What I Want Them To Know

26 05 2013

Prayer request time felt especially heavy tonight.

A local teen killed herself earlier today: the second suicide to rock our community in two weeks. One of our youth’s brothers is on trial for murder this week. Another of our youth will be moving to Mexico on Wednesday. One youth’s dad is being deployed with the Air Force next week. And yet another’s grandmother is in ICU.

I offered up a prayer for all these, and more, wondering if my words could possibly be adequate.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)

In many ways, tonight was just an ordinary night. We played kickball, ate hot dogs, made homemade Icees, ran around, got sweaty, celebrated summer.

I think that life happens, MINISTRY happens, in the midst of ordinary moments: the spaces in between the silly games and the heartfelt prayers.

As I drove home, I wondered about the spiritual resources we are passing down to our students. How are we equipping them to cope with the stuff of life, both now and for the long term? What have we given them through youth group that will continue to sustain them after they’ve graduated? It isn’t as though there will ever be a prescribed formula for what to do when life gets tough…they need their faith to be strong enough to endure whatever life throws at them, but flexible enough to adapt to their own situation and emotions.

Here’s what I came up with (in no particular order):

1. I want them to know that our God is big. That there is nothing God can’t handle, including our sins, our doubts, our questions, our grief, our pain. That in the midst of all things God is working for the good of those who love him. And that even though he’s big, he is always with us.

2. I want them to be able to pray. We emphasize prayer all the time at church, but all too often we present it as a boring, dead discipline that we do because it’s good for us…like taking medicine or brushing our teeth. But prayer has so much more potential than that; it is our chance to encounter the living God. I want them to be able to offer short prayers in the midst of their daily, busy routines. I want them to be able to throw themselves at the feet of Jesus and express whatever emotion they’re feeling. I want them to know that they can pray even when they can’t find the words.

3. I want them to be able to search Scripture. I have found so much comfort through the words of Scripture as well as through other psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Instead of just waiting passively for us to tell them what story to read, I want them to be able to use the Bible as a resource on their own, so that they can find what they need when they need it.

4. I want them to understand and appreciate the power of community. I say this all the time: this youth group is not an ordinary group of people. You’re joined together because you have the same purpose. You’re here for each other because you love Christ, and that helps you love each other better. I want them to really do life together, and help each other THROUGH the hard times: bear each other’s burdens, laugh with each other, encourage each other, love each other. And I really want them to experience true community now so that they will seek it out in the future.

5. I want them to have hope. Faith, after all, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In non-religious terms, hope is “facilitating creative visions for the future” and developing resilience (Carey, 2007). I want them to know what God’s vision is for his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I want them to recognize that kingdom breaking into our world, to know that this is just the beginning, and to hope for what God will be doing tomorrow.

This is just a rough beginning. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What spiritual resources can we give our youth for when life gets tough? What resources have most helped you?





Planting Seeds

3 10 2011

Last fall, our youth group began an after-school ministry for middle school students who live in the neighborhood around our church.  I am long overdue for a post about the challenges and successes of this ministry, but on the whole, I believe the program has been a wonderful thing for everyone involved: the students, the volunteers, and the congregation.

From the beginning, we have involved high school students as volunteers for the program.  Last night after youth group, I ended up talking to one of our high school seniors about the impact of this program.  He wondered aloud what good we were doing, and whether our relationship with the kids will have any effect on their lives.

I said, “We see small successes all the time, but we won’t know the long-term effect for many years, if ever.  I think we have to hope that we’re planting seeds…that these kids will have a positive impression of the church, that they might one day remember their mentors or something we’ve said, or maybe they’ll be inspired to do something different with their lives.”

“There’s a parable about seeds, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“And in the parable,” he continued, “some of the seeds fall on rocky soil and thorns, right?  So even if we plant the seeds … if a kid goes home and his parents are abusive or addicted to drugs or whatever … then it’s like the seed falling on the thorns, and it will never grow.”

