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Monday, March 26, 2012

Hunger... Games?

I will readily admit that I have not read the Hunger Games trilogy, and I don't plan on it. I'm not making a moral statement as I share that. I don't tend to read fiction, and certainly not of the fantasy or science variety. Other than Lord of the Rings, they've never interested me much. I'm happy with memoirs, non-fiction narrative, and Downton Abbey when it comes to my reading and entertainment preferences....

So you can also figure out that I haven't read any Harry Potter either. Don't hate me. Again, just not interested.

HOWEVER, that is not to say that I am not fascinated by much of the hype surrounding every blockbuster like what is surrounding the premiere of Hunger Games this weekend, mostly because I tend to keep an eye on pop culture, and because nearly every high school and college student I know has either read the book and/or already seen the movie.

I just listened to a roundtable discussion about the book that included writers, college students, librarians, grandmas, parents, critics. Fascinating stuff to listen to as a long-term youthworker. I cannot help but hear everything said about both the film and the book with that youth ministry filter.

Invariably, in processing what goes on with youth in the early 21st century, at some point I compare my own experience as a teenager in 70's. In jr high, the big movies (both of which I went to see in the theater at the time) were the original Planet of the Apes and what I consider a dystopian classic, Soylent Green, with its horrifying line, "Soylent Green is PEOPLE!" Both films certainly painted an incredibly bleak scene of the future back in the day, so is there anything really new under the sun when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy fiction?

I will say that I find many core concerns for teenagers to be exactly the same ones I dealt with: social struggles with peers (especially among girls), tensions with parents, identity, decisions about the future, hormones, sex / drugs / rock 'n roll... but I also think the intensity has cranked up immensely. Junior highers today face issues and decisions that I most definitely did not face until college.

I also see a world radically different in terms of how we understand commitment and community. Among my close girlfriends in 1979 (about a dozen of them), only one friend had parents who were divorced. And I was the only one who had not grown up in the SF suburb in which we all lived. Fast forward to 2012: I chuckled with a college senior two weeks ago, whom I've known since she was a 9th grader, that her generation is "committed until... they are no longer committed." In other words, commitment is self-serving and utilitarian, for the most part. Our divorce culture, as has been discussed in other forums, has a broken comprehension of how overriding a vow or commitment is meant to be. Now, commitment tends to be something you agree to until it becomes inconvenient, unnecessary or just plain uninteresting. Apply this reality to the 2012 adolescent understanding of marriage, sex, career, family, community, church, faith... that might cause a few beads of sweat on your brow, eh?

And as for "community," we are a world in flux right now as to what that word means. Our families have experienced far more divorce and a lot more mobility, but we are also in regular contact with many more (hundreds? thousands?) people than we used to be. I tell college students that when I went away to college I simply did not talk to my friends back home until I came home at break because I couldn't afford long-distance phone calls. Period. Now, my students talk to their friends and family nearly every day. But does that build closer relationships? I can't tell.

What my old friend and colleague Chap Clark says is that students today build what he calls "clusters" (similar to what Patricia Hersch describes in A Tribe Apart):
Currently, adolescents are grouped by what Chap Clark calls, “clusters.”  These “clusters” are made up of about four to eight friends and this group is  similar to a secondary family. Patricia Hersch describes these groups as “more than a group of peers, it becomes in isolation a society with its own values, ethics, rules, worldview, rites of passage, worries, joys, and momentum.  It becomes teacher, advisor, entertainer, challenger, nurturer, inspirer, and sometimes destroyer.”
My observation, after years of watching clusters function, is that they are not the big social groups or cliques of decades past that teens tended to run among. Clusters are tighter, smaller, somewhat more secretive, and powerful in their devotion to one another.

Thus today's students resonate with Katniss' willingness to serve as tribute for her sister and her selfless willingness to feed her family and care for those closest to her. I also believe students are greatly drawn to finding a cause worth dying for, and live it out through Katniss (and Harry, and Aragorn, and Ironman and and ....)

So for me, as I hear all the buzz about the film, I know there is irony in the title, because this is certainly no "game" we are talking about. This is a life-and-death struggle. As one 20-year old caller essentially said to the roundtable discussion I referred to earlier, "This film sort of defines our reality. A college degree doesn't guarantee a job, and the Arab Spring cuts both ways for young people. It seems like a battle is ahead for us." In response, one of the panelists said, "That's what good science fiction is. It doesn't describe the future. It describes NOW."

Yikes. Is that true? Are today's students fighting "Hunger Games" of their own? In response, I want to remind the church of two things we can proclaim: safety and hope. How I pray that our congregations, our bible studies, our youth groups, and our mentoring relationships are safe and dependable. We need good, solid adult volunteers to care for our students, and a commitment to development over time, as I have ranted about time and again on this blog...

