5 Weeks Later: An Update on Lenten Fasting.

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As I sit here at my computer I am looking out at the tree lined street on which I live.  I can count about 12 trees of various types and heights.  All but the Pine were completely lifeless ten days ago.  Now every single one is bursting with life and I can see gorgeous shades of green, white, pink, red and even some gold.

Believe it or not, the sudden outburst of Spring is the fiercest temptation yet to betray my Lenten fast.

After all, Lent is such a winter season.  It begins with that lifeless and sobering proclamation, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”  The Lectionary passages build on that theme, full of somber darkness, from week 1’s gospel passage about temptation and John the Baptist’s beheading to week 4’s poisonous serpents in Numbers 21.

But every Lent, right around week 5 that somber sobriety gets old and seems quite out of date, especially as winter is fading quickly.  And as winter gets old, so to does my Lenten Fast.

Every single Lent I usually have forgotten I was fasting about now.  That is one of the ironies of this church season.  Every January I begin thinking about what to give up. And I always try to pick the most difficult thing, that thing that is not only most creative, but most central to my life.  After all, the idea of fasting is to give up something you will dearly miss.  That way, when you long for it you can redirect the longing towards God.  Therefore, giving up something arbitrary is pointless.

And yet despite trying my hardest whatever I gave up in February seems quite nonexistent in March.  Those things which seemed so integral to my life a month ago are now barely remembered.

Yet therein lies the temptation, because it is a lot easier to take back up something arbitrary than something more weighty.

With warmer weather and the fast getting old, it is easier to betray yourself accidentally, to just flick on the TV or eat that one piece of chocolate or drink that one sip of coffee or whatever it is, simply because we forgot we were fasting it.  After all fasting is for winter and Spring is blooming outside my window.

Next week, Holy Week, I will double down on my fast, choosing to give up more substantial things like food, running and coffee.  That will serve to fight off any other temptation I might be experiencing right now.  However, that is next week.  This week I am stuck in bed, sick with some concotion of a head cold, allergies and a stomach bug and those video games are looking mighty enticing, mostly because I am bored.

So instead, I chose to write about all this in the hopes that maybe some of you can relate at all to any of this.  If you can, I want to assure you, as a way of reassuring myself, that you are not alone.  That seemingly arbitrary thing you gave up which is now knocking at your door can be resisted until Easter puts to death once more the lifeless winter of our souls.

That afternoon, after the sunrise services and baptisms and church breakfasts and family lunches, when you can purposefully kill off your fast, as you turn the TV on or brew a pot of coffee or eat a morsel of chocolate, I hope you feel the Resurrection power anew.

Until then, may God’s grace lead us to the cross.

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Lessons Learned from a Brief Stint in Youth Ministry

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My current congregation has always had a youth group but the church itself has never known what to do with it.

In the years before I got here they often ran 50-60 teens on Wednesdays.  However, on my first Wednesday 4 teenagers showed up.  Last night we had 25.  Our high was 36.  Our low was 2.

Next week will be my last Wednesday.  There will be 6 kids that I handpicked to play video games with.  The week after that there will be zero and I will be in Salt Lake City.

As you can tell by the numbers it has been a crazy ride.  A year ago I died to youth ministry, telling my congregation that youth ministry was not in our DNA.

At that time I was meeting weekly with 2 kids to watch movies, play games and eat pizza.  Those were some wonderful times.  I invited a junior high girl to come join us and she brought friends.  .  .a lot of friends.  Suddenly we had a youth group again and still no idea what to do with them.

We served them dinner every week.  If it wasn’t unhealthy they did not eat it.  We caved and gave them sloppy joes, hotdogs and pizza.  We tried singing with them.  They talked over the songs.  We tried do a Bible study.  They talked through the lesson.  We showed movie clips.  They talked through the movie clips.

We settled on 15 minutes of lesson and 15 minutes of small groups.  The junior high talked through the lesson and the small group.  The senior high talked through the lesson and stared blankly through the small group.

One night a girl jumped/got pushed off of our 15 foot high deck.  Miraculously she was okay.  Last week the teens tried to climb onto a train passing by our building.  The train conductor came out and yelled at them and me.  Every night someone cries from getting tackled or punched or insulted.

