't treat them with the kindness they know to be good and right. We pray they receive the same sort of forgiveness when they fail to exercise kindness.

We have to trust and pray for other people's kids. We pray all children experience the fullness of community as they meet new people their age and begin to discover the goodness that dwells within us all. We pray for the circumstances that surround other children, some more difficult than others. We pray, should they not know of a caring environment at home, they would experience hospitality and dignity while in classroom or on campus.

We also pray for those children who, for whatever reasons, are tilted more towards violence and agression versus gentleness and love. As parents, we have all experienced the best and worst of what kids can be, so we pray for more of the former than the latter. We also pray for the ability to navigate difficult encounters our children may have with others. Even more, we pray for the ability to shepherd our children gracefully when they may be instigators of conflict with other children. We pray other parents are trusting and praying for us, too.

We have to trust and pray for teachers. We have to lean on those adults who have felt called to care for and educate young people. We have to trust their wisdom and giftedness as they uncover the briliance and creative possibilities of our children. We have to trust teachers are looking out for our kids' well-being and will ensure they are safe when we are not there to protect them. We have to pray teachers have the support and training to do their job well. We also have to advocate for teachers when they do not. We also have to generate opportunities to celebrate, elevate, and empower teachers so they know they are appreciated as they partner alongside us in the formation of our childrens' young hearts and minds.

We have to trust God, whose ears our prayers fall upon. We have to trust that the God who walked alongside us as we navigated the same hallways will also journey with our children. We also pray our kids sense that presence every day of their lives.

We have to trust and pray that presence is what they practice, too.

So as this new school year begins, which is a first for us and many others, I am trusting all of you. I am also praying for you.

I hope you will offer us the same.


Grace and Peace,

A Fellow Anxious, Excited, Nervous, Eager, Fearful, and Hopeful Parent


Related Posts:

2013 Letter:

What I Would Tell My Graduate: Letter to Class of 2014:

10 Living Hopes for Class of 2012:

2011 Letter: