Thursday, July 26, 2012

Poisonous Berries and Theology

Margot wanted someone to eat one of the berries. "Then we would know if they were poisonous," she said from a tree branch. She had followed her sister and cousin up a small trunk. They were collecting fruit and nuts.


I warned all the kids that the berries were fatal. Uncle-Daddy's word should be enough. I am educated and trustworthy guardian. Nevertheless, Margot wanted proof. She wanted to witness a death. No one from our party offered. I could see her scanning the playground for volunteers. Only first-hand experience would convince my daughter.

The way we elevate personal experience over theology amuses me. Mom said the stove was hot, but her daughter didn't buy it until she got burned. Jesus forecast his resurrection, but Thomas didn't believe until feeling the nail holes. Pastor Dick stressed the efficacy of prayer, but member Jane didn't believe until her request was answered.

C.S. Lewis once wrote about the difference between theology and experience using the metaphor of a map. Many a man has preferred getting lost on SR 13 than consult a map. Most people would prefer a dip in the Atlantic to a class on oceanography. Both have their place. And yet, stressed Lewis, the map was born of out years of exploration and experience. Tried and tested and refined over time.

Theology is a map. It has been tried and tested and refined over time. It was born out of years of exploration--Abraham went and Moses wandered--and experience--Jesus arose and the Spirit descended.

When our experience does not conform to our orthodoxy, we pit ourselves against a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). I can swallow what my Uncles and Fathers in the faith have said, or trust my five senses.

The fruit dangles. What will you chose?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spam and Southern Hospitality

"On five," I instructed. We each had a fresh slice of Spam on our forks. Six of us committed to eating the mystery meat together. My wife and I were hosting Operation Barnabas students in their final week of tour.

"One. Two..."

"Wait," interrupted Karly. "Are we eating on One or saying Five and eating?"

The Spam was not getting any hotter. Or fresher.

"Five. Then we eat," I said. "And close your eyes; it might help."

We resumed our count. "One. Two. Three. Four. Five." We bit down, but Spam does not require chewing. It slides. Several girls shuttered. One found it agreeable. We possibly changed a life this morning.

Operation Barnabas is all about life change. Every summer they gather nearly one hundred teenagers from across the country to live as itinerant missionaries out of a big blue bus. They follow the model of Joseph, who was called Barnabas because of his great encouragement to the church (Acts. 4:36). They organize pep rallies for Jesus, animating puppets and turning shreds of paper into crucifixes. They sing and serve and eat more hot dogs than Kobayashi, all with a smile on their faces.

Their tour leads them to different cities, churches, and host homes. Sometimes they have to sleep on the floor. Sometimes they eat Spam. It is a summer filled with memories.

"We'll remember yours as the Spam house," Alex said. I was proud of my family for such tremendous hospitality. We might list our house on and cite Spam as an amenity. Then again, opening my home to random travelers with Spam fetishes gives me a stomach ache.

Or perhaps I'm still reeling from breakfast.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why More Adult Volunteers Should Attend Youth Conferences

"I'm trying to teach this kid how to take notes," Nick said. He serves as the Junior High Youth Pastor at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church. He'd gotten up from his folding chair on the second level of the EKU's Alumni Auditorium. Nearly 2000 bodies filled the room for Momentum Youth Conference, most of them were teenagers. Many did not know how to take notes.

"Francis Chan was good," Nick admitted. "But how do you take notes on what he said?"

Nick made a good point. I heard Francis Chan speak the previous morning. Actually, "speak" is an understatement. Francis bellows. He shakes his fits and pumps his arms. He bows to the ground and punches the floor.

What he doesn't do is open his Bible much. He fails to fixate on a single text or story, but chases rabbits down trails and holes. He drums up excitement and makes energy, but his main point is elusive. Something about courage. Or experience. Or evangelism. Or the failures of the church. Or the flavors of In-N-Out Burger.

Nick and I watched the students nod and laugh and raise their hands in commitment. We also noticed their notebooks were empty and their Bibles closed.

But perhaps youth conferences are not the context for expository preaching. Perhaps they are spiritual pep rallies or religious Tea Parties. Learning the Bible is antiquated. "Live the Bible," is the cry for the Next Generation.

Unfortunately, you cannot live what you do not know. You cannot practice the "radical life" of a disciple if you've never observed how Jesus called John and rebuked Peter and overthrew Legion and confounded Levi and subverted Pilot. For truly radical living takes the Bible seriously. Cracks it open. Takes notes. And then hits the streets.

This is why we need more adult volunteers to attend youth conferences. Adults can help students outline the ideas of Francis Chan. They can reiterate salient points and Scripture references. They can help students become better at knowing.

In turn, the students will inspire the adults to become better doers. Adults can ride in the wake of junior high enthusiasm. They can prove Francis Chan wrong about the church being "Head knowledge only." They can set an example in thoughtful engagement with their communities. They can live noteworthy lives, as their students observe. Bibles open. Pens ready.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flirting with Norma and Making Disciples

Norma wanted to flirt. She greeting our youth group by calling us cute. I told her I was married, but she could have the boy beside me who wore a cool hat. His name was Wesley. He was young enough to be her great grandson.
Wesley wears a cool hat and provides oversight. a way of preparing our students for Momentum Youth Conference--their annual, 5-day pep rally for Jesus--the youth leaders scheduled opportunities to live out the theme: UNSEEN. Jesus calls us to care for "the least of these" (Matt. 25). James defined "true religion" as caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). So we took our students to a nursing home to play Bingo and flirt with Norma.

