Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lord's Boot Camp

I watched the 48 Hours Special last night on The Lord's Boot Camp. It is akin to the documentary Jesus Camp (which I'm trying to get a hold of) and outlines 3 youth as they attend a Teen Missions camp. Two of the students that they followed were being prepared for a mission trip to Zambia to work with children and one of the students was going to Indiana to evangelize at what looked like a county fair. The methods were pretty intense...providing "practice" evangelistic conversations on how to "lead" someone to the Lord and even going to a nursing home to "practice" on some elderly. They did personally challenging tasks that were designed to test their mettle and they came away with a clear sense of purpose and training for the tasks that they would undertake on their mission trips.

Okay. Hold up! A "practice" evangelistic conversation with elderly folks at the nursing home? Seriously? What makes it okay for a 13 year old (chock full of righteous training) to go into a vulnerable population and tell the woman how sinful she was just so that she can "pray the prayer" with her and write her name on a card. I'm not exaggerating...that's what happened. The other two students who were being trained for Zambia were shown to experience pretty rough conditions in order to be able to endure what they would physically have to endure. Their minds were shaped, their bodies were shaped, and then, just so that they wouldn't be a total mess, they brought in Billy Graham's grandson, Will, to build them back up and commission them for their trip. Hmm.

I'm all for evangelism, and I'm sure that the tv show was slanted to some degree, but I actually heard one of the leaders of the camp say that they "use" children to do the evagelism because who wouldn't want to talk to the children? Manipulation, anyone? I do not call what the kids were being trained to do as evangelism--sharing the good news. They were sharing a "hell fire and damnation" gospel (of which I was well acquainted during some of my formative years) that reeks of emotional (and temporary) conversion, the kind that requires asking Jesus into your heart again and again. Seriously? Unfortunately it is this manipulative, disjointed, fear-induced gospel that the world seems to be rejecting. I pray that the life-giving gospel of Christ is proclaimed and true evangelism--redemptive, faithful, hope-giving--is able to be shared.

This video is a part of a panel discussion that CBS engineered with a broad base of students to respond. There are several other videos and they provide some good food for thought to hear how teens themselves respond.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You Are Not Alone...

In mid October, I attended a women’s retreat led by women from my church. One of the speakers, Lisa, a woman that I’ve known for over 10 years, was sharing an experience about how God reminded her of his love during a particularly difficult time in her life. As she went about her day, she began noticing flowers. Not just any flowers, but yellow flowers with a black center. Sometimes the flowers were sunflowers, other times wildflowers, and sometimes they were printed on t-shirts, bags or in pictures. Every time Lisa saw one of these flowers (which was often), she was reminded of God’s love for her. It was as simple as that. God notices her and he loves her and as a symbol of his love, he sends her flowers.

As she was speaking, I was reminded of a time when I went alone on a silent retreat. I had gone hiking and as I was moving from place to place, I discovered that a butterfly seemed to be following me. For probably an hour, the butterfly was my companion. At the end of the day, I sat on a bench and spent some time in prayer and journaling and discovered, once again, that a butterfly had joined me. In that moment, God was more tangible to me than I had remembered in quite some time. Lisa’s story of the yellow flowers brought my encounter with the butterfly to my mind.

The next morning, I was standing in the church office, speaking with several people and a magazine caught my eye. The cover was a photo of a swarm of butterflies. I smiled as I thought back to the day before, when I identified the butterfly as an experience of God’s presence several years earlier. The next day, I saw a moth as I walked into the Student Center to go to lunch. I laughed as I thought of the fact that it wasn’t quite a butterfly, but that a moth was the next best thing! On Tuesday, I had a meeting with my District Superintendent and would you believe what she was wearing on her lapel? A painted butterfly pin! I began to put together all of my “butterfly sightings” and thought that maybe, just maybe God was sending me a little message.

