Matthew 13

“A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

-Jesus (Matthew 13:3)

seed-sower-jeremy-samsIn one of the most famous of his parables, Jesus tells us about a person who sows.  Seed that is distributed ends up in a lot of different places.  The results are diverse.

Simple and oft-cited, this parable provides its readers/hearers with a lot of different imagery with which to wrestle.  On top of that, Jesus even takes the time to explain the story to his disciples.  But I’m not concerned with these details this morning.  Instead, I just want to focus on one picture: the sower.

Jesus doesn’t really spend much time here identifying the sower as such.  The text basically associates the image with those who share the message of the Kingdom of God.  So that’s Jesus.  That’s the disciples.  That’s Christians all throughout time.  That’s me too.

I’m not an expert in farming, but it appears that what the sower is doing here is not some scientific process of planting, but rather an almost casual dispersing of seed all along the ground that has been prepared.  There is method to it, but it is not overly defined by method.  It is sowing.

As the farmer proceeds, seed falls everywhere.  I don’t know what the personality of such a person is like, but I rather picture it as joyful.  Almost whimsical, if you’ll allow it.  There’s serious work to do, yes.  It will take a lot of time to sow this seed, yes.  But: the day is full and the wind is at their back.  And they can’t wait to see what this seed will turn into.  The worries of irrigation, weeding, harvesting?  That’s all for another day.

I think I’d enjoy being a sower.

I realize that my mental picture of this first-century agricultural worker probably won’t pass exegetical or cultural-historical tests, but all the same I like to imagine the sower smiling and singing asTheSower their task unfolds.  It is a good work, and they have a real part to play in it.

I suppose I see the sower in this light because it is how I want to picture the Christ follower as called to share the Kingdom of God.  Not worrying incessantly about the science of seeds but simply focusing on fulfilling a purpose: sharing the very good news that is Jesus Christ.

There is a time for strategies and planning, of course.  But there also needs to be a time for the joy of sowing.  A reminder too, that at the end of the day we don’t make seeds germinate and turn them into crops.  Only God gives Creation that ability.  We are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.

A Prayer

fergusonseasongreetingsRead it again, Lord.  Please.

 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:14-21

May I Take Your Order?

200px-ExecutiveordersYesterday New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spent some time discussing three influences that have led, in his estimation, towards President Obama’s “imperial” presidency.  As a response to last week’s executive order on immigration, conservatives (and others) have raised questions about our system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and the role of the President.

My goal here is not to debate immigration or President Obama himself.  Rather, I simply want to raise what I feel to be pertinent questions about the state of the American Presidency.  Here I would agree substantially with Douthat’s first point:

..public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured.

And pressure on this talisman to act…is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.

Our contemporary, fast-paced, and media-driven world requires244668 quick and decisive action.  Congress and the courts don’t provide this.  Only a President does.  That’s great, as far as executive optics go.  In terms of a functioning democracy, it begins to look problematic.

Whether or not you agree with President Obama’s order last week, the fact that such actions can be taken and may be considered the mark of “real leadership” in our democracy has a troubling aspect.  That’s true whether the person in the Oval Office is George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama.

And yet: if taking decisive and governmentally unbalanced action like this is the way to build your legacy as a President, what is to be done?  The argument could be made that such developments are inevitable in our time.  Quick decisions need to be made, and we cannot wait around while Congress or Court dawdles.

napoleone If we are saying, though,  that the needs of the present are more important than a functioning democracy, I have deep concerns.  To be sure: we are not in any kind of dictatorship in the United States.  But we are out of balance.  The Executive is (and has been in a number of presidential administrations) just too powerful.  Human beings like strong leaders that can make definitive decisions.  When such a leader makes wise decisions, the people prosper.  When they make bad ones they falter.  That’s what the rule of a king or emperor is like.  But that is not what America is supposed to be…and we must make sure that it never gets there.  Not even by relatively innocent steps taken.

Despite the complexities of our world, there’s no cause to abandon the wisdom of checks and balances.  There is no reason to bypass the democratic process.  I suspect, though, that it may be time to reassess how our process works and ask real questions about how American principles can persevere even if it means changing the forms we use to do so.

Mockingjay Song

**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Mockingjay, Part I.**

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Mockingjay, Part I premieres tomorrow in theaters around the country.  As it does, I aim to continue a set of posts that I’ve written with the release of each of the films.  (Only one entry this year, however.)

The popularity and themes of the Hunger Games series have made it a particularly useful conversation piece.  Over the past two years I’ve taken the opportunity to use the films/books to write about theology, adolescent culture, and youth ministry.

