Monday, January 26, 2015

One of My New Favorite Youth Ministry Books

I just finished reading Benjamin T. Conner's Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. This is one of my new favorite Youth ministry books! And It's got to be my new favorite "missional theology" book too! Drawing from the best minds in practical theology and missional theology (including Richard Osmer, Andrew Root, John Swinton, and Darrell Guder), Ben Conner takes a huge step toward the construction of a theological rationale for youth ministry that includes those who are not subject to development or the common expectations which adults without disabilities extend toward adolescents. If you read books about youth ministry, immediately add this one to your list. It deserves to be read and wrestled with.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Worship and Worshipers: Thoughts on 'The Prayers of The People'

How often are people given the opportunity to share their story in church?

I wonder if it's a problem that, in every church I've ever been to, one could experience worship without ever turning their attention from the pulpit to the person next to them. Sure, we have our passing of the peace, our "30-seconds-of-friendliness" (as Andrew Zirschky calls it), where we turn to the person beside us and say, "good morning" or (as I prefer it) "peace be with you," but the service is all about the show up front. That's where the lights are pointed (in churches that have them), that's where our symbols of holiness sit, that's where the Word of God lives--up on an alter or on a stage. It'd be easy to miss, in such an environment, the holiness and the presence of God's Word in the lives and experiences of the people in the pews (or chairs). The irony of this is that, if we take the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ seriously as a theological rationale for worship, our worship should emerge from the action of God and from the experiences of God's action in the lives of our neighbors. Worship is, at some primal level, the responsive awakening to the active presence of God in the life of the people of God. Therefore, the sharing of stories, the sharing of the relationships that make us who we are, and ultimately the sharing of persons' encounters with the living God, should be the catalyst and content of congregational worship. Our eyes simply must turn from pulpit to person. Worship comes from worshipers, as a response to God's presence among them. And what comes from the pulpit must be the proclamation which emerges from the Word of God which lives in the lives of the people.

There is one space carved out in most worship services which lends itself to the possibility of people actually turning their attentions to the action of God in the lives of their neighbors, whether or not it gets taken advantage of as such. The "prayers of the people," as we usually call it, would be a logical moment at which persons should share their stories, their joys and their concerns. Unfortunately, we usually miss the opportunity. Instead of offering and facilitating a space for people to share themselves and for worshipers to empathize with their neighbors and encounter God in their stories, we read the prayers off like a grocery list and the best that even an intentional worshiper can do is sympathize... with their attention still intently fixed in front of them.

But Andrew Root writes about the possibility of doing things a little differently:
In our little church Kara [the Pastor] decided to move the ‘prayers of the people’ to a more central location in the worship order…So now people came forward, lit a candle or dropped a stone into a clear font, and shared their prayer request…. As people came forward they began to actually share their person, by telling the story of their prayer request. …It was radically different when someone would stand, come to the front, drop their rock into the font and say, ‘I’d like to pray for people who have lost their jobs, because this Saturday night we went over to my brother’s house for dinner and he has worked for General Mills for twenty years, and just Thursday they laid him off. When his daughter answered the door, I could see the fear in her eyes and then after dinner my brother shared how lost and depressed he feels….’ This changed everything. Prayer was no longer the relaying of information—people need jobs—but the story of persons… (The Relational Pastor, 187).
Where there is space for people to share their stories and for their story to be heard, there is a fundamental shift from sympathy to empathy. People are no longer the objects of ministry, nor are they simply agents of the church’s mission. People are embraced as persons, social actors, humans in their own right, who are preceded by dignity. By listening to people’s stories, we are opened to them and God’s action in their life. And that is an act of worship.

What if, instead of the liturgy and music all centering around and heading toward the sermon, with the 'prayers of the people' being treated as a short interruption, the service centered around people's encounter with God and their experiences of God's active presence? What if the sermon itself was a Word of God proclaimed and spoken from and into the joys and concerns of the congregation? What if worship had something to do with worshipers?

