11 03 2011

This Tuesday, I began volunteer training to become a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate).  I knew from the beginning that it would be a tough process: CASAs are appointed to represent the best interests of children in foster care, typically those who have been badly abused.  I’ve quickly learned that “the best interests” of these children doesn’t mean that we will find a happy, fix-all solution for any of them.  The stories are convoluted and sad; and the best solution, obviously, would be to go back in time and prevent any of the abuse from ever happening.  It is overwhelming to try and wrap your mind around how many kids — just in our city! — who have lived with abuse and neglect as their norm.

On Tuesday night, after training, I opened up my Bible in search of some Scripture that might possibly speak to this 21st-century reality.  And I ended up in the 9th chapter of Ezra.  At this point in the story, Ezra has just returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to oversee the rebuilding of the Temple.  He’s probably dreamed of this moment all his life.  He is returning to his people’s homeland…to the most holy place in all of Judaism. But shortly after he arrives, he learns that the returned exiles have disobeyed God yet again.  Here is his reaction:

“When I heard this, I tore my clothing, pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat down utterly shocked.  Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel came and sat with me because of this unfaithfulness of his people.  And I sat there utterly appalled until the time of the evening sacrifice.  At the time of the sacrifice, I stood up from where I had sat in mourning with my clothes torn.  I fell to my knees, lifted my hands to the Lord my God.  I prayed, “O my God, I am utterly ashamed.  I blush to lift my face to you.  For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.  Our whole history has been one of great sin…and now, O our God, what can we say after all of this?  For once again we have ignored your commands!” (Ezra 9:5-7a, 10, NLT)

Of course we sin.  Of course we fall short.  It’s in our very nature, and it is written across every page of human history.  But there are moments when we catch a glimpse of just how broken we really are, and we can’t help but become overwhelmed by it.  At this point in the story, Ezra might as well be a visitor; he’s new to Jerusalem, and he certainly hasn’t had the chance to get married yet!  But instead of placing himself on a pedestal, he feels the burden of his people and takes on their guilt before God.

Ezra’s prayer is a one of brokenness, of communal confession, of compassion in the truest sense of the word, and of repentance.  As we enter into the season of Lent, I hope and pray that I would keep his words close to my heart.

Great Debates

10 03 2011

Last month, we staged two debates during our youth group’s Bible study.  These two evenings ended up being some of the two best Bible studies we’ve ever had…and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is.  Each week, we introduced the topic and had students vote anonymously on which position they believed was “right.”  Then, we divided them into two teams, assigned them a position, and gave them a handout that included questions to think about and possible Scripture references to guide them.  They spent about 20 minutes preparing their arguments, and then we held a 15-minute debate.  We tried to make it as “official” as possible, although there were lots of giggles along the way!! (One girl finished her argument early and spent the rest of her time smiling sweetly at the judges; another boy busted out his iPhone for some musical support).

Then, after all was said and done, we gathered in a circle and debriefed the experience.  We talked a lot about how people use the Bible to support their arguments, especially about pulling verses out of context.  We also talked about how the students had formulated their arguments and how that can be similar to how we form theology.  We talked about how sometimes, there is no “right” answer…or at least, not a black-and-white one.  And we talked about how the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience can guide us.

They had a lot to say: both during the debate and afterward. Every single person in the room was involved in the process from beginning to end.  Over the course of the evening (and without any adult prompting), each of them found a Bible, opened it, looked up various Scripture passages, read them out loud, and discussed what they meant.  That may not be a big deal for you more successful youth ministers, but that’s a rare occasion for us!

Click here to download the handouts we used: The Great Debates