Loaves + Fish = Great Idea!

13 05 2010

So I was reading the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, when suddenly it occurred to me … Jesus would  have been a great youth minister!

I mean, look at this model of ministry:

1. Free Food! It’s a well-known fact that teenagers (and college students…and well, maybe everyone) are 10 times more likely to show up when there’s free pizza.

2. Flashy Miracle!  I’m not saying that multiplying the food was a gimmick…but it certainly gave people something to talk about.  And really, it’s not all that different from ministries that give away iPods, or ministers who offer to shave their heads when enough people show up for youth group.  Bottom line is, we want our meetings to be absolutely positively cool enough for our students to talk about with their friends when they get to school the next day.

But the best part about Jesus’ model is that it doesn’t stop there.  The next day, when the crowd shows up again, Jesus has some sharp words for them:

You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.  Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.

Gimmicks and free food are fine…at first.  But if we never challenge our students to move beyond a superficial understanding of faith, then we’re not doing our job.  If we feed their bellies every week and never feed their souls, then something’s missing.   As we introduce them to the Bread of Life, the invitation is always the same: “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Creepy, yes? This is what happens when you google "Jesus pizza." From brandius.net

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Shortcuts in the Psalms

9 01 2010

At the beginning of the year, I started as the new youth director at First United Methodist Church in Bossier.  I’m so excited–I’ve spent the past week planning and cleaning and meeting people and getting everything straight.  We also had our first Bible study on Wednesday night, and we focused on Psalm 119, which is an interesting bit of Scripture for a couple of reasons:

1. At 176 verses, it is the longest chapter of the entire Bible.

2. It’s also an acrostic.  Those 176 verses are broken down into 22 segments of 8 verses each.  In each segment, all of the verses begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the psalm progresses through the entire 22-letter alphabet. (Don’t go looking in your English Bibles for this phenomenon–that is something that is definitely lost in translation!)

3. The whole Psalm — all 176 verses — focuses on the Word of God.  As you read through the whole thing, you join the psalmist as he meditates, praises, obeys, and keeps the Word.  What a fitting introduction to our Bible study!

We did not read the whole thing on Wednesday but instead broke into groups, and each group was assigned one of the 8-verse segments.  As part of our “reporting back” to the big group, each small group had to share the one verse that summed up the entire passage.

It was a cool experience.  The one-verse fragments served as a summary of the entire psalm, and together they made an interesting psalm in and of themselves.  As I reflected on the lesson, I wondered: did I do the youth a disservice by not reading all of the 176 verses?  (I don’t think so) Was it more important to hear the words of Scripture, or to understand the big idea?  (Both)  Could you really boil the message of a psalm to a single verse? (Definitely something to try)

Then today, I came across Jon Acuff’s blog, Stuff Christians Like (a parody of Stuff White People Like).  This past week, he started a new series of the Psalms.  For 150 days, he will read a Psalm and post one thought on Twitter…in effect, boiling down the Psalm’s message to 140 characters or less.

I can’t wait to see what he does with Psalm 119!





Getting into the Praise Habit

1 11 2009

I love the book of Leviticus!

Sometimes when I tell people this, they sort of smile and nod, and back away slowly.

I get it.  Leviticus isn’t necessarily the most “fun” book to read, or the most approachable.  It’s filled with laws, instructions for sacrifices, prescriptions for punishment, cleanliness standards.  (and a few great one-liners).  It gets up close and personal (and just plain gross) with details about bodily discharges, scabby sores, and mildew.  It’s easy to write off the entire book as archaic, or worse, irrelevant.

I love it anyway.

In the beginning of the book, God devotes a whole seven chapters to the Israelite’s system of sacrifice.  In true Levitical form, He goes into great detail: what kind of animals to sacrifice, how to choose the animals for sacrifice, what parts to sacrifice, what parts to give to the priest.  Apparently, this is important stuff.  And if God thinks it’s important, then we certainly should be paying attention.

But later in the Bible, God starts telling his people, “I hate your sacrifices and burnt offerings.”

That’s not so shocking to us today.  After all, we don’t go around sacrificing goats and bulls; yet we manage to worship God just fine.  It seems self-evident that God doesn’t need burnt offerings.