Friday, January 23, 2015

I Don't Care If Kids Are Being Good

Part of what has made me an oddball in some youth ministry circles is that, in general, I'm not interested in how young people behave. Success stories about young people who do better in life because of their faith have never been all that compelling to me. But youth ministry, at least in some circles, has been pretty preoccupied with behaviors. We want kids to read their bibles, pray, get good grades, stay away from drugs, brush their teeth, and wear deodorant (and that last one's no joke...). We celebrate those kids who conform to such behaviors as the successes of youth ministry. Of course, few of us would admit to this. We all posture and struggle to articulate some deeper spiritual goal for our ministries, but time and again, the kids who get toted to the front of the church as representatives of Christian maturity are those kids who do good things and don't do bad things. Youth ministry is about "formation" (of a particular sort) and education, but is it really ministry if it's just about behavior?

Many would say that our preoccupation with behavior has actually paid off. Even those who are after something more than behavior will cite research to admit that youth ministry has been successful in developing better behaved young people. My friend Marcus Hong recently pointed out a quote to me from Kenda Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian. She writes,
On the whole, teenagers who say religion is important to them are doing "much better in life" than less religious teenagers, by a number of measures. While religious youth do not avoid problem behaviors and relationships, those who participate in religious communities are more likely to do well in school, have positive relationships with their families, have a positive outlook on life, wear their seatbelts--the list goes on, enumerating an array of outcomes that parents pray for. (20). 
Kenda is certainly less interested in these behaviors than she is in vibrant faith which can actually be disruptive of social norms. She's quick to point out that Jesus' act of turning over the tables in the temple would not likely have been described as "religious maturity" by researchers (20). But, even if she's not compelled by such things, she cites the research as though it reveals that youth ministry has worked to foster good behavior among young people. But I am suspicious. Perhaps it's not that youth ministry has worked to create good behavior, but that it has worked for those young people who conform to such behaviors anyway and thus has decidedly not worked for those young people who do not bear the qualities which correspond to "doing 'much better in life.'" Perhaps it's not that kids do better because they go to church, but that kids who do better are the only ones who have a place at church.

The reason I'm not motivated by behavioral success stories, even if they include good spiritual practices, is because what does motivate me (or, at least, what I hope motivates me) is God's action in people's lives, people's experiences of that action, and our participation in it--which is what we call "ministry." And I am convinced that God's action is real and, therefore, ministry must be real in the lives of people regardless of their behaviors. I am convinced that God is active in the life of the young person who isn't reading their bible and wearing their seatbelt. And since I am motivated by ministry, why would I tote anyone else as the success of youth ministry? The success of youth ministry, if we're going to measure it, should be in the number of young people who do not conform to the standards of "Christian maturity" and are yet given a space to see and to experience God's action in their lives. Behaviors, I trust, will follow, but they are certainly less interesting than the ministry which precedes them. We should be ashamed by the fact that there are, apparently, so many young people "not doing so well" who are counted among the outsiders.

So go ahead and share your stories of kids who are really good. I'll continue to be interested in God's action in the lives of kids, even (if not especially) in the lives of those kids who have not been celebrated by their Youth Pastors.

Monday, January 19, 2015

When I Found Out King Was a Christian

One of the most important things that ever happened for me in my theological and intellectual formation was being introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. a theologian.

I was a Freshman theology student at Azusa Pacific University. The class was "Contemporary Christian Thought," taught by Dr. H. Adam Ackley (who went by a different name at the time), and in it we explored several theologians and perspectives from the last several decades. I don't honestly remember much at all from the class. But I do remember reading 55 extraordinary pages--The Measure of A Man--and being introduced to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time as a theologian. It's difficult to grow up in the United States without hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr.... we even have a holiday dedicated to him (which has its irony). But it is not difficult to grow up without realizing that he was a pastor, a theologian, or even a Christian. Before reading him, I may have known that he was a political activist, a key figure in the struggle for civil rights, even a profound orator, but I had no idea the extent to which his theology and his faith in Jesus Christ shaped his political and social action. I had no idea that he wrote his PhD. Dissertation at Boston University on Paul Tillich and I had no idea that he could be considered a theologian in his own right.

Dr. King would not have been any less important if he were not a theologian. He does not need theology to give credibility to his actions (though it doesn't hurt). If anything, it's the other way around. What was important for me in seeing him as a Christian and as a theologian was that it was my first introduction to him as a human being. When I read his theology and discovered that he actually thought for himself, and thought with such depth and conviction, I was introduced to someone who was more than just an American stained glass saint whose actions got us all a day off of work. I was introduced to someone who challenged the very system and ideology which now venerates him. I was introduced to a radical whose struggle was not for American prosperity, per se, but for social justice on the basis of nothing less than the reign and dominion of God in Jesus Christ. And perhaps for the first time, thanks to Dr. Ackley, I was introduced to a Christianity that was not of the world but was surely and unapologetically in it. I was introduced to a theology that did not settle for "pie-in-the-sky," otherworldly, postmortem escape but truly hoped for the salvation of humankind and the healing of the world here and now.

Among all the debts we owe to Dr. King's legacy, I am personally indebted to his theological legacy. When I found out that King was a Christian my own Christianity, my own devotion to Christ, changed its shape.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best Books of 2014

I like making lists. I'm just one of those people. Sometimes I even find the exercise to be a helpful mode of reflection. I thought it would be helpful to catalogue the most important books (for my personal formation) I read in 2014. These aren't the best books written in 2014, as most of them are older, but they are the best books I read in 2014. In years past, I've picked up books, read them, and set them down again without keeping much track of when I read them nor really thinking about how they affected me and shaped me. This year I kept track, as best I could, of the books I read throughout the year and have decided to list the Best Books of 2014. I chose these books for the lasting impact I think they'll have on my own life and thinking.

#15: Woo by Morgan Schmidt 
Woo:Awakening Teenagers Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus is wonderful! It's a book about youth ministry that locates ministry not in some external, preconceived notion, but in the lived experience of teenagers themselves. If there were no other reason to read this one, it'd be enough that it's just fun to read! Morgan Schmidt is a great writer.
In terms of content, it's a light read compared with most of the other books here. But one reason this book has made this list is because in it I have found my new favorite book to recommend to beginners in youth ministry. This book will be life-giving for people who are actually engaged in the church's ministry to young people.

#14: Eccentricity by David Arthur Auten 
I blogged about Eccentricity when it first came out ("The Other Side of The Coin") and it has had me thinking ever since. While the ecclesiological and anthropological emphasis has been on community and relationships, Auten's book points to the individual and locates personhood not in what humans have in common but in what makes them eccentric. It's a great and challenging book and I truly enjoyed reading it.

#13: After Crucifixion by Craig Keen
Craig was a professor of mine in undergrad and ever since then I enthusiastically anticipated a book like this one. Previously, he had only published essays and articles, but After Crucifixion is his real first full length book. Keen is a poetic and inspiring theological voice who writes in a doxological style. Poetic as his thoughts are, they are also sharp and theologically rich--open to a variety of theological conversations.

#12:  The Trinity and The Kingdom by Jurgen Moltmann 
This is one of Moltmann's most important theological works. This is also where he most clearly develops his social trinitarian theology. Grounding his trinitarian thinking in the theology of the cross and the doctrine of revelation, Moltmann creatively articulates trinitarian theology, beginning with the three-ness of God and moving toward its one-ness. If you want to understand Moltmann's trinitarian theology, this book is essential.

#11: Christ The Key by Kathryn Tanner
Any good Christology will be trinitarian and any good trinitarian theology will be fundamentally Christological. Christ The Key explicitly turns to Christ and to Christology to unlock the larger theological system. This book is a wonderful contribution to theology, from creation to consummation. I have only just begun my acquaintance with Kathryn Tanner's work, and I am thrilled to continue to learn from her. She is, without a doubt, one of America's most capable and important theologians.

#10: Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker by Andrew Root
Andrew Root is one of the most prolific young theologians in America and has become one of the most important practical theologians of this generation. He has helped give real credibility to the field of youth ministry as an academic and theological discipline. There are theologians, practical theologians, and youth workers and Root is on a very short list of people who legitimately qualify as all three.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been one of Root's primary theological influences since his first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and where most of Roots books are written with the sharp edges of conviction, as responses to real problems and needs in practical theology, this book seems to be written out of pure enjoyment. With joy, Root introduces Bonhoeffer to youth workers as their forefather in the theological turn in youth ministry and he introduces youth ministry to Bonhoeffer scholars as a legitimate lens for interpreting Bonhoeffer's life and work. This book was fun to read!