I was completely taken aback by this profound insight and the implications it has for ministry and education as a whole.  Teachers, of course, can only do so much; a child’s learning is dependent on many other factors outside the classroom.  And along the way, we plant many seeds that will end up being eaten, choked by thorns, or prohibited from taking root.

But we still plant seeds, and we never stop planting seeds… because we believe that every once a while, we’ll land on good soil.  And when that happens, it will produce a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.





Taste and See: Promotion Sunday!

16 08 2010

Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. are not the prime time to have deep theological discussions with high schoolers.

There…I said it.

And therein lies the problem with Sunday School. Combine sullen students, outdated curriculum, institutional white walls, and slightly difficult questions…and the whole lesson is sure to be a disaster. This summer, I’ve worked really hard to try and combat some of those problems. As far as the decor goes, I owe a giant debt of gratitude to my mom and sister, who really helped spruce up the classrooms with some colorful and whimsical touches. I’ve been formulating our fall curriculum to focus on the experiential aspects and practices of our faith. And today, I discovered that feeding sugar to youth at least helps eliminate some of the sullenness.

Today was our first Sunday School lesson of the semester, and our main Scripture text was Psalm 34. Specifically we focused in on verse 8: “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” I love that God doesn’t beat us over the head with statements about who he is (in fact, in our 90-day challenge, I’ve been surprised by how few descriptors are given! One notable exception is the refrain “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”) Instead, he invites us to come and see who he is…and how he is. He is willing to withstand our (sometimes harsh) scrutiny and even to risk our declining his invitation. And that, to me, makes this invitation all the more powerful.

So our Sunday School discussion focused on what it means for us to have an invitation like this. Are we taking advantage of this calling, or just mindlessly accepting what we are told? Do we, in fact, believe that God is good? How do we know this? Why do we believe this? If there is a good God, why is there evil in the world?

And then we moved into the imagery of tasting and food. How exactly are we supposed to “taste and see”? Does God make himself present in literal food? Are we supposed to eat the Bible? (Some say yes :))

On the altar I had placed a jar of honey, a loaf of bread, and a half-gallon of milk, and we ended our class today with a feast! As we snacked, we chatted about the metaphor of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” (the closest parallel we could come up with was the chocolate river in Wonka’s chocolate factory) and imagined what it must have been like to wander in the dry desert with the God-given promise of such a fertile land and abundant life.

Truth is, we all find ourselves wandering in the wilderness at times. And even though we may find it easier to say “God is good” during times of prosperity, it is during those times of weakness and pain and suffering that we most earnestly turn to God. And we are forever sustained by hope: by the promise of God for a new future, a new land, and a new life.





Wonder & Amazement

28 08 2009

prophetic-imaginationIn the sixth chapter of The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann juxtaposes several verses from the Gospels (a sample shown below, with a few more added in, for lagniappe):

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching.” (Mt. 7:28)
“The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mk. 1:22)
“The disciples were amazed at his words” (Mk. 10:24a)
“When [the Pharisees] heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” (Mt. 22:22)
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (Lk. 4:22a)
“But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” (Mk. 15:5)
“The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!'” (Mt. 8:27)
“Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.” (Lk. 9:42b-43a)
“People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.'” (Mk. 7:37)
“So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.”
“Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.'” (Lk. 5:26)

Here’s something cool: The word “amazed” appears 46 times in the Bible (NIV version). 36 of those times occur in the Gospels, with an additional 7 occurring in the Book of Acts.

And here are the patterns that I’m noticing, from Brueggemann’s list and my own concordance search:
1. Jesus amazed everyone: disciples, crowds, family, friends, Pharisees, and Romans. People responded in different ways to their amazement (some praised God; others plotted to kill him), but everyone was amazed.

2. Jesus amazed people with his teachings. Brueggemann wrote, “His teachings evoked radical energy, for they announced as sure and certain what had been denied by careful conspiracy.”

3. Jesus amazed people with his actions: healing, calming storms, raising the dead to life, ignoring traditional customs, eating with the unclean. His ministry was extraordinarily surprising; he did not pander to the ruling elite, nor did he hobnob with the religious leaders. Instead, he reached out to the poor, the broken-hearted, the sick, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. To the people who had never had reason to hope, he gave them a new future.

