On Rob Bell…broken foots and deep mysteries

Who begins a talk about the mysteries of the cosmos with a story about a broken foot and a Polish jack-of-all-trades miracle worker?

Rob Bell does.

In my last post, which was a review of the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, I ended by alluding that Rob Bell spoke, without giving much print to him.

https://emergingyouth.com/2016/02/22/pym-16-progressing-in-the-cosmos/

Truth be told, Rob was indeed the featured “celebrity” speaker, the reason why some choose to attend the conference and for many the highlight of the weekend.

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For ten years, much of my youth ministry teaching and pulpit preaching drew ideas and insights from Rob Bell’s books and Nooma videos.  I have always appreciated his thoughts and admired his way of communicating.  I know he has received a bad rap by a sub-sect of more fundamental Christians, but I still applaud his vision and was very happy to see him invited to come and speak at this year’s conference.

In classic Bell fashion, he cleverly crafted a story that helped illustrate how every question (and relative answer) always lends to another question…with a set of answers that inevitably lead to more questions..  Etc.. etc.

Every question and answer leads deeper down into mystery.

One of the basic premises of his talk was the view that all discoveries of humanity thus far, have actually done little to make sense of the human experience and emotions involved.  Scientists becomes theologians the moment they exclaim “Wow” at some wonder they observe. Similarly we become theologians when we experience something profound that no discovery can address.

To Bell, the world will always need those who can create spaces for people to share in the unexplained mysteries of life.  The human experience is rife with raw emotions that cannot be simply explained or rationed away.  These emotions and longings draw us inextricably together in ways that modern science (such as quantum entanglement) may beginning to now realize.

The posture for people of faith towards the advancement of the sciences should be an openness without fear that it will limit our view.  Rather, all discoveries and “truth” should be claimed and celebrated as an expanding of God’s presence in the cosmos and our particular lives.

This mindset does indeed enhance, rather than inhibit, our sense of the inter-connectivity of everything and that the presence of God does permeate in all, through all and with all.  This seems to concur with the ancients view of God and Jesus’ own beliefs.  The great religious traditions have a beautiful role to still play in the world, but too often focus on creating (and then defending/protecting/expanding) their own particular “temples” i.e. institutions, buildings, doctrines, denominations, creeds, etc..

The challenge, Rob offered, is for church to build up the temple in order to inspire others but not to focus on the temple…rather tear it down and let the Divine flood into the world.  This does not insinuate that God’s presence and activity is not already permeable throughout the cosmos, but rather how often people of faith believe that it somehow exists and operates almost exclusively within particularities.   The Jews certainly believed that to be true with the Divine and the Temple.  Jesus came onto the scene and radially revolutionized that concept in many ways, one of which was his conversation with a woman at a well:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Sadly, many Christians have continued this false dichotomy and almost dualism by insisting that God can only be found, understood and experienced through very specific (and often limited) means.  This may include one’s particular creed, denomination, theological view, style of music, method of baptism, etc. etc.. etc…

What if….

What if the whole thing is a temple? 

Everything and everywhere.  The heights and depths.  The earth and the heavens.  The past and the future.  Those of homo-sapien origins and perhaps those of extraterrestrial existence?

It seems to me that if this were true, it would expand God’s majesty and beauty, while at the same time enhancing the importance of every aspect of life.  No more would the sacred -secular divide exist, which appears to be what Jesus desired and ushered in.

Well, every question leads to other questions, so I will ruminate on this idea for some time but am glad that Rob came to not only entertain us comically, but also enlighten us theologically in brilliant Bell fashion.

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Are short-term missions shortsighted?

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“Short-term” mission trips.  It is a relatively new venture that works well for Western churches.  There has been much argument over the past few decades as to the importance or impact of these trips.

Who benefits more?  Those we go to serve or the groups going?

It can be helpful to ask long-term missionaries their views on incoming summer teams.

Is there presence helpful or hurtful?  Do these strangers visiting a strange land require extra time, effort and resources for the locals, or do groups bring a much-need blessing?

Another demographic to ask similar questions are the local charitable organizations or churches.

I have been on, or lead, over thirty of these trips during my time in youth ministry.  I do believe much good has come from these experiences.  I certainly know the impact these trips have had on my students.  Like our actual time-serving, some of the impact was very short-lived.  However, over the years I have witnessed profound changes in hearts and lives and, perhaps most importantly, a genuine and lasting passion for missions in many people.

