Sunday, November 19, 2017

Everything Changes (part 3): Three basic perspectives among emerging adults

As I have been talking with lots of Collegians and young adults this week, I’ve been trying to make sense out of what I have been hearing (read my previous two blog entries to find out more). My penchant for categories has come to the fore. Please note that the philosophical perspectives summarized below do not do justice to the complicated theories that comprise libraries full of books and articles. For the sake of helping us to wrap our minds around the worldview of emerging and young adults, here are three broad categories I’ve identified this week with summary explanations and possible implications for the church. I admit that I may be way off base. I might change my categories or ideas as I talk to a broader group of emerging adults and those who work with them. However, these three groupings of worldviews have appeared to come into focus for me:

Modernism/Foundationalism (old school)

Modernism is the worldview from which most contemporary adults (35+ in age) were educated and that through which we still make meaning of our world and our experiences. It is framed by the belief that there are universal absolute objective truths that we can see, uncover, or discover if we work hard enough or think hard enough. It’s this empirical scientific worldview which gave us the greatest generation and most major societal advancements of the last century. Students who approach the world through this lens ignore or criticize the “liberal” ideas they hear in class or see in some of their peers (or only learn the ideas to regurgitate on exams and in papers before promptly putting it out of their thoughts). These students speak our language and attend our churches & ministries. They lament with their parents and church members that the world is moving in the wrong direction. They find places they can escape (or find sanctuary) from the craziness of the academic world around them. Often these young people find solace in their religious practice and community. They too are frustrated that their evangelistic efforts rarely work and that numbers of their peers in churches and campus ministries are dwindling. They too want to make America and our churches "great again," bringing back the world they know to be better because it was grounded in unchanging truth. This worldview birthed the "Religious Right." To the modernist mindset, the “new age” ideas in colleges, schools, and on TV are disturbing. The solution is to withdraw or cocoon with likeminded friends and church members. They homeschool their children and seek alternative afterschool programs. They might even seek to live in communities and neighborhoods of people who share their worldview. The basic modernist idea is that we need to double down on our beliefs, organize around a hero or two, and through legislation and even strong-arm tactics, bring back the bygone golden era to protect our society from the evils of left-wing politics, education, and religion.

Postmodernism/Constructivism/Social Constructionism

Postmodern philosophy grew out of the 1960’s radicalism as an enlightenment of free thought, free action, and freedom to be. It sought to break down barriers of inequality and the mindless following of rules and/or authorities (sometimes referred to as “the man”), calling for a new guiding principle of love, equality, and positive emotional experiences. However, somewhere along the way, these ideas of freedom of expression were co-opted. A few influential writers like Foucault, Derrida, and Butler isolated and intellectualized the ideas from the communally embodied, emotional, experiential beginnings in what we have called the “Hippy movement” of the 1960s and 70s. The broad themes of unrest that emerged in the 60’s were reduced to an argument (starting in France) against the grand narratives of Modernism in language, art, and literature; thus, “Postmodernism.” The basic idea is that all knowledge is socially constructed; there is no empirical truth. Therefore, pure postmodernists believe that even science and scientific research should be called into question as being fundamentally biased, and therefore, flawed. 

Over time, the revelations of this period were appropriated by the intellectual elite who had no connection with practical applications save in the dismantling of anything deemed modern or bound by tradition. To get a more in-depth presentation of the various aspects of Postmodern thought, click this link: Postmodernism

Many of the questions being asked and ideas being deconstructed have needed to occur. I have often argued that all research is biased. It was out of this effort that the civil rights movement gained steam, questions were raised over the US military involvement in Vietnam (and other countries), and equal rights of women in the workplace. However, critics have argued that for many the true goal of intellectual Postmodernism is a total deconstruction and dismantling of societal norms without seeking to rebuild a better world in its place. Therefore, it is sometimes believed that Postmodernism is a negative or nihilistic worldview, not one that seeks a greater societal good. This is not always the case. Often such stereotypes oversimplify complex ideas and theories, and in doing so nullify the possibility of good discussions that need to occur. 

Quite often when I am visiting churches parents will ask me how their children grew up with such liberal ideas that are contrary to their worldview. I try to gently show these concerned parents that our children have believed what we have taught them in our homes, playgrounds, and schools: everyone is equal, everyone is valuable, everyone is special, every question raised or choice of living and being is OK, and diversity is essential. Many parents are comfortable with the ideas their children espouse, but others are surprised when their kids begin to repeat what parents might see as beliefs that are contrary to their own modernist worldviews. Our children have learned their lessons well. Those exposed to this worldview for the past 30-40 years have now become parents, legislators, educators, screenwriters, novelists, and marketers. In a nutshell, our students have been the beneficiaries of society’s efforts toward egalitarianism and civility.  

Many conservative Americans immediately dismiss Postmodernism as incompatible with their strongly held politics and/or religious beliefs because several of the most outspoken intellectuals who latched onto Postmodern ideas identified as Socialists or LGBTQ. These theorists appeared to be using their own perspective to explore and validate why their identities and beliefs were valid and should be accepted as normative. Many of these theorists are those lauded in academic settings and on whose work current identity politics are based. These complicated philosophical ideas have filtered down through the educational systems into society in France, Canada, and the US.

Postmodern ideas have been interpreted in the mainstream culture as relativism: “there are no absolutes; everything is relative.” Many Postmodern theorists cringe at the equivalency. While similar, the two philosophies are not exactly the same. In the world of many emerging and young adults, all reality is constructed within specific contexts and experiences; therefore, we should not judge others for their beliefs, appearance, choices, or lifestyles. For this generation, the statement, “that may be true for you, but it’s not my reality” is not a problematic, nor confusing thing to say or believe. It is what we as a society have, perhaps inadvertently, taught them. These ideas have become entrenched in most areas of the public sphere. It is our new cultural milieu in Europe, Canada, and the United States. 

Because of the rejection of grand narratives (inclusive metanarratives that attempt to explain everything), mainstream religions are typically avoided and often scoffed at. The term “spiritual but not religious” gained popularity among those who expressed a felt need for spirituality, but who rejected the holistic claims of religions. Any group or individual claiming to hold “the truth” is avoided, particularly if this truth excludes or might be thought to marginalize others in any way. There has been a rise in popularity of Buddhism, Hinduism and other more philosophical spiritualities that have meditative practices that can be removed from wholesale adherence to that faith. Contemplative or centering meditation, mindfulness, and Yoga are all borrowed from these faith traditions. Not all are practiced with a religious devotion, but all have spiritual applications and uses. Even the language used in the experiences comes from those religions. 

Again, it is important to understand that not all Postmodern ideas and questions are negative. There is truth in the claim that all knowledge and ideas are socially constructed - that is why each culture has deeply held beliefs and practices. We can probably also agree that there are some ideas and practices that need to be questioned and/or re-evaluated from time to time. Some systems need to be deconstructed.

Over the past two decades, Christian theologians and ministers have written about the many positive implications of postmodern ideals for the life of the church and for evangelism. Most of these writers, however, did not foresee the extent to which the ideas have been adopted, applied, and often perverted in the mainstream. In my ministry with students, it has sometimes been helpful to get them to identify the narratives or themes of their individual lives that are often very different from that of their peers. Helping them to see and understand the ways that they construct meaning can be cathartic. It can also help them to identify the ways that they are unique, the ways their talents and giftedness can be used in the future as a guide for career choices, relationships, etc. Sometimes it can help individuals gain some sense of agency in their lives when they have felt victimized or trapped by their past.

There are many different interpretations and manifestations of Postmodern thought. I encourage you to read broadly on the subject to better understand the philosophy and worldview as well as to help figure out how to parent, minister, and function in our changing society.

Hybrid Modern/Postmodern Worldview: 

There appears to be a large group of emerging and young adults who somehow bridge the disparate Modern and Postmodern worldviews and who try to navigate between the two opposed perspectives. These folks grew up in families and churches that were Modernist in belief and practice, yet they have friends, classmates, and teachers who operate from a Constructivistic worldview. These students may be deeply rooted in faith, but they live in a world of constant change and fluidity. Instead of hiding away or retreating from the ideas encountered in class and in popular culture, these emerging and young adults have somehow embraced both schools of thought, yet have relegated each, to varying degrees, to specific aspects of their lives. In many ways, they have skillfully become masters of compartmentalization. In religious practice, their faith is highly personal, yet they also enjoy lively, contemporary corporate worship. However, they are reticent to engage in evangelism because they don’t want to mix or challenge their worldviews. The answers and often convoluted theologies they have adopted work for them, but they don’t want to be tested against the questioning of their peers. Their segmentation and theological gymnastics work just fine in their own lives, thank you very much - just don't ask them too many questions or ask them to explain their systematic theology. 

My fear is that when these Christian "hybrid" emerging adults exit college they will either move more fully into an unexamined skeptical Postmodern mindset and walk away from the church altogether or they will become casual church attendees, relegating their faith expression primarily to a personal quiet time each day. Keeping it solely personal will allow them to keep their faith while living in a Postmodern world without ever feeling or acknowledging the conflict between their coexisting, and seemingly conflicting, worldviews. 

Before the revelations of the past week I had not fully understood alumni who told me they "could not find a church" that met their needs, yet they continued to have a regular personal devotional as well as gather with a small group of like-minded friends for fellowship which often involved religious discussion and perhaps singing their favorite worship songs. They attend concerts of bands that primarily perform worship songs (complete with lyrics projected on huge screens behind the band). The crowd typically sings along. Folks have posted pictures of these concert events on social media with the caption, "I've been to church." Perhaps they have discovered or are creating a new form of "church" to which those of us more embedded in traditional models cannot relate? 

I think I am starting to understand their perspectives and how they arrived in this odd hybrid place. However, the question for me is what now? Where do we go from here? How do we seek to minister in this new context? Do our structures need to adapt and change? Does our method of outreach and evangelism need to change? Do our discipleship and teaching plans need to be adjusted? 

What are your thoughts? Let's continue to dialog with each other and with the emerging adults in our lives about their worldviews and how to best understand and minister to them.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Everything Changes (part 2): responses

The Postmodern conception of no absolutes should not come as a surprise to those who are well read. However, the speed at which this philosophical idea has penetrated and permeated society, especially among younger generations, is disturbing to many adults. “The only thing in my world that is consistent is change,” collegians involved in our ministry have confessed. I posted an entry on my blog earlier this week that was birthed from a conversation with graduating seniors with whom I meet weekly for Bible study and reflection about commitment. Since the post went up I have received many comments via text, messenger, email, as well as personal conversations that support the observations and conclusions therein. This post is to share some of those responses. I will continue to explore these thoughts so please add your ideas, especially as they relate to your personal experiences and conversations with emerging adults. 

From Collegians:
[my paraphrase from a personal conversation] I completely agree. For my unbelieving friends it’s even more true - there is nothing that we can rely on - even relationships. In fact, I understand why many of my peers don’t put extra effort into relationships when they begin to get rocky. It’s not worth it. Just find a new relationship. With sex too - why wait? When marriage is not a sure thing in your future it’s no surprise that folks believe you should just try to get whatever you can from a relationship while it lasts. (From a 3rd year Christian collegian)

“I completely agree with that idea about change. But I don’t agree when it concerns faith. My faith is my foundation.” (From a student leader in BCM)

“This was so good, Nathan. Definitely the worldview i can relate to and would still hold if God didn’t wreck it & draw me in to seek His real, unchanging character. Maybe i would’ve never said it out loud but after growing up hearing about Old Testament God who floods the earth and sends His people to kill thousands and won’t even let Moses into the promised land when he strikes a rock once after his years of “faithful service” in contrast with New Testament God, it was hard to believe that He could not change. However, God in His sovereignty took me through suffering that legitimately called everything i thought about God into question & forced me to seek who He really is—steadfast, glory-driven, and the one who cannot change but changes everything. Maybe the most shocking/life changing Word for me was in Genesis 3, when He LITERALLY kills animals to cover their shame, the aftermath of their sin. He makes the first blood shed on earth an animal’s blood when it so rightly deserved to be man. First of all, I’d never thought much about God’s grace in that chapter and if i had at all, it would’ve been that He changed his mind even though He promised death if they ate from the tree—upon further review, i realized I’d never been more wrong. This picture of God was so clearly the exact same God promising a sacrificial lamb all through the OT and sending His very SON in the NT. That idea rocked my world. God continued to draw me in more & more & reveal His character to me, especially His zeal for glory & His total sovereignty. A couple years later, it’s still sometimes hard to shake the worldview that faithfulness is conditional sometimes (especially when my eyes get off of God & on me/the world). Being faithful in the little things isn’t just hard or difficult, it’s impossible apart from God, but it’s part of sanctification and will come by God changing it in us so I’m praying about it for myself and my friends and my generation.” (From a current student at UGA)

“Love the blog post. Very ironic because I just wrote a paper about the exact same thing in [a class].... I think the best way [to reach out to nonbelievers] is how you mentioned God's faithfulness. I'm preaching on Joseph this Sunday and it's such an awesome story because it shows that even when bad things happen, God is still working for our good. Conveying that to people is important. And then for marriage, I wrote about love is not just an emotion but I decision. You may not always like your spouse or what they are doing in that moment but you should always love and sacrifice for them.” (From a BCM leader who is also on staff at a local church)

From Ministers and/or Teachers:
“This was interesting to read but I kind of understand from the students thinking. Not necessarily agreeing but something that should be discussed more! Thanks for sharing! Miss you friend!” (From a former Baptist Campus Minister Intern, now seminary student, who is only a few years post graduation). 

“Great thoughts and insights. I think this highlights that one of the greatest gifts clergy, mentors, parents, etc can give our teenagers/emerging adults is that of a consistent presence. In addition, I am glad you discussed how faithfulness correlates with action. That reminds us that one of the strengths of this generation is their determination to equate beliefs and actions, and to distrust those entities/instituions/individuals that cannot back up beliefs with corresponding action.” (From a young adult, seminary-trained college administrator/teacher, and former associate pastor)

“This is all really good and very accurate. I think you’ve found something good to spend time praying over and exploring.” (From an emerging Adult who is an elementary school teacher)


“Why does this have to be a negative? Several folks who commented on Facebook don’t seem to understand these ideas so they dismiss them as crazy or immature. These ideas are not going away, but will only become more pervasive. How can we think differently so as to embrace these ideas of change? How can we begin to see what they see and adapt our teaching and ministry accordingly?” (From a parent and middle school teacher)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Everything Changes (part 1): The prevailing worldview of emerging adults

"I'm struggling with anxiety."
"I'm taking medication for depression and panic attacks."
"There is nothing in my life that I can rely on."
"I am afraid I will be alone forever."
"I have a 3.94 grade point average, but I am afraid I am going to flunk out of school."

