Thursday, January 22, 2015

Life According to Trey: A Final Chapter in Youth Ministry

I have served in youth ministry for over a decade; twelve years to be more precise. The stories and witnesses to God's unfolding dreams for the world are endless. I have been moved and inspired by the faithful and prophetic imaginations of the youngest members within our congregations and communities. I have laughed, prayed, played, cried, traveled, served, and consumed more pizza than a Ninja Turtle (especially the orange one, Michelangelo).

Yet the season of youth ministry, at least as my sole responsibility and calling, is coming to a close. God has opened up something new and exciting in the days ahead. Stay tuned. So this past week I cleaned out my office, packed books, threw away old files, and clung to various notes and cards, reminents of some of my fonder memories of adventures in discipleship with teenagers. I also struggled with what to share with the youth of Imago Dei Youth Ministry in what would be my final youth talk. What I landed on was the final chapter to the collection of short stories we wrote and told together over the past year.

I developed the first of these little anecdotes while at a picnic bench along the Jersey Shore. Little did I know these stories would serve as an appropriate swan song dedicated to the community of teenagers I deeply love and admire. So here you have it, the final chapter to The Life and Adventures of Trey

( read previous chapters here)

Trey couldn’t take it much longer. Whether completing college applications, logging volunteer service hours, baseball practice, or trying to manage any semblance of a social life, Trey had started to think he was more stressed than his parents. And he was only a seventeen-year old senior in high school.

When people asked how he was doing, Trey frequently responded, "busy."

That didn’t seem right. Life had to be about more than busyness.

And recently, Cora was one of those more meaningful components of his life. Somehow Trey always found time for Cora. The two had really hit it off the summer after their sophomore year when they served with the Second Presbyterian youth group on a mission experience in Baltimore. Every time someone asked about them, they swore they were just friends.

That quickly changed. First, Homecoming. Then, Junior Prom.

The kicker, this past fall’s high school youth retreat and the infamous Emmaus walk. They somehow were paired up together and that’s when Trey asked her out.

Their youth pastor, Hope, was not surprised. She was, however, a little taken back when she discovered they didn’t actually talk about the weekend’s theme and the questions she had intentionally printed on one of the thousands of postcards she gave out at seemingly every youth event.

You know, the ones that had Lectio Divina on the back.

Trey and Cora counted one time. They had at least a dozen of these sandwiched somewhere in their Bible.

"Hope," Trey jested. "You really need some new material."

Cora chimed in, "Yea. And have you ever considered how many trees you’ve shredded with all of your clever handouts. You probably could sanction a whole forest and name it Lectio Divina Arboretum."

Trey looked at Cora, "high five."

Hope laughed. She was really going to miss them. While Hope had been serving in youth ministry for quite some time, God had opened up a new opportunity for her to broaden her ministry and serve in another ministry capacity in a nearby city.

But she hadn’t told the youth of Second Presbyterian of the upcoming transition. She was anxious and scared, excited and eager, but also deeply saddened by the reality that she would no longer be serving alongside such an incredible group of young people. It wasn’t that Hope felt they couldn’t carry on without her. Actually, she knew they could and would.

Hope was heartbroken because she was leaving behind incredible people, like Trey and Cora. Young people to whom the kingdom of God belonged. Hope was adventuring into new territory, some called it the "adult world," and she feared youth would feel abandoned and as if they no longer had a voice.

Hope also feared losing her own sense of imagination and curiosity in her new position. So she had an idea, be honest with her fellow disciples who happened to be teenagers.

Hope sent out an email blast and invited all the youth to the church for a conversation. But first, she knew she had to talk with Cora and Trey. And there was no better place to meet than at the local restaurant right across the street from the church where they had so many conversations before.

The first few years of youth ministry, Cora and Trey thought Hope picked up the tab on her own dime. But, now that they were seniors, they were on to her. She had a church expense account, so this time they had no problem ordering whatever they wanted.

Trey chimed in, "I always wondered why you wanted receipts. Just thought you were super organized."

Cora added her usual snarky response, "But now we know. You're just as cheap as a college student or high school senior. Or maybe just as broke."

