I’ve Been Rethinking That Saying About The Newspaper And The Bible

Karl Barth’s dictum about reading the Bible and the newspaper at the same time and interpreting your newspaper from your Bible is one of the most frequently cited bits of preaching advice I’ve heard. From the first time I heard it, I took it to heart.

I used to think it meant that my sermons ought to be filled with allusions to contemporary events, and so they were. Often these allusions were in the form of a list–bullet pointed appeals to wars and oppressions, rapid fire asides referencing this or that outrage du jour. This felt relevant. Not that I was informing congregants about these events, but that I was providing a theological lens through which to view all the events they already knew about. It also made me appear in touch with the world (or so I hoped).

These lists and asides have largely disappeared from my sermons. Now it feels better to dwell at length upon news items. I don’t feel the need to demonstrate how much of the news I know anymore, but rather in preaching to choose carefully from the weekly buffet of tragedy and injustice (and some good news too!) and to do more than recite a headline. It also feels like appealing to the same issue more than once is beneficial. You can hardly “interpret” the happenings of the world in one pulpit session, just as a single news story is insufficient to understand the complexity of any given event.

Actually, given how much rapid fire reporting we are exposed to from so many sources and media, perhaps the newspaper is not the best companion to the Bible for our age. Maybe now it’s news magazines, with their long-form, analytical biases. Maybe interpreting magazines from the Bible is the challenge our era demands.

 

Ministry with youth is distinct from ministry with young adults. Youth ministry is about forming teenagers as disciples. It requires an understanding of the unique cognitive, physical, and emotional development happening in adolescence, and it relies on constructive relationships with teens’ parents and an appreciation for the institutions that shape teens’ day-to-day experience: family, school, the law, church.

None of this is true of young adults, people in their 20’s. Ministry with young adults is about forming the habits of discipleship among people for whom institutional constraints are disappearing, or, at least, changing dramatically. Post-school, post-nuclear family, post-youth group: young adulthood requires the navigation of a new set of institutions, like one’s job or marriage, albeit with a more fully developed cognitive, physical, and emotional toolkit.  Ministry with that cohort relies on quality relationships with them as individuals and in the context of their emerging communities, including, though not limited to, the church.

So youth and young adult ministries are distinct in their objectives, challenges, and opportunities. In a community of a certain size, you really need those ministries to be in different peoples’ portfolios for them to thrive.

And yet . . .

There is this continuity, isn’t there, between these two arenas of faith formation. Extended Adolescence has become a normative concept, and not in the pejorative sense. From that Atlantic essay linked above: “Far from a contributor to emotional immaturity, the trend toward an adolescence that extends into the mid-20s is an opportunity to create a lifelong brain-based advantage.”

Beyond developmental understanding, there is the continuity of mentorship. The church I serve has intentionally invited young adults into youth ministry leadership roles from the beginning (many of those young adult leaders are now in their 40’s and still at it). This is for two reasons: young adults represent the thing that adolescents are growing toward, so structuring contexts for teenagers to get to know 20 somethings gives them models and mentors of what faithfulness looks like as an early adult.

Secondly, youth ministry is a terrific lab for leadership development, one of the church’s best. Youth ministry staffs are brimming with young adults. The “Emergent” churches that sprang up as a cultural and intellectual alternative to late 20th century evangelicalism in North America and the UK were largely led by people in their 20’s and early 30’s who had cut their teeth in youth ministry organizations like Young Life and InterVarsity. Many of those emergent churches are still thriving. That’s not an accident.

It seems to me like, in the right setting and with the right leadership, there cold be some creative potential for hitching ministry with youth and with young adults together.

Is this happening anywhere?

 

If You Say, “Stay Tuned” . . .

Don’t say, “Stay tuned” if you don’t want people to hold you to what happens next.

First the good news: things ended in understanding. “We’re still friends,” is the report. “Just not BFFs.” There was a discussion, an airing of grievances.  There were tears. But in the end things were civil, not mean.

