Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Young Adults: Belonging comes before believing

Intentionally building a culture of encounter is a key element in bringing Christ to young adults in our society. Bringing people to faith is not only about giving them the right facts, but about creating an atmosphere where they feel safe to open up and be vulnerable about their entire lives. Toward this end, we need to conceive of the church as a place where people can learn how to create real community -- the core of the Church's life.

Young adults, in particular, deeply yearn not just to learn facts about faith, but to experience the power of that faith in the community. So, for many people belonging comes before believing. And while everyone yearns for community, true community -- really being family, brothers and sisters -- is only fully realized when we have a personal encounter with Christ. That is the power of the Gospel - to break down “the dividing wall” between people and creates bonds stronger even than one’s biological family (see what St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:14).

On a practical level this means that we don’t just have a "welcoming" person at the door -- someone who greets people warmly -- but that we all help everyone who comes to understand the importance of real hospitality. This also means respecting the differences that exist between men and women. This might mean that sometimes we need to address matters in gender-specific small groups This in turn can build strong ties among the men and the women in their respective groups.

"Laughing Jesus" by Hooks
Being truly human also means having fun. It isn't' often that we imagine Jesus laughing or joking with his disciples but we can be sure that it happened. Jesus was, after all, truly human. Forming true community must then also include activities that address this important side of our personalities. Perhaps we can organize fun things like a rafting trip or going to a professional or semi-pro sports game. We can also encourage people to organize fun events themselves.

Authentic Christian community is intimately tied to evangelization. First, the way we live together gives witness to a world torn apart by division and broken relationships. Jesus tells us, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Second, evangelizing and serving together further builds up the community, as one young adult has shared:

"Going deeper into community isn't just showing up to a bible study though.  It is also carrying out service together much like what St. Luke's does with H.O.P.E.S. or Power Packs.  When I am with others doing these things, I can see the people grow closer together as they work together."

Challenging young adults to go outside of themselves and put their faith into action is key to building that community and is an essential part of leading young adults to a deeper commitment to Christ and his Church.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Presume nothing

We need to get to the point where we “presume nothing” when it comes to how well Episcopalians are evangelized or catechized regardless of whether they are old or young. Yet, once engaged by the church, young adults have often said that they began as a Christian “on the outside,” and were little more than an atheist “on the inside.” That shows us that our challenge is to present a compelling message that allows young adults to experience the church as a community of believers who are followers of Christ both on the inside and outside.

Our church is no longer a church of “cradle Episcopalians.” The Episcopal Church is increasingly a church of diversity. WE must dispose of many presumptions about the make-up and character of our church. Over the last few decades, we have become a community with members that come from many different religious experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, career paths, vocational journeys, and ethnicities. Most, but not all, grew up in one or another Christian denomination, not a Episcopalians. Some have been very well “formed” (i.e. with a solid religious education background) but lack a personal relationship with the Lord, others are simply culturally Christians, and still others come from non-Christian experiences.

Because of this increasingly diverse environment, our first aim must be not simply to start an Episco-centered young adult group (which is usually the answer to the question: How do we get more young people in our parish?). Our fundamental aim must be broader: to evangelize young adults leading them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and into a life of discipleship within a faith community. For those of us who were schooled in a traditional theology of evangelism, we are talking about the fundamental role of the "first announcement" of the Good News. Often called the “kerygma,” this effort needs to be the center of all our evangelizing activity and all efforts at renewing our parish life.

This leads to lesson number one: we need to place first things first when it comes to reaching young adults. How do we do this? By constantly trying to create an evangelizing environment where the aim is a conversion of heart. This conversion is something that every single person -- from cradle Episcopalians to non-Christians -- needs. It is a reorientation of life to place Jesus Christ at the absolute center, to invite Him to truly be Lord of our lives. We need to have regular opportunities for people to hear this “first proclamation” of the Good News and to respond by surrendering their lives to the Lord.