Sadly though, too often these trips become glamorize cultural experiences that have little long-term effect on either side of the equation.

A recent piece from The Onion (satire news source) highlights a very real and growing concern for short-term mission trips.

http://www.theonion.com/articles/6day-visit-to-rural-african-village-completely-cha,35083/

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I am just as guilty of this as anyone…I will admit that.  Following any of my trips, I am eager to post pictures and share stories that will last until the next adventure.

What we often fail to realize is that the people we intend to serve need much, much more than our presence and some photo op’s for two weeks.

Their lives, struggles and needs continue well past our “work vacation” and sometimes actually increase because of our time there.

I know of local organizations who actually lost money because of incoming groups.

I also know of groups raising close to $40,000 simply to travel some exotic country and virtually zero dollars remained in that country.

I have experienced both of these situations personally as well.

Knowing what the real needs and estimated costs to meet those needs would be, sometimes I shudder to think how much good could be given for the cost of one plane ticket.

But..we want the personal experience.

I have begun to ask this very honest question upon my travels:

What do you need the most?  How can we support and serve you the most effectively?

Do you know what their honest answers are?

Resources.

The truth is that every single place I have been and situation I have encountered, I have met amazing women and men who have inspiring vision, uncanny ability and ample time to really help their community.  What they lack is perhaps the one thing that my group possesses in abundance.  Money.

While I am still in favor on traveling to these places to visit people, hear their stories, encourage them and hopefully help in a practical way, I think it is essential that we bring more than just our smiles and “selfies”.

I recently asked on of my students to reflect and share his thoughts on past experiences and what he believes would be the best type of service trip.

Here is his response:

“Humanitarian work is different from tourism, as the purpose of the trip is serving the interests of the local population. Of course, those who leave benefit from the trip as well. But today mission trips are somewhat growing into some sort of “sustainable tourism”, a “to do” thing, offering wonderful cultural experiences to people from developed countries but only impacting the local situation superficially.
Many people today want to go on mission trips. The chief question in order for their trip to be helpful is to seriously ask yourself what you have to offer. Will your teaching of english in this school be of substantial help to the local population? For most fluent english speakers the answer is yes, provided that the kids focused on are attending a medium to long-term educational program.
Indeed the missions with the most impact are not the amateur ones but those of professional NGOs such as Médecins sans frontières for example. Partnering with that  type of organisms could probably be an efficient way to go about saving poor regions of the world – although i’ve never looked into it.
To me, an efficient trip would also imply spending at least three weeks to a month on spot – there is not much you can do efficiently in two weeks even if you are relayed by another group afterwards. Sadly most people, and I too for the moment, are not ready to leave a whole month in the summer vacations.
Of course, as discussed, I think it is also important to bring a cheque. A lot of places do not really need a hand, but are cruelly strapped for money.”
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Do you agree or disagree?
For those of you leading summer mission trips this summer, I would love to hear your thoughts either in preparation or reflection.
I will post various comments this summer and also create a list to think through before planning or leading your next short-term trip.
Perhaps these trips must continue  but perhaps we can do a better job being a blessing to those we go to serve.

#PYM14

I used that hash tag quite often a few weeks ago while in Chicago.

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The Progressive Youth Ministry 2014 conference was my destination and reason I fly across the ocean from France back to the good ole’ U.S of A.  This has been a conference many have dreamed about for years.  Prior to moving, I would attend a few youth ministry seminars and conference each year.  Some big and some small but each time I would discover a like-minded affinity group of “progressives”.  Often treated like the extra grandchildren at Thanksgiving, we would be relegated to the “kids table” of some small room or late night pub discussion.  But from these encounters and interactions, deep friendships were forged and a vision born.

PYM14 was organized by the JoPa group and came together under the leadership of Tony Jones and John Vest, and I could not have been happier.

http://pym.thejopagroup.com/

The question left undefined, by design, was “What does ‘progressive’ even mean?  Moreover, how does one describe a progressive youth ministry?  While I have yet to answer those questions, I did realize a few things.