They ordered their food and grabbed a seat by the window. Hope figured she would just dive right in and break the news. "Trey and Cora, it’s hard not to have favorites in youth ministry. But there are always a handful of youth who seem to really get it. Kids like you who have a level of maturity and authenticity that makes it difficult not to want to spend extra time with you and navigate what it means to follow Jesus with greater intentionality."

"Thanks for making it safe enough for us to ask the hard questions and be real. Not many adults allow for that," Trey said as he took a bite out of his burger.

Cora saw right through what was happening. She always had a knack for reading between the lines. "There’s a ‘but’ coming. I know it. We either did something wrong," Cora rolled her eyes, "or this is one of those break-up kind of conversations."

"Cora, I love your edginess, " Hope replied.

"I knew it. I was right. Here it comes," Cora muttered as she stole a fry from Trey’s plate.

"I have been offered a really cool position as a pastor in the city. It’s actually in the regional office where I will be able to serve alongside other pastors, help illustrate and broadcast their stories as they reflect God’s dreams for the world in their communities, and also resource these churches and related leaders with whatever they need to do what God has called them to do. I am pretty excited but also…." Hope was choking up a bit and had yet to look up from her plate. She feared the response of two of her favorite youth.

"Hope, that’s awesome!" Cora and Trey said in unison.

Trey added, "Wow! I am so happy for you. This is incredible!"

Hope looked up and was in awe. She assumed they were going to be heartbroken but instead they were some of the most supportive voices she had heard in the past few weeks.

"Thanks guys. Really, that means a lot," Hope responded, as she wiped away a tear.

"When do you start?" Cora asked.

"At the end of the month. It’s coming up quick and I wanted you to know sooner but I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. But here’s the thing, I need your help. What I mean is this, I need you to challenge me now as I have always challenged you."

Trey and Cora looked at each other and shrugged. They weren’t quite sure what she meant.

Hope continued, "Always remind me, never let me forget, that the kingdom of God belongs to young people. Never let me lose sight or become hardened to one of Jesus’ most beautiful declarations of welcome and inclusion. If I ever become so wrapped up in the adult world and begin to neglect the witness and work of children and youth, call me out."

Cora’s eyes, a little wet with tears, refused to let the emotion of the moment overtake an opportunity for a little whit, "I call dibs on the this, Trey. All over facebook, ‘Hope’s a fraud.’" She laughed as she added the air quotes. Cora was confident Hope would do well in her new position and fairly certain she would always have a heart for youth. And as Hope continued on, she realized Hope may have an opportunity to stay engaged in youth work but on a much more broad and supportive level for those in the city and surrounding suburbs.

Trey, catching his breath after taking a little bit of a big bite from his burger, chimed in, "Hope, it’s a deal. But it’s only a deal if you do the same for us. "

"What do you mean?" Hope asked.

"What I mean is we will need reminders that the kingdom belongs no only to us but also the generations behind us, too. We will need your encouragement to keep dreaming, questioning, engaging, imagining, and challenging the church to be who Jesus has called us to be in and for the world. You know, to put into animate all we believe to be true about who God is."

Trey took another bite, which was just enough time for Cora to chime in, "Like you've said, to be dreamers of God’s dreams, story learners and story tellers as we follow Jesus near and far. We will need to be reminded, even if through simple texts or blogposts, to carry our cross, practice resurrection, and have the eyes to see and the ears to hear evidence that God’s Spirit is alive and well even in our world so full of despair and conflict."

Hope was deeply moved, "You’ve been faithful disciples, my friends. I love it!"

Trey was not done with his own charge to Hope that had become a challenge to himself, "We must always remember those who are younger than us. We are going to be adults soon, the next youth pastors, mentors, and advocates of the musings and meanderings of young people. We are the Hopes alongside children of tomorrow. But we also must trust the voices of the older generation, those who have gone before us and journey with us in the here and now."

Hope now knew, as if she had any reason to doubt, the youth ministry and Second Presbyterian Church was in good hands as long as the likes of Trey and Cora were there. But she also wanted them to know one more thing.

"Trey, you got your Bible app open?" Hope asked.