So, yeah, it has been a wild ride.  But when all is said and done here are some things I have learned.

1) If you Open It They Will Come

When I tell my suburban youth pastor friends that we run 20-30 un-churched kids they gasp and say, “You must be doing something right.”

Well, I am not.  In a small, impoverished town where the teens don’t have theaters, coffee shops, gas money, amusement parks etc. if you open your building they will come.  Drawing a crowd is not the problem.  Doing something structured and beneficial with the crowd is the real challenge.

2) Respect That They Are There By Choice

Before I arrived our youth group had gone from 35 to 4 because the adults had invented a whole bunch of rules and structure that made the group feel like kindergarten.

If the parents make them come, you can have control.  The parents in our community look at it as a reward for good behavior.  My favorite line was, “If I am good, mom lets me come here.  If I am bad she makes me go to the other church.”  So anything you do that punishes the kid for showing up turns into them storming off with all their friends.  One night we had 20 for dinner and 5 for the lesson because one person got mad there was a lesson and left.  The friends and siblings followed.  I felt an inch tall.

3) Youth Group Only Works as Outreach if You Befriend the Parents

I just don’t buy the way to reinvigorate a church is through the children and teens.  I have heard of it happening, but seldom.  However, when it has happened, I think it is because the pastor intentionally engaged the parents.

So when the weather got cold in November we suddenly had a line of cars and SUVs picking kids up at 8 o’clock.  So I hung out on the street at 7:55 and walked up to every window, introducing myself and getting to know the parents.  Last night I had three conversations at car windows where we laughed about life and I listened to them tell me about their stress and frustrations.

In fact one of the kindest compliments I have yet received was given to me.  A grandfather told me, “I am not religious at all.  I really don’t want much to do with it but when I talk to you my heart lets me know there is something wonderful in you.”  I cried on my way to the next car.

4) Numbers Matter Less Than We Even Say They Do

If you read any book on ministry it will talk about how little the numbers matter.  Every pastor I know has those lines memorized and we quote them to each other all the time, usually to provide comfort.

But none of us really believe it.  We obsess over the numbers more than teenage girls obsess over their body image (and for the same reasons).

Yet in my case, this last year of youth ministry has completely cured me from the numbers game.

My biggest mistake was not getting rid of some of the kids sooner.  The sudden surge in numbers was so miraculous that I was afraid of squandering what God had done for me.  So I let kids get away with things that I should not have.  I should have said the line, “If you don’t like it, you are welcome not to come” way more often than I did.

Surprisingly when I did say that line, the kids always came back the next week and mostly behaved.

Still, the reality is that you can do things with 10 kids that you just can’t do with 30.  You can memorize the names of 10 kids.  You can play games that are controlled and fun.  And you can get them to love each other like you love them.  With 30 that is nearly impossible.  You are just babysitting.

5) Adult to Teen Ratio is Everything

You cannot have too many adults helping run a youth ministry.  I used to think the best adult to kid ratio is 1 to 1.  Now I am reading it is actually 5 adults to every 1 teen.

But the adults must be willing to engage the teens both in church and out of church.  If I could do it over again I would intentionally invest in 5 adults from our church over 3-6 months before even restarting youth group.

The sessions would not be training sessions.  They would be discipleship sessions.  We would study Scripture and talk honestly about our frustrations of today’s youth.  I would let them in on the research I know and listen to their ideas as well.  We would pray together and dream together.  And, yes, I would gently reprimand the adults for the lousy attitudes they have towards youth.

After that 3-6 months I would journey with the adults as we engage the teens in our community.  We might pick just two or three youth to begin with and take them out for pizza or hiking or roller skating or shooting.  Then we would build from there.

But that is neither here nor there.  It was what it was and it was as fun as it was frustrating.

The good end to the story is that last Spring a group of people in the church decided to start an archery ministry.  Due to safety concerns and equipment, we can only have 12.  So we hand picked the 12 from our roster.  We picked kids that we knew could behave and learn and grow.