First, “progressive” does not mean liberal.  I really despise those division terms of conservative and liberal anyway.  Progressive also does not mean “anti-evangelical”

I was surprised to learn that approximately half of the over 200 attendees came from some form of “evangelical” background.  True, the vast majority of those are no longer working in those type of contexts, but are also unwilling to completely disassociate from their heritage.  The is a general belief and hope that the “left” and “right” can find beautiful points of convergence and experience a holy embrace.  Yes, this kiss might look ugly and sloppy at times, but at least it implies some form of connectivity and relationality.  We will see what this future looks like, but I sensed a palpable energy of openness to include those radically different.

Progressives do have a few common characteristics (in general).  Most support the rights of women and the LGBT community while also welcoming and affirming them within the Church.  While active in social and political issues, most progressives remain from political alignment, recognizing the importance of official separation. I would probably be unfair to say there were few Republicans in attendance, so I will not say that 🙂

Most importantly, the commonality shared in this conference was threefold:

1) Love for God and desire to serve the Church

2)  Passion for teenagers and belief they can change the future of the Church and world.

3)  Uncanny and unafraid openness to believe that God is bigger than we and the Spirit of Christ is, in fact, active and engaged in our world and future (and not just in the past)

Many attendees have blogged about their experiences.  You can read some of those here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/ProgYouthMin/223427967852288/?notif_t=group_activity

The following is a well-worded excerpt from Tony Jones’s blog, one of the organizers and key leaders in the conversation.  His reflection and sentiment cannot be better articulated, so I will let him speak for himself, and all those who attended!

“The speakers were incredible. Jeff Chu and H. Adam Ackley, a transgender theology professor spoke out of their own experience of being queer in their youth, and each of them explained how they could have been better ministered to by their churches.

And we listened.

Other speakers addressed how women are portrayed in rap and hiphop music, what “death of god” theology could mean in a confirmation class, what kind of youth pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and why process theology doesn’t suck. Otis Moss III preached us in, and Laura Truax preached us out. In other words, the content was amazing.

But something even more important happened last week at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago.

What happened in that room was that we had a sense that something special is happening. There was an unmistakeable sense that we have an opportunity to claim a significant voice in the conversation about what youth ministry is in America, that we can fight back against moralistic therapeutic deism, and that we can start to articulate a view of God that is generous, life-affirming, and inclusive. We have a tribe — that’s a clear take-away from last week.

For myself, I knew from the opening session that I was among people whom I understood, and who understood me. Most of my own leadership skills were honed in youth ministry, so I appreciate the challenges that many of the folks in that room face. But I also knew that the energy in the room could only have been generated by youth workers. The laughter was a bit louder, the singing a bit bolder, and the tears a bit less restrained than we’d ever get at a different kind of pastor’s conference.”

People always ask me where I will “land” in ministry, and for now specifically youth ministry.  I certainly receive a warm “home” welcoming back from so many friends, both old and new.  The conference was fun and entertaining, especially the live podcast of Homebrewed Christianity with Tripp Fuller.

http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2014/04/13/youth-ministers-the-niebuhr-revival-pastormark-other-goodies-pym14/

This tribe speaks my language and speaks up for the issues closest to my heart. Yet one key admonishment during the week was for this small band of progressives not to become “tribal”.  Very easily that can happen.

I am glad to have feet in both camps of theological tradition and practical ministry.  I appreciate my evangelical heritage and foundation but also deeply appreciate the progressive soul and lived-out gospel.

My sincere hope is to continue to converse and communion with all youth workers from all denominations, traditions, backgrounds, races, and cultures.  For that is where the Body of Christ is most beautiful.

Thank you to #PYM14 for a much-needed voice and platform in the expanding world of youth ministry. 

Times are changing, and as the Spirit progresses forward ahead us, so must we. 

Reclaiming Saint Nicholas

Today, December 6, is the feast of Saint Nicholas, as celebrated by Christians around the world (both Protestant and Catholic)

http://magnificat.ca/cal/engl/12-06.htm

I will never forget the day my parents broke the horrible news to me about Santa.  I had been watching TV and a commercial with the big man in a red suit appeared and I ran to the TV and kissed his image and exclaimed “Santa I love you!”.  It may have been the borderline idolatry and worship of this fictional character or the fact I was 16 that lead my parents to share the “truth” with me.  (Ok, I wasn’t exactly 16….).

