Sky Ranch Pics!

24 03 2010

Last week I survived my first youth trip!  We spent three days at Sky Ranch in Van, Texas, for our “Leap of Faith” retreat.  I really couldn’t have asked for a better trip!  The youth were wonderful, the weather was great, everybody got along, and everybody had the chance to learn more about their faith as individuals as well as in small and large groups.

We did Low Ropes:

High Ropes:

And a Sky Ranch original…the amazing Jumping Pillow!

Another Weird Moment in Youth Ministry

24 03 2010

This afternoon, I arranged to have one of my youth counselors arrested.  And I couldn’t be more excited about it!

This isn’t what is sounds like, actually.  On Sunday night, we’re going to have a Progressive Worship Service that will trace the Stations of the Cross all over the city.  And I found out today that the city marshal goes to our church!  So he’s agreed to come out and arrest one of our youth counselors, which will be representative of Jesus’ arrest.  (Don’t worry — if this goes well, I will definitely be posting pictures!)

The weird thing was, as I explained to my mom, I really did feel a little bit like Judas must have as he conspired against his friend.  I was telling the marshal, “Her name is ……  She looks like …. And you can come arrest her at this time, in this place.”

Did I mention that I have the coolest job ever?

Winter Jam Review

22 03 2010

On Saturday night, we took a busload of kids over to CenturyTel for the annual Winter Jam concert.  The entire youth group had been excited about this show for weeks: when else do you get to hear 8 or 9 major Christian bands for just $10? It was a great deal, and promised to be a night of wholesome Christian entertainment.  But by the time intermission came, I was completely disenchanted by the whole thing and found myself turning to Jordan to ask, “When did I become so cynical?”

Maybe it’s because I’m saturated in youth ministry right now, or maybe it’s because it had been a really long week, or maybe the raging liberal is coming out in me…or maybe I’m just overreacting… but I was deeply disturbed by some of the messages that were being subtly promoted by this concert tour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that the organizers of this tour have the best of intentions.  And on the whole, the evening was great: the technology was well-done, the concert flowed smoothly, and I have a lot of respect for their dedication to making this Tour affordable for all.  But it is precisely because the concert was so well-done, because there was so much hype about the Tour, and because the Tour does in fact represent the heart of Christianity to nearly 350,000 teenagers across the country, that the flaws seemed so glaring to me.  So, if anybody affiliated with Winter Jam happens to read this, please know that I respect what you do and am making these criticisms in love.  In short, these were the problems that I had with my experience on Saturday night:

1. Racism, sexism, and homophobia.  Near the beginning of the concert, one of the concert hosts was talking about how you can use music as a form of outreach.  He used the example that you could give a Christian CD to one of those Asian women at the nail salons, because you can’t understand a word they say anyway.  Jordan and I looked at each other: Did he really just say that? Out loud? I really would like to believe that he walked offstage and hit himself in the head, wondering why those words had come out of his mouth.  However, I also know that the Bossier City stop was one of the Tour’s last, and everything was extremely well-rehearsed, even a bit canned.  He had obviously said those words many times before, during many other concerts.

Equally problematic, or perhaps even more so, were featured speaker Tony Nolan‘s comments during his message (and here I paraphrase because I did not write down his exact wording): Girls, imagine that you could own all of the clothing in the world.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Guys, we don’t care so much about clothing.  Or if you do care, well, then, I’ve got to be a little bit worried about you. (cue laughter from the audience)

Okay, I know those comments aren’t exactly at the level of Westboro Baptist Church.  But that’s not the point.  How many teens in the audience were struggling with their sexuality that night?  How many of them had already been marginalized or ridiculed by the church?  Why would you ever pass up the chance to show love to these teenagers and instead make a joke about it?  It is never okay to use people’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality as the butt of a joke…especially not when you are a leader in youth ministry… and especially not in a concert setting filled with thousands of impressionable Christian youth.  When you make the joke, then you are implicitly making it okay for them to go out into their churches and schools and make more jokes.