I'm admittedly divided on the role of so-called mountain top experiences for teenagers (read Disservice from Momentum 2010). I've been there. I've confessed my sins. I've made my commitments. I've lit candles to seal them in wax. I've also let the fire grow dim and sinned again. We all do. 

The spiritual high is bittersweet when we descend into the valley of daily habits and homework assignments.

What has helped me keep perspective this year is an idea from the book Almost Christian (Oxford, 2010). The author salutes "immersion experiences" (e.g., camps, retreats, missions trips, youth conferences) for teens, as long as parents and youth leaders adequately prepare and debrief. Dean writes, "[T]hese experiences are only as good as the guidance before and debriefing after" (pg. 153).
Most of the players use two cards to increase their odds of winning.
Guidance Before: Last night we played Bingo with fifteen residents of Grace Village. We met a Navy vet and a retired teacher. We watched one person drool, one fall asleep, and another cheat. We flirted with Norma and shouted "B-12" so the hard of hearing could discern it.
Caleb celebrates his birthday by giving to others.
Debriefing After: After we return from Momentum, we will feed the homeless. We will fill their plates, hear their stories, and tell them about Jesus. They will probably complain about the food.

Ongoing Conversations: Between these experiences, we continue to discuss how to engage with dropouts and losers, handicapped and handcuffed, outcasts and elderly. We showed them how Jesus made a life of it. We pray and hope they see.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Man UP dies...well

When I first envisioned Man UP, the dead surrounded me. Claire and I were enjoying one of our weekend scooter rides through Oakwood Cemetery. We scanned tombstones for the name David Plaster, my college mentor. I whispered stories about the deceased in my daughter's ear.
Every tombstone tells a story. Oakwood Cemetery

I wanted the men of our church to hear these stories, too. Pastors and conference speakers have overplayed the metaphor of the dash--the small grammatical stroke between birth and death that constitutes life. The dash tells only part of the story. Other telling signs adorn the burial plot: flowers and flags; Bible verses and Mason marks; toy tractors and family names.

Oakwood Cemetery is an expanding library. Five new titles arrived this week.
The exapanding library at Oakwood Cemetery

I sent our men off with a blank peice of paper (naked we come from the womb) and crayon. They sought out their first name or year of birth on tombstones. Williams and Fredericks outscored Timothys and Micahs forty to nothing. Fortunately, my birth coincided with Mr. Dillinger's death in 1979.
Brian Beery forges his last name.
After rubbing names and dates on the page, each man wrote his obituary. We returned to the chapel to share notes, sing Victory in Jesus, and pray for one another. Only Art volunteered to read his obituary. "Art Bushen was a servant who embraced joy, followed Jesus, and longed to hear God say, 'Well done.'"

I almost heard it spoken from the heavens this morning. Perhaps Art did, too. The old man teared up. This was a fitting and good death to Man UP. The end is not so bad when resurrection looms.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Spinning Wheels: a ministry metaphor

"I'm going to be productive today," I told my wife on Monday. I'd already accomplished several goals: laundry, exercise, unloading the dishwasher, watering the lawn, and making breakfast for the family. I hoped to take the momentum into my study at the church. I even cancelled a lunch so I could dedicate my attention to tasks.

On Monday mornings I get things done. 
  • I pick up bulletins shoved under seats in our auditorium, fill in the empty blanks, and throw them into trash cans.
  • I write a weekly email to our church called "PTs Weekly Feed," which serves as a virtual reminder that I exist beyond Sunday's, and, yes, my sermon did have a point.
  • I edit the recording of the message and post it online. I take out the heresy, removed awkward pauses, and add a laugh track. Then I publish for a swelling fan base.
  • I turn in my receipts, update my expense account, and cringe at the number of milkshakes I consumed in the previous week (4).
By lunchtime, I've worked up an appetite.

For the rest of the week, I find myself bouncing between coffee shops and bookmarks, spinning my wheels in between. I'm trying to write a book. I'm trying to develop curriculum. I'm trying to fuel a movement. I'm trying to counsel, coach, and keep tabs on people. I'm trying to build readership and take leadership and have fellowship and play Battleship.

My boat is sinking. My wheels are spinning. This is ministry, and I am not alone.

I guy from my church asked me to bike to Churubusco with him a few weekends ago. He's training for a bike ride across Iowa, so I felt obliged. We drove there and back. The end point was the starting line. No real progress. We spun our wheels; the sun burnt our legs. 

Before my neighbor left for youth camp last week, he asked me to water his plants. He told me he subscribed to my blog (Hi, Marc!), so I felt obliged. His flowers melted halfway through the week. His students' hearts did not. He spins his wheels; the grip of apathy continues to hold.

I shot baskets with a few guys from my church yesterday. The wind picked up and made a good shot impossible. (Most of us liked the excuse!) One guy shouted at the wind to stop. I told Him Jesus did that once, and the wind obeyed. Yesterday it kept howling; we continued to miss.

These vignettes underscore the difference between accomplishing tasks and engaging people. Checking items off a list equals progress. Americans love progress. Contrarily, nurturing the life of Jesus in people feels more like a slow climb up a gentle grade. The hamstrings burn as the wheels spin. The top of the hill brings little relief because the rider knows the road does not end at the peak. The journey continues. The horizon looms. The wheels must keep spinning.