Calling for Unity

***Disclaimer…I do not intend for this post to be politically charged or meant to support any political biases***

Given the recent madness and violence in our country, I do not believe that it is ironic that this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and that the Inauguration falls in the same week. As I have watched in horror the videos of everything that happened in Washington DC on January 6th, and all the social media rampage in the aftermath, I couldn’t help but wonder how our political afflictions gained priority over our Christian call.

I realize that because of our faith convictions, we tend to support one political party or candidate over another; however, how in the world, brothers and sisters, have we got to this place in our country? The amount of hate spewed at one another at one another on social media is appalling. We have allowed those platforms to be a place of hate for our fellow Christians for the whole world to see. How is this being a witness for Christ?

As we also celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King today, and his message of unity, be inspired by this quote from him. “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.” While he was addressing the importance of unity between races and ethnicities, I suggest that we also use his words to motivate us to seek Christian Unity no matter where our differences lay.

Let’s focus on some scripture to pull us back together. After all, we are on the same team and need to work TOGETHER to further the kingdom of God because we have been called by God, no matter your gender, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation, we are ALL CALLED. If you lead, live or work with teens or young adults, you can use this as a time of devotion with them or allow it to be a conversation starter. They are watching and learning from the adults around them, may we be a positive example for this generation.

John 15:16-17: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2015%3A16&version=NIV says that God chose us, we don’t choose Him, He picks us to go and bear fruit that lasts. Meaning, when we spread love, peace, kindness, gentleness, (Fruits of the Spirit: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians%205%3A22-23&version=NIV) they last.

  • What are some ways we can do this? Especially now we we can not always be with people physically?
  • What are some ways to handle a situation with someone when we don’t agree with them?
  • What are some ways that God has called you to spread “fruit”?
  • How has politics and faith intersected in your life? Has your faith shaped your political views?
  • This week is Christian Unity Week, how can we become a part of unifying Christians? Is it too big of a chasm for us to do anything about repairing?
  • Since this is MLK Day, what do you know about his work that helped to unify people/Christians?

Prayer: (Modified for young people from the link below)

God of love, Jesus told us that you did not chose me, but I chose you. You pursue us, and invite us into a friendship with you. Show is how we can deepen this friendship with you so that our lives may be more complete.

God of live, you call us to be light in this world of darkness and to welcome those around us as gifts of your grace. May your loving gaze, which rests on every single person, open our eyes to loving one another just as we are.

God who gather, you weave us together as one vine in your son Jesus. May your loving Spirit move in us, no matter where we are or who is with us. Grant that we can come together in joy to praise your name.

God of one vineyard, call us to act in your love in all we do and say.

Touched by your goodness, grant us the ability to be the reflection of that love in our homes, schools, work places, and on social media. Use us to pave the way for bridging rivalries and overcoming tensions in our world.

Spend some time in silent prayer. Allow God’s grace to fill you as you rest in Him.

Reference: https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/Document/ENG%202021%20Booklet.pdf

It’s Worth Repeating

I am sure I am not alone on this. But this week I have had Ecclesiastes 3 come up multiple times. I was actually inspired to send it to a friend in a text, stumbled across a devotion about it and discovered it on another friend’s social media feed. At some point, when this happens, I have to stop and say, “OK, God, what is this message I need?”

In case you don’t know what verses I’m talking about, here is the Bible link:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NLT

More than likely, you have heard the song by The Byrds that is based on these verses:

These are the most well known verses in Chapter 3 and the ones we tend to talk about and study in small group or worship. But when these verses kept appearing to me, I went back to the chapter and began to dig a little further. Here are the next several verses:

What do people really get for all their hard work? 10 I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. 11 Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. 12 So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. 13 And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.

Friends, we have faced what has felt like seven years of a pandemic in the past seven months. It’s been hard. People have lost jobs and have lost loved ones. We have become a nation even more divided due to masks and the validity of this disease. Some of us feel like we have worked harder because we have had to learn a new way to do our jobs. Students have had to learn remotely and have lost out on all kinds of milestones.