Trey wiped his hands of grease and tapped his phone on, "Uh, yea, read it all the time, you know day and night, night and day," he said with a hint of sarcasm that Cora took as a bit of mimicry.

Cora elbowed Trey, "Suck up."

"Look up Joshua 1:9. It’s my favorite. I memorized it as a kid. Some people call them life verses. Maybe you have one of your own."

"Jesus wept." Cora shouted. "That’s mine. Short, sweet, easy to remember."

Hope laughed, but also couldn’t resist the teaching moment. "Cora, never forget to weep, to cry, to mourn with those who mourn. You are someone who is always aware of the darkness and injustice of our world. Never stop entering into the suffering of others. That’s exactly where Jesus is."

"Ugh, Hope, really? Even my sarcasm you turn into teachable opportunities. I’m going to miss that."

Trey found Joshua 1:9 and began to read from his phone, "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."

Hope shared a few thoughts, "Joshua was the one who followed after Moses. He was a young kid. Yet he was the One who was too build upon all Moses said and did and to lead the newly liberated Hebrew people from the grips of Egypt and into all God had promised."

"No small task," Cora remarked.

"Right. All the reason for God to speak these words to Joshua. He was sure to have fear, anxiety, and a bit of a sense of, "Who me?" attitude. Yet God’s promise, ‘I am with you wherever you go.’"

Trey made a connection, "And you’re saying God is with you as you go to this new place. Are you Joshua?"

"I guess you can say that. I am beyond nervous about what’s next, but I trust God is with me as I go into this new place much like God was with Joshua. I need to hear these words over and again. But that’s not all I am thinking." Hope looked at Cora, who seemed to have connected the dots.

"Trey, you naïve boy. This text is about us. We’re Joshua. A little pompous for Hope to imply she’s Moses, but..."

"I never said that, Cora." Hope rolled her eyes but could understand the potential for a lofty self-declaration.

"It’s o.k. When you look at it generationally, you are sort of like Moses. And we will be the next generation’s Moses. It’s a give and take kind of thing. But we need not fear, God is with us. Love it. It sounds familiar, too, but not sure why."

Trey swooped in for a chance at payback, "You naïve girl, God with us is the meaning of Immanuel. You know, the other name of Jesus. God with us."

Hope was soaking in how much Trey and Cora mirrored an old married couple whom she was partially responsible for setting up. "Yes! God with us. Jesus is God with us wherever we go. Trey and Cora, never forget that. As you live, love, serve, advocate, pray, and go wherever God calls you in the days ahead, be not afraid or discouraged, God is with you. The Spirit is with you. Jesus has prepared you. Even more, in all you do and say, point others to Jesus. In your studies, on the athletic fields, in work, play, service, and even relationships, direct others to Jesus, who is God with us and for us. It's all about Jesus, the One who is making all things new and right again. Never forget."

"You, too, Hope!" They both said together.

"Trey and Cora, I have one more thing to ask." Hope was still perplexed with what to do about sharing with the whole group. "What and how should I communicate what’s next for me and the youth ministry at Second? What do you think your peers would like to hear?"

Trey looked at Cora. Cora smiled and nodded as if the two of them were one in agreement.

"Just share what you told us. Everything you just said, say it again," said Cora.

"Yep, kingdom of God belongs to children. Be not afraid and discouraged, God is with us," added Trey.

"And Jesus wept," Cora winked in affirmation.

Hope breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought she would need to prepare something new and fresh, maybe something flashy as tribute. But really, all she needed to do was retell the raw and honest conversations that had been happening around tables just like this.

"I hope you guys will come and visit sometime, maybe get lunch on occasion. These conversations are too good to completely leave behind." Hope knew this was not going to happen as frequently anymore but hopefully more than never.

"Absolutely," Trey said as they got up from the table.

"For sure, because now that you are no longer our youth director you’re going to have to buy us lunch and can’t submit the receipt."

Hope smiled and laughed as the three of them headed out the door.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Kingdom Belongs to Children: Belated Reflections on the Dark Side of Epiphany

There's a dark side of Epiphany, the last of the liturgical twelve-day Christmas season. The reality is so dark that I am convinced I have buried the bitterness each January for most of my Christian life.

