Thursday, April 24, 2014

Prom, Bad Choices, and Love

My mom came to visit recently. I was driving when I noticed her white knuckles as I exited the highway somewhere along I-35. Not taking her eyes from the road, she asked, “Don’t they have a yield sign?” Shrugging, I replied, “No, there are two lanes. We can both go. We just agree not to hit each other.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this as a metaphor for much of our daily living. It’s not a way of living life in all its fullness that comes by faith, but it’s a good start.

Similarly, I was struck by the lack of a traffic light in Krum when we first moved in. What I noticed at the four-way stop in downtown Krum is similar to what happens when I exit the highway. We recognize each person as they come to a stop. We let one another go. We take turns. It’s a lesson that I deeply appreciate as the mother of a 3-year-old. And it’s a lesson that we can often forget as adults in the relentless pursuit of me, mine, and more.

This past weekend, my son and I enjoyed the Easter Eggstravaganza hosted by the Christian Center Assembly of God. What an amazing party for our community! My son’s favorite stop was the Krum Police Department table. He wore his sticker for 3 days in a row, until the sticky had all worn off.

While we were there, I had a helpful conversation with one of the officers. He brought it to my attention that prom is coming up this Saturday night and wondered if I might say a word about responsible fun.

At first, I assumed he was talking about that prom night phenomenon which is usually prefaced by statements like “I love him/her!” “Everybody’s already doing it.” and “We’re graduating and we may never see each other again.” Surging hormones, young love, and a good party can set the stage for some bad choices. But the officer had something else in mind – drinking and driving.

There are conversations we need to have in our homes, whatever the age of your child, grandchild, niece/nephew, etc. My mom was always honest with me, figuring that if I could ask the question, I deserved the answer. And I find that many of our young people lack the basic information they often need to make good and wise decisions.

When I was a teenager going to parties, my mom said, “If you or your friends mess up, if you or your ride are in no condition to drive, call me. Whatever you’ve done, we’ll talk about it later. I would rather you get home safely and we can deal with the rest later.”

I was a typical teenager. I made mistakes, but I always knew that if I got stuck, I could call my mom. Yes, there may have been a whole lot of punishment on the other side, but I would be alive. She drilled this in to me and I knew she meant it. Because we had these conversations, I thought about my limits ahead of time. I was able to avoid some of the mistakes I might have made because I was able to become more grounded in the person I wanted to be, the person God made me to be, rather than folding under the weight of peer pressure.

I found myself echoing my mother’s words to me when I was an intern at a campus ministry. Many college students would celebrate their 21st birthdays with a night of spectacularly bad decisions, but I made sure they had my number because I would much rather help with the fall out than their funeral.

So have these conversations, wherever you are. Be honest with the young people in your life, whether at home or at church. Tell them not only the truth about your life – its struggles as well as its joys – but the hopes and dreams you have for them.

Through real relationships, we give them our love, which is what God asks of us. Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That means not just when they’re making A’s, not just when they win a championship, not just when they’re bright and shiny. All the time. And through our love, they just might catch a glimpse of the all-encompassing, perfect love of God.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Jesus Christ and His Reign

This Sunday, our church will make one final affirmation as we conclude our series on what we believe. We believe in Jesus Christ and his reign! It’s a shocking, countercultural statement to make, although most of us have lost touch with that.

But look at some of the story from Scripture – an embarrassing teenage pregnancy, a poor peasant couple forced to flee as refugees to Egypt after the birth of their baby, and King Herod’s slaughter of Jewish baby boys in a unsuccessful attempt to put an end to this new King. It doesn’t sound like a royal story. But this is the story of Jesus – a Messiah who goes to the poor and marginalized over the rich and powerful, a Savior who is rejected by the very people he is there to save, and a King who reigns from a bloody cross.

If we call ourselves Christians, this is the story we hold as true, and not just true, but the definitive bedrock of our life stories. At least, that’s what we say.

When I was in the ordination process in The United Methodist Church, which is a long and challenging journey, one of the questions I had to answer for the Board of Ordained Ministry was this, “How do you interpret the statement Jesus Christ is Lord?”