But these verses bring us hope. We can’t see the whole scope of God’s work, but guess what? He is still right beside us and a part of this all. We should remain happy, find joy daily whether it be in the sunshine, the beauty that fall brings or the joy in a phone conversation. Look for a reason to be happy and enjoy ourselves!

Seven months is a long time. There have been so many disappointments, but let’s not lose site of who we are and whose we are. Let’s show the world, including those around us, that there is hope and we can find joy!

How are you going to enjoy yourself today? Be happy, spread joy, Friends.

The Truth Matters

This blog is a summary and review for Chapter 5 of Reggie Joiner’s book, “A New Kind of Leader.” It is a great little book to read as a leader in Children or Youth Ministry whether you are a paid staff person or a volunteer. These summaries will highlight the most important points, but to get all the information, you should pick up the book and read with your ministry team.

This chapter starts establishing the fact that truth always matter. However, to teens, it doesn’t matter what you know, if you are right or if it’s true. “It only matters if it matters to them.” (p. 75)

Here are a few things to consider when discussing and thinking about truth

  • The Bible is TRUE
  • Every TRUTH is not in the Bible
  • Every truth does not matter equally
  • Every truth does not matter to everyone

So, it is important for those who lead children and teens to prioritize which truths are most critical to teach. If you then consider the above statement that things only matter to kids when it matters, our job becomes a bit complex. You have to take the truth and make it relevant. This does not mean the truth changes, it just indicates the it is up to the teacher to reword it, re-frame it, repackage it, re-imagine it until it matters to a child or teen. (pg 78)

We all know that it is important to be in the lives of teens. That takes time, listening and learning about them. You need to know what is going on the other 167 hours in their week when they are not in church. You have to connect the truth with what is real and relevant in their world.

It is also extremely important to understand about child development. Kids ability to understand abstract concepts, like faith, doesn’t develop until their teens years. When they are children they have a blind faith that is helpful for them to establish a love for God. Think about things like Santa and the Easter Bunny. At some point in the older elementary years, the idea of imaginary legends doesn’t make sense. Have you ever seen a giant bunny? And how does Santa make it all the way around the world in just one night? The same doubts can come up about God and faith which makes it vital for adults to allow children to ask lots of questions. The adults need to be prepared to respond with truths. Even if that truth is, “I don’t know the answer.”

I really appreciate the advice given in the second half of this little chapter. It is so important that when we are focused on teaching theology and faith that we do not forget that the heart matters. If you do not connect with the student, getting to know them, they will never listen to any truth you try to share with them. “[W]e don’t begin with theology, but we begin with what we have in common-fears, joys, challenges, and a new for love-and that draws people in…” (pg 80) This is true for parents as well. It is important for any adult who loves children to understand the importance of interacting with them, to play a game, to eat a meal, to listen, to read alongside, and to watch a band concert. It’s this kind of investment that shows kids how much you care so that you can have influence in their lives.

 

Revelation

People have been obsessed with the end times pretty much since Jesus left this earth. Every generation has thought they were living in the “end times,” including this very moment. This blog/podcast addresses this topic head-on. Take a listen and dive a little deeper with us. 

Scripture Readings:

  • Revelation 7:9-12
  • Revelation 14:14-20
  • Revelation 17:1-6
  • Revelation 21:1-4

Teaching Points:

  • The book of Revelation belongs to the literary genre of apocalypse. It was a known genre at this time and is not the only example we have of apocalyptic writing.
  • Revelation was controversial even as the biblical canon was being developed. It was one of the last books to be accepted into the bible and some parts of the Eastern Christian Church still do not accept it.
  • Eschatology is a big word for the way we think about the “end times” or the end of life as we know it. The book of Revelation has been used to frame Christian eschatology (or expectations about how this world will end). However, understood as a work of the apocalyptic genre, it may not be reasonable to read it as predictive of the future. Rather, it tells a story about how people imagined a future in which God finally cleaned up the world and punished those who had caused them so much suffering.
  • A big chunk of Revelation tells a rather wacky story about beasts, trumpets, scrolls, angels, plagues, death and destruction on a massive scale. There is also a large portion that is quite beautiful in its description of a hoped-for future in which all nations and peoples join together in worship (ie. Rev. 7).