Now the bad news: the resolution was reached by way of the letter, delivered in the middle of the day, though, not the end, which allowed for the subsequent tearful back-and-forth. Baby Girl’s mother and I expressed our disappointment that that was the decision, and that’s the end of that.

I am hopeful, though, in my disappointment. Because she shared so much of this with us, and because she received our disapproval without defensively digging in, it feels like there will likely be a next time for this manner of discernment and deliberation. We will gladly take that, her mother and I, as a precious opportunity to listen and counsel as she makes her way towards more compassionate and responsible decisions.

The Last Day Is Never Really The Last Day

No more pencils, no more books . . .

It’s the last day of school today. Baby Girl is taking a small stack of 1 X 1 cards I made for her with her address and her parents’ phone numbers and email addresses. She wants to give these to her friends to play over the summer. I’m like her agent.

There is also last day drama surrounding one of her friends whom several other of her friends feel does not treat them well and for whom a letter is being prepared, to deliver at the final bell, which states, “We don’t want to be your friend anymore because you don’t treat us very well.”

Hours have been spent on this matter at home the past three days–the recitations of the friend’s offenses is specific and narrated with great flair–with Baby Girl’s mother and I asking her to consider how that letter would make her feel if she received it and also affirming that she doesn’t have to remain friends with people who treat her badly. We’re asking questions, trying not to give orders but trying to make the case for permanence; the last day isn’t really the last day. There’s next year, maybe even a surprise summer encounter. Among ourselves, my wife and I are dreading a conversation with the mother, who we both like a lot, when her daughter comes home with some tear-stained Wide Ruled with our kids’ name on it. This is a test case in decision making for a nine year-old. It is as fraught as anything her parents will decide today.

Stay tuned.

A-C-C-O-U-N-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y

Sharing accountability takes longer and demands more energy than heaping all of the accountability onto yourself does. Compared to gathering a team, clarifying objectives, and dividing up ownership of the work, swooping in the week before to make all the decisions yourself is easy. Actually, it’s a cop-out.

The commitment to sharing accountability in an organization is as hard for the person who wants all the accountability as it is for the person who wants none.

Those of us whose jobs and titles imply accountability need to make sharing it part of how we work, and that takes lots of advance intentional planning. It’s way more than deciding during the event to delegate a task. It’s inviting a partner to own a piece of the work from start to finish, and then following their lead in evaluating whether it worked.

*Thanks to Jessica Tate for these insights

Pomp And Circumstance And Gluten Free Donuts

This year’s high school graduates from the church I used to serve were in the third grade the year I met them.

My daughter was born that year. She is just now finishing . . . third grade.

This makes me think about her age and mine, of course, and it prompts all kinds of reminiscence about the past nine years. But I also wonder: who are the people in my daughter’s life now, today, beyond her family, who will care when she graduates from high school?

One of the graduates I’m thinking about was provided with special gluten free donuts every Sunday for six years by the couple who taught Sunday School to the youth. As much as anyone in his life, that couple is due some congratulations at his graduation.

This seems to me a big part of church: growing the ranks of adults who know about and care about young people who aren’t related to them.

 

The Story And The Story About The Story

There is the story, and there is the story about the story.

Yesterday somebody shot at Republican lawmakers near our nation’s capital. That’s a story–a harrowing, upsetting story. Yet you knew it would only take a couple of hours for competing stories to emerge, each one about the story of the shooting yet grounded in its own narrative world of villains and heroes.

The story and the story about the story.

This happens in the Bible too.

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague about a story he’s preaching soon, the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis, in which Hagar, who has born a child for Abram and Sarai, is sent away by Abram at the request of his wife. That’s the story. But there’s another story there that my preacher friend wants to tell, about the stories that have been told about that story over the centuries, even about the story the characters in the story are telling themselves about their story as it’s happening, even–stay with me here–the story about the storyteller.

The story and the story about the story.

It’s good to know which story we’re in.