This week individual students in our ministry have confessed to feeling each of these to me.

We have been discussing relationships this semester through the framework of the Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon. Primarily, we have been addressing love, dating, and marriage; but, of course, we have alluded to all types of relationships in which our students at the University of Georgia might find themselves. This past week at our worship Gathering, I had the honor of wrapping up the series by addressing the topic of faithfulness. I began my talk by saying that commitment seems different for each generation. My father's generation went to work right out of high school or college and expected to retire from the company that first employed them. Similarly, they expected that job to provide not only a good salary, but a good pension after retirement until they died. My generation doesn't have such lofty expectations, but we do believe that there are some commitments and relationships that are for life. I told of how when we were engaged, Karen and I agreed that divorce would never be an option for us. We would do whatever it took to make this marriage work. That conversation occurred over 32 years ago. While we have had a few rough spots in the midst of wedded bliss, we have always been determined to work through whatever issue came along.

Today's generation of students have very different understandings of commitment from my father's generation and from my own. I admitted to those gathered for worship that I don't really understand how today's emerging (18-27) and young (28-32) adults think about commitment and faithfulness. It seems very fluid to me. A few days later I was leading a small group of graduating seniors in a bible study on the same topic. We were discussing my sermon. I ventured to ask the four students present, "define faithfulness and commitment for me. How do you understand the two terms?"

What they told me left me stunned.

They began with faithfulness. Faithfulness, according to the fourth and fifth year students gathered around the table, is what one does to fulfill a commitment. It is an action-based word. Commitment refers to the promises one makes and are situated in time, place, and circumstances. The group continued to flesh out their ideas. They talked about the ways and circumstances in which they might change their mind after making a solid commitment. I asked a few follow-up questions, including, "what is the one foundational truth that you can count on?" Their answer - "everything changes." I pressed, "So the only thing you can count on in life is that tomorrow will be different than today? That what you know, feel, and understand today will be different or will not exist tomorrow?" They all agreed.

I asked the question again, just to make sure I had heard them correctly. "So I hear you saying that the only constant in your world, the only thing on which you can rely with absolute certainty, is that everything changes, that what you know to be true today might very well be different tomorrow?" Again, they all agreed.

I told them I needed a minute. I sat stunned, letting the impact of this realization sink in.

These were all Christian students, who have been in our program of ministry and discipleship for 4-5 years. For these students, many of them leaders in our Christian organization, there is no firm foundation, no solid rock on which they can rely! After I recovered, I told the group that this realization would probably change the way that I do collegiate ministry.

As we continued to talk I asked about specific examples that have been sources of frustration to the collegiate ministry staff. For example, when students apply for leadership positions in our ministry in the spring we ask them to commit to attend specific events and activities already on the calendar for the following fall, winter, and spring. The vast majority of student applicants readily assent to all of the required activities. A few rare students will provide specific details of why they may not be able to make one or another event. However, when those events arise the following year, many student leaders will emerge with excuses of why they cannot attend. When I asked my gathered Bible study group about this example none of them saw a problem with these student's actions. They suggested that when they commit to something in the future they mean it at the time of commitment. However, for them reality might change. If reality changes, their commitments no longer are valid because they were made under different circumstances. These emerging adults then feel completely justified in changing their mind with no guilt, thus breaking their previous commitment. Such realities could include another better or more fun opportunity that could not have been foreseen (like a concert by a trendy new band). The same argument can also be made for moral and ethical issues.

Every decision, every commitment, every promise, every relationship for contemporary young adults is based on present realities.

For many emerging and young adults today, there are no anchors, no constants. There are no people, relationships, institutions, ideals, or ideas that are unchanging. In their world, everything changes. Permanence is but a word with no practical example. Like the permanent hair treatment my wife used to get in the 80's, which eventually faded and washed away, for contemporary students, nothing remains the same for long. Phones costing upwards of $1000.00 need to be replaced at least every year or two (even when they still work great), because they become obsolete. Jobs lose their luster after just a few weeks. College majors are switched on a whim. Relationships quickly lose their spark and are cast aside. Best friends come and go. Marriages end. Parents get divorced. The country is always at war, though the enemies seem to switch with the seasons. There is a constant fear of a terrorist attacking somewhere, sometime when we will least expect it. But it will come - even when safe at church or in our classroom. Our heroes of faith and politics fall after being caught in one scandal or another. When even the best apartments and/or roommates begin to wear on you, you move locations and swap for new companions each year.

Everything changes. Nothing is reliable.

Just as clothing styles cycle, washing machines and furniture are only made to last three to five years. The manufacturers know that consumers soon tire of even the most expensive products. In a few years they are aware that shoppers will want the newest, shiniest, and most advanced versions so there is no need to make long-lasting products. Repairs often cost as much as a new machine because equipment is engineered to be made quickly and inexpensively, but not to be easily repaired. They have learned not to get too emotionally attached to anything or anyone because to do so will mean pain when the relationship shifts or the feelings change. Even the business world knows everything changes. Nothing is made to last long.