As the story of Katniss and her struggles begins to wind to a close with this film, many of the motifs of the first two installments continue: the co-option of her agency by a dysfunctional adult world, a world structure built mostly upon violence, the use of artifice and/or deception as a means to survival, etc.  As I’ve argued before, Katniss’ story mirrors the perceived journey of many adolescents.  While our students are not forced to fight to the death against their will in a vicious set of games, their lives can feel that way sometimes.MockingjayCover

There are no games in Mockingjay, however.  Now things have become real.  At the end of Catching Fire Katniss is whisked away from the playing arena and enters into a larger struggle.  Her adolescence, we might say, is over.  The adult world now beckons.  Heady stuff for a young person looking forward to putting the nonsense of youth behind her.

And yet, the more time she spends in District 13, the more she realizes that the broken system that led to the Hunger Games and the societal mechanism’s that co-opted her youth persist.  As the symbolic leader of the rebellion against the Capitol she is forced to become “The Mockingjay.”  She has little choice in the matter.  Her young adulthood, therefore, is just as trapped in this broken place as was her adolescence.

Being forced to play a role in a world that seems to know only one way forward is not unique to Katniss Everdeen, however.  It is a reality felt by many young people as they strain at the B0t35sTIUAMBW3G.jpg largetension between their dreams and hopes and the strictures placed upon them by outside forces.  It can be a difficult place to live.

And yet: as much as the Hunger Games saga is about the ways in which young people are forced to fight for a broken system, it is also about how that system can be changed or subverted.

Katniss Everdeen is never just a passive participant in the brokenness around her.  Rather, she is always thinking about how her actions in the midst of it might work to change things for the better.  These efforts at subversion and resistance to the prevailing status quo are tested in Mockingjay, and I look forward to seeing how the two films based upon the book will address these issues.

 

Questions About Student Missions Trips (Part II)

pbauteeback_147104aYesterday I shared some of my concerns about student missions.  Over the last 24 hours I’ve received some thoughtful feedback and considered more deeply how we might rethink the way youth ministers work with students in this area.

As a clarification, let me say this: my critiques yesterday were neither a rejection of missions as a concept nor the work and efforts of missionaries on the ground.  Instead, my words were offered as a potential corrective to certain practices or thoughts about missions here in the United States.  A caution to youth pastors, if you will.  After all, missionaries by and large are aware of the dangers and realities of cross-cultural ministry.  They understand the principle of indigeneity and the empowerment of national believers.  Telling them about some of the risks of youth missions is like preaching to the choir.

We youth pastors, though, can have all sorts of heroic, idealistic, and impractical ideas of what missions is about.  Or, at the very least, we might let erroneous ideas persist in the minds of our students.  Such things can lead to the problems I shared yesterday.  My questions, therefore, are meant to lead American youth ministries to reconsider the way they do mission trips.world map

Here, then, are four thoughts to point things forward:

Proposition 1: Providing a Frame.  In order to avoid the problem(s) of cultural insensitivity or unhelpful ideas about the purpose and aims of a missions trip, it makes sense for youth pastors to prepare their teams effectively.  This means more than just learning skits, developing your testimony, or learning how to do basic construction.  It rather involves focused discussion of what the intercultural missions experience is about, what the aims are, and what one hopes to do/learn.

Particular emphasis should be given to learning about the culture to which the team is traveling and discussing how such encounters with the global church are so powerful.  The emphasis needs to move from, in other words, “we are going to help those poor helpless people” to “we are going to join together with the Church in this place for the Kingdom of God.”

Two resources that might be helpful in this preparation process are Deep Justice Journeys and Serving With Eyes Wide Open.  By utilizing such a training process, students will hopefully have a better sense of the mission in which they are engaging, why they are really doing it, and what God might do in them and others through it.

serving_with_eyes_wide_open_coverProposition 2: Fencing the Table.  While I know that a number of students sacrifice in order to go on a student missions trip, I also know that the problem of “repeat customers” can run the risk of making it more about the trip than the mission.  Christian tourism is something I want to avoid.  As such, I’d encourage youth pastors to think about limiting the number of times a student can go on a missions trip during their high school years (maybe even letting them go only once).

At the same time, I’d like to make it easier for every student to be able to go at least once.  I believe strongly in the place of intercultural experiences and the opportunity for students to see God at work beyond their normal existence.  As a missionary friend of mine said, it is on these kinds of missions journeys that God can powerfully impact students’ lives and outlook.

Perhaps the answer, then, is providing a way for trips to be cheaper for first-timers and/or making the application process a bit more difficult for those who’d like to go a second or third time.  I realize there are exceptions to every rule, but in order to keep the focus where it needs to be this might be helpful.