What Makes A Good Youth Mission Trip

One of the best experiences my students ever had with a mission trip was a week at a church in south Louisiana that somebody from that church and I planned over the course of about nine months. We’d never met, but my church’s youth group had spent two days at her church on a post-Katrina trip only three years earlier, and they couldn’t stop talking about it. So we decided to spend a whole week there.

The trip checked all the boxes. It was a partnership with a congregation. The congregation was culturally and theologically different from the progressive mainline church our students knew; the worship services we participated in were some of the most transformative things that happened. There was meaningful work to do that extended the congregation’s ministry, like painting the church’s preschool classrooms and helping with outreach projects in the church’s neighborhood. The congregation extended a hospitality to our group such as few of us had ever experienced. Students were changed on that trip. So was I.

There are so many good options for short term mission experiences with youth. The best ones are “immersive,” meaning they emphasize the relationships a church has with its local community and invite visiting students to experience and contribute to those relationships. They’re partnerships in which the visiting youth learn as much as they serve. Great programs like the one at my church seem to be popping up everywhere.

The element in these programs that makes the biggest impact on the experience of students and leaders alike is the people in charge of them (we have a good one). Working with leaders at the church in south Louisiana to discern the work we would do together made all the difference, as a good partnership always does.

A partner you trust; immersion in a particular culture; learning that complements service; spiritual depth. These are the boxes I look to check on a youth mission trip, and it’s the time of year to start planning the one(s) for next summer.

Homecoming (Part III)

This is part three of a story the first and second parts of which you can read here and here, respectively.

How is it possible that I do not have a ticket home, or to Kansas City, the closest thing I have to home at this free falling stage of life? The airline ticket agents sure don’t know. All they know is that we’re in May and the month on the ticket I’m holding is July.

I imagine how I must look to them. Bewildered, sweaty, limping as I jerk an army green duffel bag and a ripped open tote around the ticket line. Is this the kind of thing they see every day? I decide that it is.

The exchange at the mercifully empty ticket counter is long enough for me to piece this puzzle together. This was the plan, back in January, after I had surprised absolutely no one by proposing to my college sweetheart during her one visit of the year: get married in July, the month before she starts medical school. Because my volunteer posting is supposed to last until August, I’ll need to get permission to leave early, and I’ll need to stay as long as possible. So leave a week before the wedding date? Sure. I made the arrangements with the denomination’s travel agent for an early July flight from Belfast to Kansas City, a mere formality to precede the nuptials that would inaugurate the rest of my life.

That was not such a great plan, it turned out. March was long. April was longer. My fiancee was planning a wedding by herself, preparing for medical school, and beginning to wonder if this plan was not in fact a terrible mistake. So an April ultimatum: come home early or this wedding can’t happen.

Done. I would abort my international experience to romantically ride home and save the wedding. I made the call. A May flight, the travel agent thoroughly annoyed.

Is that why the domestic leg of the trip was never changed? Was I being shown a lesson: the whims of your romance, ultimate as they are to you, do not merit the shuffling and reshuffling of international itineraries?

“Sir, you will have to buy a Chicago-to-Kansas-City ticket,” the agent tells me. “There are still seats available on this flight,” she adds, indicating the time on my irrelevant July ticket. Of course these flights are all at the same time, regardless of the day. Of course the world is mechanical and predictable. This is the truth greeting my heroic spontaneity on a muggy May afternoon in O’Hare.

How? How am I to purchase an airline ticket? I’m days from turning 23 and have spent my first full year out of college as a volunteer, making no money, actually borrowing other people’s money for the privilege of living abroad while my fellow graduates have been getting jobs, even starting families. I can’t buy a plane ticket. I can’t buy a hamburger. Those are adult functions, and I am no adult. I am a child playing grown up–I will take a flight; I will get married–, ticket-less in the airport as in life.

To be continued. 

On Doing Your Job

Fulfilling the expectations of the job you were hired to do is good. Do it whenever you can.

But also ask if those expectations are the right ones from time to time.