Discussion Questions:

  • Can you think of ideas you have about the “end times” or things you have heard that might come from the book of Revelation? (mark of the beast, 666, rapture, 1000 year tribulation, etc) How do you respond to those ideas?
  • Revelation 14 describes a scene in which a figure like the Son of Man swings his sickle and “reaps the harvest” of the earth such that the blood runs as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of 200 miles. This is death on a massive scale, arguably at the hand of Jesus… or a figure who is reminiscent of Jesus. What do we make of this?
  • Revelation 17 talks about the “great whore” named Babylon. Can you theorize as to who or what this metaphor might have meant to people at the time Revelation was written? Does that give us any clues as to the meaning or significance of the book in general?
  • Revelation 21 paints a beautiful picture, often read at funerals. How does that contrast with some of the earlier passages in our reading for this podcast, and what do we make of that contrast?
  • There is interesting food for discussion about the way we use scripture out of context sometimes. For example, a famous worship song of the 1990’s borrows text from Revelation 7. Does it change the meaning of a worship song to recognize that it comes from such a difficult and controversial part of scripture?
  • There was a book series called “Left Behind” that was popular in the early 2000’s. (There were also movies of the same title.) The series presented some very literal renderings of ideas that are presented in Revelation. The central tenet of the book was that, at some point, all the “genuine” Christians in the world will be raptured (taken up/away to somewhere else), and everyone else will be “left behind” to deal with tribulation. Is this thinking helpful or harmful? Why?
  • How does our eschatology shape the way we live and make decisions? Is there any danger in an eschatology that believes God will eventually come and “fix” everything for us? Is there any other way to imagine a hopeful eschatological future?

Podcast

Practically_Honest_Bible_Series_Ep_32

Image by annamaria anderson from Pixabay

The Church Develops

This blog and podcast will cover later New Testament writing (pastoral epistles) We discuss a popular verse that addresses gender roles.

Scripture Readings:

  • 1 Timothy 3:1-13
  • Titus 2
  • Ephesians 5:21-33

Teaching Points:

  • 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are referred to as the “pastoral epistles.” They were traditionally attributed to Paul, but most scholars now agree that they are not genuinely Pauline. These books date to the late 1st or early 2nd century. (Remember that Paul was writing in the mid-1st century.)
  • We can see in these readings that there is a shift in “tone” regarding what matters in the developing church. There is emerging concern about roles and positions and the attributes that are required to hold these roles within the church structure. It is in indicator that the church is growing and changing, creating a sort of infrastructure to guide their development.
  • We have talked before about some of the reasons that books might have been attributed to a particular person even though they were written by someone else. We may want to revisit that briefly.
  • We often group the epistles of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. However, scholars generally agree that Galatians and Philippians were written by Paul while Ephesians and Colossians were not and were probably written between 80-100 CE, after Paul’s death.
  • A good chunk of Ephesians contains instructions on everyday life, including the passage in our readings. This language about gender roles and the relationship between spouses has been a source of much discussion and disagreement.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do the rules and regulations about elders and deacons “feel”? Does it sound like material Jesus would have said? Why or why not?
  • Why would a growing church feel the need to outline these guidelines?
  • Do we ever create rules and structures that serve one particular group of people? What effect does that have?
  • How do the roles of men and women described in Ephesians 5 sound to a modern reader? What do we do with this material now?
  • This passage (Ephesians 5) is still read at weddings fairly regularly. What do you think about that?
  • What do you remember Jesus having said about men and women? Or what do you remember about the way that Jesus treated men and women, respectively? How does that compare with this passage?
  • What do you think accounts for an emerging emphasis on defining gender roles more clearly?