We rarely preach about this layer of the seasonal story intended to be holly jolly, where all is all calm, and not a cry is to be made.

If we are honest, as we head into the ordinary time sandwiched between Christmas and Lent, it's possible we intentionally avoid the tragedy on the heals of the wonderous encounter of three Magi from the eastern lands. If we didn't, Christmas would end on a sour note and linger far too long.


"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’." (Matthew 2:16-18)

This is not exactly a preferred bedtime story to be read to young children during this holy season.

While we laud God who chose to become flesh and take on the form of a baby, the incarnation came at a cost. The response to the Christ child by those thirsty for power, or anxious about losing the power they already had, resulted in mass genocide of the holy innocents who stood in the way of and were deemed infantile conspirators against an emperor who wanted nothing to do with shared or surrendered power and influence.

It's like something straight out of The Hunger Games.

And while Mary, Joseph, and the newborn king may have been able to escape to Egypt and find refuge, Rachel and her children throughout the neighborhoods of Behthlehem were not so fortunate.

Then I wonder, is this precisely the story Jesus' parents told him every year when they celebrated or at least acknowledged his birth?

You can almost hear Mary whisper, unaware of her prophetic wisdom, "My son, you are our beloved. You are God's beloved. Yet your entrance into this world created quite a stir and has not been as beloved by the powers that press upon us from all sides. Many have already died so you may live, children even. Young ones like you. Never forget your life came at a cost. Never forget the babies of this world, the children of Bethlehem. So live and love, even offer up your own life, for all those who have already had theirs taken away. And never forget the children of Bethlehem."

Jesus surely clung to the wisdom of his mother as much as he probably recited the lyrics of the song she sang while pregnant, "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly..." (Luke 1:52).

It's no wonder Jesus, the Christ Child now matured Messiah, forcefully spoke these words to his disciples who had become a blockade to little ones in their thirst for power and privilege:

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them,and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18-5)

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

Jesus never forgot the children. But do we?

I have served in youth ministry for over a decade and have been blessed by more than a fair share of first-hand kingdom encounters ushered in by young people. I have witnessed youth welcome strangers, donate their monies, advocate for causes of justice and peace, ask bold questions about the intersection of faith and current events, proclaim the good news from pulpit and through simple acts of service, develop mission partnerships locally and internationally, and even serve lepers propped up at cathedral doors in the middle of a market in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I have laughed, wept, rejoice, and been left in awe by the witness of the church's children.

The same is true when I consider my own circus of three. The best theologians I know are my two sons and daughter. Their trust and curiosity is second to none. They have refused to link boredom with the biblical stories and instead regularly find something new and exciting in narratives they've heard a hundred times. They even ponder and question elements of the story I have never once considered despite a seminary degree and an endless collection of mind-numbing theology books.

Our children understand empathy, kindness, remorse, and lament in a way my adult heart has become all too hardened with age.

And when their brother was baptized yesterday, despite the hundred-plus eyes gazing at them during a shared melody, they laughed, played, and danced around the font fully aware, or at least aware enough, of the sacredness of what was taking place.

All this is true because the kingdom belongs to children, lest we never forget.

So may our work in church and politics, home and community, schools and volunteer work, worship and witness always seek the welfare of the children.

Let the church dare to challenge the systems of injustice and the corrupt narratives of our culture that so frequently rob the youngest among us not only of a bright future, but also of a safe and life-giving present.

Let the faithful followers of a crucified Messiah carry the cross of compassion and advocacy whenever we encounter such despair that infringes upon the health and wellness of children and their families.

May we consistently seek to include youth and children in all forms of our work and worship, they have so much to offer and teach us.

And whenever God's people are tempted to place power, privilege, finances, and security ahead of the gospel of prophetic risk and welcome, may we hear the same exhortation of Jesus delivered to his disciples so long ago.

It's only then that the darkness surrounding Epiphany can be overcome by the light of the star of Christ, whose kingdom belongs to the little ones of ancient Bethlehem and wherever we are today.