Proposition 3: The Consistent Locale:  In some circles, the missions trip “flavor of the year” only increases the risk of the tourism idea taking effect.  Though God can and does use the one-and-done weeklong efforts of groups that change locations every year, I’m increasingly interested in the church partnership model of missions.  This is where an American church–the whole congregation, not just the youth–partners with a local church community and/or missionary team in another culture for the long term.  Missions efforts and trips are therefore about joining together in numerous ways.Hands_In_400-253x162

By not scattering missions efforts across the globe, real connections are formed and growing community and mutual dialogue can take place.  Both sides in the equation can learn more about what God is doing and understand more of the mission of God.  I know that some churches are already living this type of model, and I applaud them for it.  It both provides opportunity for more sustained work and change, and also helps us think of missions in terms of partnership for the Kingdom rather than a top-down type of aid effort.

Proposition 4: The Reverse Missions Trip.  This is my most “outside the box” idea, but I think it has potential.  As I’ve said, so often missions trips paint us (often white) Americans as the heroes and those (often non-white) to whom we travel as those who need to be recipients of our help.  The mission, in other words, only flows in one way.  While this is the situation in a number of cases, I know as well that there is much that Christians around the globe have to offer us.  More, I think, than we might realize.

tile_6x3_140212_PH_0006Why not try this, then: instead of raising money so that we can go there, what if we gathered resources that allowed people from another culture to travel to our hometowns?  Especially if their background intersected with immigrant groups in our communities, they could help our churches with evangelism, outreach, and service to demographics that we might have great difficulty connecting with otherwise.  So too our visitors could teach us more about their lives of faith even as they learn about the way our churches serve God in our daily lives.  They could partner with us in efforts in our communities, and we together would embrace the idea that we’re on mission with God no matter where we are.  Such a trip would be especially powerful if done in conjunction with the idea of a consistent locale.

Obviously, these four brief ideas aren’t complete, and they don’t answer all of my concerns or others you might have.  They are, however, a start.  As with yesterday’s post, I welcome your responses and thoughts as I continue to reflect on how American churches and youth ministries might best engage in missions.

Questions about Student Missions Trips (Part I)

mission-tripMy time as a professor of youth ministries has allowed me a significant amount of space for reflection that was not often available during the busyness of full-time church ministry.  During a conversation over the weekend, I was reminded of one of the topics I’ve been considering over the past few years: missions.

The high school foreign missions trip has tended to be a staple of the youth group experience over the past few decades.  So many of our students have been able to expand the vision of their world, travel to a new place, serve the needs of missionaries and nationals, and leave transformed by the encounters and spiritual experiences they have had.  It is no wonder such trips persist.

I myself am no stranger to missions.  My grandparents served as missionaries for over a decade.  I was 14 during my missions trip, and have been on five since.  As a leader in the Assemblies of God in New Jersey, I helped coordinate and lead missions efforts for our district youth department.  My denomination has historically embraced the call to share the gospel around the world, and I am “on board” with their continuing efforts.  My wife and I support a missionary couple who are serving in Latin America.

And yet: as I have been thinking about the way we do missions with youth, I’m worried.  Some of it has to do with post-colonial questions.  Some of it has to do with finances.  Still more has to do with what Andy Root has referred to as “the mission trip as global tourism.”  And then, of course, I’m worried that in some sense the missions trip may be perpetuating a lie or–even worse–a somewhat concerning truth.5-Reasons-Every-Teen.2

I’ll ask some questions today, and invite responses.  Some of these queries are born from reflection and others from experience.  They are not representative of every missions trip, but they do point to some structural issues that I think we ought to address as they appear.  No doubt there will be disagreement, and that’s OK.  I welcome discussion on the topic.  Tomorrow I’ll share some of my thoughts about what we might do moving forward.  I still believe in missions, in other words.  I just want to make sure the way it all works at the youth ministry level represents our best and most faithful efforts.  Most of my concerns, then, are not with missions itself, but rather the way we might think about and enact it.

Problem #1: The White Man’s Burden and the World Church.  There was a time, in ages past, when nearly the entirety of the non-Western world was non-Christian.  There was little Christian presence in certain areas and the name of Jesus was a foreign one.  In many ways, these days are gone.  While there are places on our globe that are significantly un-Christian (think, for instance, parts of the Middle East), there are fewer and fewer places around the world that have no Christian presence.  Christians impelled by God’s Spirit the world over have helped make this a reality.

But here’s the thing: as Christianity becomes more and more indigenized, it makes less sense to keep relying solely on the (often white) missionary for evangelistic work.  Instead, their efforts of the Church should be to empower the (mostly non-white) indigenous believers to minister in their own context.  This is an axiom in most missionary circles.  Yet the way missions is presented at the youth ministry level can perpetuate the old and somewhat discredited idea that “we” are going to help “those people” (whether spiritually or with regard to infrastructure, education, etc.).   Ouruganda2 efforts at missions can therefore oversell what we do at the expense of what God is already doing.  I believe in a Church that exists all over the world and a Spirit who works in all believers.  Surely, then, the mission of God is not a one-way street?

