12 03 2012

March Madness is here!  Sports pundits everywhere are offering up their best advice for the masses of people who are trying to create their brackets.  I’ve already filled out my bracket… it may look random to you, but I realized that I actually have a very elaborate system to determine my selections.  So without further ado, I now present to you:

Callie’s Super Scientific Guide to
Building a Better Bracket

Disclaimer: This method will in no way guarantee that your bracket will succeed.

Step 1. Always pick Carolina.  Just go ahead and fill in “North Carolina,” all the way to the center, “National Champion” slot.  That one’s a no-brainer.

Step 2. Eliminate Duke. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to expect Duke to lose in the first round every year.  So, the fun comes in deciding where they will be eliminated and by whom. This year, I’m upping the stakes and allowing them to advance to the final round so that Carolina can do the honors!  (Fun fact: Duke and Carolina have never met in the NCAA tournament.  Why couldn’t this year be the first?)

Step 3. Pick schools where your friends attended. Forget stats: always make your selections based on emotional connections!  If I know someone who attended a particular school, that school will almost always get my vote. Other strategies: schools with fun names (like Gonzaga), schools in fun parts of the country (Colorado State), schools that I’ve heard are having a good season (Kentucky), and schools that beat Carolina earlier in the year (UNLV) all have made it to at least the second round in my bracket.

Step 4. Be sure to pick a few underdogs.  All of the best bracketologists will tell you that the key to a good bracket is being able to predict the upsets. Usually, completing step 3 ensures that your bracket will already have a few upsets thrown in.  However, if you notice that your selections have been following the rankings for four or five match-ups in a row, then it’s probably time to pick an underdog.  I usually pick way too many underdogs, but I figure, at least I have a better chance of getting a few of the upsets right!

Step 5. Once your bracket is complete, check and see if you need to change anything. I think it’s in bad form to have more than two No. 1 seeds appearing in the Final Four.  If you accidentally make that mistake, go back and redo the necessary quadrant so that you can advance a different team.

And there you have it!  I’ve entered my bracket in Obama’s Bracket Challenge (yes, I know it’s a cheap political ploy, but it’s an ingenious one at that!) and the “Youthworker Movement” Group on ESPN (if you’re a youth worker, come join us!)

Who are you rooting for this year???

Mission “Because”: Birthdays and Basketball

12 03 2012

(See previous posts here and here)

If we are truly committed to a missional focus that elevates people over causes, then how do we, as church leaders, create opportunities for our congregation to be involved in sustainable, God-honoring ministry and mission? How do we “program” something when our goal is to transcend programming?  And, how do we get beyond the cause of the week into real discussions about the problems…and the solutions?

I don’t have answers, but I do offer up two stories from my corner of the world:

Souper Saturday crew

1. On the last Saturday of each month, our church cooks and delivers soup for more than 200 elderly and disabled residents in our community. Our youth are in charge of one “route,” where we deliver to the residents of a low-income retirement home.  The last apartment on our route belongs to a woman nicknamed “Tootsie,” who always stops our youth and talks to them for about 20 minutes.  They roll their eyes sometimes, but they understand that she’s lonely and probably doesn’t get many visitors.  Last month, Tootsie told them that her 82nd birthday was approaching.  One high schooler in our group put the date in her calendar and arranged for us to go visit on her birthday last Friday.  We brought her a cake, a birthday card, some flowers, and a few extra minutes of company.  It was simple and lovely and wonderful.

2. Our after-school program consists mainly of recreation opportunities and is somewhat separated from the rest of our youth group (although we do our best to invite them to Sunday programs as well).  But for the past two years, the biggest bridge between the “Tuesday” group and the “Sunday” group has been our church’s “spirit-league” basketball team.  We have mixed the two groups up on our basketball team; although the process has not been without its share of headaches and craziness, it’s been amazing to watch the youth form real friendships with each other.  Several of our high school boys have stepped up to the challenge of being role models for the younger boys on the team, both inside and outside of church.

I’m trying to figure out what lessons I’m supposed to be learning…but here’s what stands out to me about these examples right now:

1. Programs are a good start.  I don’t think we can throw out our programmatic models just yet.  We must create opportunities for students to learn, be inspired, and be challenged to go deeper.  Students can absolutely be changed by their experiences in service projects and short-term mission trips … and those of us who are “all fired up” about missions cannot forget how important it is to create “entry-level” opportunities for those who are not quite as comfortable yet.  We can’t end with programs … but it might be okay to begin there.