2. The Sinners’ Prayer.  This is more of a theological difference than anything, and I do want to be clear: it is not the prayer itself that I have problems with, but the hype that goes before and after it.  I take theological issue with the idea that salvation happens in a moment, but I also recognize that the organizers of the Tour probably have different theological leanings than I do, and that the inclusion of this altar-call moment was in keeping with their theology.  However, I take practical issue with the emotional and peer pressure that was put on students to “stand up if you prayed this prayer.  Come on, don’t be ashamed of your faith.”  About 30 seconds later, the speaker proudly proclaimed that several hundred  students had just made the decision to give their lives to Christ.  No further instructions were given to the students about what to do with their newly changed life, other than to stand and be counted.  I understand that they may have been short on time, but I believe they missed an opportunity to go a few notches deeper than simply “getting saved.”

3. The Mission Moment.  I would consider myself to be a pretty mission-minded person, and it takes a lot to make me criticize a missional focus.  I am all for creating experiences that challenge youth to get out of their middle-class bubble.  But I think there is a tendency in the Church to accept all things Christian as equally good, and that’s simply not the case.  As leaders especially, we must be discerning in what we choose to endorse and in how we choose to endorse it.

The featured mission organization was Holt International, an international adoption agency based out of Eugene, Oregon.  Tony Nolan spoke about his own experience of childhood abuse and said that he felt God was calling him to be the voice for children around the world.  His speech was well-done and moving.  Then, he brought to the stage his three-year-old child, whom he adopted last year, and let her speak into the microphone to say, “Help children like me.”  It was cute, for sure, but I do not believe there was any need for him to parade his child around and use her for his cause.  In 10 or 15 years, when she can speak for herself, that will be a different story.  But…maybe then she won’t bring quite the same cuteness factor onto the table.  Perhaps Tony is just a good salesman, but somehow I think I would have had less of a problem with the whole thing if he had just shown a picture of his daughter rather then handing her the microphone.

Then he asked the audience something along the lines of, “Do you believe God is calling you to be in mission?” (Who could say no?)  And the response was, “If so, then go down to Holt International‘s table and pick out a child to sponsor.  We’re trying to sponsor 200 children tonight.”  All these good, dutiful youth then streamed down to the table, ready to pick out a cute child.  Which is not the end of the world, I guess.  But I am puzzled by their choice of charities to support.  While I am aware of problems inherent in Charity Navigator‘s star-ranking system, I think it is worth noting that Holt International has only received two out of four stars and is not even included in several other ranking sites, such as the American Institute of Philanthropy.   Again, if Winter Jam is promoting excellence in all things Christian, then I believe they have the duty to think critically about the mission organization which they choose to promote.  And, I know this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I sure would love to see an event go deeper than “pick out a child that looks cute” and instead to engage deeper issues of philanthropy and mission.

Fortunately for us, the second half of the concert made up for the shortcomings of the beginning.  Tenth Avenue North was excellent, both in their music and their message.  Their songs all seem to speak to a deep sense of grace and healing, and I have continued listening to their CDs this morning :).   And the lead singer of Third Day came across as surprisingly authentic, recognizing the overwhelming consumerist nature of an event like Winter Jam while attempting to go deeper and challenge the audience to see into the heart that inspired their music.

As we left the Century Tel center and headed toward the bus, we were surprised by snow!  I guess, on the eve of spring, Winter Jam brought some winter weather to Louisiana!

Here’s some of our group on Saturday night:

Evolution of a Youth Program

22 03 2010

Tonight’s youth program was, unexpectedly, one of the best we’ve had this year.  It was NOT due to wonderful planning on my part…although I have been thinking about it for a while.   But the planning process itself was extremely convoluted, so I thought it might be fun to get inside my head and trace those thoughts (continue at your own risk!):

1. mid-February (as I create the March newsletter): Hmm…I need a name for the March 21 program.  What should I call it?  How about…”Games and More”?  That’s about as generic as it gets, since we play games every week.