For many in this generation, even the idea of God being unchanging, being ever-loving, ever-faithful is hard, if not impossible to grasp, much less believe and put faith and trust in. Just as these emerging adult's reality, situation, and feelings change constantly, so must God's, they believe. "God may love me today," they think, "but what about tomorrow? Surely God will feel different about me tomorrow."

Of course there are exceptions to this worldview. There are young and emerging adults who present a more traditional understanding of commitment, who do not see the world as being so fluid. But even with many of these - for I have talked with them - they feel only loosely connected to such a staid belief. They too have known far too much change if not in their own experience, in that of their friends.

Is there any wonder so many students suffer from medically diagnosed anxiety disorders and depression? Is it any wonder so many are on pills for anxiety and depression? Is there any wonder young adults are hesitant to enter into any type of committed relationships, much less a marriage when they are confident that such a arrangement, based on fleeting emotions, will probably soon end? It's much safer, they believe, to move-in with someone they love, knowing that it will end before too long, than to enter into a marriage commitment when divorce is the likely outcome!

I am becoming more and more convinced that understanding someone's worldview is essential to understanding that individual. What one believes determines how they live. One cannot simply overcome core perspectives. Worldview is literally the lens through which the world is seen and experienced. One's worldview determines not only one's thoughts, but also one's actions, beliefs, hopes, and expectations.

Dan McAdams has suggested that humans make meaning through stories. The grand narratives we believe and tell ourselves are the essential frameworks for our lives. Our stories comprise our worldview. This idea also applies to communities. Each culture in the world has shared stories that bind them together. Tribes have common stories that give their community meaning. Outsiders may not see, and if seen, often do not understand many of the stories a particular tribe might share. The result is that outsiders interpret these tribes as odd, weird, or uneducated. To successfully work with emerging adults one must understand the core narratives and common plots shared within their culture.

It has become clear to me that many emerging and young adults today have no secure foundation upon which to build a comforting and safe worldview. In fact, their prevailing worldview is that there is no solid foundation, no constant, no solid, no enduring truth or relationship. In their world, everything changes.

I have begun asking students and young adults if this idea is true in their experience. So far none have contradicted the fluidity of their lives, of their worlds. I have also begun talking with campus ministry colleagues about the worldview of those with whom we work. Each one has been just as shocked as I was about this revelation. Each has also said we need to be talking about this to find some ways to properly engage our students about this issue.

I want to invite you to join in the conversation, seeking positive ways to help counter this narrative of constant change and/or help our students find firm ground in the midst of their changing world.

So how do we seek to do ministry in such a milieu? How do we, who believe in the existence of a loving, relational God who is omnipresent and unchanging, teach this truth of this generation?

Here are a few suggestions:
1) Initiate casual listening conversations with young adults about commitment, faithfulness, and their expectations for the future. Listen to their fears. Listen to understand their perspective while gently sharing you own worldview. Seek understanding on both sides of the very different perspectives on commitment and change. Engaging in conversation about this specific topic will allow us to address their often unspoken reality and embedded fear of being alone or abandoned.

2) Initiate conversations with colleagues in collegiate ministry, with those who mentor emerging adults, and with those who employ twenty-somethings about effective ways to engage this age group who have varying worldviews about the world. I surmise that there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach that helps emerging adults feel secure in the world - even from a faith perspective. We need to pool our expertise and share what we are learning.

3) Do a personal study of the Bible on the topic of the faithfulness of God so you can have an informed discussion about the topic with young people who believe the world has no solid footholds. For Christians, our worldview should be centered in the reality of Jesus and our ever present God who promised the eternal Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to be God-with-us, to guide us, comfort us, speak to us, and never leave us. Knowing the reality of God is a strong foundation on which to build a more worldview that is not one of fear, but confidence and security no matter what is happening around us.

4) Use information gleaned in the above personal study to plan a study group, a course of teaching, or a sermon series for your community of faith on the topic of God's faithfulness in the midst of change and chaos.

5) Find a sympathetic and knowledgeable pastoral counselor or counseling pastor who will come into your group to lead a study on managing anxiety in times of chaos and change. Talking about the subject publicly can begin to take away the stigma of admitting having such problems/fears.

6) Find emerging adults and older members of your faith community who have strong testimonies of God's faithfulness in the midst of periods of drastic change. Have them share their stories in worship settings to demonstrate that this worldview is inaccurate.

7) Find hymns, poems/stories, books and scriptural examples of God's faithfulness to use in various settings with young adults. I've listed some below. I welcome you to suggest ideas in the comments. Explain the stories behind each hymn or poem before presenting or singing it in a worship setting.