It takes going back to a governing system much different from our own to put understanding to this statement and yet it is the foundational affirmation of faith in the New Testament. Paul goes so far as to say that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

In the governing system of the ancient near east, where Jesus was born and lived, there were those in power, like governors and kings, and they were often addressed as “Lord.” To call a poor, homeless, rebellious rabbi “Lord” was to pledge allegiance to a very different system than the one the world could see and touch. It was to risk your life as a citizen of the kingdom of God, rather than a subject under rule by Caesar.

A great way to get rid of Jesus is to make him out as a distant spiritual possibility, like a great historical figure or a warm, fuzzy feeling you get when singing your favorite praise song. But when you recognize Jesus as the Lord of your life, when you allow him to take up room, stake a claim on you, and take charge, it changes the dynamic. No longer is God a convenient genie, stashed in a pocket until we need to make a wish, what often may pass for prayer. Instead, Christ takes the lead in your life, reorganizing priorities and changing things so that you are living as a citizen of the kingdom of God, no matter what your earthly papers may say.

When we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Sunday, we affirm that God is triumphant! God has the final say. Christ is victorious over death, such that we need not fear even the grave.

It’s a difficult reality to live out every day. On Sunday we confess Jesus is our Lord, but what happens on Monday? There’s a simple way to figure out where our allegiances really live – take a look at your calendar and your check book. Where do you spend your time and money? That’s where you’ll find your heart, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21; Luke 12:34).

So as we look forward to Easter Sunday, considering giving your Lord and King more than your words, more than an occasional Sunday morning presence, more than a logical assent to the idea that there is God. Give Jesus your whole self, your full commitment, and unswerving loyalty.

I’m looking forward to receiving our confirmands, those youth who have spent several months in fellowship and learning, into the kingdom. Through our ritual, they’ll renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sin. They’ll accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. They’ll confess Jesus Christ as their Savior and promise to serve him as their Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

They’ll be taking a bold step into the kingdom of God. I pray we all have the courage to follow!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Power of Holy Week

Over the season of Lent, the church I serve has been affirming the basic beliefs we share in common with all Christians as well as a few distinctive things that make us United Methodists. This Sunday we reaffirmed that we believe in salvation for sinners.

It’s no coincidence that this affirmation comes on Palm/Passion Sunday. We step back in time through the power of scripture to witness Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding humbly on a young donkey, as the crowds spread their cloaks and branches on his path, greeting him with glad shouts of “Hosanna!” This is the same crowd that will turn, with the guidance of their religious leaders, into the mob that lets the brutal criminal, Barrabas, go free while demanding that Jesus be crucified.

It’s always a difficult thing to embody this turn in one short worship service. The tradition of the church has given us a whole week to walk the final days to the cross together, which is called Holy Week. And we’ll have a couple of services to remember particular moments in Jesus’ last days, but we also recognize that life is evermore complex, busy, and fractured. While the medieval church may have had every confidence in attendance during Holy Week, the same just isn't true today.

So on Sunday, we went from greeting Jesus with triumphant shouts one moment, to lamenting our own betrayal of the Son of God in the next. It’s right for us to do this because to leap from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is to miss the drama of salvation that occurs during Holy Week. It’s like climbing from one beautiful mountaintop view to an even higher one, without experiencing the depth and darkness of the valley between them.

God, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, addressed the problem of sin that is real and deep. In some liturgies, or words of worship, Jesus is called the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Growing up in a good-size city, I never had much opportunity to see lambs. But in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed something as I drive from my home to our church along McCart Street. There are sheep just east of the railroad tracks and it appears that many of the ewes have just had their lambs.

My son and I look forward to seeing them each day on our commute. They bounce on springy legs, finding joy in this new life. They explore the world, finding home and comfort near their mothers. But most of all, they strike me as so small, so fragile, so blameless and gentle. And this image, this vulnerable metaphor, is what our God – the creator of all life and savior of creation – choose to take on as God’s own way of being in Jesus.