Here’s what Brueggemann has to say:

“His ministry evoked a passion and an energy that had disappeared in the old helplessness. Both his adherents and his enemies sensed the same thing: An unmanaged newness was coming, and it created a future quite different from the one that royal domination intended to permit.”

In true prophetic form, Jesus’ ministry on earth paved the way for the coming newness (brought about by his death and resurrection) by preparing people for that newness. Before opening the way for new life, he first had to equip his people with the imagination to believe in that possibility. He had to create room for wonder and amazement.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
– Isaiah 43:19





Prophetic Imagination and the Music-Makers

22 08 2009

I have long loved William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s  poem “We are the Music Makers,” but reading The Prophetic Imagination has brought its words to life in a wonderfully new way.   Here is the poem:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

prophetic-imaginationIn particular, sitting outside in the middle of downtown Atlanta on my lunch break, I found myself quoting the line “With wonderful deathless ditties/We built up the world’s great cities.”  Truly, with the skyscrapers of the city line, the overwhelming busy-ness and traffic, the people walking by with their laptops and cell phones, it seems that this culture and civilization as we know it will be here forever.  And maybe that means that I have bought into the lies of the empire.  All of it — the skyscrapers, the traffic, the schedules, the technology — is manmade, temporal, and subject to God’s much longer continuum of time.

By ourselves, we have built up these cities.  And in their glory days, in our golden eras, we trust in ourselves and in what we have created.  So when all of these systems and civilizations fall (as they eventually must), we are out of the habit of trusting God, and we cannot even trust God to give us a new beginning.  And despair sets in, a deep despair that is far away from the comfort of God.

There is a sterotype that people turn to God only in times of trouble, when they need something from him.  But Brueggemann goes even further, and makes the claim that those who have not trusted God before cannot all of the sudden change that orientation.

Yes, maybe we do start praying more when someone is in the hospital, when we’re contemplating a big decision, or when we hit rock bottom.  But, in those prayers, are we really and truly trusting that something will happen?  Do we believe that God is working among us, changing us, offering us a new beginning?  In short, do we allow ourselves the freedom to hope?

If we have spent our whole lives blocking out God, trusting in ourselves, and denying his presence, we may not even have the potential to imagine anything truly different.  We don’t know where to start.

And that is where prophetic ministry comes in: the prophetic ministry of energizing, of amazement, and of hope.

This is not just about the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who speak to entire civilizations at one time (although those are necessary, too).  This can also be a prophetic imagination that can penetrate every crevice in every heart.  It may well be the call of “everyday Christians” to speak words of hope into places of despair.   To our family, friends, and neighbors who are grieving or suffering, we can use our words and actions to proclaim hope and the possibility of new life.

And Brueggemann offers this caution to those engaged in the prophetic ministry:

“Hope requires a very careful symbolization.  It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future.  Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.”

Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathersSingingBird
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

(singing bird image taken from http://nativeenglishteacher.blogspot.com/)





The Lunatic Gospel: Genesis 7-9

5 08 2009

Click here to read the text of Genesis 7-9.

wood carving, from http://www.nakedauthors.com/

wood carving, from http://www.nakedauthors.com/

My Sunday School teachers had turned Bible narrative into children’s fables. They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it. They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity.

It took me a while to realize that these stories, while often used with children, are not at all children’s stories. I think the devil has tricked us into thinking so much of biblical theology is a story fit for kids. How did we come to think the story of Noah’s ark is appropriate for children? Can you imagine a children’s book about Noah’s ark complete with paintings of people gasping in gallons of water, mothers grasping their children while their bodies go flying down white-rapid rivers, the children’s tiny heads being bashed against rocks or hung up in fallen trees? I don’t think a children’s book like that would sell many copies.

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Trying to read these chapters straight through is incredibly confusing, mainly because it seems to be two separate stories squashed together into one at random points. Here is one link that seeks to separate them out.

