July 1, 2013

Montana Mission Reflection: A New Normal

I spend the time of June 22nd to 30th, 2013 on a intergenerational mission trip with Thrivent Builds with Habitat For Humanity in Montana. Here is a reflection on the trip. I will be posting more reflections to come as I continue to process the time there and what God did among us. Hope you enjoy:

The Montana Missions trip made me think about the definition of “normal.” Whether we realize it or not, we do not control as much of our “normal” as we might hope. Instead, normal controls us. Normal be comes this goal, ideal, or reality we live out on a day to day basis. We are unknowingly participating in our distraction and ultimate destruction, as if we were driving with our eyes closed towards a brick wall.

Unless we are pushed by something, we will continue towards our current trajectory, good or bad. I am convinced that we are all objects and that God is the force that desires to push us towards a new trajectory. Unlike a inanimate object, once pushed, we are left with a decision: create a new normal or continue within the norms we find ourselves in.

Creating a new normal is not easy. A wise man once said to me, “Creating a new normal takes practice.”

For example, at the beginning of my week in Montana, I had no idea how to cut out siding to fit around windows, doors, and wiring. Yet, because I was pushed by my encounter with AJ (the owner of the house we were building) to create a new normal where I could do what I needed to do to help redeem AJ and his family from their housing situation, with God’s help, I shifted my normal.

God encounters us daily, in his word, his people and through his Spirit. For me, my normal routine  and the expectation of others get in the way of a God who desires to move me towards something new. Maybe for you its fear, what others think of you, the loss of a dream, or the death of your current normal. As for me, I no longer want to be in the way of God’s movement, whatever that might be.

This trip helped me refuse to believe the lie that normal cannot be altered at all. For the redemption of others and myself, I believe in the power of a God that longs to reshape normal—causing objects to like us to be moved from their trajectory towards a new normal.

June 20, 2013

Redefining Family

Sitting at the funeral of a beloved man, it was hard not to shed a tear. Reggie had cared for so many people during his life, my wife and I were just two of those people in a church that was filled beyond capacity on the day that Reggie was laid to rest.

Reggie believed in a beautiful truth; family was not defined by bloodline, name, or marriage; his Savior and LORD defined it.

During Reggie his lifetime, Reggie had seen the “American Family” shift from the traditional nuclear model of two parents, boy, girl, dog, and white-picked fence to the “modern family” of complex meandering families trees our culture sees today.  Yet, however culture’s idea of what family was changed, Reggie defined family as those who loved God and needed to experience God’s love. Reggie believed that God, as his father, desired to adopt all of his creation as his own. Therefore, Reggie sought to manifest the love that his heavenly father had for creation, but working to love and adopt everyone has a part of his family.

I remember the first time I was introduced to Reggie when I was dating my wife. Reggie looked at me and said, “Son, I hope you know what a wonderful girl you have here. You better take care of her.”

Even though Reggie was a shorter and thinner built man, I knew he was one not to mess with. I also knew that he cared for my wife more than just as a girl that had grown up in his church. Reggie was my wife’s spiritual grandfather.

A few years ago, I read a book called Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional & Modern Options by an author, theologian, and thinker named Rodney Clapp. In this book, Clapp walks his readers through a survey of what families were like in the Hebrew world of the Ancient Near East compared in today’s culture. He details how families looked completely different in the Hebrew clan culture then they do today. Hebrew clans included grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, kids, parents, friends, slaves, and even cows, sheep, and the local wondering dog. Everyone was family.

Clapp argues that in today’s world that families have been segregated, fragmented, and arranged to perpetuate isolation, consumption, and exclusion of the “other.” Each family is taught that they should have their own space separated from other families. Every home is filled with material good that take care your own and create your “own space.” This has ultimately created a culture of “hyper-individualism” where families and individuals only task is to care for themselves and their own “family.”

Family is not something that is constricted to a concrete understanding. The definition of family has always been fluid. In other words, the definition of family changes as culture changes. As mentioned above, we only have to look at our own society to see how the definition of family has changed over the last 50 years to see the truth of this reality.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have arrived to see him. He responses by saying, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50).

Some have said that by saying this Jesus constructs a new way of thinking about family, but that is not true. Instead, Jesus is pointing back to a reality that existed in the culture of the Hebrews long before Jesus was on earth.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands addressing the nation of Israel before they are to enter into the promise land when he says,

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Some thinkers in Christians circles have taken this verse and applied it to today’s definition of family saying, we have to focus on the family and make sure parents are raising their kids in the faith.

Clapp argues that when Christians do this, they are taking Deuteronomy 6:4-9 out of context because this verse is not meant to be read through context of the nuclear or modern family, but through the lens of the Hebrew community. When an adult heard Moses state, “impress them on your children…” they would not think of just their biological children, but of every single child in their community. Therefore, Moses was telling the People of God that it was all of their jobs to care for the faith life of the kids in their community, not just the responsibility of one’s biological parents.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church picks up the Hebrew understanding of family and is to define family has Moses and Jesus did, as those who “do the will of the father.” This definition makes every child in the church a child of every adult in the church, every woman a sister, and every man a brother. The church becomes to new definition of family.

Clapp reminds us that as the church we are called by God to live out heaven here on Earth. In heaven, there will not be individualized family units living in suburbs, decorating their own personal living space for all of eternity. Heaven will be a family of everyone who has loved God throughout human history; we will not be broken up into family units. Just look what Jesus says in the gospel of John, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)
If we want to compare heaven to anything in our modern culture, it seems to look more like a commune then a suburban neighborhood.

In today’s world, we need to reclaim a Biblical view of family as community. In the book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark presents his research that shows that by the time kids are 14 to 16, they feel that the adult community around them has abandoned them.

There are many factors that play a role in this reality. One of those factors is the way we define family.  When we buy into the idea that an adult’s only key job is to care for the upbringing of their own kids, it eliminates their desire to help raise other people’s children in the community. This communicates to teens that they are unwanted and uncared for by others in their community.

For example, one day I was with a group of teens at our church when a group of girls walked up to an adult in our community and asked that adult to go to lunch with our group of teenagers. The adult responded by saying, “I have my own lunch with my family, sorry.”

I could see the hope for true fellowship with other adults outside of the youth group leaders go right out of the dreams of this group of girls.

Prior to our individualized culture, communities use to view it as their responsibility to help raise every child within their community. Adults would help raise and care for each child until they had their own kids, then the cycle would repeat itself.

I am a bit of a dreamer. In my dreams I imagine a community that loves its kids and teens so much that they are willing to help raise every child in the faith. Where adults view it as their work to help every kids and teen grasp who they are as a child of God. I can see teens, kids, and adults sit around a table at lunch laughing, crying, and praying together.  During graduations from High School, at plays, or sports games, mom and dad are not the only one’s in the stands, but spiritual grandfathers like Reggie are there cheering along with other spiritual father, mothers, aunts, and uncles.

May you join me in bring in a Kingdom, community, and reality that looks more like that.

March 27, 2013

Finding Salvation

I was sitting with a teen recently who is in their last year of high school and, as many seniors in high school, she had spent the last few months applying for colleges. Now she was in the wait-and-see time—the time that seems like forever, existing between when you send out your college application to when you finally hear back. 

This student had heard back from many of the colleges that she had applied to and even gotten some full-ride scholarships to some of them, yet she was not satisfied. Talking about her post-high school plans she looked at me and just said, “I don’t know what I will do if I don’t get into Stanford. That has been my goal, what if it doesn’t happen?”

I don’t know about you, but I find that when God is trying to say something to me, I am constantly being bombarded by a similar topic. Lately I have been thinking and processing a lot about the topic of salvation.

I was listening to a sermon while I was running at the gym the other day—something that I do a lot—when I heard the preacher make a statement that hit me in a different way. He said, “Whether a person believes in God or not, we as humans are all looking for salvation.” 

The pastor went on to explain that as humans we are all on this process toward redemption. We are all trying to work, push, and move toward a goal, event, or reality that will rescue us from our current situation, or said other way: redeem us. 

Redemption can take many forms. For some, redemption looks like getting that house, living in the right community, or getting into the right college. For others, redemption can take a ‘religious’ overtone to look like getting good enough to come to God, saying a special prayer, or to finally being baptized. No matter what it is, we are all looking for redemption. Sadly, I think many of us are looking in the wrong place or are maybe too busy trying to save ourselves to see that we are drowning.  

I started to think about how I was looking for redemption in my life. After 30 minutes of sweat induced running and sermon listening, it hit me; I was looking for redemption in how others perceived me. If I was not liked by everyone, especially by the teens in my youth ministry and the families in my church, somehow salvation and been moved out of grasp. It was then up for me to work really hard to try to be saved once again. 

It is fear that drives this desire in us to work toward our own salvation: fear from not getting into the right college, fear of death; even the fear of not being liked.

As I continued to process what God was trying to say to me, I started to think about the life of Jesus. How the purpose of him being on earth wasn’t to make people like him, to get into school, or even to be good. His purpose was to be what I could not be, to fulfill the law for me, to be shamed, die and resurrect for me. Ultimately, Jesus came to save me because no matter what I run after or what I fear, I can never save myself. 

That itself is the beauty of the gospel: Jesus saves us while we are messed up, living out of fear, and trying to find salvation in other things. 

My prayer during this Holy Week and Easter season is that I do less and that God does more; to be transformed by God and learn what it means not to work toward my own form of salvation, but allow God to save me. 

What is your prayer?

March 16, 2013

The Invitation to Interpretation

This summer while Katie and I were staying in downtown San Diego for a holiday weekend away, we were craving some really good Mexican food—one of our favorite types of food. No really knowing the area, we turned to our phones and pulled up Yelp to help us find a local Mexican food establishment. With one click, we found out we were only blocks away form a highly rated Mexican restaurant.

As we entered into the restaurant, we did what every person does when they enter into a new environment: we looked around, took in our surroundings and our brains started answering internal questions at a rapid pace. Who is in this restaurant? Am I dressed appropriately? What does the d├ęcor communicate? How expensive is this place? Do I fit in here? What do I have to do to fit in?

After sitting, Katie and I looked at each other and through nonverbal communication we both knew we did not fit in. The restaurant/ bar was filled with 20-30somethings on the prowl for alcohol and physical intimacy.

After sitting at a table of our choosing, I turned to Katie and yelled over the loud music, “I could not feel more old and married right now.”

As humans, we are what are known as “hermeneutical creatures.” In other words, we are always interpreting our surroundings. We can’t help it; it’s a natural part of who we are and how God made us. We are always trying to make sense of the world around us and ask the questions: Do I fit in? How should I act? What do I do? Who am I?

Teenagers are a little different from adults in this respect: they are hermeneutical creatures “on steroids”—they over-interpret everything. They are not only wondering Do I fit in? How should I act? They are asking themselves questions like: What does my shirt communicate about me? What does that look mean? Does my hair look good?  

Teenagers do this because they are in the process of trying to figure out who they are. This journey has vastly changed over the last 10 years. Teenage brains have been trained to take in more information than any previous generation because they were raised in a digital age: an age where they have had to process and take in information at a quick pace. As teens and many 20-somethings take in information they then process and interpret the information quicker than their older counterparts. Therefore, teens and 20-somethings are better at, and desire to, participate in interpreting information more than the generations of the past.

For instance, during lunch with a teenager a few weeks ago, she was talking to me about some teacher as her Christians school and how she felt like they “shove information down her throat” and expect her to just “buy-in” to what they are saying. In other words, they were teaching her what to believe about the Bible by making her learn information theological claims and memories Biblical texts. Never did they stop and ask her to work to interpret the information she was supposed to be taking in. She did not like this model to say the least.

As her youth pastor, I asked her a question: “Do you feel like I do that?”

She just looked at me as said, “No, you invite us to create our own options and have our own reflections on the Bible. If you did what they do, I would just stop coming.”

I could not help but feel good that God had used me to create an environment that invited teens into a place where they felt like they could wrestle with God and develop their own options on scripture.

After I left my lunch with this student, my conversation with this girl stayed with me, I could not stop thinking about what she had said. I started to really wonder if there was a drastic cultural shift happening that was far larger than I had realized.

A month later I was reading a book called, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry by a Lutheran Youth Ministry Writer named Andrew Root. In the book, Root talks about this cultural shift within youth and makes this point: “Therefore, our pursuit when it comes to young people and the Bible is not to fill them up with information, but to invite them into the action of interpretation” (pg. 37).

Root believes that our role in the life of youth is to help them not “know the Bible,” but to “encounter the God who makes Godself know through the Bible” (pg. 37).

As I read Root’s book, a thought occurred to me: What if adults, schools, parents, and the church started to help people process information in this way? Instead of talking at youth and adults, what if we started to view learning as inviting people into a conversation where God was present?

I know this would be more work and take more time, but as culture changes and information becomes more available, learning will become less about memorization and more about invitation. This means that there must be a shift in the way that we help the emerging generations encounter God. Pastors can on longer prompt teens and 20-somethings to memorize and recite articles of faith. Pastors must work to create a space where people are invited to reflect and process the information within community.

One thing we have started to do in our high school ministry is to create what we call, “small group conversations.” These small groups happen right after a message is given. We then number off the teens into random groups of 5 to 7, each with a volunteer leader and one student leader. We then invite the student leader to lead a conversation with the help of questions. Our hope is that in during this group, teens will process the lesson and dig into the Bible together.

The reason we randomly number off the teens is so that they always have new options and insights to challenge the way they think about scripture. At the same time, through this exercise teens get to meet new people that they might not normally try to build a relationship with.

Whether you are a pastor, volunteer, parent, or teen; during this next week, how are you going to invite someone to encounter God with you through reading scripture and having a conversation?

February 14, 2013

Love and Death

There is this faint memory that I have from when I was young, of my grandpa and me riding our bikes down in the riverbed in Riverside, California. In my memory, the sky is a blue only found in the deepest of eyes. The ground below us is a dark black with bright yellow painted lane lines the cut threw the sea of black rushing below us. Trees protrude up into the sky as if they were trying to pierce the heart of the majestic sky. A skinny meandering river runs shows threw the cracks of the tree branches and green leaves. As I look forward into the sea of blue and black ahead of me, I see my grandfather riding ahead of me on his 1980’s slim-rimmed 10-speed look back and smiles at me.

When I hit third grade my grandpa asked me if I wanted to go on a bike ride with him. No little sister or grandma, just him and me. When he first asked me, I felt as if there was a part of me that had graduated into manhood: as if a part of my childhood had passed away and I was entering into a new phase. He took me out to the newer of two bikes and pointed to the bike that I would ride. The bike had brand new tires on it and shined from the polish applied only hours earlier.

As I got on the bike, I asked my grandpa, “where we were going?”

 He just said, “for a ride.”

A few miles later, we ended up at a 1970’s dinner complete with wood paneling and the sad-looking, but friendly waitress with the newest trend in 90’s hairstyles. We sat there and talked about friends, family, girls, and of course our favorite topic: Lakers basketball.

I will never forget the one summer day before the beginning of 6th grade. I asked my grandpa if we were going to go on a bike ride. In responses he simply said, “sure I think I can for a little, my back has been hurting me a little lately.”

A week or so later, I found out my grandpa had cancer in the area of his lover back. When I found out, I knew that I might have to experience something I had never been through before, the death of a loved one.

Almost a year later, my grandpa lost his battle with cancer and passed away. I remember not quite knowing what to do at the funeral, and to this day I only have a few memories of that day. One thing I remember was a walk I took with my dad. We didn’t say much to each other, but the walk meant a lot to me. One thing I do remember my dad saying to me, “death sucks,” in the way only my dad could.

In response, I just nodded my head, “yes,” and continued to cry.

Over the last few weeks I have been meditating on 1 John 4:7-21 and reflecting on the death of Christ and the Love of God. I had thought for a long time that love and death exist in tension with one another: almost as two exist as polar opposites that are bound by some cosmic certainty. Lately though, my perception of death and love has started to change.

We are told in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

For John, the definition of Love is bound to the “atoning sacrifice” of Christ on the cross. Even in the famous statement of Jesus in John 3:16, we see a God who reveals his Love for us through death: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

For the disciple whom Jesus loved, Death and Love cannot be separated. There is an eternal reality in which love itself is bound to the death. For the disciple, the cross of Christ reveals the truest form of love. Therefore, it should not surprise us to see that later on in 1 John 4, the disciple makes this simple but complex statement, “God is love.”

God is Love because he reveals what true love is in the death of his Son. In this action, God not only reveals what it means to love, but also links death to love and love to death.

This reflection has pushed me to abandon my previous view of love and death as polar opposites, and made me believe that they are two as slides of the same coin. As if to get to one reality, you have to pass threw the other. It is only by passing through one side of the coin does a person have a greater understanding of the other’s beauty. Or said in a Biblical sense, it is only through death can one experience a resurrection into the love of God.

It is when we recognize the God who faced death to demonstrate his love for his creation, that we can grasp the deep love of God. The love of God only then moves us toward the act of discipleship where God calls us to “take up our cross” and die to ourselves. We are invited by God to face death in order to not only find life and be resurrected, but to be resurrected into the love of our triune God.

It has been 15 years since my grandfather passed away and I have no doubt that when he died, he passed through death into the love of God.

As followers of Christ, we are called be people who daily pass from death into the love of God. So that we not only experience God’s love breaking into our world, but that we might join in and become the love that God uses to break into the dark places of death in this world.

Therefore, for those who are called to pass through death into life, how is God calling you to pass through death into his love?

(Sorry for any grammatical errors, but editor has been busy. Happy Valentines Day! - Steven)

January 23, 2013

A Letter of Hope. Pastoring Your Students Who Are Now In College

A Hand Written Letter 
A few months ago I walked to my box in the church office to discover a letter addressed to me by a student in her first year of college. As I grabbed the letter, I saw a drawing of “Sonic, the uni-pony,” a beloved mystical creature she drew constantly. Automatically, I smiled because I knew who sent it.

This student is a teen who I was close to while she was in high school and who grew a lot spiritually over her last few years of high school. She was on our student leadership team, involved at the Christian club on her high school campus, and cared greatly for everyone in the youth ministry. In other words, she is one of those students you wish you could duplicate and have in every class of students. Now away at college, I had not talked to her for a while. While I thought about calling her or texting her for a “life-update,” the situations in front of me somehow always drowned out my opportunities to catch up with her. 

As I read the letter I could not help but smile; the words of her letter where like talking to her in person. Her personality leaped off the paper and I could hear her joy for this new phase of life, but also feel her struggle to find time for God in her new schedule or even find a church with no car in a big city.

When I got to the bottom of the page I saw the invitation, “write back soon!” Those three words started a speeding train of thoughts in my brain. What will I write? How will I respond? How do I say thank you for her service to our group while she was in high school?

Soon my thoughts turned to wondering, Did I do enough to help this college student on her journey as a first semester freshman? Did our long conversations about faith life after school over her last year of high school helped her at all?  I started to ask the “Sticky-Faith” question of what would this girl’s faith life look like two, three, or even four years into college. Is there anything I could write to help and encourage her spiritual journey? Then the curse of my responsibility hit me like a board in the face as I thought to myself: I would do anything for this college student, for every one of my teens, to never walk away from the faith.

Pastoring From Afar
Over the last few months I have been reading through the letters of Paul. As I was reading, thinking, and praying one night, something in the introduction to Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica jumped out at me. I read, “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).

Paul spent weeks, months, and even years with many of the beloved churches he helped to plant or pastor. Then Paul moved on, going to the next group of people who God called him to minister to, but his heart never parted from the ones he was called to minister to. He continued to remember those he cared for in his prayers and continued to be involved in their lives as much as he could considering physical separation.

This reflection made me drastically aware of a reality that I had been feeling since many of my old high school students moved away to college; I did not know how to minister to those who where not physically present with me. I could tell someone else what to do if asked, I knew all the right answers and many cool ideas, but I did not know how to be a pastor to my students when they were far away from me.

As I continued to read 1 and 2 Thessalonians, I saw a group of people who felt stuck in a middle place, as if they were trapped between the now and not yet of the Kingdom. This in-between state caused fear in the hearts of the church body in Thessalonica. They had so much fear that they were scared that Christ had returned and left them and they had somehow missed the Kingdom.

The in-between of college kids
A few months before students went off to college, I was sitting with a few of our students—including the letter writer—at  In ‘N’ Out after church. As conversations bounced around the circles of teens like pinballs, I looked over at this teen that was about to head off to college and saw her staring blankly at the group of teens in front of her. Out of nowhere she posed the question to everyone and no one at the same time, “What am I going to do with out this group?”

In the letter from my college student, I could not help but feel the same question she asked at In ‘N’ Out lingering underneath the words on the page. Even after a year of conversations and a “Senior Transition Class,” the in-between of college life hit and many students felt as though Jesus was absent and as if Christ left when they moved off to college.

During Christmas break, I soon learned that despite all the conversations I had with many of the teens before they left for college, no one had found a church home and few really felt that Jesus was involved in their college experiences. For them, following Jesus looked more like not partying, than an active relationship where God was found in everyday life.

A word of hope.
As I continued to read through 1 Thessalonians, I started to see a different picture of what walking next to my students in college looked like. I began to see that my job was not to play “The Church or Christian Club Price is Right!” or “Let’s Make a Church and/or Christian Club Deal!” My job was and is not to be a moral compass for their actions while in college; my job is to help them dive into the emptiness of their faith life and find a God who brings hope out of nothingness.

As I sat with another student over Winter break, the student told me about the drinking and partying that s/he took up while in the first semester of college. As I sat with the student, I asked one question, “where do you see God?”

The student was put off a little by the question, sat back and asked, “What do you mean?”

I clarified, “Where did you see God during your first semester at college?”
As our conversation continued, the student began to point to places where God helped the student while s/he was drunk. S/he pointed to conversations s/he had with atheist friends. The student replied, “I think I did all this stuff because I wanted to run from and heal from all stuff, you know.”

As I sat there, I did not get on the student for drinking or not going to church, I simply sat and asked what role s/he thought God played in this healing?

My reflection.
Reflecting on my reading of 1 Thessalonians and my time with students during the Winter Break, God showed me that pastoring students during their college years looks like doing one thing: working to encourage students to find God in the in-betweenness of college.

As I sat down to write the letter back to my college student, I could not help but feel a little like Paul. I longed to be in the physical presence of this student and to walk with college students through their daily life as I did when they were in High School. Yet as I wrote the letter, I wrote a little differently than I might have before; I did not answer questions or give direction, I simply encouraged this student and pointed to a God who is found in this time of life and longs to bring wonderful things out of this in-between stage of life.