  • HymnsGreat is Thy FaithfulnessThe Solid RockHow Firm a Foundation, and It is Well with My Soul. What are some others you would suggest? 
  • Poems/stories: What are some recommendations?
  • Books: Ideas for fiction or non-fictions books you have read?
  • Websites/blog postsHenri Nouwen Society on covenants, 
  • Scripture: Abraham's story (Genesis 12-21), Moses's story & the exodus story (found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), Joshua (Joshua and Judges; ending with Judges 2:1), Jesus promise of his presence (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus's giving of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), Psalm 40:1-3.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Intimacy with God

For Christians the key to a deep relationship with God is found through the brotherhood we share with Jesus. Adherents of many religions and sadly, even many Christians, never move beyond an infatuation stage in their relationship with God. Most who become enamored with God do so because of God's majesty, transcendence, holiness; basically many people adopt a religion because of God's otherness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging and worshipping the creator of the universe. In fact, such is to be encouraged! But for Christians the beauty of the trinity - one God represented in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - is what demonstrates the accessibility of God. More so, the Biblical allusions to God present in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth shows that God actually pursues a relationship with creation, that this majestic holy God actually loves the beings God created. With a miopic view of a transcendent God such an image would seem absurd. But if God gave up heaven to come to Earth to live as a man there must be a reason beyond a bored-God hypothesis. It would appear that God desired a relationship with creation that could not be attained with a Heaven bound God and Earth bound humans.

There is little wonder why there are so many marital analogies comparing the relationship between human and the Divine found in the Bible and in other mystical writings, including those of the early Christian era. The intimacy required is the same for humans learning to love, whether the object of love is God or another person. Richard Rohr (2013, Immortal Diamonds) observes,
"It is almost impossible to fall in love with majesty, power, or perfection. These make us both fearful and codependent, but seldom truly loving. On some level, love can happen only between equals, and vulnerability levels the playing field. What Christians believe is that God somehow became our equal when he became the human "Jesus," a name that is, without doubt, the vulnerable name for God" (p. 171).

Such a concept is difficult for many Christians to hear. It sounds irreverent at best if not blasphemous! But the beauty and mystery of the Trinity is found in the distinctiveness yet sameness of each person - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In love God lowered God's self to take on human flesh and human nature (see Philippians 2). Through that act of Godly humility we have access to God in a new way - as a peer, as a sibling, or literally as "one of us." Many days the accessibility of God through the brotherhood of Jesus keeps the gnawing doubts at bay. 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Immanuel, again

While visiting my mother just before Christmas this year I had an epiphany. A little background is needed before I reveal my revelation.  Mom lives in Macon, a struggling middle Georgia city that in July was named the 3rd worst place in the United States for property crime. Sirens can be heard almost hourly from her home, even though it is nestled in an established, wooded neighborhood on the outskirts of town. My nephew used to work in the DA's office in Macon and often warned us of areas of town and routes through town that should be avoided.

On the Sunday before Christmas we attended Mom's uptown church where she sings in the choir and teaches Sunday School. It is a very traditional, if not liturgical, style of worship for a Baptist congregation. As in most Christian congregations music is an essential aspect of the Advent and Christmas season here. The older I get the more I find music to be the most meaningful part of the season. As the brass quintet played "What child is This?" I closed my eyes and let the music wash over, through me. I tried to capture the peace and holiness of the moment. In the midst of shopping, traveling and juggling the many demands of celebrating the holiday properly I needed a respite, a glimpse of that seemingly forgone silent night, holy night. Just as I was beginning to capture the sought after feeling a siren sounded in the distance. As the music crescendoed, the refrain was drowned out by the harsh wailing of the passing emergency vehicle. Self righteously, I found my anger rising. However, just as quickly, as the siren faded, slowly replaced by the sweet tunes in the sanctuary, the meaning of the music - and the season - dawned on me. The "Silent Night" of my Christmas fantasies is but a myth. The Christ child did not come on a perfect night devoid of the interruptions of normal of life. No, Jesus was was born on a normal night, in an overcrowded town filled with families and noisy animals.  As the story is told, the baby Jesus, the Emmanuel - literally "God with us" - entered this life the stablemate of farm animals.  It was not a pure, holy, quiet, peaceful event.

"What child is this," the beloved Christmas hymn inquires? It is the God who dared and dares to enter into our own mundane or hectic lives bring the divine presence where we are. Jesus does not wait for us to achieve perfection to come. Jesus does not wait for all to be stress free. Jesus does not wait for us to get it all together. No, Jesus comes everyday, at every moment, in every place, sirens and all.

In her recent book Pastorix, Nadia Bolz-Weber shared the story of when she served as a hospital chaplain. New to the job she was called to the ER where all in attendance were working to save an unconscious man stretched out on the gurney. She felt out of place and didn't know what her job was supposed to be. She asked a passing nurse who responded, "Your job is to seek and acknowledge the presence of God in this place." Belz-Weber reflected that the nurse's statement has become one of her guiding visions for her life and her ministry. It is also a fitting reminder to me this Christmas.

So this season, forget the silent night. It probably doesn't exist where you live. I know I've not seen or experienced such in a long time! Instead, in the midst of your "everyday, ordinary life -- your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life" (Romans 12:1, The Message), in the midst of your celebrating or grieving or longing or hoping, look for and welcome the very presence of God in you and all around you. Such is reason to celebrate! Emmanuel! God IS with us!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Reflection on NoLa Team #1

"For we see in a reflection darkly...."