We also need to be resurrection people. I continue to enjoy Surprised by Hope by NT Wright. With 60 pages left, I am so moved (and motivated) by his words, which call us to be messengers that bring truly new life through the gospel:
‎If we believe it and pray, as he taught us, for God's kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, there is no way we can rest content with major injustice in the world... As far as I can see, the major task that faces us in our generation, corresponding to the issue of slavery two centuries ago, is that of the massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt. (p 216)
Again, though I must claim ignorance about the exact details of Hunger Games, it's my understanding is that it is framed as the "have's" being entertained by forcing and oppressing the "have-not's" into annual, tortuous games -- a way of painting the "massive economic imbalance" that Wright describes.

May we instead seek to redeem creation in the name and power of the Creator, who went before us in resurrection, and gave us the Spirit and the Promise of his return as our strength to press on in this calling. People are indeed hungry. May we give them the food of the Kingdom.

Friday, March 16, 2012

So What is Youth Ministry, Exactly?

I will try to restrain myself. I feel a rant coming on.

This has been quite a week, in big ways and small. (Personally, I'm just fine, but in terms of issues of youth ministry in the media...) I've been emailing back and forth with a few friends about Invisible Children (IC) and all the uproar over the Kony 2012 video. I tend to block out hype, but this one is more personal.

A former student got my attention about IC when they started, some time around 2005. We watched the movie in youth group right away, and we were shaken to the core. That day we committed to supporting the work, and collected funds for the cause weekly for years, also periodically taking time to catch up on ways to pray for the organization and the greater horror of Joseph Kony. So I paid attention as I saw and heard running commentary all week about IC and the viral documentary.

Facebook posts from students and youth pastors I know buzzed all week with comments. I don't personally like to get manipulative and overly dramatic to get the attention of young adults, but I was glad to hear the video went viral, if only to profile the horror that has gone on the last 20 years through Joseph Kony in order to spur people to action.

So what is incredibly painful now is to read the yuck that came out tonight about the Kony 2012 director. I'm saddened that just as much press, if not more, will be devoted to this tragic turn of events for Jason Russell than to the ongoing horrors of Uganda and the Congo. The high highs of IC getting so much press and visibility in the media as young Christians making a difference now plummets over night into the low lows of trash and drama. Sigh.

Closer to home, today I was made aware of a story in the local paper that came out yesterday as the lead story on the front page (really?!) about a local youth group that had some sort of male bonding weekend that included face paint and greased pigs and the slaughter of said pigs. I read it, and all in all, it did not paint the church in a good light - but I also understand that the media can skew things. Fortunately, the church came out with a rather humble statement that does a good job acknowledging how it could have been handled better. But I would say that some damage has been done.

Two major stories in my neighborhood, one big and one small, that tell the world (those who are not going to church, or might have some significant cynicism about it) some pretty wacky things about two things I have devoted my adult life to: Jesus and teenagers. I know, I know, I need to remain calm. There are some huge international stories emerging in Afghanistan, but once the fervor dies down on the stories I mention at the beginning, the issues will remain the same: society does NOT know what to do with teenagers and young adults, and heavens, the church overall seems generally lost as well.

Even though I have stepped back from running a youth group (since 2009) and from teaching students weekly (as of December 2011), I still consider myself very involved with youth ministry, as I have been since I was a senior in college in (gulp) 1982. From writing articles to training youth pastors to meeting weekly with youthworkers in the Free Methodist Church in Southern CA to perhaps most important of all, lunch with an actual high school student this past Wednesday :)... I'm still thinking all the time about how to love students well, encourage them to lead, and how to get as many people doing that as possible.

Pop culture wants to portray teenagers as shallow, selfish, sex-crazed party animals (see the Project X trailer if you don't believe me -- or don't, because it's hideous), but the church seems to want to counter this "sex, drugs, rock 'n roll" culture with greased pigs and gross games that get kids to vomit. IT MAKES ME WANT TO THROW MY HANDS UP IN THE AIR AND HOLLER. Good grief, Is that the best we can do??! We expect so little of students, when they have so much to offer.

I want to fight for one simple thing: quality ministry over the long term. The implications for that goal are huge, I know, because that requires dollars and manpower and education and so on. But my heavens, I have built my life on this and I can say with no reservation that it is worth the investment. The apostle Paul, in writing to the churches of Asia Minor in his letter to the Galatians, says it well:

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (Galatians 4:19)
Paul has labored long and hard for the believers there, and reacts deeply as they fall prey to heretical teachings. He needs to give them guidance again.

Yet that simple verse describes the bottom line: His job is never finished. Each of us who invest in young people (and on into adulthood, if we really get it) will go through labor again and again--and let's not forget how painful labor is! Eugene Peterson says it best in The Message Scripture paraphrase: "Do you know how I feel right now, and will feel until Christ's life becomes visible in your lives? Like a mother in the pain of childbirth. Oh, I keep wishing that I was with you."

