Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Turning the Page on Poverty

Poverty is at the root of so many of the injustices around the world and causes the most vulnerable in our society to be pushed further and further into the dirt.  The bible is so clear that we caused this grave situation starting with the first choice to eat from the wrong tree.   The statistics are staggering, to the point that we’ve generally ignored them because they are so large most of us have no frame of reference to understand them.  We can’t possibly put faces, names or identities to all those who suffer in poverty.  Although, if you go to they will put faces to the people who died in the past hour from hunger.  Then you can put a name with a face.  If you watch for 24 hours, you will see on average 25,000 people died of hunger related causes in that time.  So many preventable diseases and medical conditions causing death are related to poverty, so many children sold in to slavery, prostitution or abandoned as orphans stem from people living in poverty.  The numbers are overwhelming, the reality is overwhelming, to the point where many of us get angry and bitter, we get hopeless and ineffectual or we get apathetic and ignorant in order to protect our sanity against the reality.
The bible however is also clear that this isn’t just a big punishment and blame game that God is playing with us because of fallen state of our species.  After he gave us the boot from a perfect creation without poverty, he said you’ll have to work hard, but I’ll provide what you need.  He actually didn’t send us into an impoverished world. also says, “yet there is plenty of food in the world for everyone.” says that the evangelical church in the USA alone has the financial resources to end extreme poverty in 10 years if properly allocated (no more 10 million dollar church building projects would be a good start).  Extreme poverty has been cut in half in just a generation and according to we’re actually winning the war on extreme poverty.  Although people are still spending more on their soy latte at Starbucks (Lrg dbl dbl’s at Tim Horton’s if you’re Canadian) on the way to church on Sunday than they are directing at mosquito nets and measles vaccinations, the tide is shifting.   

I’m not convinced sharing these numbers will motivate you, but here they are 145 Million abandoned and orphaned children who have lost one or both parents.  How do you feel; angry, bitter, hopeless, ignorant?
But what if our approach to fighting poverty is often backwards?  Sometimes I think the way we do lots of things are backwards, perhaps this is no exception.

What if trying to motivate people to action by flooding them with unrelatable numbers actually causes more hopelessness and despair and results in inaction.  While the sales pitch for doing things to relieve poverty has gone more away from guilt trips to slightly hopeful feel good action (i.e. for the price of a cup of coffee a day…) it still leaves a disconnect or a gap very often.  Although I give to support two sponsor children, I still drink too much coffee, so I still feel slightly guilty, sometimes.  The numbers still overwhelm me, there’s always more I could be doing.  True. 

I’m going to let you off the hook.  You are not responsible for 145 million orphans.  But you could be responsible for one (or two or three maybe even ten).  The possibilities are endless in how you can help.  Please don’t let the gigantic, unrelatable, seemingly unconquerable problem deter you.  No more cop-outs, no more excuses.  So you can’t commit to $30 a month (I don’t believe you but) give $10 this month.  Blood:Water Missions says $1=1 Year of clean drinking water for 1 African.  That’s pretty simple math.  So you don’t trust these big organizations or like the way the spend money (that’s stupid but), find someone who is doing work on the ground and help them directly with time, money or prayer.   Africa’s too far away to help someone, find a kid in your neighborhood who is fatherless and give them your time, show them they’re important and loved.  Not sure you can do it yet, check out some of these kids.

Don’t feel guilty, don’t feel powerless.  Jesus didn’t give you that mindset.  You can’t save 145 million orphans, you can’t eradicate poverty and all its symptoms – that’s above your pay grade -  but you can do something.  You could rescue one.  You could print off all the statistics, you could read a million stories, you could see hundreds of sponsor kids waiting to be adopted but will you help turn the page for one.

Want to turn the page, here are a few places you can start.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rusty Fenders

Here's a quandary for any youth workers out there in the church - youth pastor, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders... - what are we doing?  Easy question.  I spent a good part of my day yesterday questioning why my position exists.  Let me try to explain why

Here's what I/we do (well a lot of us anyway): try to create this amazingly well tailored portion of time in a young persons life where we carve out 2-4 hours per week (depending on what you do with them)  where we ask them to focus on Jesus, maybe learn something in the bible, sing some songs they don't know or like, be nice to one another, play some silly games that they would never consider doing unless we told them this is what young people that believe in Jesus should do rather than partying on Friday night (all the while assuming they even believe in Jesus).  Then we (parents you're on the hook for this one too) make them go to church on Sunday and take part in a service that has no relationship to anything else in their life, it doesn't translate into their life throughout the other 164-168hrs of their week.  Then we tell them, well if you're going to believe in Jesus you should serve in the church, usually doing something that has no significance to them or anyone else, or they should volunteer on holidays at a soup kitchen, or they should do the things Jesus did.  We create this little separate world designed to "disciple" them so they will go on following Jesus when they turn 18 and start to face real choices on their own.  (maybe this isn't how your "church" works but this seems pretty standard)

Here what I've seen happen in two short years of youth ministry...

1) kids "graduate" from youth ministry into 'young adult' church life.  So now we say, 'ok, you're an adult, time to come and join the rest of the congregation, they do things entirely different than you, most of what they do was important and translated to life in the 1950's (maybe the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, or 00's depending on when you're church started).  If you're fortunate you'll have a 'college and careers' group that meets during the week, that might help you connect Jesus life with the rest of your life.  If not, welcome to Jesus circa 1958...

2) kids "graduate" youth ministry, move away from home, or start to embrace their adult status and stop going to Jesus things altogether, mostly because what they've learned, what they've experienced is irrelevant to their life in 2003... oh wait it's 2012, right.

3) They continue being involved in church, or some sort of spiritual community, growing more and more frustrated by what they see happening around them but feel powerless to do anything to change it because they don't feel "spiritually mature" or well equipped for ministry or need more accountability partners, mentors, structure, freedom, time, energy, money... that's what we taught them after all...

4) They go off to bible school, have an amazing encounter with Jesus that changes their world view or they go of to bible school and become more jaded and frustrated because the things they learned seem to be all theoretical and rarely get put into practice.

So then, what do we do youth specialist?  How do we change this idea that if we can make youth ministry cool enough, catchy enough, relevant enough, kids will magically slide into the church and stay there to grow old and gray like the folks in the back row who think the music is too loud because "we never had drums in church when I was a kid".  Do we add more drums...  and lights... and ipod giveaways... that sounds kingdom-of-heaven-ish?

let me share 3 things I think might help

Unless these kids encounter Jesus in a real way, unless they experience the actual presence of God, whatever I/we do is very much pointless in the end.  That is a very Ecclesiastes-esque, I know.  If I use Francis Chan or Sean McDowell (both of whom I use and like by the way) or Charles Spurgen (haven't actually tried him yet, maybe that's the answer) to help teach, it matters little if they don't encounter Jesus in there somewhere.  People had Jesus standing right in front of them telling parables, raising people from the dead, walking on water and they still didn't get it most of the time.  So unless these kids get it, all the life advice, all the theology, all the principles of christian living are like spray paint on a rusty fender; it'll look OK for a little while but the rust is going to eat through sooner or later.  Do things that focus on Jesus.  Honestly, they're going to get bored of the other stuff anyway.  We can't compete with what the world has to offer to keep them interested, but Jesus trumps everything.  Even Christian Guitar Hero...

The bible tells us over and over that we live by the Spirit, but people can't live by the Spirit if they've never encountered the Spirit.  Good theology, good morals, good anything is not a good replacement or even a good band-aid for for the bigger problem that in whatever we're doing people are missing Jesus more often than not.  Don't hand kids rules and formula's for being a Christian, even if it's "good" advice.  Without the Spirit they can't live it out.  Let the Spirit do his job in transforming them, it's not in your pay grade to do it without Him.  Teach them what it means to live by the spirit.  If you don't know what that means, stop teaching for a while and ask Jesus to show you what that means.  It's the only way we live, it's the only way we understand, it's the only way we know.

Let them go.  I know it sounds crazy, won't our churches die, won't they be lost on their own, won't they get in trouble...  Yes and no.  a) stop being a chicken, if you believe the bible is true and our kids have met Jesus, they are safe, he's not going to leave them or forsake them, perfect love cast our fear, so stop being affraid.  b) they are not going to carry on the traditions that your great great grandfather started, nor should they have to.  It will kill them spiritually if they try.  Young people (all people actually) have to make their expression and experience of faith their own.  If they don't it's useless.  Don't be insulted that they don't like your music or your color scheme, be happy if they love your Jesus, that's sort of the point.  It's actually ok for churches to close, if kids have met Jesus their going to start something that spreads his good news, new wine skins (they won't call it that, we told them wine is evil and who uses a wine skin anymore?)  c) a whole generation of people that look, talk, think, hurt, live, work, need and express themselves differently is waiting for them to come and tell them about this Jesus who they've experienced, know to be true and love.  You/ we (I'm already probably too old and out of touch) are not going to relate as well culturally, but truth is truth and it doesn't matter so much how they convey the truth as long as they know the truth.  So don't go buy red skinny jeans and get your neck tattooed because it'll earn you credibility with the kids (old guys look dumb in skinny jeans and neck tattoos... unless you're a big guy with neck tattoo who is about to rip my arms of for insulting you, those guys look cool with neck tattoos).  Just show them to the truth and let them take it by the spirit.