#9: The Humanity of God by Karl Barth
Don't tell my obsessively Barthian friends about this, but I actually think Barth is pretty great. How could I not!? Barth is one of the greatest and most important theologians in the last few centuries. In this short and relatively accessible book by Barth, he argues that God's divinity and God's humanity are not at odds with one another. He writes,
"God's deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man's eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity! All that, rather, in the highest proof and proclamation of His deity! He who DOES and manifestly CAN do all that, He and no other is the living God.”  
#8: Jesus, The Bible and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers
After moving from being strongly opposed to homosexuality and LGBTQ inclusion, for the past several years I have been convinced that scripture supports the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church and society. Each year I try to read at least a book or two about this issue. Jack Rogers' book is one of the best on the issue and provides a personal and theological argument for openness and inclusion.

#7: God as Mystery of the World by Eberhard Jüngel 
I picked up God as Mystery of the World in order to better understand Andrew Root's theology. And after my first read, I wasn't sure that I'd actually understood what I had read. Jüngel is a tough and complex read. It actually took the help of John Webster's book, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology, for me to feel confident with Jüngel. And even still, I feel I have only scratched the surface. This book was important for me and it will continue to be an important theological resource for me from now on. Jüngel is an important voice in practical theology because he is profoundly concerned with the importance of human action but he grounds this concern fundamentally in God's action and the impossibility of human action. As Webster puts it,"He puts down a challenge to demonstrate on the basis of a theology of grace that human agency is interesting and important" (129).

#6: The Teaching Ministry of Congregations by Richard Osmer 
Richard Osmer has become one of my primary influences in the method of practical theology, particularly when it comes to interdisciplinary methodology. I had read his Practical Theology: An Introduction and found it profoundly helpful in sorting out the shape and character of practical theology, but The Teaching Ministry of Congregations was even more important for me. Osmer demonstrates a unique ability in both empirical research and theological reflection. It was important for me to read this book, not only to understand the church's educational ministry and the theology of Jurgen Moltmann (he has a wonderful chapter on Moltmann in this book), but to see how to actually do practical theology--how to think through the descriptive, interpretive, normative, and pragmatic tasks. I will continue to use this book, especially its epilogue.

#5: The Depleted Self by Donald Capps

I never realized how Narcissistic I was until I read The Depleted Self by Dr. Donald Capps. Capps writes about narcissism--perhaps the emerging dominant affliction of human identity--in a fresh perspective, liberating it from conflation into individualism and mere selfishness. He looks at narcissism as a depletion of the self, a self that is barely being held together by the need for approval and achievement. Capps' example of “…a student who ordinarily expects an A and receives an A minus…” and expresses “…the view that he or she is thus revealed to all as a failure” and “…conversely, having gotten an A, the student may feel fraudulent, and unable to take genuine pleasure in a real achievement…” all sounds like me (p. 13). I can definitely see in myself this vacillation between failure and fraudulence and all the despair and shame associated therewith. If I get an A, the class must have been easy, if I get an A-, I feel I have let myself and everyone else down. In a culture of narcissism, Capps calls for a theology of shame while so much of our hamartiology has been oriented toward and around guilt. Simply having a category of shame in Christian theology provides a paradigm shift in the way we talk about sin and salvation. Salvation is no longer just about the forgiveness of guilt, but about grace and acceptance offered to those who are ashamed.

#4: The Coming of God by Jürgen Moltmann   
Moltmann's theology has always been eschatological, but until he waited until relatively late in his career to actually write an eschatology. The Coming of God is a truly eschatological eschatology, rooted in his deeply trinitarian and Christological commitments laid out in his previous works. This book marks the culmination of Moltmann's second and (probably) final major theological project which began with The Trinity and the Kingdom. Moltmann lays out an eschatology which looks to the coming of God's future into history rather than the becoming of the present into the future. This book is indispensable to Moltmann's work as a whole.

#3: What is a Person? by Christian Smith
Christian Smith is arguably the most important sociologist for practical theology. His contributions to the youth ministry world, in understanding the dominant religious perspectives of young people in the United States, have been paradigm shifting. In What is A Person? Smith argues that personhood can be approached ontologically, not merely epistemologically. In other words, we are not forced merely to understand the conditions and circumstances to which persons are subject, but we can approach and understand persons and personhood in themselves as emergent reality. This is a very important book, not only for practical theologians but for anyone who wishes to engage the concept of personhood.