This week I received a simple note in the mail from Mission Impact, a ministry I deeply believe in, who does exactly this (labors long and hard) in Guatemala. I have brought students down there 4 different times simply to learn from their faithful year-round missionaries, and I have a dear friend who remains there to do the same with her husband. Out of my times down there I decided years ago to support a young girl at one of their schools so she could continue attending. In the villages of Guatemala, girls are only educated up through the 3rd grade. This boggles my mind and breaks my heart. So one little thing I can do is help a girl get an education that I take for granted here.

Here's the photo I received this week:

I should celebrate that I got to support Sandra until graduation... But in 6th grade?? She's only getting started!! This was the grade that my youth ministry started with here in the US. Oh my goodness. 

O Church, may we not waste the opportunities we have here to truly pour into our young people, that they would be salt and light for years and years to come. May we not dawdle frivolously with silly games (I confess my guilt at doing this many times) and emotional hype and drama that ultimately only manipulates. Instead, may we persist in consistent, faithful, deep and meaningful relationships and solid, thorough teaching that model maturity and authenticity. I don't think that is too much to ask.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I feel like February blew right past me, and I only have 4 posts to show for it. Oh well. Life gets busy.

Here it is March, and spring is already in the air. It was a balmy 78 degrees today here, and my bike ride to a lunch appointment at Via Maestra was pure bliss. (P.S. The gluten-free gnocchi made with ricotta, followed by chocolate hazelnut gelato, wasn't exactly shabby either...)

But I digress. As I said, spring has sprung and I find my daydreams of late include thinking of books I have started to pile up in anticipation of relaxing reading to come. I was even more motivated when I came across this quote yesterday:
Pico Iyer said: "The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should ... be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent ... and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."
This manages to captures the allure for me of both reading and writing. Thanks to birthday generosity, I have recently received not one but TWO Amazon gift cards, and purchases have already been made. Here are the goods on my current reading list. Feel free to share yours.

  1. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright. I had been told by two people I admire, Howard Snyder and Doug Strong, that this book is one of the best systematic theologies out there. Halfway through, I heartily agree. This is one of those rare books that is both thoughtful and brilliant theology and utterly readable. In fact, it's difficult to put down once you get started! If you want to have your cage rattled and your soul encouraged to consider what it means today to live as a citizen of heaven, run (do not walk) and get this book.
  2. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner. Yeah yeah, I jumped on the trendy bandwagon and got this one. I was surprised to see ads for this even in New Yorker magazine, and reviews popped up in all the Christian emails I get every week (Relevant magazine, Christianity Today, blah blah blah). I'm not sure how a woman who probably isn't even 40 years old has managed to write not one but two memoirs, but I have to admit, I love the way she writes (which is exactly the way she speaks, having seen her speak a couple of times). I was deeply impacted both by her first memoir, Girl Meets God (which has some parallels with my own faith journey) and one of my top favorite books in life is her book/devotional titled Mudhouse Sabbath. It's bittersweet to know I'll be reading about her divorce from the man whom she so winsomely describes in the tail end of one of her earlier books (I can't remember which one at the moment). So I come with some skepticism to Still, but I am also looking forward to it.
  3. Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne. I have fallen in love again with bike riding this year. While I have been a devoted bike commuter since May 2003, but the way my life works now (where I mostly work from home), I have the freedom to easily to ride my bike almost every day -- whether it's to shop at Whole Foods or Trader's, get in some exercise and scenery at Campus Point, read my Bible and pray a bit at the Santa Barbara Mission, meet a client for coffee at Peet's... it's a wonderful life. And it sounds like David Byrne figured that out a few years before I did. I can't wait!
  4. Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. Let's get it out there -- I am a hopeless biography nerd. There was one summer as a kid (I'm gonna guess 5th grade) where I went to the young readers section and said, "I want to read that entire section this summer." Yep, that's me. The list of biographies I have read in my lifetime would be far, far too long to list, but over the years I have been COMPLETELY enveloped by books about John Steinbeck, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Mother Teresa, Lewis & Clark, John Muir, Lauren Winner (as I said), C.S. Lewis, Lou Gehrig, Anne Lamott, Paul Farmer, Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild), Annie Dillard, Greg Mortensen, John Stott, James McBride... but this one about Roosevelt might take the cake because, yes, I'm admitting here, this is the third in a three-book series, and yessiree, I've read the first two (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex). But I'm telling you people, Teddy Roosevelt is one fascinating dude. Check this out from the Amazon review:
Packed with more adventure, variety, drama, humor, and tragedy than a big novel, yet documented down to the smallest fact, it recounts the last decade of perhaps the most amazing life in American history. What other president has written forty books, hunted lions, founded a third political party, survived an assassin’s bullet, and explored an unknown river longer than the Rhine?
I mean, really. 

So here's to good reading. Feel free to share the titles you are excited about. As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know that we are not alone." Amen.