I think it's why Paul sent Timothy, "Timmy, people are not going to know what to make of you rolling into town on a skateboard, with a lip ring and bright clothes, they won't like it when you say your stoked about Jesus, or that you think Jesus likes hip hop worship songs, but don't let them get on you.  Just tell them about Jesus.  Tell them about life in the Spirit, tell them about how faith is the key, not religion." (re-remixed version of something someone named Paul might have said to someone named Timothy)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

“…so I’m going on a Journey to Ethiopia.”

Since I met Jesus I’ve had the opportunity to work with orphans in several different contexts.  Not the typical orphans that come to mind when I think of orphans.  They weren’t in “orphanages”, they weren’t in Africa or some other impoverished third world country, they weren’t child slaves, soldiers or prostitutes but they were orphans nonetheless.  I’ve been a youth worker in two separate group homes; one a crisis unit where children were taken out of homes for various reason: violence, neglect or other criminal behavior putting the teens at risk, the other, a long term care facility for teens with mental illness who had become wards of the state for various reasons.  And now as a youth pastor, I have youth from all different kinds of families, some single parent, some with fathers who work away for months at a time.  While these are all different than the typical idea of an orphan, they all experience the same lack of love, care and direction that parents are supposed to provide.  Until joining this trip, I never really saw these young people I worked with as orphans but Jesus has opened my eyes to the reality that we’re all orphan’s to some extent until God reunites us with himself by what Jesus did; a hard thing I had to come to grips with in my own life.

I never met my biological father until I turned 19.  I had a good man in my life who raised me, who I consider my dad, but there was always a disconnect between us.  Somehow, although I knew he loved me as his own son to the best of his ability, we didn’t belong to one another.  After meeting Jesus and experiencing what his unconditional love and adoption into his family was like, the relationship with my dad changed, I was able to see it with different lenses.  I’ve been able to recognize some of his shortfalls in being dad are a result of his father and his lack of relationship with his heavenly father.

As I’ve thought about this Journey we’re about to go on together, I’ve had not only a great excitement to learn how we, as children of God, care for the most vulnerable in our society, but I’m most excited for how I’ll view those around me as both literal and spiritual orphans when I return.  I’m certain that this trip will change my world view.  How could it not?  I’m sure it will impact the way I regard people in my own community.  Then too, I’m excited as one of Christ ambassadors that I’ll get to speak up on behalf of those who are fatherless (or motherless or both) to the churched and un-churched
I, like so many in the church, have become numb to the plight of orphans around the world (and in our back yard).  It seems that God is calling people, once again to take up the cause of the defenseless.  I think the church has gone through “self-help” cycle for long enough, God is calling us to put down the “7 Steps to a Better Life” books (8, 9, or 10 steps depending on your brand of Christianity) and pick up our neighbors on the road to Jericho and take care of them.  I hope this trip helps connect this idea, that is so true in my mind, to my heart so that when I talk about it; so it won’t just be empty idealism or guilt tripping people, but in genuine hope and love.  The hamster wheel is getting old, time to get off the wheel, escape the cage and go do the things we’ve read about, taught about and theologized about for too long... so I'm going on a journey to Ethiopia. 

(P.S. I stole this picture from google images.  That is not actually me on a bookshelf hamster wheel.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Question: Does the idea of building self-esteem, self-value, self-worth- all those self-things that are promoted by our culture - confuse the heck out of teens, especially when we then tell them that they are supposed to then "die-to-self?
This is sort of what I've heard (and sadly probably taught):

If you're going to follow Jesus you have to die-to-self (which the bible never really says, you can't crucify yourself, you can't bury yourself, you can't deny yourself or carry a cross if you die, and it says we die to sin not self, ) anyway once you're done doing that, you should also do things that build your self-esteem and improve yourself as a person.  (wait I though Jesus made me righteous and holy before God already when he paid for my sin, how can I improve on that)

Jesus is made strong in your weakness, now give all your gifts and abilities and live for Jesus (wait I thought he was going to show himself in my weaknesses, not my abilities).