#2: The Cross in Our Context by Douglas John Hall
Douglas John Hall is the most important theologian I never knew about. Hall, who is part of the United Church of Canada, a cousin to the United Church of Christ, is a contextual theologian with a deeply robust systematic theology. The Cross in Our Context  is a wonderful example and articulation of the theology of the cross. Hall takes up the task of articulating theology both apologetically and kerygmatically, as the theology of the cross seems to demand, and he does real justice to a variety of perspectives. This is a book that every theologian needs to read.

#1: Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross by Andrew Root
And the best, most important book I was able to read in 2014 was Andrew Root's Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. This is Andrew Root's most important contribution yet... and if you know my bias, you know that's saying a lot. Root, who has long been an established voice in the world of youth ministry makes his mark on the larger conversation of practical theology and offers a uniquely theological approach to the discipline. Positioning his approach among the approaches of others, Root lays out a practical theological method which takes seriously people's experience of God's action and refuses to diminish the importance of divine action or conflate it into epistemology. Attending to the concrete and lived experience of divine and human encounter--in the face of the impossibility which surrounds human action--Root exegetes the text of human experience through the lens of God's being as becoming, through the lens of ministry itself. As such, Root gives us a theological method (indeed a theology of the cross) that is practical, interdisciplinary, but utterly and fundamentally grounded in the normative task of practical theology. Through the (perhaps counterintuitive) lens of justification, with the help of Eberhard Jüngle, Root shifts the ground on which practical theology stands, orienting human action toward reception of the ministering presence of the living Jesus within the impossibility and death of the human condition. Root puts the 'theology' back in practical theology and turns 'practice' back toward participation in the person of God through the ministry of God. Christopraxis may be the most important work in the field of practical theology in the last several years.

Friday, December 19, 2014

We Hate Youth

Over the past few months I've been reading a lot of "intro to youth ministry" kinds of books, to sort of reorient myself to what most people mean when they say "youth ministry." I suspected that I would discover (again) that the dominant approach to youth ministry is to view it as a task of development, as the church's endeavor to create mature Christian adults who do ministry and pray articulately and read the Bible a lot. But I've actually been surprised at just how strongly this suspicion has been confirmed. Even if some frame it in the less dubious (though still somewhat dubious) category of "spiritual growth," the dominant approach to youth ministry is to develop people from one thing to another and to foster maturity from immaturity. (Some have argued, of course, that youth ministry has failed at this... but if that's so, it's not for lack of trying!) And even those who've tried to see value in adolescence can't seem to help themselves from defaulting back to a developmental assumption.  

Youth ministry, as I'm rediscovering, is more about adulthood than it is about youth. It's more about the expectations of maturity than it is about locating God's action in the concrete and lived experience of adolescents themselves. It's more about where they're headed than where they are--it's about getting "from here to maturity." 

But for me, this begs the question: do we even like youth? Do we like young people? Or are we so in love with adulthood that we can't tolerate seeing adolescence as a desirable social practice? Are we so in love with maturity that we just have to influence the immature toward our standards of maturity? We seem to love youth about as much as we love a lump of clay before it becomes a pot. 

My suspicion has been that youth ministry is more about adulthood than it is about youth. This suspicion seems to be getting confirmed around every corner. And while I do not wish to contend with the fact that development is gonna happen, I wonder if our obsession with development--our preoccupation with "growth" and "formation"--has kept us from actually valuing young people. Girding ourselves in the concrete shoes of condescension, we're slow in seeing where God is at work in those places we've pre-identified as stagnant, immature, and un-adult. I fear, by grafting ministry into the work of development, we're missing out on the action of God in the location we've so arrogantly called "immaturity." 

Monday, December 08, 2014

All Lives Have Value

In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson and New York, I have been unsure what to say. At a time of racial injustice and coercive violence--a time when, as our campus minister Jan Ammon put it, " men and women and youth are losing their lives at the hands of those who are to protect them"--I have struggled to put words to the situation. In some ways I am shocked. I am shocked that now, in 2014, we still have to hear stories like these. I am shocked that now, in 2014, such autocratic abuses of power would go pretty much unpunished, even endorsed by the a country that fancies itself a global moral leader. In some ways I am frustrated. I am frustrated at the very real complexity of the situation--the fact that it's never as simple as it seems. Why are these stories being told and others ignored? Why has this controversy been so polarizing and divisive? (I only have to glance at my Facebook feed to see that not everyone is approaching this issue with the same assumptions or through the same lenses). I am frustrated by the humanity of oppressors and I am frustrated by the dehumanization of people on both sides of the controversy. And in some ways I am tragically and horrifyingly unsurprised. I am unsurprised at America's racism. I am unsurprised at the masking of murder with jargonistic euphemism. I am unsurprised that a country with violence in its veins would tolerate killing in the name of its own authority. I lament how unsurprising this whole situation really is.