2. Relationships are essential.  We easily could have asked the retirement facility for a list of all their residents’ birthdays, and we could have started sending cards to each resident on his/her birthday.  That would have been a nice gesture.  But what made our experience last week so meaningful was that the youth took on the responsibility of an actual relationship.  Relationships help us stop thinking about people as “mission projects” and instead as actual human beings, created in the image of God just like we are.  I wonder if relationships are the medium through which we can escape the “program” box? If that’s the case, then we need to recognize what sorts of mission opportunities have the potential for us to build long-term relationships.  (Not that we should stop doing behind-the-scenes, no-contact types of mission projects, like packing food in a food pantry, because those projects are sometimes just what an organization most needs!  But we can recognize that different projects will have different outcomes).

3. Contextualization is also essential. At first I wondered: if we’re doing mission “right,” will our youth even realize that they’re engaged in mission?  After all, at some point, shouldn’t this whole “loving our neighbors” thing start to kick in automatically without our having to call it “mission?”  Well, yes … and no.  This process of “contextualization” must occur on multiple levels, depending on the maturity of the learners involved, but we can’t ever stop trying to understand our experiences within a larger framework.  For example: sometimes the basketball team boys become frustrated by the bad behavior of their teammates.  In those moments, we might talk to them about why their friends may be acting out, and we also re-cast our vision to remind them of both the reasons for the program and the goals we hope to achieve.  And the basketball program has also prompted some of our youth to ask hard questions about poverty, wealth, inequality, and racism.  We can’t shy away from these questions but instead welcome the opportunity to connect their experiences with the larger issues.

These are just my initial thoughts, subject to change at any moment 🙂   What do you think??

Mission “Because”: You’ll always have the poor…

11 03 2012

There’s a puzzling little story that appears in all four gospels about a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume.  As the story goes, the other guests are angered by her act; after all, they reason, she’s literally poured out her entire savings in one night!  Wouldn’t it have been better to sell the perfume and donate the profits to the poor?

But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

I’ve never quite been able to explain this story away.  It does NOT jive with my image of Jesus as a tireless champion for the poor and marginalized.  In Sunday School we like to put special emphasis on John’s version of the story, which criticizes Judas’ motives (he wasn’t really concerned with the plight of the poor; he just wanted to steal the money for himself).  But as much as I hate to side with the Bible’s ultimate traitor, I still think his question is valid!

Of course, there’s the theological explanation: we can’t get so wrapped up in “helping the poor” that we forget to give honor and glory to Christ.  Christ must come first, and mission must be seen as an expression of worship.

But in light of yesterday’s post, I wonder if there may be another, missional explanation for Jesus’ words.

Jesus didn’t just care about the “poor,” he cared about individual people.  In the middle of a busy crowd, he felt the touch of one bleeding woman.  He had compassion on two blind men sitting beside the street. He took notice of a widow placing two copper coins into the Temple treasury.

Perhaps, when Jesus rebukes the skeptics, he is intentionally contrasting “the poor” (impersonal, cause-focused) and “me” (personal, people-focused).  Maybe it’s good to give to “the poor” … but it’s even better to give to the individual people whose needs you are able to recognize.

In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes: “The great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Sometimes, like the lawyer in Scripture, we find ourselves asking Jesus, “Just who exactly is my neighbor?”  But we’re not ready for the response…because once we know who are neighbors are supposed to be, then we’re called into the harder, messier work: of knowing our neighbors and loving them.

Blue Like Jazz!

10 03 2012

Okay…after watching this trailer, I’m officially excited about Donald Miller’s new movie:

Here’s hoping it comes to Shreveport!