So, they sat me down and told me the cold hard facts that put Santa on equal terms with the Easter bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Hulk Hogan. Yet I still choose to believe that Wrestle Mania was real!

I was crushed.  Certain fantasies are meant to only last so long I suppose.

Looking back what I find interesting is the “truth” about Santa Claus was more of demythologizing of him than shedding light on the actual truth of his origins.

I know many parents who do not let their kids believe in Santa (they use clever mind control tactics developed in Russia)

Others, without the budget or insanity, simply prohibited the images of jolly ole’ Saint Nick and the watching of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in their homes.  Now clearly, if you live in the U.S one would have to lock up your child inside to completely isolate them from Santa.  Besides, he knows when you are sleeping and knows when you are awake!

What many do is realize the cultural saturation of the Coca-Cola Claus propaganda, and at an early age tell their children he is simply a myth.  These kids then become more mature and sensible than their peers because they are not deceived into believing a lie.  Think about the mom in A Miracle on 34th Street and you begin to get the picture!

Now this can be done with a bit more tact and sensitivity than some parents use, and certainly more than Vince Vaughn in the following scene:

Parents, please don’t get mad at me if you happen to take that approach.  To each his or her own.

However…..rather than the above mentioned approaches, here is what I propose and some close friends are doing.  (I think this can and should apply to all Christians and not just parents)

We can reclaim good ole’ St. Nick by sharing the story of the historical (and very real) Saint Nicholas.  I find it interesting that many people do not know there was a real clergy member of the Church named Nicholas, and those who do, know very little about his life and faith.

By teaching about the life journey and faith of saints like Nicholas, tribute is paid to the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us.  Theology, doctrine, discipleship, piety, and obedience can be on display and promoted during the season instead of just shiny little lights and Xbox games.

I personally believe that reclaiming Saint Nicholas back to the truly “Christian” aspect of Christmas can tie in the theological implications and reality of the incarnation with the cultural phenomenon that has become the holiday on December 25.

Attempting this dialogue and conversation may serve better than placing Santa at the nativity  (although I suppose I can appreciate the intent)

I am no expert of the life and teachings of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, but I will provide a brief synopsis and helpful links for further research and study.

Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea where it is reported he helped defend the deity of Christ in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, supposedly formed in his grave.

There are many legends and fables about his miracles and acts of service which help explain the progression towards the modern-day creation of Santa Claus.

During this Christmas season, we should keep focused on the real miracle of Christ’s incarnation.  Let us never lose sight of that.  However, if you are like me and still really do enjoy the North Pole, those cute little elves, and leaving cookies for Santa, then perhaps getting back to the actual origins of Saint Nick just might keep yourself and kids balanced a bit more than previous years.

St. Nicholas of Myra

Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch

(Also called NICHOLAS OF BARI).

Christianity Today- The Real Saint Nicholas

Catholic Online- Saint Nicholas

http://magnificat.ca/cal/engl/12-06.htm

Taking a fast train to “Thrive” ville

From October 21 to November 3 over 100 students converge upon Luxembourg City for the annual AICEME Youth Conference.  Members from our ACP lycée group will be taking the famous high-speed TGV train to be amongst the scores of teenagers also traveling by plane or train for this weekend getaway in the tiny country of Luxembourg.

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Our host is All Nations Church and they will be celebrating their 10th anniversary the weekend of our arrival.  http://www.allnationschurch.lu/en/ 

Each year, the Association of Churches in Europe and the Middle East (AICEME) hosts a number of gatherings and conferences including the Pastors and Spouse conference, Youth Pastors conference and also this Youth Conference.

You can visit the website to learn more  http://www.aiceme.net

AICEME is an association of Christian congregations, bearing witness to the Gospel and serving Jesus Christ among English-speaking people throughout Europe and the Middle East.  AICEME member churches are diverse in style, tradition, denominational affiliation, and membership.  Many of the churches were started by English-speaking Christians from North America. Today, the association includes believers from 6 continents who are business people, expatriates, diplomats, refugees, missionaries, and students.

What brings everyone together is the English language and  love for Christ.