“Forty days and forty nights” is such a recognizable theme of this story, and in fact, God warns Noah that the rain will last for forty days and forty nights.  However, there is this other theme of “150 days” that’s not nearly as famous.  We tend to forget how long it took for the water to recede.  And Noah must have been at his wit’s end, since God had never specified what would happen after 40 days.  Here’s what I think he must have been thinking (because I assure you, if it were me in that ark, I would be keeping track of days VIGILANTLY)

Day 39: This rain is showing no sign of stopping. I thought God said it would be stopping tomorrow. I just can’t see how that’s ever going to happen.
Day 40: Well, hallelujah! He did what he said he was going to! I can’t wait to get out of this zoo!
Day 41: I figure if we send out this raven, he’ll find the dry land and we can follow him.
Day 47 (ish): Ok, every day that I send out this bird, he keeps coming back to me. What’s that about? When are we going to be able to get out of the ark?
Day 50: I obeyed God. I was considered a righteous man. What did I do to deserve this? How long will we be here?

Edward Hicks' depiction of the text

Edward Hicks' depiction of the text

Day 55: God, why aren’t you talking to me? You gave me all these specific instructions at the beginning: how big to build the ark, what to build it out of, what to do with it. But I just don’t know what I’m supposed to even be doing here.
Day 65: I’m starting to forget what dry land would even look like.
Day 70: Maybe the raven’s just stupid. He keeps flying in circles. Here, let’s try this dove–he’s always seemed a little more intelligent bird tome.
Day 71: Okay, the dove’s back. What now?
Day 75: We’ve been aboard this ark for SEVENTY-FIVE DAYS. What gives, God? What do you want us to do now?
Day 77: Let’s send out the dove again.
Day 78: Dove’s still not back. I’m hoping that’s a good sign.
Day 79: The dove returned with an olive branch this morning! There’s got to be land around somewhere. Maybe we’ll hit it eventually.
Day 85: Still no sign of land. Tomorrow I’m sending out the dove again.
Day 90: Dove’s still not back. It’s been three days. Either he died, or he found dry land. I’m hoping it’s the latter.
Day 100: I can’t keep sending out birds like this. It’s not like they’re taking us to the land, if it’s even out there. God, I pray that you would take us to the dry land.
Day 110: Everyone is tired and cranky. Our clothes are soaked from day to day, and they’re falling apart.  We’re running out of food, my son has scurvy, and frankly, if I run into the hippopotamus on the stairs one more time, I think I might just jump off this boat.
Day 115: Is this God whom I obeyed even a good God? He killed everyone I knew, except my family. What if he just left us on this ark to die, too? I risked everything for him, but what has he done for us? Is it really even better to be alive at this point?

Steve Carrell portrays a modern-day Noah in "Evan Almighty"

Steve Carrell portrays a modern-day Noah in "Evan Almighty"

And on and on and on. God speaks to Noah a lot at the beginning: he gives him instructions, makes promises, reassures him of his innocence, and looks out for his family.

God speaks to Noah a lot at the end: he responds to Noah’s righteousness, gives him instructions, makes promises (and a covenant), and establishes a sign for the covenant.

But in the middle—during the flood, the darkest point of this story–God seems silent. Noah is left on his own to deal with the animals, to make decisions about what he thinks is best. It’s a huge responsibility, and I’m sure there were times when Noah questioned God and complained to him and wondered what the heck he was doing there.

And really, is this not the ever-continuing story of creation? It’s easy to think that God’s supposed silence means that he is irrelevant–or worse, non-existent. “Yeah, sure, he spoke out of burning bushes during the Old Testament….but he doesn’t do that anymore.” Even for the more devout who do believe that God speaks to them, there’s still a tendency to lose all hope during the darkest moments of our own lives.

We are a postdiluvian people!  We have the benefit of knowing the full story!  Noah didn’t know that there would be a rainbow on the other side of the flood… but we do. And whatever the floods around us today–whether personal or communal–that rainbow remains a sign of God’s covenant to his people and a source of hope for all of us.

(Originally posted 6/8/08 at http://thelunaticgospel.blogspot.com)