Moreover, we must understand fully the importance of evangelizing the whole person by touching people’s minds and hearts, stir their consciences and engage their energies. This is the model we are experiencing in our Inquirers’ Classes. For seven consecutive weeks we have promised to welcome everyone warmly and begin with a meal. (Sharing a meal touches not only our bodies but also our hearts.) Then we move to a brief time of singing and prayer. (Singing together and worshipping touches our hearts and engages our energies.) After worship we move into a presentation that aims to touch and form people’s minds and invites them to learn something new. Finally, a small group discussion -- whether formally with a group or just turning to the person seated next to you -- helps people to personally relate to the content of the teaching. Throughout the meeting, we engage one another in fellowship, which fosters the growth of community: a key dimension in the lives of all people, especially youth and young adults. I am hoping that this is the beginning of a model we can use ever more effectively in announcing the Good News that Christ bids us to share as we live into our future vision!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Call to Respect "The Other"

Jesus calls disciples into a new way of thinking. We might call this “kingdom thinking,” where things like racist slurs and degrading terms are seen as instruments of destruction and are not really much different than the blast of a shotgun into the face of anyone we aim our bile at. When we use such terms, we begin to dehumanize the people we seem uncomfortable with, who are different from us, who don’t agree with us, who we believe pose a danger to us.

True, we live in a fallen world—Jesus is well aware of that—and so it would be naive to assume we will not run up against genuine evil that may in fact be out to destroy us.  But the point is that even those who engage in evil are also God’s creatures, living with a fallen nature, no different than you and I before Jesus breathed his risen life into our dead spirit. Kingdom thinking requires that we stop seeing other people, even our enemies, as people we can degrade or judge. Just like us, they are beings in need of God’s grace. This is at least part of the meaning of our Baptismal Covenant when we say that we will, with the help of God “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and that we will likewise “respect the dignity of every human being.” No exception is made in this promise for those that may differ from us or for those we may prefer not to associate with for whatever reason.

C. S. Lewis explains in his book Mere Christianity that we are all eternal beings. For Lewis, the question is not whether or not we will live forever. The question is where each of us will spend eternity: in the kingdom of heaven or within the power of hell. The reality is that we have far more people in our lives who annoy us than real enemies to our health and well-being. God’s will for us includes the chance for our enemies—and even those who merely annoy us— may come into the kingdom of God because of the redemptive work of Jesus, regardless of how we feel about it. In reality, they enter the same way we do—despite our sins, despite our own weaknesses and imperfections; despite the evil we have done against others.

As we become disciples, we increasingly take on the mind of Christ. That includes how we think not only of our friends but also how we think about and treat those with whom we may not be comfortable. This is part of discipleship’s cost to us – that we let go of the way that world thinks and begin thinking like real citizens of the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Putting on the Mind of Christ

When Jesus calls me to follow him, he expects me to begin thinking like him. But how can I know the mind of Christ? This is not as impossible as it may sound. The apostle Paul tells is that once we have become involved with the life of Christ, we are given the mind of Christ. In I Corinthians 2:16, the Apostle says, “Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is able to give him advice?’ We, however, [already] have the mind of Christ”.  

How do we gain access to this “mind?” We find the mind of Christ as we mediate upon and pray with the Scriptures and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit within our hearts. After all, Jesus promised us that the Spirit would guide us into all truth (see John 16:13). Imagine discipleship as a real, physical journey. The more time we spend walking with Jesus – day after day – the more we will begin to understand his way of thinking.

As we walk and talk with him day in and day out, we become more intimate with what he may like and dislike – just like we would do with any traveling companion. We see what he sees and hear what he hears. We grow in an understanding of what he cares about and what he considers insignificant, petty, or distracting. While walking with Jesus (again day after day) we will see how he may respond to problems, criticism, exhaustion, expectations, disappointments, hunger, love, laughter, accusations, sorrow, sin, rejection, legalism, religion, hypocrisy, happiness, joy, and we learn what he thinks about our future. In other words, we begin to see our world from God’s perspective. 

Take the example of the Apostle Peter in the New Testament. As he follows Jesus, he gradually submits his mind to the Father and that changes, not only the way he thinks, but also his perspective. He begins to see things as they appear inside the kingdom of heaven. In other words, Peter begins to clearly see reality and he is able to see that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus says to him, “Truly this did not come to you from any human being, but was given to you directly by my Father in heaven” (see Matthew 16:17).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Deny your self .... Say what??

I cannot exercise obedience to Jesus’ call to discipleship on my own power or by my own devices. I cannot on my own decide what step will bring me into greater faith. Only Jesus can decide that. The process is simple: He calls - I follow. That is why I become responsible for listening to him and doing as he says.

My faith is not developed or deepened as the result of something I do apart from Jesus’ call. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience Jesus demands.” In fact something like that might just be the opposite of genuine obedience to Jesus. By doing that, I might be choosing a way of life for myself based on some ideal I got into my head rather than what Jesus really is asking of me. In such a case, in the very act of giving away my possessions, I express allegiance to my own ideals, which may not be in tune with what Christ wants from me.