Problem #2: The Inequities of Money and Missions.  While there are missions trips of all shapes and sizes, the “sexiest” among them tend to be the international ones.  This often means airplanes and accommodations, and this translates into money.  Depending on the locale of the trip, this can mean a lot of money.  When we’re asking for potentially multiple thousands of dollars from students, churches, and families in order to take part in projects like this, are we comfortable with the price tag?  In other words: is our money best spent this way?  These are good questions.

To be sure, the presence of American teens ready and willing to help missionaries and nationals on the ground can be a big “shot in the arm” for their efforts there and provide an effective albeit temporary means of assistance.  I wonder, though, whether the cost(s) associated with such help aren’t sometimes just too high.  Further, if getting together the money for such trips might exclude certain students or families for socio-economic reasons, are we not creating some kind of missions/spiritual hierarchy by doing so?

Problem #3:  Missions and Tourism.  In many ways this problem flows from the previous one.  In my time as state missions trip leader, I would be asked “where are we going next year, Pastor Josh?” An innocent and excited question, surely, but one which speaks to the larger implications of missions as tourist adventure.  After all, every missions trip tended to involve a fun shopping/tourist/relaxation day for our students.  youth group mission trip 2010-7

Students who can afford to go on missions trips year after year can and do.  They’re engaging in service, surely, but they can also be buying into a kind of mentality that values experience and excitement above all else (not to mention the fact that the “repeat customer” phenomena favors those with more money).  This is dangerous.

Problem #4: The Mission Trip as Either Fib or Fancy  I wonder whether the way we sometimes sell missions to adolescents isn’t a bit deceptive.  And even when we’re being honest, I not sure the reasons we provide should justify all we do.  First, the fib.  In some circles, missions is promoted to students as them “making a real difference” in the world by means of evangelism and relief.  They’re going over there to rescue/save/etc.  And to be sure, a work project they’re involved in can help others.  A soul that accepts the gospel as presented by a team of students makes a difference.  These are realities.  But: students are only there a week or two.  In the grand scheme of things they’re not making a monumental difference.  The resources and time they are spending to go overseas might be just as well utilized making a difference in their backyards.  The real work of missions is done by those–nationals and outsiders alike–who are continually on the ground.

The fib, of course is recognized by many youth pastors, who instead own up to the main reason we take students on these trips: for the transformative experience it has on their lives.  Broadening their horizons, having them encounter other cultures, engaging them in spiritual work and reflection; all of these are part and parcel of the missions trip experience.  Students’ lives are changed on these trips, callings are day-2-guat-jkr-1discerned, and God’s voice is truly heard.  I rejoice in this.  But only a few get to experience it.  And it costs a lot of money to do so.  Further, using such trips for the effect they have on students’ lives–the ends, in other words–deeply devalues the people, lives, and situations around the world that constitute the means by which we achieve these goals.  Stated bluntly, if missions trips are about changing our students’ lives we are just using those to whom we ostensibly are going to serve.  And this seems problematic.

So there you have it.  Some thoughts and questions.  I’ve admittedly taken a rather dim view of a certain approach to missions here, and I realize that there are good responses to each of the concerns I’ve raised.  Even so, I think that if we’re not willing to consider the dangers inherent the way(s) that we can think about the student missions trip, we could be causing some real problems.

I believe in students.  I believe in missionaries.  I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God all around the world.  It is because of these things that I ask questions, and ask how we might improve.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

Matthew 12

“Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'”

-Matthew 12:49-50

families-1This is, admittedly, a familiar passage.  Jesus reminds his disciples (and us too) that being a part of the family of God is not something limited to blood relations.  To be with God means to be with God: following and living in the ways to which God calls us.  This new life is not easy, yet is as simple as Christ describes it.

In announcing the new rules for what it means to be in the family of God, He is of course telling His hearers that in Christ they are not just family with each other. They are family with Him.  With God.  They share the same lineage and family tree.

Jesus’ disciples try to tie him down to one family on earth, replete with mother and brothers.  That is, of course, too limited.  While certainly a flesh-and-blood member of the family of Mary, Christ’s being is much more.  He is the Son of God.  And, miracle of miracles, as we follow God we are daughters and sons of God too.

The significance of our new familial relationship with Christ is underlined by something he says earlier in this chapter when he describes himself as the “Son of Man.”  In verse 42 he reminds everyone that now “something greater than Solomon is here.”  Greater than the most powerful king in the history of Israel.  Greater than all his fame.  Greater than all his riches.  Greater than all his wisdom.

And yet, even in the midst of all his greatness Christ claims that we who trust in God are his own siblings.  His own family.  All of us children of one God.