It was after 11 pm last night when I finally got home from returning the bus to the BCM, officially ending the Send Me Now NoLa #1mission trip. I stopped by our house on the way back into Athens to unpack our suitcases and stick a few things in the wash. We leave in a few short hours to drive to Hilton Head for the week. Nick was also falling asleep in the bus. By the time I returned he was long asleep in his bed with his dog. It's good to be home if only for tonight. 

As we were packing the bus to leave Canal Street Church yesterday Michael and Julie Hitch drove up to say goodbye. Kyle Todd texted him the night before to see if they would come by so we could take a group picture with them. It was a bittersweet parting. In the short time we worked together we grew to love each other and this wonderful couple. The ministry of The RICC, the non-profit started by the church leadership, is in an incredible position to help change the community over the next few years. The students on this trip got but a glimpse of the possibilities of ministry in this ancient city. 


On the way out of town we began the process of debriefing the experience. I asked questions to prompt reflection and each person shared their insights, struggles, and views from the trip. We dropped Shari at the airport for her flight home to Barbados for the summer and continued to debrief as we drove toward Mobile, Alabama. Marcus took notes and I will share them in a later post. 

The last question I asked was, "What Now?" After each student shares they asked me what I had learned. It took a few minutes for me to explain my thoughts. I've been to New Orleans several times on mission trips over the past few years. I was impressed at the initial response to the needs in NoLa after Katrina. Volunteers flooded the area with resources, volunteer hours, and prayers. Much good was done by the crews of volunteers. Workers through the Baptist Disaster Relief ministries were consistently at work, thousands of college students among them, repairing homes and lifting spirits of the citizens. Volunteers returned home recruiting others to the cause. Even Government officials proclaimed that New Orleans would not be forgotten and enough resources would be contributed to rebuild the city and area better than it was before. 

But the hurricane and resulting flood were a long, long time ago. While a few teams are still at work, most people have moved on to help with new disasters. Instead of returning to NoLa, groups now go to New York or to Oklahoma. Don't get me wrong, there are needs there too from storms this past year. The problem is that New Orleans has all but been forgotten except for a few who have remained focused. Money that was donated for Katrina relief has mostly been spent. It is difficult to keep sending teams back when so many other needs are constantly before us in the media. It is more flashly to respond to critical needs that can be followed on the news. 

What I learned from this week is to stay focused on the dreams God has given me, to remain true, not to chase after whatever is new, whatever seems most immediate, or even what seems essential. Yes, as Christians we need to be open to God's leading in all kinds of ways. That's easy for me. I'm very adaptable, creative, and flexible. Sometimes, however, I tend not to stick with things and to change just for the sake of changing. This week has shown me to stay on task until the job is done and to remind the students with whom I work to do the same thing. Each time I close my eyes to sleep I return to the streets of NoLa. I see the many boarded up and decaying homes that were never rebuilt. I see the neighborhoods that are in ruin and the side streets throughout the city that are almost impassible because of the potholes. Volunteers are still needed. Homes still need to be repaired. groups like the RICC are still making a difference and are partnering with other groups to do even more. 

Often we are blinded by what is shiny and new. but even in the best of times our clouded vision has never been very good. We see "in a glass darkly." God, however sees the big picture. We need to stay focused. God is calling others to respond to the many new tragedies that seem to arise daily. Of course, if God calls you you should go. But don't just respond because everyone else is doing it or because it is the new thing. 

Stay focused. Don't forget NoLa and the entire gulf region. They still need us! 

What dream has God given to you that you are tempted to abandon for something new or fresh? Ask God to renew your dreams, to dream again in you, to give you joy in the work at hand. And let's get back to work!

Friday, May 31, 2013

NoLa #6

As we prepare to leave NoLa early in the morning for the long drive back to Georgia today has been the perfect way to end our trip. Today was moving day for Michael and Julie Hitch (their three precious children went home with their grandmother yesterday). We began earlier today than on other mornings this week. We had to drive to St. Barnard Parish - about 30 minutes away from the church - to pack a moving truck, both of the Hitch's vehicles, and our bus with furniture, clothing, and years of memories. After another round of incredible confections from The Blue Dot for breakfast we loaded up for the drive, retracing some of our tour from yesterday. 


The team worked quickly, loading all vehicles in less than three hours. The truck had to be turned in by 1, so we knew we were on a time crunch. After loading up with all we could safely fit into the vehicles we drove a long, though less bumpy route back to the new house. We unloaded the truck and Hitch's jeep so it could be returned to U-Haul by the deadline. While he and Kyle took the truck back and picked up lunch on their return we finished unloading and began to organize the boxes and stacks of furniture into the appropriate rooms. 