There are approximately twenty-eight member churches in this association and each church has middle school and high school students involved.  While some churches are not yet able to hire a youth pastor or have an official “youth group”, AICEME creates an opportunity once a year for all churches to send students to an international conference where they can make new friends, be inspired in their faith and equipped as a follower of Jesus.

What I have discovered is that these Third-Culture students find commonality and solidarity with one another and instantly forge friendships.  Why?  Party due to the fact that they are all accustomed to transitions and having to open up to new students on a regular basis.  Many of these churches are full of transient families and, like my church here in Paris, have learned to become a welcoming community for all, even if only traveling through for six months.

Another reason why students love this conference is that they understand each other.  Many are from multi-cultural families, speak multiple languages, have dual citizenship, feel 100% comfortable at an airport by age twelve,  and struggle to answer the often posed question “Where are you from?”

So, once a year we gather from across Europe to support and encourage one another.  This year the 2013 AICEME Youth Conference is themed THRIVE  Real faith: Real life

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Youth pastors from various churches will lead the main sessions and seminars and we have city-wide treasure hunt and Serve the City opportunity to focus our time on having fun together, exploring this new city and serving those in need.

I am honored to be part of a church that supports this association and believes in the importance of our students learning, worshipping, serving, and living alongside each other as we embrace our unity in diversity as followers of Christ.

“Open Paris, in a word”~ thoughts from Marko

*taken from the blog http://whyismarko.com/2013/open-paris-in-a-word/

This last weekend, Adam and i were in paris for The Youth Cartel‘s event called Open Paris. these “Open” events have been adam’s birth-baby, shaped by this short manifesto of vision. but each Open event is completely unique, since there’s a high level of ownership given away to the local organizing team.

i’ll admit something here: while i thought the vision of doing one of these in paris was fun, i was a tad skeptical that it would actually work.

but i was wrong. 100%.

50 youth workers from 7 or 8 countries came. by most event planning metrics, that’s not a win. for this event, it was totally a win. the event had a relational dynamic as a result. we learned from each other; but we also hung out together. like: i have new youth worker friends now who live in germany and holland and england and france.

so, Open Paris in 5 words: LOCATION WAS HARD TO BEAT

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Open Paris in 4 words: OUR HOST WAS AMAZING

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Open Paris in 3 words: FELLOWSHIP TRUMPS PROGRAM

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Open Paris in 2 words: CURIOSITY WINS

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Open Paris in 1 word: LIMINAL*

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* a thin place, often used to describe a spiritual thin place. in this case, a place where the kingdom of god and the world of humans overlapped.

Open Paris…in review

Open Paris

This past weekend, 50 youth workers from across the E.U., U.K. and the U.S converged upon Paris for the inaugural Open Paris.

We were tremendously blessed with a stacked lineup of diverse speakers and seminars including Mark Oestreicher, Andrew Marin, Chris Kidd, Chris Curtis, Gemma Dunning, Markus Eichler, Tabea Weiler, Tim Eldred among others.

Tim Eldred

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For the full range of the schedule, seminars and vision for Open Paris you can check out the website here:http://paris.openym.org

Hosting was fun and I really enjoyed playing tour guide in the city of Paris and The American Church in Paris.

More importantly, I loved connecting up with such a wide array of youth workers from 6-7 different countries. Each person shared his or her unique story, context, struggles, successes, hopes and dreams for God’s work in the lives of their students.

Some of the highlights for me included a very delicious traditional French dinner served for all guests on Friday evening followed by a sacred time of worship in the church’s catacombs.

(photos courtesy of Tim Eldred and Andrew Marin)

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Open Paris was highly interactive, participatory, inclusive and relational.

In my opinion that is the way forward for youth worker gatherings.

Though some well-known speakers were on site, Open Paris was NOT about creating a dichotomy between the “professionals” and the ordinary youth workers.  We were all together all the time, and this is unique among these type of conferences.

Open Paris was about taking some bold risks and opening up honest conversations about real issues facing youth workers today including ministering to the ever-increasing LGBT community, embracing ecumenicalism as a way forward,  and inter-faith dialogue in pluralistic contexts.

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I applaud the vision of The Youth Cartel (Adam and Marko) for desiring to create this kind of atmosphere and am excited to see what the future holds for other Open events and also for the connectivity and friendship of youth workers across Europe.

We have much to learn from each other and I hope to see more of these gatherings in the near future!

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