Knowledge and wisdom come from the Holy spirit, now go to seminary and read everything everyone has written and said about that so that you can write slick sermons and teach it to everyone else.  (wait, don't they all have the holy Spirit to give them knowledge and wisdom too)

"Lost people" need to hear the gospel, but don't hang around with people who drink, smoke, swear, watch the Simpsons, listen to the radio, have an x-box, are GLBT, don't go to church or have ever gotten lost in the woods, like the show Lost, or put up posters saying they lost their cat. (wait, that only leave us... and some of us are out)

Do you think any of our teens (or anyone else for that matter) are confused by the mixed message they get from "the church"?  No wonder skeptics argue the bible contradicts itself, it's because we contradict ourselves.

I think I am as confused as the teens (apparently I'm supposed to have this figured out so I can help them figure it out... uh oh!). I never had good self-esteem growing up. I was kind of chubby (still am), kind of poor (still am), my family was kind of messed up (still is) and I thought very little of myself (still do some days).  I didn't have much to be confident about except that I could drink a lot and make people laugh by acting like an idiot (which isn't really a useful skill unless you want to be a professional extra for bar scenes in Hollywood).  I didn't know anything about God, so had very little purpose. All the messages I got from the world were that I had to improve myself in order to measure up to someone else and get ahead.

That's not the message Jesus had though, he actually says we get to turn away from all those stupid ideas, surrender them to him and let Him replace them with Him. That is the place we have esteem,value and worth. I used to try to find worth in my basketball ability.  Then when I realized I was never going to make it to the NBA, or to the D division provincial tournament, I started to look for worth in my musical ability. No gold records yet. Not looking there anymore.  But Jesus gave me a different place to look, not to myself but to him.  My worth started to come from how much he was willing to give up for me.  Not because I could dribble/shoot/pass well, not because I could play guitar and sing, not because I got straight A's (I didn't get straight A's), not because... My worth comes from what Jesus did for me, undeservedly, he calls it Grace.

Is it time to stop giving our kids the false hope that if they finish top of their class, or score the winning goal or get into the right school, whatever other worldly expectation we may put on them, that they'll somehow gain worth.  Don't get me wrong, hard work is good, doing things well, very good, using your abilities to glorify God, entirely appropriate.  But if we're going to encourage kids to follow Jesus we can't hand them the worlds measuring stick to go with him, if we do that we're setting them up for disappointment.  Jesus said strange things like, the first will be last, deny yourself, hate your parents if your choice is them or me (ouch Jesus, that one's tough), don't take the seat of honor, give away the things you've earned...

Here's what I think it boils down to, we want our kids to seem as if they are getting what it means to follow Jesus while hoping that someday, they'll actually get what it means to follow Jesus, then the things we've told them they should do, they'll do naturally.  They'll turn into "mature Christians" because they've been practicing it so long, it'll just transfer over.  The best part, because we've taught them what Jesus standard is for being a christian (which is usually our standard not his), and they'll have done well by a worldly standard because that's important too, they'll be in place to show Jesus to the world.   They'll be self-confident and God-confident at the same time.

Bad news we had some of those already, we called them Pharisees and/or Sadducee's and/or "pagans".  Turns out they often get more self-righteous, self-serving and self-reliant.

Here's the message we should give our teens (in my humble opinion, which is obviously important because I'm posting it on the Internet): Jesus loves you, he is everything, listen to the Holy Spirit and follow him completely no matter what we or the world expects from you.  Even if you look like an idiot, reject, crazy, different.
If they don't get that, the rest is pointless in the end.

Paul said it like this "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.  As a messenger, I give each of you this warning: be honest in your estimate of yourselves, measuring your value by how much faith God has given you." (Romans 12: 2-4 NLT)  He goes on in chapter 12 what that looks like in real life, doing what he's enabled you to do, by what he's given you.  Not by you improving yourself, not by constantly trying to die-to-self, not by much of anything you do if fact.  Just by what the Holy Spirit is doing in you.
God, transforms us, God shows us what to do, God gives us faith, that's enough.