After an amazing pizza lunch, devoured while sitting on the front porch, we divided into two different work teams. One group took the vehicles back to the house to meet Julie (who had to work half a day for post-planning at school) and to bring back as much of the remaining small furniture and other items as possible in the bus and in their two cars. The rest of the group continued to organize the house. When we finally got the returning vehicles unloaded and the boys beds assembled we came back to the church to get cleaned up for dinner then souvenir shopping. The showers sure felt great after so much hot work!



Michael and Julie made us a wonderful dinner of Spaghetti, Caesar Salad, and pound cake (with sweet tea, of course) before most of the crew headed back into town via the trolleys for some last minute gift & souvenir shopping (and goofing off). While waiting on the trolley we saw a man (the owner we supposed) open Blue Dot Donuts, the donut shop across the street from the church where we have bought breakfast two mornings. Shari shouted across the street, "We Love You!" The team added, "and your donuts!" After a few minutes the door opened and the man emerged a carrying a sack. He walked across the street to us and said, "Here are some donut holes, enjoy!" Shari advised the group, "see what happens when you are nice to people, when you share the love!" The donut holes were incredible! We will be making a final trip over before heading out of town in the morning. The red velvet donuts are the best donuts I've ever had! 

  

It's been a wonderful trip. We have done lots of different things to help the church get ready for the summer. We made a contact for the summer children's camp while playing in the park yesterday. The grandmother we met is supposed to call Michael next week to sign her grand children up. We learned a lot about this great city and the needs that still exist as a result of Katrina, but we also learned about the great ministries that are occurring here and the great needs that churches are meeting in the wake of the tragedy. Best of all, we moved Michael and Julie into their new place only a few blocks from the church. No more 30 minute commutes! God has also been at work in the lives of our team members. Thanks for your prayers. It will be fun to see and hear how God uses the lessons learned in NoLa in the lives of these amazing young adults over the next few years!

NoLa #5

Morning came too early today! While yesterday was a "down day" for our team with less strenuous activity, we were all exhausted by bedtime. 

We began with a final walk through of the building, somehow discovering more clutter that needed to be tossed or placed where it belonged. Then our very own tour guide, Michael Hitch directed our bus through the narrow lanes of the city as I dodged pot holes, parked cars and road debris. We went through some of the areas still suffering from Katrina damage. We drove along streets where one house had been meticulously restored, the next razed and replaced by a modern energy efficient home, and the next empty, abandoned, and crumbling. We watched and heard a New Orleans double line funeral procession. 

Then we drove to the 9th Ward. Hitch's description of the Katrina flood as we drove through the most damaged area was riveting. Crossing the bridge he pointed out the levy and flood wall. He described how poorly anchored barges broke loose and crashed into the flood wall, creating a breech that immediately washed away both wall and levy allowing a 20 foot high wall of water to bury the Lower 9th Ward in mere seconds. When it all settled the sea water was 8 feet high across the parish. Ultimately, 1836 people lost their lives during and after the storm.

As we drove along Hitch pointed out walls of businesses and homes with dark horizontal lines 15 feet above the ground - the water line. He pointed out vacant lots where the city came in and bulldozed away any homes seemingly abandoned, leaving no remnant of a structure, all without owner's permission. 

Hitch described the various ministries that are attempting to make a difference in the area. He talked about the lack of churches in the community. Most churches were washed away with the homes and have not returned. In many ways it is a community truffling to make it with fewer resources, fewer people, and no support. Promised government support was wasted on trivial infrastructure or was given to investors as "buy backs" of their worthless damaged rental properties, sometimes at double market value. Additional promised funds dried up as newer natural disasters took precedence in the news, and thus, in the public and political eye. 

After the tour we enjoyed a picnic lunch at the historical Chelmette battlefield, climbed trees, learned a bit about the history if the city, and talked about the city, the recovery efforts, and the ways various on-profits are working together to meet the ongoing needs of the communities. We dropped a few team members at Hitch's house so they could he Julie pack up some more things for the big move tomorrow. The rest of us when to the park to play with anyone who might come out to play. 

 


At Cominsky Park we tossed a frisbee and kicked a few soccer balls, showing off our lack of skills. It did not take long to be joined by a few children who were in town staying with their grandmother for a few days since school was out for the summer. Two little girls and a boy joined in the fray. The good thing was they didn't know anything about soccer or frisbee so we looked like pros to them. 



We talked to the grandmother a while and heard from her heat it was like to ride out a storm like Katrina. She said while she sought shelter in their home they watched the house next door literally split in half when the waters hit. Her home was flooded but spared any structural damage. When she dared to walk outside 7 days later the water was chin high. They were rescued from the standing flood water a few days later. She thanked God that her family made it through without any permanent scars. 


After a quick shower back at the church Hitch treated us to "pancakes as big as a pizza" at City Diner. We had tried to go on Sunday evening, but the diner was short staffed. It was worth the wait! We had such a good time talking through the week, getting to know each other better, eating too many slices of pancakes (served on pizza pans - blueberry, strawberry, banana, pecan, and plain), and being entertained by Nick's magic tricks. It was a very fun evening and the perfect ending to the day.