In the Israelite culture, however, these sort of statements were a big deal.  It would be like God coming down and saying, “I really hate the music that you play in church on Sunday morning.”

Our first reaction might be defensive — “What’s wrong with the music?  Our musicians are really talented, and they practice for the service to make sure they get all of the notes right.”

But in Psalm 50, God makes clear that they weren’t doing anything wrong:

This is God, your God,
speaking to you.
I don’t find fault with your acts of worship,
the frequent burnt sacrifices you offer.

But why should I want your blue-ribbon bull,
or more and more goats from your herds?
Every creature in the forest is mine,
the wild animals on all the mountains.
I know every mountain bird by name;
the scampering field mice are my friends.
If I get hungry, do you think I’d tell you?
All creation and its bounty are mine.
Do you think I feast on venison?
or drink draughts of goats’ blood?
Spread for me a banquet of praise,
serve High God a feast of kept promises,
And call for help when you’re in trouble—
I’ll help you, and you’ll honor me.”

David Crowder reflects on the psalm as follows:
“I would be so bold as to say eating barbecue and wearing the sauce on your fingers and face and a grin as big as Texas with the knowledge that Caps Lock GOD is at the center of this can be truer praise than belting this ‘song ritual’ that we have elevated to dangerous heights…We, like, the Israelites, often find rescue in the burnt offering and not in the GOD who is the source of all.  We find comfort in the song and not in the Comforter.  It is a subtle but necessary shift.  It is more difficult to find the Creator in a barbecue sandwich than in your favorite Sunday-morning song, but when you do, when you begin to find Him in all the stuff of life, everything starts singing.  Every moment breaks into song.  Every breath becomes sacrifice, and the songs become sweetness.  This is living praise.”

(Praise Habit, page 82)





Worship in the Storm: Psalm 29

22 09 2009

BK01Lately, I have lapsed in my Lectio Divina readings.  However, I recently discovered that my fifteen-minute break at work is the perfect amount of time to read a chapter from David Crowder’s book Praise Habit.  Then, I can meditate on the psalm as I return to my shirt-folding. Yesterday was my first day to implement this plan, and I read Psalm 29, appropriately enough during one of the worst floods in Atlanta’s history.

God‘s thunder sets the oak trees dancing
A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches.
We fall to our knees—we call out, “Glory!”

Above the floodwaters is God‘s throne
from which his power flows,
from which he rules the world

On Sunday, I attended a new church and through a series of events, ended up talking with one of the pastors for about half an hour before the service began.  She had just returned from a mission trip to Gulfport, Miss., where her group had done relief work for Katrina (yes, it’s still going on.  And apparently, UMCOR is the only remaining NGO in that particular area that is still receiving money to provide services)  She told me about a Catholic church they had visited in Waveland, Miss., whose gorgeous sanctuary had been demolished during the hurricane.

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

How eerie.  The first thing you notice, of course, is the difference in the church building.  But look again at the tree, and the way it has been twisted completely around.

The NIV translation of Psalm 29 reads, “The voice of the LORD twists the oaks.”

But what of the Message translation?  How can this transformation possibly be described with the word “dancing?”  That wording conjures up the image of a sardonic puppeteer-God who forces us to dance while we are, in fact, contorting in pain.  What kind of God is that?

To me, the Message translation highlights the tension inherent in worship.  Yes, we worship in freedom and with joy.  But true worship also requires that we recognize the omnipotence of God, and that fact can be rather frightening.  This is why Scripture tells us to “fear God:” not because we need to cower  in terror at his presence, but because we should humble ourselves and kneel before our God!

In the context of this particular Psalm, we (humans) are not the ones doing the dancing.  We are simply watching God at work, and responding by recognizing his power within the events of the world.  We are exhorted to “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.”

Here, too, I think we can learn from the example of Saint Clare’s.  Following the storm, they put up a sign that testified, with one simple sentence, the power of God as they had experienced it:

st-clare-sign





Morning Prayer

10 08 2009

from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Psalm 19:

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!
Keep me from stupid sins,
from thinking I can take over your work;
Then I can start this day sun-washed,
scrubbed clean of the grime of sin.
These are the words in my mouth;
these are what I chew on and pray.
Accept them when I place them
on the morning altar,
O God, my Altar-Rock,
God, Priest-of-My-Altar.





Sky-jewelry and God’s Detergent

7 08 2009

BK01I have heard criticism of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” Bible translation before, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind could ever question the poetry he creates within the Psalms.  I’m floored that he could take a passage as well-known as Psalm 8, and repaint it in colors dazzling enough to give pause to even the most seasoned of Bible-readers …  And that he could piece together phrases to describe the sky like “your macro-skies, dark and enormous,” or  “your handmade sky-jewelry.”

The verse itself is like an onomatopoeia (you know, the words that sound like their meaning? Pop! Hiss!  Whirr! etc.)  Except in this case, the poetic description of the vast universe has given me a heightened awareness of the “poetry” within God’s creation throughout the universe.

Is there anything more beautiful than God's own poetry?
Is there anything more beautiful than God’s own poetry?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before I even made it that far within the psalm, I got held up by the very first verse:

God, brilliant Lord, yours is a household name.

At first I was thinking of household brand names and began imagining the limits of Christian consumerism: God’s detergent perhaps, or Jesus Air Freshener: Smells Like Purification? (no joke, this one actually exists.  I bought it for Jordan a few years ago)

But the psalmist is talking about a different kind of household name.  He’s talking about — who or what permeates your everyday conversations?  Who do you talk about at the dinner table?  Whose life do you try to emulate?  Whose life do you follow, for example, in the news media (and I’m not talking about those tabloids that predict the end of the world)?  In short, how well have you followed the prescription of the Shema of Moses:

Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.

– Deuteronomy 6:6-9

I love what David Crowder says at the end of his own meditation on this psalm: “One attribute of habitual praise is that it is inherent in creation.  We tell the glory of God by our very existence.  It is unavoidable.  We can choose whether to amplify this or not.  We can choose to be moved by this or not.  Maybe we just need a simple book beside our beds that reminds us of who the household name is.”





Word of God, Speak…

6 08 2009

BK01David Crowder’s book Praise Habit has been sitting on my bookshelf for about five years.  I’ve taken it down a few times, to read through the first chapter or two.  But somehow I could never bring myself to finish it.  (And at just 155 pages, there wasn’t even that much to finish!)

It is one of those books that cannot cannot be consumed in a day.  Or two, or even three.  In this small volume, Crowder introduces modern readers to the art of Lectio Divina (or, “spiritual reading”), and he gives us 21 psalms to practice with.  Using the Eugene Peterson’s Message translation, he follows each psalm with his own brief meditation on the meaning of the passage.  But, as I am learning, the real “magic” of the book happens off the page.

Crowder describes the practice of Lectio Divino as containing four steps: READ (“immerse yourself” in the Scripture), THINK (meditate on what God is saying), PRAY (converse with God about what he’s saying to you), and LIVE (let the Scripture change you).

I had heard of Lectio Divina before, but somehow that last step had never been emphasized before; I’m sure that the best Lectio-Diviners consider it to be a given, but it certainly changes things to have the “LIVE” step spelled out.

Because, as Crowder notes, “Jesus was the first one to become God’s word in the flesh: ‘The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (John 1)’

There is a long tradition that associates the Word of God with life.  In Genesis, the word of God spoken across the surface of the deep becomes the impetus for creation, and thus, for life.

And Psalm 1:2-3 reads as follows (incidentally, Psalm 1 is also first in Crowder’s collection of Lectio Divina Psalms):

Instead you thrill to God‘s Word,
you chew on Scripture day and night.
You’re a tree replanted in Eden,
bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
always in blossom.

A tree replanted in Eden.  That’s beautiful, isn’t it?  That phrase evokes the idea of rebirth and of God’s new creation.  Something about meditating on the word of God brings that new life.  It is a way of living into the kingdom  of God and living in the way we were originally created to be (as Crowder says, living into our “genesis-shape”)

In all of our prayer and devotional life, I think we should be looking for the last step of the Lectio Divina: Live.  For those who have Christ, the Word made flesh, living within us, shouldn’t we be praying that God would allow his Word (in Scripture, in creation, in other people, in meditation, and elsewhere) to continue to be made flesh inside of us, too?