2. the end of February: Games and More…hmm, it will be the last day of Spring Break, and we will have just gotten back from Sky Ranch.  How about a laid-back fun night full of board games?

3. a week and a half ago: Not so sure about board games.  Not everyone is as dorky as I am.  But, if we could create a life-sized board game to play, that would be fun!  Monopoly?  Too complicated.  Parcheesi?  No one understands how to play.  Clue? Maybe… (begins to work on a Clue program based on the Book of Judges)  This could be cool, but I think it’s too involved for next week.  We’ll do it later.  For now, back to square 1.

4. continuing in that train of thought: I like using the Bible.  I’m slightly uncomfortable with a fun night of games that has no point. What if I award prizes to the LOSER of the games, and we can talk about “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

5. Jordan walks in to my train of thought: Not a life-sized board game.  What about a TV game show??  Family Feud?  (And so I begin frantically sending out surveys to everyone I know)

6. last Thursday: Family Feud is a REALLY COOL idea.  I want to make sure I do it right.  How about I wait for another month or so, and really get it good?  Now, I’m back to square one…again… (frantically searches the Internet for ideas)

7. Back to my favorite youth ministry blog, Rethinking Youth Ministry.  What about the Upside Down Jesus activity?  Maybe we can challenge them to see the world through the upside-down eyes of Jesus…

8.  Remembers a youth activity I did in middle school that had to do with choosing people to go live in an underground vault while the world experiences a nuclear holocaust.  Who would you choose to carry on humanity?  I’m going to adapt this game into a shipwreck scenario instead of an apocalypse.  How does this connect to discipleship, and who Jesus chose to carry on his message?  The disciples were certainly not the most likely candidates.

9. Searches for more “upside-down” Scriptures.  Maybe instead of having them draw Jesus upside down, I can just give them an upside-down picture of Jesus as a take-home.

10. This afternoon: I stumble upon the Parable of the Banquet.  Perfect!  I delve into all kinds of exciting theological adventures as I plan out my message, and in the end, I abandon the “first shall be last” Scripture entirely.  And instead of “upside-down Jesus,” I decide to craft invitations to the banquet, that I will pass out tonight!

In the end, we didn’t have many games, either–we got so involved in the program and discussion that we only had time for one inning of kickball..and even my “message” was shortened into just a few sentences.  So “Games and More” turned into “More…”  And it was great!

Now, as I head into my “Teaching the Bible” class this week, we’re going to focus on how to write curriculum.  I’m pretty certain that this is not a method I’d recommend…but it sure worked for tonight!

Grace for Benjamin Linus

10 03 2010

Excuse the following nerdiness…I got sucked into the LOST phenomenon at the end of its fourth season.  Jordan made me start from the beginning, and I watched close to 100 episodes in a single summer.  And then, of course, I was hooked…for better or worse.  The show has become so ridiculous and so fantastical that I can hardly believe that I tune in every week…and yet, I have to know how it’s going to end!

Maybe it’s just where I am in my life right now, but I am watching the final season as one big metaphor for the Christian faith.  I think it’s the kind of show that becomes whatever you want it to be, so someone with different life experiences might see the whole story as a literary metaphor, or historical allegory, or science-fiction riddle.  But I’m pretty seeped in Christianity right now, so that is what each episode is screaming out to me. 

(The unfortunate part about this series is that you really need to have watched the whole thing to really get what’s going on…so as much as I want to create Bible studies based on the show, I also know that I’m never going to be able to force a Bible study group to watch all 6 seasons!  So I’m subjecting my virtual blog-audience to my ramblings instead)

For the first couple of seasons, Benjamin Linus was THE bad guy.  He manipulated people, lied, killed, stole, and ruled unjustly.  It got so bad that when one of the characters had the opportunity to kill the young Benjamin Linus…I really didn’t have much sympathy for the little boy.  After all, everyone knew what he was going to become!