You see, I’m not usually one to “look for signs” or read too much into what is happening at the moment, but I most definitely believe in a God who cares about each of us individually and communicates with us. I know that God loves me, but sometimes I suppose that I, like Lisa, tend to get overly busy and distracted and feel lonely and need a reminder of God’s love. On Wednesday, my suspicions that this may be a part of God’s plan were confirmed as I went to speak to a woman that occasionally attends our chapel services. As I spoke to her, I noticed that she, too, was wearing a pin: a painted butterfly! I almost laughed out loud and as I did, I remembered that Reinhold Niebuhr said that laughter is the beginning of a prayer. I decided to thank God, right then and there, for the little ways that he was showing me that he loves me…I know in big ways that God loves me—I know the joy of being a Christian, I have everything that I need, I have a strong sense of calling, I have friends and family that show me love—but the butterflies began to minister to me in a very intimate way. The next day, I was reading a friends’ blog from several months earlier when I happened to see pictures of her family at a butterfly farm. On Friday, the butterfly was on a student’s t-shirt. On Saturday evening, I realized that I had not yet seen a butterfly. I was coming back from the grocery store and listening to the radio when the DJ spoke about how he used to dismiss people’s stories of “weird” things being God’s voice but he had come to realize that God could speak through anything, when just then, my headlights caught the side of a house that had 3 painted wooden butterflies attached to the side of the house. If I had any intellectualized skeptic left in me, that soon disappeared!

Over the course of an entire week, a butterfly had been present with me in some form or fashion every single day. I began to think back through all that was happening in my life: I was entering a time in my life that was particularly stressful, a time when I was looking for God’s guidance and strength in a new way and somehow the vulnerability of the butterfly has become a gift from God to encourage me through these difficult days. Would you believe that every single day for 6 weeks, I saw a butterfly? It’s true! Perhaps my butterflies were sent to give me that extra little bit of encouragement during a particularly difficult 6 weeks. Perhaps there have been butterflies all along, but I’ve been too busy to notice. Perhaps there is another explanation. However, I choose to believe that God was sending me a message that isn’t too different than the message that he sends to each of us, if we would only have the ears to hear it. That message is this: I love you. I notice you. I’m with you. I will give you strength. Be not afraid.

P.S. One of my butterfly sightings during that 6 weeks was the cover of the book that is shown above. I was examining a book catalog and spied the little butterfly in the picture. And then I read the title of the book!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting Refreshed

Each December (for the last 3, counting this one), I attend a conference called "Refresh" sponsored by the Foundation for Evangelism for United Methodists in Campus Ministry. This year, I was on the design team, which meant that I watched things a little more closely than I have in the past (and I didn't quite get as "refreshed" as I have the other years!). I posted following the first one a couple of years ago, and I wanted to post a couple of observations this year, too.

  • First of all, community is irreplacable. Several of my friends from seminary (and beyond) attend this conference, but I've also begun to form community with others that I would never have known without meeting them through the common bond of campus ministry in the United Methodist Church. We all come from very different backgrounds (sometimes theologically, and sometimes the context of our ministries), but we like each other and we are united around a common goal: living out the gospel among younger adults in the context of the United Methodist Church. That is enough to join us together. I certainly get my "emotional cup" refilled to overflowing when I attend Refresh! Thanks be to God!

  • Second of all, at this particular conference, there seemed to be a stirring of the Holy Spirit around the ideas of simplicity, living in community and living spiritual practices. I make this statement with this qualification: we often say these things, but this week, I believed the people who said them. Our line-up was interesting: Chris Seay, the guy in charge of the Ekklesia Project; Sean Gladding (who was a classmate of mine at Asbury), co-pastor of Mercy Street Ministries (and an insightful bible teacher!!!!), a community in Houston; and Dr. Elaine Heath, a theologian from Perkins School of Theology at SMU (there were others, but these three were most notable to me). My personal response to the combination of these messages is this: We live fractured, busy, consuming lives, even if we are "Christians." However, the message of the gospel, found in the enduring pages of Scripture and lived out by communities of Christians, provides a message of completion and redemption to counter our own misaligned attempts. The single most important feature of living this type of life is true, life-giving, intentional Christian community (see above--a "full" emotional cup, not to mention living the Kingdom here on earth!).

  • Thirdly, at a personal level, I was confirmed in some thoughts that I've had, and have shared with students, about the possibility of having a home for some of our amazing college students that is dedicated to hospitality, intentional Christian community, and spiritual practices. Elaine and others are starting homes like this in the Dallas area, and maybe elsewhere! Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on this in the upcoming months, but trust me, I'm excited!

Despite the fact that I somehow ended up more tired at the end of my time together with 160 others that love college aged students, I am incredibly excited about the work of God's Spirit in the ministries of my colleagues around the country! May God continue to breathe even more life into all of our ministries!

(For another perspective on Refresh, see my colleague and mentor, Steve Rankin's, blog here.)