Mission “Because”: Cause vs. People

10 03 2012

I recently came across a letter written by Kelly Finlaw in response to the 2011 BuildABridge Institute:

i have come to the conclusion that there are typically two types of organizations in the social justice world … one type of organization does whatever they do “for” a cause.  in my head i label the “for” people as the legalists and associate them with very hurtful things.  things that i want nothing to do with.  there is an agenda and right and wrong and black and white and not much room for anything but their own ideas.  if you disagree with whatever they are selling then it is an attack on the “for” and consequently, an attack on them.  one brief example – one of the presenters through buildabridge told her story of using music as therapy with palestinian children inside the separation wall in bethlehem.  her research was phenomenal and fascinating.  but when she was done and came home and began to tell her story she encountered people that didn’t understand why she went to the middle east and worked with palestinian children instead of israelis.  i put the people that questioned her in the “for” category.

then there is “because” type of organization.  they do things “because” of the need that they see and the love within them.  they live in the middle with open hands.  anyone can come and join and serve the need.  anyone can agree or disagree and it’s not offensive.  no agenda.  just service to the needy “because” love spills out of them.

There are probably other ways to describe this dichotomy, but semantics aside, Kelly’s distinction is an important one to make.  When we do things for a cause, we constantly must wonder if we have picked a worthy enough cause.  When we do things because of people, there’s no need to wonder.  People are always worthy of love.

Don’t get me wrong: causes can be both important and effective. They can put the stories of individual people into a larger context. They can help us ask hard questions. They can point out systemic injustices. And sometimes they can give us the social impetus to move forward.

But if our justice work is not rooted in real relationships, then we often find ourselves chasing a lost cause.

One of my friends has worked in an African orphanage; another advocated to save the Argentinian rainforest; another is helping free sex slaves in Thailand; several others work for Teach for America/Americorps…and the list goes on.  And when you’re stuck in a “cause” mindset, it’s easy to play the comparison game: is my cause good enough?  are my efforts as noble?  am i really making a difference?  is it worth it?

But then I remember each one of the kids that has wormed their way into my heart over the past two years (right here in the very same city where I grew up!) and I remember why I do what I do.  It’s because of them.

And because he first loved us.

Of course, there’s always more work to do. And I think it’s vitally important to educate ourselves about global — and local — issues of social justice, and to be involved on both a global and local level.  I’m just saying, don’t pick your ’cause’ because of someone else’s ‘people.’   And don’t denigrate anyone else’s efforts (or your own!) because they seem small.  As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

And as Jesus himself once said, “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”

Stations of the Cross: Year 1

5 03 2012

As we gear up for our third annual Stations of the Cross worship service, I thought I’d take a look back at what we’ve done in previous years.  During the first year (2010), we simply started with the question, “Where would Jesus go if he lived in Bossier City, Louisiana?”  And so we found modern-day parallels for the events in the Gospel of Matthew: Mardi Gras parades symbolized the original palm parade, and the parsonage served as our “Upper Room.”  Along the way we passed out both Mardi Gras beads and Fig Newtons.

The highlight of the evening: we  colluded with the city marshal (also a member of the church) to stage the arrest of one of the youth counselors.  It was all great fun until the police cars pulled up, and we realized, for the first time, how everything might look to other people in the park. Our buses were in the parking lot with our church’s name plastered across the side, but to my knowledge, no one ever called the church to inquire. (And since we had already been to the pastor’s house that night, he was in on the stunt!)

The “arrested” youth counselor was a high school teacher, and some of our kids posted information about the evening to their facebook statuses … long story short, she ended up in the principal’s office the next morning.  Fortunately, her principal has a good sense of humor and actually commended her for making the story of Jesus more exciting for young people!

Here’s our template for the evening, complete with Scriptures, readings, and materials/set-up information.  Feel free to use and adapt for your own context…and let me know how it goes!

Download here: 2010 Stations of the Cross


5 03 2012

Jesus is nailed to the cross: photo and art by Scott Erickson

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

– Romans 12:1

Scott Erickson, artist-in-residence at Ecclesia Church in Houston, recently designed a set of 10 tattoos corresponding with various Stations of the Cross. Chris Seay, Ecclesia’s pastor, joined more than 75 congregation members in getting one of the tattoos as part of their Lenten observance this year.

Now, I’m not a tattoo person at all, but I kind of love this.  This project has brought together an ancient liturgical practice with a new, urban art form…and has done so in an incredibly tasteful, creative, and beautiful way.  In his write-up of the gallery opening, Erickson mentioned that “about 30 of the tatooees showed up and were the actual living ‘Stations of the Cross.'”  It gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of what it means to “live out” your witness! (Click here to see all of his designs…they’re so neat!!)