Recall the story of the rich young man in Luke’s gospel. In that case, Jesus did tell him to give all his possessions away. But that was because Jesus understood perfectly what was holding this man back from a full and unreserved commitment to the kingdom. For me, it just might be material possessions – but then it might be something totally different. Each of us must be able to examine ourselves carefully to discover what the one thing is that holds us back – our Achilles’ heel, as it were. Once we know that, then we can hear the voice of Christ calling out to us to leave it behind so that we can follow.  Jesus knows what that is – but we must discover for ourselves how we must deny our selves so that we can follow him. This might seem impossible – and it is if we try to do it on our own. But then our hopes lies in Jesus’ counsel to all potential disciples - for God everything is possible. He calls us to follow in obedience, and in our obedience, we find the grace we need to believe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Muscles don't grow without exercise

Like our muscles, we must exercise our faith for it to grow.

Here is the paradox: When I take my first step of faith, it places me in a position where greater faith becomes possible and actually becomes necessary. That first step emerges from my obedience to the call of Christ. By answering this call I learn to be faithful. If I refuse to follow where Jesus calls me, I never really learn how to believe. I stay stuck in the shallow end, trusting in myself and my own strength and wisdom. The repeated experience of my life shows me that this is an all too easily exhausted supply of resources.

The step of faith I take on hearing the call of Christ is not without consequence. What I need to realize is that taking that step is not the whole answer to my questions about my salvation. I cannot have it all figured out in the first step of the journey.

Discipleship is a journey of many such steps. Jesus continually pushes me into new situations where it becomes possible for me to rely upon and to trust Jesus more deeply. Each step leads me ultimately into deeper and deeper water. Pretty soon, it may seem that I am in over my head – but that is when real trust begins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is the impossible situation in which everything is staked solely on the word of Jesus.” He adds, “Had Levi [Matthew the Tax Collector] stayed at his post when Jesus said ‘Follow me,’ Jesus might have been his present help in time of trouble, but not the Lord of his whole life.”

When I think I can live life without faith, I soon discover how wrong I am. Fear overcomes. Insecurity abounds. But when I come to a faith that is founded on the understanding that Jesus is the Lord of everything, large and small in our lives, I find I can move forward because it no longer depends only on me.  

There is no magic formula: I am mistaken if I reduce faith to a set of steps that allows me simply to follow a set of rules rather than immerse myself in the presence of Jesus. Only when I am in the deep end, over my head, that I begin to trust in the Lord’s continuing presence. One thing I have learned - most of the time when I am struggling with faith, I am actually struggling with obedience, struggling to hang on rather than “let go and let God.” It is in obeying the call of Christ to follow where he leads that I find the faith I need.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Onto the water . . .

Recall the story about Peter “walking on water.” Peter was in a storm-tossed boat when he saw Jesus walking on the water. Peter thought that if Jesus would just call him, he, too, could to walk on water. And just then, Jesus calls out to him, but Peter still had to decide whether or not he would step out of the boat. Thinking Jesus might give him the ability to walk on water is one thing, but it was quite something else for Peter actually to trust that Jesus would give him the ability to do so. But the fact remains that the only way Peter can know is actually to step out of the boat. If his trust is well-placed, he will know for certain Jesus can do it. If his trust is ill-placed, then he will end up floundering in the water. The drama increases as Peter’s steps from the boat—the moment he put all his weight on the water—he entered a moment of no return. Either he would sink or would walk with Jesus.

Take note, however, that Peter didn’t jump out of the boat as soon as he saw Jesus -- he waited for Jesus to call him out of the boat. But once Jesus called him, Peter had to make a decision whether he would do what Jesus called him to do – he had to decide whether he would obey the call of Jesus. The demand for obedience to Jesus’ call put him in a place where his faith became real.

Jesus calls us to step into a new life—a life of faith. The call to become a disciple of Jesus – to follow Jesus – takes us out of the relative security of our respective boat and places us into a space of insecurity – the stormy waters of our lives. The miraculous thing about this is that what seems to the world to be a place of utter insecurity – relying totally on a God we cannot see – is actually a place of absolute security. If we remain in the boat because we feel secure there, we may fail to realize that the boat could sink in the storm and all would be lost. However, if we find the ability to “walk on water” because of our trust in Jesus, neither the boat nor the storm matter anymore. This letting go – the act of obedience to the call of Jesus – provides us with everything we really need in life rather than the things we think we need. With each step away from the boat, our trust in Jesus grows and we grow in our ability to do things far beyond our imagining. What boat do you live in? What are the things that you think bring you security? Where do you ultimately place your trust?