I don't know what to say. I don't know how to say it without simply adding to the noise. And this is why I think that grief and lament are the most appropriate stances in the situation. While neutrality is intolerable in its own way, there is also no room for stone-throwing. Non-violent protest, specifically the die-in's that have been demonstrated across the country, make sense to me. They show solidarity and they cry for justice but they do not (at least not ideally) dehumanize or degrade. It is a way of standing in the middle, weeping for the world, saying "if only we knew the way for peace!"

Today, about 350 Princeton Theological Seminary students and faculty members participated in a demonstration in downtown Princeton (read about it here). While I struggle for words, I think I'll borrow the words that Jacqueline Nelson, moderator of the Association of Black Seminarians at PTS, shared at the demonstration:
"Our faith compels us to declare that all lives have value... Regardless of our background, color and social status, we as a church must stand on the side of justice for all and proclaim that enough is enough. We will no longer tolerate racist and oppressive systems."
God, may your kingdom come...

Monday, December 01, 2014

Theology as Autobiography

Theology is always, to some degree, autobiography. I've become convinced of this. I've heard it launched, however, as an accusation. I've heard some theologians accuse others of casting their theology in their own experience or "creating God in their own image," as though their own theology is innocent and objective; their assumption being that a good theology should drop from heaven instead of being birthed from someone's lived experience. Even if we wanted to believe that the doctrine of revelation implied that theology should be clean, without any human finger prints, I don't think we can help but speak from our own stories and relationships. I don't think we can hope to construct a theology that is not autobiographical, nor should we!

Some will be offended by this idea. Some will assume that if theology is, in some way and to some degree, birthed in human experience then it will always be self-referential, self-affirming, and ultimately self-serving. If that were the case, then I think it would be right to be offended and distressed. It would mean that there's nothing outside of us, acting upon us, and encountering our experience. But the fact is, God does act, God is outside of us, spilling over the edges of our experience. And theology, though it is autobiographical, is not merely self-referential or self-serving. In fact, because theology is autobiographical, it cuts us to our core and hits us where it hurts... challenging and transforming us in the midst of our life experience. Theology, as autobiography, is not merely a story of the self (it's not merely epistemological). Theology is a story of the self encountering God (it is an ontological collision). It is birthed in the human experience of the being and action of God. It is the story of the self encountered by God, and such an encounter does not merely affirm one in their experience, but "...awakens pain over the present internal and external enslavements of human beings" and of the self (Moltmann, On Human Dignity, 16).

Autobiography does not betray theology but, rather, gives it a heartbeat.

In my own theological work (if I can call it that) I've been working closely with Moltmann's eschatology, putting it conversation with the sociological literature of childhood studies, and directing it to the church's ministry to young people (youth ministry). The conceptual thread that runs through all of this is that human dignity precedes the assumptions of human development. Eschatology is not about development, its about redemption. And what's normative for youth ministry is not the "formation" or development of young people into maturity (even spiritual maturity), but the attention they deserve as actors in the social practice of adolescence, regardless of the standards of development imposed upon them. What's normative for youth ministry is not formation but seeking, as Andrew Root puts it, " share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God" (Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker, 7).

Not only is this autobiographical in the sense that it explicitly applies to my own experience in youth ministry, but I am discovering that it is autobiographical in that it directly challenges and convicts my own sense of self. It is ironic that I—someone who has become so obsessed with "advancing," someone whose sense of self-worth has become so dependent upon my ability to produce and perform—would choose to endeavor to write a theology of youth ministry that liberates it from gerontocentric standards of development. Perhaps I am doing this precisely because I need it and long for it. In this way my theology, though autobiographical, has been anything but merely self-affirming and self-referential. In fact, in a way, it has been painful.

I have encountered God in the very place at which I am my weakest and most frail. And I am being transformed. I think that this may be the way the doctrine of revelation works... not as a static and objective fact that drops from heaven, but as God working in the the lives of people, coming from outside our experience but, in a sense, being birthed in it.

This is, after all, the Advent season... perhaps it's appropriate to look to Mary's birthing of Jesus as a paradigm for theology. It's not just something that comes upon us, but as that which comes upon us, it comes from within us and wears our skin. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Dawn Will Break Upon Us

I've always loved Christmas carols. I'm the guy who, as soon as it's culturally acceptable, usually right after Thanksgiving, turns the station to whatever radio station is playing Christmas music. By Christmas day I'm usually ready to be done, but by November, I'm already anticipating "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire." (And since my 1-year-old son, Henry, has been born, there's added joy in the season because I love finding ways, even if they don't make much sense, to insert his name into Christmas songs [i.e. "Henry the Red-Nosed Reindeer," etc.])

Perhaps that's why the Lukan infancy narrative has always been among my favorite parts of the bible. In Luke Chapter 1, we find what I like to think of as the first Christmas carols (perhaps it'd more appropriate to say "Advent hymns"). I've written before about Mary's song, which perhaps doesn't get the attention it deserves, but Zechariah's song gets even less attention. Perhaps it's because Mary's a much higher profile character in the Christmas story than Zechariah, although, in their time, Zechariah would have been a bigger deal than Mary. After all, he was a priest--and not only that, he was a priest whose wife, Elizabeth, also came from priestly stock--and Mary was just a poor girl from Nazareth. And perhaps it's because Zechariah was John the Baptist's father and, let's be honest, we don't really talk about John until closer to Lent, right?

But despite the lack of attention it receives, Zechariah's song is full of hope and exemplifies the kind of anticipation and proclamation that should be associated with the Advent season. Upon the birth of his son, Zechariah bursts into song, singing,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:68-79

Now, before we break it down and look at specific part of the song, it's important to recognize its context. First, widen the lens to Zechariah's own story. Zechariah was a pretty important guy. He was a priest, married to a daughter of priests. Months before this, Zechariah was serving in the temple, something he would have done about twice a year, for a week at a time. On this rare occasion, Zechariah was chosen for an even rarer privilege. He was chosen, by lot, to offer incense in the temple, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! But just in case you were beginning to think that John's birth was just another product of Zechariah's high standing and good fortune... just in case you thought John's birth was just the prolongation of Zechariah's present success, the story is interrupted!

See, even though Zechariah was, in all other ways, a successful and fortunate man, his wife was barren and it's implied that they were too old to conceive a child. This barrenness haunts the otherwise good fortunes that surround Zechariah's life. With all the wonderful possibilities, there is this looming impossibility.

Rather than simply developing, rather than finishing with a description of this all-important temple service, the story is interrupted... it's interrupted by an angel named Gabriel. While Zechariah is alone to offer the incense, the angel meets Zechariah not in the possibilities that surround his life, but in the impossibility. The spotlight is turned away from Zechariah's fortunes. "When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him" (Luke 1:12). But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. ...even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God..." (Luke 1:13-16). The angel interrupts what was a story about Zechariah with a story of promise. Not only will Zechariah have a son, impossible as that is, but this son will be filled with the Holy Spirit, he'll be a prophet, and he'll turn Israel to the Lord their God. Zechariah's son John will herald the messianic age, the coming of the kingdom of God!

Now to understand the impossibility of this promise we have to widen the lens just a little further, beyond Zechariah and his situation to the people of Israel and their situation. See, Israel is the chosen people of God, but they're living under Roman rule. And, for the most part, they are living under Roman oppression. The large majority of the people of Israel, living in Palestine, are living in relative poverty, heavily taxed by the Roman authorities, including their puppet king, Herod, and heavily obligated by a religious system that demands sacrifices. Something like 5% of the population owns about 90% of the wealth, and hunger and sickness are very real and immanent threats. But perhaps the worst problem is not that Israel is ruled by Romans but that the people of God are ruled by Pagans. Israel was void of any legitimate prophets and essentially, God was silent. In a world where the power of the gods was proved by the prosperity of their people, this was a deeply existential dilemma and legitimately raised the question, is our God for real? Is our God really in control, really the one true God? Can our God possibly deliver us? Is the promise true?

Just in case you were tempted to think that the coming of the messiah and the kingdom of God were just extensions of Israel's history, the story is interrupted! It is interrupted, for Zechariah, with the announcement that his son is coming, " turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). And just in case you thought that this interruption was a product of Zechariah's own faith and religious powers, in his unbelief he is silenced. Zechariah is made unable to speak and unable to hear until his son is born.

This is where Zechariah's song enters the story; not in the possibility of Zechariah's faithful action and not in the power of Israel's religious commitment, but in the silence of God, the silence of Zechariah, and the impossibility of human action. It is not in Zechariah's strength, but in his weakness that this song is birthed. It is not in what is becoming in the world, but what is coming into the world!

The season of Advent is a season of hope, but it is not, at its core, hope in the possibilities of the present. It is hope for God to act in the impossibility of the present. Jurgen Moltmann makes it clear that Advent is not simply about the future. He compares the concept of Advent with a simple concept of the future, he speaks of futurum and adventus. Futurum means what will be; adventus means what is coming… future in the sense of futurum develops out of the past and present, inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming..." (The Coming of God, 25). He continues, “Just as the raised Christ does not develop out of the crucified and dead Christ, the novum ultimum—the ultimate new thing—does not issue from the history of the old" (28). Advent, as opposed to a simply hope in the possibilities of the future, anticipates and expects God to act, even where there is no human possibility that anything new can happen. Advent is about the expectation of the coming of God, to meet us in our weakness, and interrupt our story.

Now turning to the song itself, there are few key phrases that help us share Zechariah's Advent excitement.

He sings, "God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them." Notice the present tense here. For Zechariah, the promise is as good as fulfilled! The future of God has entered the present and Zechariah can sing, as though it has already happened, "God's people have been redeemed!" This points to the "now and not yet" character of the Kingdom of God. In a very important and real sense, the salvation of God is not just something for which we wait. It is here and now. The heart of Jesus' message was "the Kingdom of God is among you!" (Luke 17:21). It's not just something we hope for or a place we get to go when we die. It is a present reality--or a future reality that has interrupted and transformed the present. It's true, we have been redeemed, here and now! Even while the Romans still rule, even when the present is so surrounded by impossibility, the kingdom is here!

He goes on to sing: "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors." It may not be from Israel's own action that the Messiah comes, but it is certainly to Israel that the Messiah comes. It may not be hope from earth--from the potential of the present--but it is certainly hope for the earth! Zechariah sees this coming as a culmination of God's promises throughout history, as the validation and vindication of Israel's hope. It is an interruption, but it is an interruption of Israel's story.

"...To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." This is both political and religious. It's not just that Israel is being restored to power... in fact, this is precisely where so many people missed the point of Jesus' message. The restoration is coming in a form that no one is expecting. But the real point of this restoration is not earthly power but the relationship of people with God.

"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It is by God's tender mercy that this dawn is coming. And it's not just becoming... it's breaking upon us.

The Advent season is filled with words like "Joy" and "Hope." And these words are essential responses to the reality that we anticipate. But in this Advent season, let us remember that it is in weakness that God meets us. It is not that God expects us to ascend from our pain into joy, or to simply muster some hope from within ourselves. Instead, the joy and the hope of the coming of God breaks upon us and interrupts our pain and our weakness with the announcement that we will be saved.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Short Reflection on Eschatology

"A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist... If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of promise. This can also be something which by the standard of present experience appears impossible." Jürgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 103).
An eschatology which is projected from the present into the future, as a goal to be developed from the potential which exists in the present to fulfill it, is forced to work from possibility and reject the impossible. It is forced to harvest potential and reject that which has none. It begs for glory and rejects the cross. But an eschatology which is constructed "in light of its future goal" (Moltmann, 18), which does not correspond to but contradicts the present, which does not project itself into the future from the present but speaks judgement back upon the present from the future, gives hope not just to that which in the present has potential to be developed but has "hope for the whole of reality" (34). It depends not on the possibility of human action, but on God's action born from impossibility. It is the eschatology which can only be promised to the world through the event of God's raising the crucified Jesus to life from death. It "...sees in [Jesus] the future of the very humanity for which he died..." the humanity which does not escape but suffers death. "That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth" (21). Therefore, as Paul concluded, "...your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58), even when that labor finds its object in the hopeless and broken present. For it is not the impossibility of our present but the possibility of God's future which sets the terms for our hope.