In addition, we have 7 adults who stepped up to help and every Tuesday the 12 teens get one on one archery coaching from those 7 adults.  It is amazing and miraculous and what we should have been doing all along.  That ministry will keep going after I am gone in a few weeks.

And that gives me a great amount of hope.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Volf’s Free of Charge

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Two significant things happened this week.  First, I read Miroslav Volf’s “Free of Charge.”  I bought it for $3 which I thought was a ripoff considering the title of the book.  The second was that my 1 year old IPod was stolen out of my unlocked car.

These things were not all that significant in the grand scheme of things.  I read books all the time and stuff gets stolen all the time.  Still the two were related.  Whoever stole my IPod wronged me and Volf’s book is about what to do when wronged.  So they are maybe worth writing about together.

The fun thing about my IPod disappearing was how complex the situation was.  It was not just a thief finding an easy target.  Instead everything about our world gets pulled into this event.

First off, you have my invincible naivete that wholeheartedly believed because I live in a small town things like IPods won’t disappear out of cars.  This naivete remained even after a conversation I had with a police officer who explained to me that stuff disappears out of cars all the time in Elgin.  I didn’t believe him and that was my bad.  So am I to blame?  My wife thinks so but I won’t go there.

Another layer surrounds the Toyota Motor Company who built my car.  The engineer who designed the locks put together an impossibly complex automatic system that sometimes locks the doors after 30 seconds of inactivity and sometimes keeps them unlocked for days on end.  I am sure there is a method to the madness but I haven’t figured it out in the 2 and a half years since buying my Rav4.  Either way, it feels as if the doors should have locked themselves because they do at other times, which means I got out of the habit of locking them myself which means the doors were unlocked which made my IPod easy prey.  So maybe Toyota wronged me by hiring dumb engineers.

Or, just maybe, it was the thief’s fault.  Stealing is wrong, after all, whether the doors are locked or unlocked.  But also, just maybe, the thief was an 8 year old who never learned better because they had bad parents or no parents.  Maybe they were taught what our culture seems to teach any more and that is it is the victim’s fault for not locking their car doors or for buying a car that pretends to lock itself and then does not.  Maybe the thief has been irreparably damaged by what Volf calls, “a culture stripped of grace” and they themselves are the victims while simultaneously also being the criminals.

All that happened was an IPod disappeared and yet the very event calls into question the decisions of myself, a group of engineers in Tokyo (or wherever), a teenager (or kid or young adult) and the entire culture(s) in wVolfhich all of us live.

Considering this, Volf’s book was quite endearing because Volf recognizes our world is anything but simple.  We do not live in the black and white fantasy of absolute right and wrong, world which Sunday School teachers indoctrinate into young children.

Instead, Volf faces the complexity head-on, even concluding at one point that as we peel back the layers of a wrong, we might find that we are the ones needing forgiveness, not giving it.  Still, Volf confronts the complexity with the simple image of God giving and forgiving on the cross.  The cross means that despite the complexity surrounding us, we should still give forgiveness when we feel wronged.  This is because the cross reminds us that only God gives complete and perfect forgiveness.  We just participate in a less complete and imperfect way.

Perhaps the most significant statement in Volf’s book came at the very end, in the afterword.  Volf states, “Some people like to keep their spirituality and their theology neatly separated.  .  .I don’t.  Spirituality that’s not theological will grope in the darkness and theology that’s not spiritual will be emptied of its most important content.”

This is a wonderful sentiment.  It reminds me that even something simple like the disappearance of an IPod is deeply theological.  My reaction to the event cannot be a vague spirituality that attaches all kinds of religious buzzwords to the event.  “They were a hurting soul who did not know better and I hope the love of God overwhelms them and the Scott Daniel’s sermons saved to the hard drive saves their lost souls.”  Gag me now.

Neither can my response be theological affirmations that seek to explain the event.  “By violating one of the sacred Ten Commandments, this teen is now guilty of the condemnation of God.  They haven’t just offended me but the very system that seeks to dispense true justice.”  Even typing that makes me roll my eyes.