And then the creators  of LOST began messing with their audiences’ minds, causing us to wonder whether Ben was a good guy or a bad guy.  Even in spite of all the crimes that he had unquestionably committed, I found myself hoping that, against all odds, he would end up as a good guy.  Even as he continued to lie and steal and kill and manipulate, for some reason, I kept holding out hope.

At the beginning of the final season, Ben kills Jacob, who is the island’s protector (and in my allegorical interpretation, functions as the “God figure” of the story), and the whole island prepares itself for a huge cosmic battle. 

In the latest episode, Jacob’s followers tie Ben up and prepare to kill him as vengeance for Jacob’s death.  Ben is angry — at himself, at the followers, but most of all, at Jacob.  “He didn’t even care that I was going to kill him,” he says.  “He didn’t even try to stop me.”

But Miles tells him this is not the case.  “[Jacob] did care,” says Miles.  “Up until the very last second, when you stabbed him, he was hoping that you would change your mind.”

Don’t you have to wonder what Jesus was thinking in those very last seconds, as the Roman guards were taunting him and telling him to save himself?  Was he giving us another chance, another chance, another chance…until he finally ran out of time?  Was he, too, hoping that someone would change their mind and stop this madness?

It is at this point that the Smoke Monster/John Locke/Satan figure comes to Ben.  He loosens Ben’s chains and offers him a chance to rule the island.  Ben escapes, but Jacob’s bodyguard soon catches up to him.  This time, Ben has the upper hand; he has found a rifle. 

“But where will you go?” asks the bodyguard.

“To John Locke,” says Ben.

“But why?”

Ben looks miserable.  “Because he’s the only one who will take me.”

She looks at him and turns back toward the camp.  “We’ll take you,” she says.

Grace.  A new start.  Somehow I had been thinking that Jacob’s death had somehow solved the question about whether Ben was good or evil.  Anyone who kills God must be so bad that there’s no hope left for them, right?

…Oh, wait. Maybe that’s our story, too.

What was incredible about the way the episode was put together was that, as a viewer, I desperately wanted Ben to find that grace and hope and rejoin the cause of what was right.  And at the same time, his character had become so despicable and repulsive that forgiveness seemed out of the question.

Amazing grace!  How interesting it is that Jacob’s followers have received the power to forgive, giving away grace with the same redemptive power as though it had come from Jacob himself!

Created to Create

8 03 2010

Yesterday morning I taught Sunday School to the junior high and senior high youth, all together. Our lesson was on the first creation story in Genesis 1, which was pretty familiar to everyone in the room. We spent some time talking about each of the seven days of creation, and then focused in on what God was doing on the sixth day:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

As we puzzled over God’s commission to humankind, I asked, “What do you think God meant when he said to ‘subdue’ the earth?”  Mentally I prepared myself for the competing ideologies of “creation care” and “creation dominance.”

“Making it tame?” someone suggested.

“Making the earth less chaotic?” said someone else.

I got really excited by this answer: it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was perfect.  It had both beauty and symmetry. Tradition tells us that God created the heavens and the earth out of a formless void…out of the darkness over the face of the deep…out of chaos!  In the very act of creation, God was making the universe less chaotic.   And so, the end of this story comes full circle: in the closing commission, God is inviting us to participate in His work in the world by making the earth less chaotic.  We are created in His image, so that we, too, can create order out of chaos.

I see creation as a process that is still going on in the world today.  And no, that’s not just my reconciliation of creationism and evolution.  I believe that God is still at work, creating us anew in each day and every moment.  That is both the promise that we have received…and the responsibility we have to uphold.

I do…

8 03 2010

We spent the weekend in Monroe watching two of our friends get married. The wedding was beautiful, and the music wasn’t half-bad either, if I do say so myself :). After perusing all the facebook pictures posted so far, I have to say that I think this one says it all: