Why Youth Ministry Needs Lent

 It’s here! That time in the church calendar when people are posting on social media about giving up chocolate, Diet Coke, and Facebook for 40 days (well it’s more like 46 days but Sunday’s don’t count, but that doesn’t mean you can cheat.  Remember God is watching!).

I was involved in an exchange today in a Facebook youth ministry group regarding Lent.  It went something like this:

Him: What is your reasoning for doing lent? I do not participate but am curious as to your answers and how you explain it to your teens.

Others: We don’t do Lent either, we’re Baptist. Blah, blah, blah. That’s too Catholic for us. Blah, blah, blah. Lent is too hard for students to understand.

Me: Is this a serious question? Lent is part of the church calendar. A time of preparation leading up to Easter. A way for us to focus on Christ in a way similar to his 40 day experience in the desert. Ignoring Lent and only focusing on “happy” parts of the church year is a diluted version of the Gospel. And a diluted version of the Gospel isn’t the Gospel at all. It’s just you and not Christ. Do you not observe Easter or Christmas? What about Advent?

Once again, my lack of filter might have stirred the pot a little bit more than I had anticipated or desired.

I find it interesting and frightening that throughout youth ministry theology is being removed.

We want to have a relationship with students, to be their friend, and then maybe talk about Jesus a little bit.  You know, just enough to say we did but not enough to engage in thought provoking questions or even questions we might not know the answer to.

There’s a say, “Theology is the part of religion that requires a brain.”  It’s like we’ve removed the brains from youth ministry and are just running on Red Bull, Dodgeball, and raging hormones.

 

Youth Ministry Needs Lent

There, I said it.

Youth ministry needs Lent because all throughout the year students are being told that Jesus loves them, they should love Jesus, and that because of that love they have a responsibility to represent Jesus in everything they do.  Well, part of the responsibility of representing Jesus includes remembering that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.  And those 40 days included fasting and temptation.  When we participate in the act of fasting as a preparation for Christ’s journey to the cross we are focusing on Christ rather than the chocolate, Diet Coke, or Facebook posts that are distracting us from Jesus.

But are those things really distracting our teenagers from Jesus?  Or is it things like the pressure of performing perfectly in school or on the soccer field? Maybe it’s the family practice of skipping church without batting an eyelash but then never missing The Walking Dead on Sunday’s at 9:00 PM.

Youth ministry needs Lent because Lent provides us with 40 days (46 really) to build spiritual disciplines.  And believe it or not, in a world where youth ministry involves more dodgeball, food, and video games than Jesus we need spiritual disciplines.

We, youth ministry, needs Lent because we’ve dropped the ball.  We’ve reduced spiritual practices to little more than saying your prayers before going to sleep and ‘liking’ the daily devotion post on the youth group Instagram page.

Why the Missional Church Needs Theology

missional-churchOver the past few months I have spent a lot of time reading about the missional church. All of this reading and studying is part of my plan (and my wife’s earnest plea) for me to finish my work at Wesley Theological Seminary in a few months. Most recently I have been reading Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder. One thing that has really stuck out to me is why missional communities, that is to say missional churches NEED to have at the very least a basic understanding of missional theology.

One characteristic of the missional church that has really stood out to me this week is that in the missional church’s theology and practice it is adaptive, innovative, and creative instead of being resistant to innovation and change. In order to be adaptive and innovative in the community it is serving, the missional church must look at the context in which it is working.

Missional communities can only effective operate when they operate within the context of their particular community. Not the community of an author or another missional community. It must operate within the context of the neighborhood, the street, or even the block in which it serves. No common program or agenda will work in every community. No particular way of sharing the Gospel will work in everyone community. And there is no “right” way to engage in the work of the missional church.missional communities

At it’s very core, the missional church is being led by the Holy Spirit.

You know, the Holy Spirit. The third-wheel of the Trinity that is often ignored or forgotten about by. Being guided by the Holy Spirit, the missional church (and the church in general) has the ability to not just present a more caring or loving way of life but also a completely alternative outlook to the way in which we all live in community with one another. The missional church has the ability to move neighbors beyond saying a disingenuous hello when taking the trash out. Neighbors can begin to not only live next to one another but they cal also live with and care for one another.

Throughout the New Testament we read about sacrificial living, mutual love and support, and holiness. All of these things have a place and are essential to the missional church. Sacrificial living puts your needs and the needs of the entire community over mine. Mutual love and support places me into relationship with you. Caring for one another not because it’s just a nice thing to do but because it is the Holy Spirit which leads us and it is our brotherhood created by Christ that is at the center of our relationship. And both of these things are done with the knowledge we can only grow in our relationship to Christ and towards Christian perfection if we seek holiness together.

The missional church and missional theology is not the seeking of salvation on our own for ourselves. Rather it is a mutual love and affection, connected through Christ, which leads us towards not only a great relationship with our Creator but also towards the fulfillment of God’s reign here on earth.

Without a basic understanding of why the missional church does what it is doing the church has the potential to be reduced to a group of good people doing good work in the community instead of a church promoting “compassion, justice, and peace” (Guder, pg. 142). And doing good works as good people is not wrong at all. That is what many churches are doing today. They go out into the community to do something nice and then retreat to the safety of their social halls and classrooms.

The missional church is different. When led by the Spirit, it has the ability to not only enact great change in the community but at the same time proclaim the Gospel in such a way that compassion, justice, and peace become a natural goal in everything the community does.missional_church

Dear Liberty University Student


A few days ago I was sitting in my favorite worn-in brown leather chair in my favorite corner of my favorite Starbucks.  Being less than a 1/4 mile from my house and it’s distance from my church office, this Starbucks has turned into a second office.  A place where I can sit at a large community table with my Bible, commentaries, and books.  A place where conversations are light, never too heavy, and where the baristas know my order when I walk in the door.

As I sat in my chair I could not help but notice the college student who walked in. It was still that weird time of year when college students are home with not much to do other than hangout in Starbucks or hangout with Netflix.

shutterstock_92015645He was wearing what was a stereotypical young pastor outfit: hip shoes, professional shirt and tie, and trendy cardigan.  He paced anxiously as he waited for the girl he was meeting.  I knew who he was before he sat down to visit with his high school crush and begin to reminisce about the good old days (less than 6 months ago).

I checked out of their conversation and back into my book.  Headphones on with Welcome Wagon strumming away in my ear, I am usually in my own little world, pausing frequently to jot down notes in my notebook or to get up and go to the bathroom (I seriously have the bladder of an 80 year old man).  But when I heard that not only was young hip soon-to-be pastor guy a student at THE Libetry Unversity and that he was changing his major from architectural engineering to theology I perked up.  He explained as he strutted his stuff to his high school crush that after leading a group Bible study he knew he was called to ministry.  In my mind I was thinking ‘good for you, just run away from Liberty’.

The news of his new found call to ministry caught his crush by surprise.  She blurted out, ‘well I will be your toughest conversion.’  She was referring to the fact that she was an atheist.  ‘Good luck lover boy’ I thought to myself.

When Chris Tomlin began playing on the Starbucks speakers I took it as a sign from God that my time of eavesdropping was over and it was time to get back to work.  Headphones on. Nose in book. Pen furiously jotting down notes and journaling.

Then it happened.

He said, ‘I am taking a class called Christian Apologetics next semester.’

‘What in the world is that about?’, she asked.

‘It’s a class that confronts our societies obsession with the homosexual agenda’, he asserted.

Before I knew it, or even realized I was doing it, my headphones were ripped out of my ears and I was interrupting his attempt to woo his would be first convert.

‘What are you talking about?’, I blurted out (at least I hope I didn’t say a bad word in there, it’s not out of the realm of possibility).

And that’s where it went down hill.

I informed him that Christian apologetics was more than just a reaction by the church to the ‘homosexual agenda’.  I was unaware that equality was an agenda that needed to be fought against by the church of all groups.

I told him, probably not as eloquently as I should have, that the only group that seems to be obsessed with the homosexual agenda are institutions like Liberty University who refuse to even fathom that God’s grace is freely available to all people, regardless of what brother Jerry is telling them at convocation.

rainbow_window_cross01 - 600 pxAnd the idea that he was taking a class solely devoted to the homosexual agenda as a preparation for ministry is missing the Good News of the Gospels entirely.

I took a breath.

I realized what was going on.

People were beginning to stare.  Here I am, the new youth pastor of the local Methdoist flavor of the church confronting the aspiring 18 year old pastor who attends the epicenter of Convserative Evangelical values in a very public forum.  All the while his high school crush was standing by waiting for his response while he sat there with his Warby Parker glasses and deer in the headlights look.  This would have been the perfect opportunity for a conversion right?

I went back to my book, popped my headphones back in, and went back to my work.  30-40 minutes passed, I packed up my Apple products and headed home.  As I left I wished my newly minted theology buddy the best of luck in his ministry and that I hoped I’d see him around so we could continue the conversation (which in hindsight wasn’t really a conversation).

I got home and I thought about what happened.  I talked with Allison about it and I think I owe this guy a follow up.  Because it wasn’t my finest hour and I probably won’t see him again this is the only forum I have.

So here goes:

Dear Liberty University Student,

I’m sorry my emotions got the best of me and I acted, mostly likely, like an ass.

I apologize for screwing up your date and hopes of a winter break fling with your high school crush (are flings allowed at Liberty?).

I really do wish you the best in your ministry.  The church is hurting right now.  We are so divided on who to allow in the church, who can love or marry who, and even who is allowed to lead the chuch.  Let’s not let those divides determine who we will share the Good News of Jesus with. 

If you want to convert your Atheist crush, to share the grace and love of God in a meaningful way to her, trying starting with that and not with what the church is against (or is still figuring out).

If our paths ever cross again, the coffee is on me.  I promise to be a better listener.  I promise to share the Good News rather than preach.

Sincerely,

Teer

PS – When I say the coffee is on me, I mean a drip coffee or Americano.  Not that $5.00 Frappuccino you were drinking.  If you’re going into ministry, you need to just accept that high priced coffee drinks are not in your future.

A Time To…

There are 1.59 billion, billion with a ‘b’, users on Facebook. 1.59 billion people making up the world’s largest online community. Every month 1.59 billion people share pictures of grandchildren, their latest thrift shop find, the latest snowfall totals, and even pictures of cats doing cute cat things (don’t believe me? Just check out Pastor Tim’s Facebook profile).

There’s a lot of upside to Facebook. There really is. I know some in the room might view social media as a waste of time or as a watered down reality. But Facebook has allowed many of us to reconnect with childhood friends, family, and even stalk people who in real life we would never talk to. If you’re not convinced yet, just know that teenagers, the students I work with on a daily basis very much view Facebook as an integral part of their lives. While it might just be virtual to you, it is very much so reality to them.

 

Facebook is a place where we share our joys – videos of our children walking for the first time, maybe meeting a celebrity in a hotel lobby, or sharing with the world the spread of loot we received on our birthday or Christmas morning.

 

Facebook is also a place where we share the lower points in our lives – the newly discovered illness, the loss of a job, and even car accidents. When dating relationships go south and sides are chosen online it can lead to very volatile (and real) situations.

 

Facebook is a place where we can share the best and the worst that life throws at us.

 

Our reading this morning from John’s Gospel has everything a Hallmark Channel drama needs: sickness, a friend who delays going to see the ill, fear of a dangerous journey, death, despair, anger, crying, and then just as you get back from a dramatic commercial break a restored life.

 

When Jesus is first told about the illness that has overcome his friend Lazarus he does not spring to his feet, quickly or frantically rearrange his schedule like we might do, and then take off in a guy to go see his ailing friend. And this delay goes unexplained. Jesus doesn’t say why he is staying. All he says is that the “illnesses does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”

 

When Jesus decides it is time to go see his friend, two days after receiving news of his illness, fear overcomes the disciples. They are afraid because they had just left the place to where they were returning. We heard about this just last week. “The Jews took up stones again to stone Him (John 10.31)…Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands (John 10.39).” It’s no surprise then that the disciples question the logic of Jesus wanting to go back there. First century stoning’s were a big deal and if you were on the receiving end of those stones life looked pretty bleak.

 

By returning to place they had just ran from, the stakes are being raised. And we end up finding out that Jesus has sealed his fate by returning.

 

When they arrived Lazarus had been dead for four days. The body prepared and already placed into a tomb. When they arrive, Jesus and the twelve, Martha greets them not with signs of love and compassion that you might show to someone who just found out their friend had died but instead her despair and griefs comes out in full force: “if you (Jesus) had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus reminds Martha that he “is the resurrection and life”, a line that most funerals today begin with, reminding Martha and everyone around him that new life is found in him.

 

We then move to Jesus visiting Lazarus’ tomb, the equivalent of us today visiting the grave of a lost friend who we were too late to say goodbye to. Jesus begins to weep. Not just cry but weep. Weeping seems to me to be similar to crying but with more emotion. Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, Immanuel, the Light, the Son of God is visibly disturbed being in the presence of death.

 

When we see Jesus crying, deeply moved and angered in spirit, we have to, we must remember that Jesus while being fully human was fully divine too. Meaning, that God is weeping when faced with death. God is angered by death. God is deeply moved when faced with death. Sin has a power over us that since the garden has led to death, and still God cannot come to terms with the power sin has over us.

 

Jesus calls out to Lazarus to come out and then the four day dead man walks out, still bounded by the strips of cloth that had been used to prepare his body for burial.

 

This must have been a dramatic scene. Imagine, all of the emotions of Lazarus’ loved ones. The weeping, despair, and anger towards Jesus. And then Jesus is like, not today. Lazarus come on out. Take off those bands of cloth. Take off your funeral garb.

 

I am uneasy reading this scene sometimes. I am uneasy reading it because death is not exactly something I have dealt a lot with. I’ve been blessed to be able to count the number of funerals of family members I’ve attended on one hand. I can fill out the other hand with funerals for friends’ family members, church members, and a work colleague. In each of those instances, being faced with death I’ve never known how to react. Even in seminary there’s no class that teaches you how to deal with death. I mean I can tell you the theological significance of how death is not the finale. I can tell you what you’re supposed to say to the family, immediate and extended, and even how to deal with that crazy uncle who might get a little loose in the tongue during a eulogy.

 

But still, death when faced with in a personal way makes me uneasy.

 

This past December my grandfather finally succumb to a long battle with multiple illnesses. My grandfather, Sonny as many called him, was a ‘man’s man’. He served in the Army, could literally fix anything you put in front of him, could belt out a hymn better than anyone in the choir, and even didn’t have a problem confronting a preacher who had, ‘no _______ idea what they were talking about’ or who was too long winded during a service that was to be followed by a church potluck. And yet when he passed away last month, I didn’t know what to do.

 

My lifelong Methodist background, years and years of Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, small groups, and even seminary did not prepare me with how to respond to death. Which is odd if you think about it. The endearing term Methodist was originally a derogatory label because of how structured and regimented John Wesley’s approach to spiritual formation seemed. Everything about our church is organized and structured. Everything from nominating church leaders, the structure of our local church, and even the global Methodist infrastructure is regimented. But when it comes to death, we have no protocol. There is no handout or book from Cokesbury that says here is how you mourn. Many Methodist pastors and leaders have written books on the subject, but from the denomination with method in its name, we get nothing.

 

This is where Facebook comes in. While my grandfather was sick family members would post on social media updates about Sonny’s ups and downs before my mom or grandmother could pass the information along to us. This made it nerve wracking for me to sign in online. My job depends on me being online to connect with students and their families. And when he did pass away, my first instinct was to get a hold of my sister who lives in China to make sure she knew about Sonny before a rogue second-removed cousin shared the news online.

 

In the age of instant updates and news, often our first instinct is to post what we are feeling or experiencing. Maybe you don’t do it personally, maybe you’re one of the few who are able to filter what is appropriate to share online and when it’s appropriate to share, but the vast majority of those who are connected online do not know how to filter the what to post and when to post it.

 

Unlike Jesus, who always seemed to be focused on the present, what was right in front of him at the time, we have a hard time dealing with what is right in front of us. Like in our reading today. Jesus learned of his friend’s illness and yet he stays two days and waits.

 

So we escape. We post things online that solicit a response from those recently reconnected childhood friends or strangers who always seem to like our cat photos. We are so distracted by the dings and tweets and snaps that we often miss out on giving or giving the greatest gift we can give someone, being present.

 

We live such distracted lives that we have outsourced the grieving process. We have funeral directors now who are more than willing, for a price, to plan the entire grieving process for us if we choose.

 

“Dad wouldn’t care about the flowers, but make sure he’s wearing his red tie. He always wore a tie to church.”

 

“We don’t really care what hymns are sung, we just want to service to not be too sad or ‘churchy’.”

Even my grandfather’s funeral lacked the necessary opportunities for his family and friends to grieve. This is no fault of my family members, my mom, aunt, and grandmother who planned the service. When it came down to whether or not we wanted to grieve, we panicked. We opted for things that made us comfortable rather than allowing ourselves the opportunity to praise God for my grandfather’s life.

 

In her book Mudhouse Sabbath author Lauren Winner, who grew up in a synagogue but converted to Christianity while in college, outlines the Jewish grieving process. Ahh process, something Methodists can relate to.

 

Mourning for Jews is something that is not just a disciple but it is expected. It’s engaging. From the days immediately following the death, aninut, the time immediately after the death where both the mourner and community have obligations to yearlong reciting of the Kaddish the mourner is actively engaged not only in mourning but also praising God.

 

“This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way the mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast food society can easily accommodate.

 

When Jesus allows himself to weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus he is allowing the grieving process to begin. He is sad. He doesn’t hold it in because men don’t cry. He doesn’t hold it back because he is the Son of God and he should act like it. No he weeps. His spirit is angered and he is displeased with the state of affairs. There in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel God is weeping. God is weeping at what sin has done to us and even all the while knowing that in him this temporary death would not last.

 

This could be the bluntest scene in the New Testament.

When we look behind the tears of Jesus, the Son of God, we are able to understand much much more, maybe more than he originally intended to show the world, that he was in fact human. And sometimes our human emotions need percolate out. And yet, we can’t do it. We often cannot figure out how to allow our human emotions to be exposed and we hide them. Hold them back, for fear that they might be seen as a weakness.

 

 Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook shared this grieving process with the world on the 1 month anniversary of the death of her husband, the end of sheloshim or mourning of a spouse. She posted what printed as a 4 page essay outlining how she was dealing with the death of her husband. She shared with the world her grief. On her Facebook page, she very publicly shared that death is a terrible terrible thing. And that many of us don’t know quite how to deal with it. And when we don’t know how to deal with it we say things like, “it’s going to be okay.”

 

Sandberg’s response to that is similar to Jesus weeping at the graveside of a friend:

“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

 

Grief is the acknowledgement that death is terrible. And yet, for us we have the Good News of Jesus.

 

When we hear the words of John 11 verses 25 and 26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” We find hope. We find it knowing that even God is grieved when confronted with death. And knowing that allows us to grieve when confronted by death. And yet in the midst of our grief, in the midst of Jesus’ grief we find hope of life everlasting with a God who loves us so much that he grieves alongside us.

 

 

Walmart Closes

Walmart

I’ve written about McDowell County West Virginia before.  Many of you know that West Virginia very much holds a special place in my heart.  There is work that needs to be done.

While many people I know would applaud the closing of a Walmart SuperCenter, because many see the company’s unwillingness to pay employees livable wages or provide them with affordable health insurance as unfair labor practices there are other people who will have their lives drastically changed (for more than likely worse) when Walmart closes it’s SuperCenter in Kimball, WV.

The McDowell County Commission got a call from Walmart Friday morning. The commission planned to meeting in emergency session Friday afternoon to see if anything could be done. They call the announcement a blow to the county that will cost a lot of jobs. – WV Metro News

The problem with closing a Walmart store in one of the most impoverished communities in the United States is that not only is the largest private employer in the state of West Virginia leaving, but also that a community that lacks basic resources (like clean water) will now lose the ability to not only purchase water but also food.  Many of our families, mine included, avoid shopping at Walmart at all costs.  Whether it is treatment of employees or you think products produced in Chinese sweatshops are not good for our community just like they are not good for the people producing them, but for some these SuperCenters are a life line.

McDowell Count West Virginia is in rough shape to say the least.  Things like lack of economic opportunity, unsafe drinking water, and a population who can barely afford to feed themselves make this community one of the most vulnerable in the nation.  Walmart’s departure will have a ripple effect throughout the county:

 

dominos-1

 

  1. The largest employer in the state leaves a community = loss of jobs, loss of money going back into the community.
  2. Loss of money going back into the community  = local businesses lay people off
  3. Local businesses lay people off = even more people relying on public and private charity
  4. More people relying on public and private charity = strain on organizations already working at capacity
  5. And so on, and so on….

While some might paint me as being dramatic, let me tell you I’m not.  Just ask the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank:

“Now we will no longer get any type of fresh produce from Walmart, any type of meat or bread. Everything perishable, Walmart would give us three time a week,”

“Last year we fed over 11,000 people and we turned people away. We are no longer to do emergency services because we don’t have; we’re all volunteers here, we don’t get paid,”

“If we do not have food, we cannot open. And we do not have funding to buy food.”

WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

 

Even with donations of canned and processed food, the lack of access to fresh food (food that doesn’t come with a box and has an expiration date before next year) will add to health problems like obesity and diabetes, as well as teach an entire generation who already lack basic availability to food that the junk people donate (and let’s be honest, we don’t donate healthy food) is what they need to survive.  And if it’s news to you, children need fresh fruit and vegetables! 

There are some who say these people should “just move”.  “Why do they still live there” is a question I am asked repeatedly when I talk to people about our church’s relationship with Little Sparrow Ministries.

Simply put, they are not leaving because they can’t.  They can’t leave because they lack the money needed to move.  There entire family lives there and they would have zero support system if they moved.  Think about the last time you moved, was it cheap?  How is in a nation where we will spend $585,000,000,000 in FY2016 on defense we have people who literally will not have access to food or water?  And McDowell County isn’t alone.  Just this week social media was buzzing about Flint, Michigan and their lack of safe drinking water.

I don’t have any answers for you.  There is no silver bullet for McDowell County.  All I know to do is to tell you that we, the church, have a responsibility to the people living in McDowell County. The church has a responsibility in this situation (Matthew 12:48-50, John 13:34-35, Psalm 34:6, Proverbs 22:9, Proverbs 30:21, Matthew 19:21).  My fear is that this could be the last blow.  There is only so much a community, a group of people who love one another and where they live, can take.  

I don’t have an answer.

A Light in the Darkness

On Christmas Eve I had an opportunity that Youth Directions only dream about.  I had the privilege of preaching.  Christmas Eve is typically reserved for the most seasoned of clergy and preachers but this year we had a different preacher at all  services.  Below is the sermon I preached.  I am sorry I am so late in posting it but I was waiting for the audio which is still being processed.  I owe a huge thank you to Rev. Jason Micheli who helped me edit, rewrite sections, and edit some more.  Without him, I might have been rambling on for too long about ideas that made little to no sense.


 

Whether it was as a child being tucked in bed by a parent and feeling the uneasiness that comes with shadows dancing off of the ceiling, an unsureness about navigating a new road late at night and not quite knowing where the next sharp turn or dip would be, or even being at home as an adult and being uneasy as you made the treacherous trip from the bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night fearful that you might step on a MatchBox car or a Lego, the dark can be a pretty frightening place.

lego

We all know what it’s like to be afraid of the dark.  John tells his Christmas story by first talking about the light. The beginning of Luke and Matthew’s Gospels are the more familiar Christmas stories to us. Maybe we’re more familiar with them because we find it easier to believe in the darkness. To fear. Because, you can be sure, Luke and Matthew begin their Christmas stories in the dark.

Think for a second about the circumstances of Christ’s, the Light’s, birth.  The holy family had to travel over eighty miles from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea.  This trip would have taken several days.  I know the short-trip from our home to the hospital was nerve wracking enough for me and we were in a Jeep, on a paved road, and the trip was only twenty-one miles.

And then there is the actual birth of Christ.  If you are a mother then you know exactly what Mary might was going through.  Even today with the most advanced medical services, techniques, and procedures available there is still a sense of fear that accompanies the birth of a child.

plym50xmas

If we move beyond the actual birth of Christ to the circumstances and surrounding events, we can see that Christ was not being born into a Norman Rockwell family painting.  Mary, His mother, was a pregnant unwed teenager.  The penalty for such an offense in this day was stoning.  Imagine the fear a pregnant teenager girl might have today, then add the penalty of death by being hit with rocks, and then add that the child birth during this time was risky business.  

After the birth of Christ Joseph was told to “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Matthew 2.13, MSG).  King Herod, after being deceived by the Wise Men ordered the massacre of every male child under the age of two who lived in the areas surrounding Bethlehem, fearful that the birth of the Messiah would lead to the rising of an army and the overthrow of Herod’s rule.

tamed-cynic-1-l-280x280My mentor and former pastor Jason Micheli reminds us that the holy night when Christ was born darkness was everywhere. And that darkness was trying to overcome the light.

(darkness because of) The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

(darkness because of) The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

(darkness because of) The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

(darkness because of) The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

(darkness as) fathers (are) shoved aside

(darkness as) mothers (are) gasping

(darkness as) babies (are) being taken.

 

In each of these instances the actors involved could have been frozen by their fear.  They could’ve chosen to believe in the darkness.  Mary could have wavered in her devotion as a servant of God, and the Wise Men and Joseph could have stumbled and led Herod right to the infant Messiah almost certainly resulting in Christ’s death.  

But they didn’t allow the darkness to take control of them.  The darkness that replaced the light was not allowed to remain.  They did not allow the darkness to dictate how they were going to live their lives as servants of God.

God was present in Christ and could have chosen to be born into a stately royal family, not worried about impending ridicule of His mother or threats of death from a jealous king.  Instead God chose to be born into the most dark of situations, and chose to lead those who served willingly to the call of God.

There are a lot of voices lately telling us to be afraid. To believe in the dark.

When we fear people on the other side of the world who are seeking refuge, just as Jesus’ parents did, from war, murder, and rape, we believe in the dark more than we believe in the light.

When we fear people who look different from us, we’re believing in the dark. Not the light.

Maybe it’s good you’re all here tonight, even if you didn’t want to be. The world could certainly use a few more people who’re ready to believe in the light, to follow Christ who tells us on Easter morning not to be afraid. There are already more than enough people who believe in the dark more.

I mean – Just last week, FEMA gave a security webinar for churches preparing for large crowds on Christmas Eve.  One recommendation was that church greeters, the nice women and men who greeted you at the door with a “good evening” or “Merry Christmas” tonight, could give everyone attending worship a hug.  This hug was not intended for welcoming or an embracing of other sisters and brother in Christ but rather for patting down everyone in attendance.   

And in Alabama a bill was introduced to allow churches to hire police officers, not off-duty police officers but rather their own church employees who would have the same power and authority as municipal police officers.  A director within the FBI even suggested that churches encourage those in worship to throw Bibles at would be attackers.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, what all the voices of fear, all those who believe in the darkness get right is: we do not know what will happen tomorrow.  We do not know what will happen next week or next year.  I can’t even tell you what will happen later tonight.   An uncertain future can be scary.

And that lack of knowledge about what is to come has some of us gripped into a UFC style choke hold that we cannot seem to wrestle free from.

But that’s exactly what makes the nativity story, which we’ve  turned into family friendly pageant, inspiring paintings, and toe-tapping songs was and still is one of the most dangerous stories we read about in the Bible.

Because into a world just as if not more frightening and dark than our own God took flesh, was born of Mary, the light, as John says, shone in the darkness.

God did not allow the fear that came with a scandalous teenage pregnancy to cast darkness onto the Good News.  And God did not allow the darkness that came with Herod’s massacre of the innocents block out the Light that had been born.

Author and pastor Brian McLaren said that the birth of Christ “signals the beginning of the end for the dark night of fear” and signaled “a new way” and “a new understanding”.  

When we discover the world with what McLaren describes a “childlike wonder”4 we are able to see not only a new world around us but then we can begin to see the light of Christ in the world.

And just like God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, Noah,Moses, and David God has made a new covenant with us through the birth of the Christ Child.  There is nowhere we can go that God will not be there with us.  There is no experience we will have where God is not right there with us.  And there is not darkness that we might experience where the light will not be right beside us casting it out.  

Through Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection God has entered into our lives, experiencing the fullness of life alongside us.  The joy, the pain, the excitement, and yes even the fear that come with the dark.  Christmas is an opportunity for us to “rethink everything” and to allow the Light that was born on that perilous night to shine bright in our lives and in our community.

Tonight we celebrate the “dawning of the Light”.  John tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1.5, NRSV).  Maybe given all the fear out there and in us lately, maybe given how much easier it’s gotten for us to believe in the darkness maybe what the world needs most is people, a people, who believe not just that in the manger the light of God came but that in Jesus, in his way of life is a light- if dare to let it shine- that not even darkness can overcome.

Baby in manger with light [Converted]

New Beginnings at Christmas

Over the next year I will be reading We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren with the Great Bridge United Methodist Church staff.  I’ll be posting my thoughts for your consideration as we read this book together.  I’d love it you read along with us and joined in the conversation.


 

What is it about Christmas that some many of us get excited about?  No other time of the year are we so inundated with holiday cheer, merriment, and happiness.  I know one reason is the secularism surrounding Christmas.  Christmas advertisements and decorations were being pushed by all of the big-box stores in October.

lightstock_101459_medium_user_3571244Barely was the Halloween candy gone before Target and Walmart were decking the halls.  We all experience excitement as many of us anxiously awaiting to visit and celebrate with family we have not seen quite enough this year.  There are special foods and traditions that one make an appearance during this time of year.  And then there are the presents.  Most of us over-spend and over-spoil our kids to ensure that this Christmas was a little bit more perfect than the last, hoping to ensure that our children have even better childhood Christmas memories than we do.

I think what makes Christmas so exciting is what Brian McLaren refers to as the celebration of “a new beginning”.   New beginnings surround us everywhere this time of year.

A new beginning with a family member where words were once used as weapons.

A new beginning as families celebrate Christmas for the first time with a new child.

A new beginning as some will recommit themselves to Christ and to active participation in the local church.

A new beginning when we choose to make the next year better than the last.

Throughout Advent we have been celebrating the Joy, Hope, Peace, and Love that is expected in the birth of the Christ Child.  We know that with the birth of this most holy of children we can expect the world to stop for a minute or two.  Even those who have little or no faith can acknowledge that there is something special that happened with the birth of Christ.

The acknowledgement of that special something is what I think makes Christmas a time of new beginnings.  The holy descending down and entering into our lives, not coming on a chariot or with royal trumpets but instead being born into meager circumstances offers us hope that God has not abandoned us.  A new beginning is possible because God has not forsaken us, or abandoned us, or forgotten us in our times of need.

Richard Rohr said, “If God can choose someone as ordinary as me to bear the divine into the wold, then we better be ready to be surprised by where the divine is coming from.”  In this time of new beginnings we have the opportunity to begin to see the divine, the Christ Child, in places where we would have never expected before.  A new beginning is an chance to see anew the child whose birth so changed the world.

Christmas is a time to start a new.  A time for new beginnings.  And a time for all us to give thanks that we have a God who lived and died the same life that we are enduring today.  I pray that over this Christmastide we will all experience the new beginning promised to us in the birth of the Christ Child.

Baby in manger with light [Converted]

The Drama of Desire

This was a devotion written for Great Bridge United Methodist Church.  Over the next year the staff are reading Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking together.  Throughout the year I will be posting devotionals and responses to book study.


 

“We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of intimidating and reflecting God as good image bears should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.” – Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (pg. 15)

Adam and Eve did it. So did Cain and Abel. You could probably say Saul, David, Pilate, the entire Temple hierarchy, and Saul (before he was Paul) did it also. I would be willing to throw it out there that Presidential candidates, (both Republicans and Democrats), pastors, community leaders, and little league umpires are guilty too. I know on occasion, probably more than I should, I have done it too. It would be a safe bet to say you have done it too, although I learned early on in ministry not to make assumptions about anyone.

bruce-almighty

It’s not really a question of why we would want God’s power for ourselves. Right? Remember the 2003 blockbuster Bruce Almighty? Bruce was an average beat reporter in Buffalo and desperately wanted to beat out his competition to become lead anchor. Bruce was desperate. He refused to take responsibility for his actions, blamed everyone around him for his troubles, and even called out God, “I am not being a martyr. I’m a victim. God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I’m the ant. He could fix my life in 5 minutes if he wanted to, but he’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm!” Skip ahead a few scenes and Bruce finally meets God. God gives Bruce divine power (over Buffalo) for 1 week.

Long story short, Bruce could not handle the responsibility required to “rule over all” (Ephesians 4.6). And that is how God rules, divinely over anything and everything. That’s the hard part to remember right? When we think we are seizing control from God, taking control of our own lives and destiny, and blazing a path on our own we are just kidding ourselves right? We think we are working outside of where God can see us.  We think we are hiding like Adam and Eve thought. We throw ourselves behind a tree and think that as long as we operate in secret, outside of the sight of God that we will be alright. If God cannot see what we are doing, hear what we are saying, or witness the way we are screwing over our neighbor we are a-okie-dokie

But here’s the kicker, according to McLaren (and what does he know, he’s just a theologian, sought after speaker, and pastor) Jesus “modeled a different way of life.” That’s what Paul is getting at in chapter 2 of his letter to the church in Philippi – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

When we follow the way that was modeled to us by Christ, and allow humility to be more present in our lives than competition or selfishness we are allowing our mindset to be focused in on not only the modeled life Christ left for us but also we are focused on living out that modeled life everyday. We consistently choose from the wrong tree because we are failing to live the life modeled to us by Christ. It’s not a secret or something that you need years and years of theological training to understand. Loving others as we love ourselves and selfless-sacrifice are on display in the first 30 pages of the New Testament. Start there.

The Church Responds (?) to Refugee Crisis

Yesterday I asked the question, “what is the churches response to violence, fear, and those in need when all 3 are presented at the same time?”  This was my way of lamenting and discerning how my responses were either appropriate, enough, or falling short.  I began searching the interwebs for examples of where the Church has lived up to the great commission and for examples where the Church has fallen short of our calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

s anderson“That’s why France is suffering… they are wicked in the sight of God.” – “Pastor” Steven Anderson

While poking around on the internet Tuesday I found the above gem.  “Pastor” (or ass-hat) Steven Anderson went on a 51 minute sermon rant about the recent terrorist attacks in France.  Anderson is famous infamous for hate-filled sermons.

In June 2015 he said, “I hope God touches Bruce Jenner’s heart like this. I hope God touches Bruce Jenner’s heart like this.” The entire time, Anderson is gesturing to his chest similar to the scene from Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom.  This is a prime example of how, in my opinion (which is based on my reading of scripture, experience of grace, and the tradition laid before me by mentors), the Church is failing to respond to violence, fear, and global poverty.

It is easier for church leaders to rant from the pulpit about how those people deserved what they got because they were not living up to my (Anderson’s) twisted interpretation of scripture.  He goes on to explain that death and killing happens because of the music we listen to and the people we associate with.  Funny.  I remember reading somewhere, maybe in that Bible book, about a man who spent his ENTIRE ministry associating with the wrong people.  I recall a man calling a tax-collector to be a disciple.  I remember a man standing in front of a crowd, a crowd that was ready to stone a woman to death for committing adultery (the 2000 year ago equivalent of sexting/posting a crotch picture to snapchat/anything that you do on Tinder), and telling them that the person without sin should cast the first stone.

It is frustrating, mind-boggling, and down right despicable to say that the victims of violence deserved what they got.  Especially coming from someone who is suppose to be a representative of the one who gives us the example of how we are suppose to interact and engage with those whom society tells us are not worthy of our time, efforts, or worry.

I needed a pick-me-up after listening to scratching my ear drums out while Ass-Hat Anderson continued his hate-filled monologue.  Where have you seen pastors, churches, or faith communities responding in a positive manner towards the refugee crisis that continues to unfold in Syria, throughout the Middle East, and in Europe?

Refugees, Poverty, and Terrorism

As I was settling into my hotel room in Richmond Friday night I turned on the television to see the terror unfolding live in Paris.  Unpacking my running shoes and not too-short running shorts went to the back burner as the world watched the tragic events unfold. As anchors and experts tried to make sense of the unfolding chaos my social media streams were filled with petitions for prayer, calm, and solidarity with our oldest allies.  Facebook profile pictures quickly turned into Eiffel Towers and French flags.  Instagram became a platform where the world united in prayer.  The world came together to ensure that the people of France were undoubtedly aware that they were not alone in this tragedy.

On Sunday morning our church prayed for the people of France as I am sure most churches did.  The United Methodist Church issued statements.  The president of the World Council of UMC Bishops, Warren H. Brown, Jr., said the following:

“Let us be in prayer for Paris and the people of France. These events have impacted them in the way September 11, 2001, grieved the U.S. Also, please pray for communities around our world that will not make the news, but cringe under the threat of violence.”

Social media quickly reminded us that while France was hit in the gut in the most tragic of manners there are still communities around the world that we should be in prayer with and aligning ourselves beside.  These communities are in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and even in the United States.

The Middle East has been plagued by violence and terror for much of my life.  I do not really remember a time when our nation was not involved at one point or another in some form of military action in that region.  Refugees are pouring out of Syria with one of the last nations willing to take them in, France, closing their boarders

Africa is a continent that has been ravaged by civil war, famine, and outside exploitation.  Like the Middle East, I do not remember a time in my life when Africa was not in need of international assistance.  We are willing to adopt children on a monetary level but what about seeing to it that the infrastructure and systems need for longterm change are in place?

Asia is a continent that offers the world one of a kind cuisine.  It is also a continent that is constantly exploited for cheap electronics and dollar store trinkets manufacturing.  We all agree that sex-trafficking, slave labor, and poor environmental conditions need to be addressed but we need our latest iDevice and Banana Republic belts manufactured at the cheapest price possible.

I wrote a few weeks ago about a county in The United States, McDowell county West Virginia, that has been torn apart by an economic disaster which as led to a humanitarian crisis that most people only expect to see in Third World nations.  Those people, we often say, should just move or find a job.  Those people have become the butt of jokes and iconic stereotypes for most of our country.

What do we (the Church, Christians, Americans, individuals) do in the face of refugees, poverty, and terrorism?  Over the past weekend we have seen the best and worst in international support for France.  While some have rallied in prayerful support others are arguing that this is just another example of why we need every citizen armed with assault rifles.  While the POTUS stated that the US would begin accepting refugees from Syria, people who are literally fleeing for their lives, governors and political pundits began playing using these people as a political punching bag.  All of this is going on while most of the nation is unaware of the consequences associated with their newest tech device or  the desperate need in Appalachian America as winter is quickly approaching.

What are we to do a Christians in the face of these staggering situations?  What are we to do as a Church? 24 governors so far have stated they will not allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states (they need to be re-educated on how federal law supersedes local law but that’s for someone else to do). It frightens me that governors of states are quickly allowing fear to paralyze them from doing what is right.  These governors are the same people (for the most part) who when it comes time for re-election will quickly be lining up pandering to local churches about how they are the candidate who will most uphold the “Christian values” that most voters claim influence their vote.

photo credit: CNN.com

 

What is the role of the church here?  What is the role of the church in addressing terrorist attacks, refugees & famine, human-trafficking, and poverty right under our noses?

Karl Barth on Prayer

The obvious and easy answer is prayer.  Praying for the people dealing with terror attacks, displaced by violence and lack of food, those who are held in sexual bondage, and the people we call neighbor.  But more than that this is another opportunity where the Church and local churches can stand up and be the light that we are called to be.  We can stand up without apology and say you are welcome here.

To the person who is hurt or afraid: “We will care for you.”

You who has been displaced and are unsure of where to go now: “We have room. You are welcome here.”

You who are hungry: “We have plenty, come and share.”

You who has been sold to the highest bidder and reduced to a piece of disposable property: “we love you and your Father loves you.”

To our neighbor who is in desperate need: “We will serve you.  We will help you. We love you.”

 

We have an obligation to treat these groups as more than political punching bags that we turn to when we are in need of a poll boost.  It is time that the Church and local church lives up to the standard set for us by the One who we claim the be disciples of.

“It’s sincerely hopeful and inspiring to see so many people in the U.S. vocalizing their willingness to step up and open…”

Posted by Jamie The Very Worst Missionary on Monday, November 16, 2015

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,o what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”