Instead what I believe about God and my own acceptance of the God’s forgiveness has filled this event with meaning.  It is not enough to be spiritual.  It is not enough to hide behind theology.  Instead my spiritual response has to be infused with the content of the gospel, a content that says, “Forgive as Christ in God forgave you.”

So with that said, you who stole my IPod, I forgive you.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Barbara Brown Taylor

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Over the course of December, in the busy holiday rush, I did not have much time for reading, let alone blogging.  But over the last two weeks I have started the New Year off right by devouring two of Barbara Brown Taylor’s collected reflections.

The first was 2009’s “An Altar in the World.”  It falls into a genre of spiritual literature that has become common since Richard Foster’s groundbreaking (at least for Evangelical Protestant’s) “A Celebration of Discipline.”  I call these books, “Practice Books” because the chapters are merely suggestions of practices of which spiritual seekers might experiment.

“An Altar in the World” was probably the tenth “Practice” book that I have read and if I were to rank those books it would make the top half.  The chapters were well written and the practices are unique, or at least uniquely describes by Taylor.

But practice books are not meant to be critiqued, ranked or even studied, at least how academics study.  Their worth solely consists in the spiritual value of the practices they recommend.  For this reason I would wholeheartedly recommend the book, if not just for the chapters on feeling pain and pronouncing blessings.

These practices are unique to most practice books (and most spirituality) and over the last week I have had a quite enriching time as I pronounced blessings over objects, animals and people.

The second book I read was Taylor’s most recent, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”  I was thrilled to pick it up because a TIME Magazine review had intrigued me.  However, I expected a more generic exploration of the bad stuff in our world and how God uses it for glory.  Needless to say, the book did not meet that expectation.

Instead the darkness Taylor explores is the real kind.  It is not the metaphorical kind we equate with “evil,” but the actual kind, the kind that overtakes a room when you turn out the lights and the kind that gradually creeps upon us every evening.  Taylor finds that there are very good things that happen at night or in the dark and those should be welcomed as spiritual guides.

So Taylor’s chapters take us to moonrises, dark caverns, technology-less cabins and restaurants where the diners eat entirely in darkness.  In doing so, Taylor exposes the “darkness is evil” metaphor as a sham by concluding, “We need darkness as much as we need light” (p.6).

Such a book and such a conclusion frustrated me a bit, only because I expected a book of poetry about how God meets us in the darkness and overcomes the bad stuff in us and around us.  Instead we went spelunking and dining and even to a blind museum.

However, that is not to say the poetry and spirituality were absent.  They were just of a different and deeper kind than I expected.  It was the real life kind, the kind that recognizes there are things you can hear in the black that you will not hear in the light.  The moonrise is just as pretty and enlightening as the sunrise and the intentionality that comes with eating in the dark brings a greater reverence to the God who created food for our nourishment.  In fact the dark places may just be altars in our world, places where we find God.

With that said, the chapter on The Dark Night of the Soul, which comes the closest to the spiritual poetry I had expected throughout, is the best chapter on that spiritual phenomena I have yet read, except of course for John of the Cross’ ancient work by the same name.  They should both be required reading for ministry students, pastor, laypeople and.  .  .well.  .  .everybody else.

In fact, just this last week I had a congregant enter my office.  The conversation I had with him was quite common.  The congregant explained that he didn’t feel close to God any more and was struggling to do devotions.  My guess was there were no fewer than 1,000 other Christians telling their pastor that same thing at that moment.

Indeed I have heard this frustration expressed a hundred times before.  But my response was entirely new to him.  I taught him what Barbara Brown Taylor taught me and what Gregory of Nyssa taught her and what Moses taught him, that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” (p. 21)

In the week since I read “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” I have suddenly found myself turning the lights off at the wrong end of the hallway and blessing my bruised chin when I bang it on a knee high toy hiding between me and the bedroom.  I have found myself longing for a dark cave to sit in but settling for a dark office or sanctuary instead.  I have learned to appreciate the sounds that fill my house at night, which the light of day drowns out.  And I have learned to accept the silence and darkness inside of me, not as signs of moral failure but as reminders that I am drawing near to the opaque splendor of God.

You can click on the pictures below to buy the books!

Walk in the Dark