I know God could have accomplished it another way. God could have behaved more like Samantha on Bewitched, twitching God’s nose and setting everything right again. But God didn't choose that way. God chose to continue to respect our free will, to come to walk alongside of us, to teach us and love us and ultimately die for us to show us that not even death can overcome God. If everything had been twitched into right-ness, I don’t know that we would have even noticed. Even as it is, many of us struggle to understand and appreciate just what God did for us. At least, I know I do.

I don’t look forward to Holy Week, but I know it’s good for me. Standing with the crowds, witnessing the sacrifice of my Savior, all with the knowledge of his resurrection in mind, makes me pause in awe and wonder.

Beyond Palm/Passion Sunday, we’ll remember the maundatum novum, or new commandment, at our Maundy Thursday service, reading the account of how Jesus, teacher and Lord, stooped so low as to wash his disciples’ feet. And on Good Friday at our service of darkness, we’ll watch as the light of the world grows dim as God incarnate consents to suffer and die.

We don’t have to pretend we don’t know the good news of the resurrection, but the light of Easter morning is so much brighter when we have waited in the darkness. I pray you find your way to the cross this week. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

But first, let me take a selfie

Last Wednesday, the youth at my church introduced me to this new, catchy little song by The Chainsmokers. Is it what we should be listening to at church? No. Is it what our young people are listening to? Yes. And as a church and a community, we’re naïve if we think we can ignore these things and expect them to go away.

“Can you guys help me pick a filter?
I don't know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia
I wanna look tan
What should my caption be?
I want it to be clever…
I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes
Do you think I should take it down?
Let me take another selfie.”

Many people dismiss social media as some kind of fad – something that is here today and gone tomorrow. But Leonard Sweet, a leading pastor in the United Methodist Church, as well as other theologians, offer a startlingly different view. Sweet says that social media is as much a revolution to our culture as Gutenberg’s printing press. The printing press made it possible for ordinary people to have books, including the Bible. It made it worthwhile to learn to read, to be able to study and learn. No one alive now would turn their noses up at books, considering it irrelevant to their work.

Sweet warns that the same can be said for social media. We ignore it at our own peril since it is a paradigm-shifter, creating a new atmosphere that our children and youth will take for granted. Most of us already know that young people are tech-natives. They intuitively understand technology, using new smart phones, tablets, and other hardware and software with ease. And the pace of technological innovation is staggering.

Social media is just another advent in the rapidly growing world of technology. And like any tool, it can be used positively or negatively – in ways that encourage health, wholeness, and life or destroy it.

This song is proof of one destructive tendency our young people encounter everyday in their social media driven lives. “Selfies” are pictures of yourself that can be posted to a variety of social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc. And, more importantly, they become a way of validating or negating self-esteem.

When I was a kid, I dressed in a relative void. I may have taken a couple of friends to the mall with me, to help me pick out the perfect outfit or prom dress, but otherwise, I trusted my own taste as well as the input from what my peers were wearing. And, if I didn't get it quite right, I only heard about it from a limited number of people, even when I was in a class of 500+.

Now, when a young person takes a selfie, they may have not even bought the clothes yet. They may be in the dressing room, considering the purchase, and instantly, they can have “likes” or comments from dozens if not hundreds of people. And, like so often when we are distanced by technology, folks can be cruel! The onslaught of comments and put-downs can damage our youth. I’m sure you've heard the tragic stories of young people hurt to such an extent by an overwhelming barrage of destructive comments via technology that they ultimately chose to take their own lives.

So what can we, as a community and as a church, do to help? The answer is not simply unplug, although carefully supervised screen time and online profiles is a wise course. But additionally, I would encourage us to build authentic, real-life community with our young people.

This Sunday at the Krum Church, we’ll be affirming our belief in the gift of the church. Church is not limited to a physical address, a building, or a place you go occasionally. In the New Testament sense, the church or ekklesia, is the gathering of those called out by God.

And just what are we called out of? We are called out of the ordinary, out of the typical, out of the complacent and self-centered. We are called out of normal human inclinations to be good news to the world – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and eat with sinners. In other words, we’re called to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And a great place to start would be our young people. Consider how you might embody the unconditional love of God for someone who might desperately need it.