Podcast:

Practically_Honest_Bible_Series_Ep_31

Divisions in the Early Church

A quick look at the 13 books historically attributed to Paul, recognition of which probably were and were not actually written by Paul, and a focus on those that are “authentic.” This is the other “side” of the Pauline story.

Scripture Readings:

  • Galatians 1:11-17 (Paul’s conversion, per his own description)
  • Romans 3:21-31 (it’s interesting to read the entire chapter for context)
  • Romans 6:1-14 (again, would suggest reading the whole chapter)

Teaching Points:

  • Traditionally, 13 books (letters) were attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. (Hebrews was sometimes included as a 14th attribution.)
  • In modern scholarship, only 7 letters are agreed upon as authentically Pauline: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. The remaining 6 (or 7, if you include Hebrews) were probably not written by Paul, though debate remains about some more than others.
  • When I preach to my congregation about Pauline authorship, I include only the 7 books known to be Pauline.
  • We want listeners to understand that writing under the pseudonym of one’s mentor/teacher was a common practice at that time and was seen as an honor to the teacher (Paul, in this case). Authors were not trying to be intentionally misleading or trip us up.
  • That said, it is really helpful to know which books are Pauline and which are not, because they are quite different in theme, style and content… and can give confusing messages if we are not clear on their context and timeline.

Discussion Questions:

  • Paul describes his own conversation in much less detail than does the author of Acts. Paul was writing earlier and, obviously, knew his own story. What do we make of that?
  • The letter to the Romans is a deeply theological (and complex) book in which Paul articulates his understanding of concepts like sin, grace, justification, and righteousness. These passages from chapters 3 and 6 articulate some of his thinking. How do we make sense of the idea of justification today?
  • How does Paul seem to explain grace in relationship to our responsibility to avoid sin? This has been a real point of contention in the church over the years! How do we understand it today?
  • Paul loves to use the metaphors of dying and rising, in conjunction with the idea of baptism, to talk about how we are transformed as Christians. How does this use of metaphor help us understand the way Paul writes?
  • Though they are not included in our readings, the authentic Pauline letters (like the letters to the Corinthians and Philemon) seek to address some very real problems and conflicts in the church at the time. Who is writing the “contemporary epistles” of our own time and attempting to address and unravel conflict in the church?

Podcast:

Practically_Honest_Bible_Series_29

Image by TuendeBede from Pixabay

Paul’s Missionary Journeys

This week we are talking about Paul and one “side” of the Pauline story. This also introduces some of the attributes of the early church (communal, house churches, etc) and controversies that developed early on.

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-21 (Luke-Acts’ Pentecost story)

Acts 9:1-9 (Paul’s conversion, per the author of Luke-Acts)

Teaching Points:

  • The same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke authors the book of Acts. We might think of Acts as a continuation of the story of Jesus as begun in Luke. As such, there is a cohesive writing style and some consistent themes throughout. We refer to this as Luke-Acts.
  • Acts has two key structural principles.
    • The movement from Jerusalem, core location for the Jews, to Rome, core location for the Gentile world.
    • The roles of Peter and Paul –  Peter deals with the Jewish Christian church; Paul embraces the mission to the Gentiles
  • Thus, the first half (or so) of the book focuses on Peter’s work and the early church (including Paul’s conversion), and the second half of the book focuses on Paul and his missionary work.
  • There are three missionary journeys described in Acts (ch.13-14, 16-20), although a few people assert a possible fourth journey or sometimes the voyage to Rome (ch.27-28) is included as a fourth trip.
  • Acts presents a very different picture of the early church than is presented in Pauline writing. For example, Acts presents a very harmonious church and a peaceful relationship between Peter and Paul. Paul’s own (earlier) writings signal discord in early faith communities and significant disagreement between Peter and Paul.

Discussion Questions:

  • We could spend—and people have spent—an enormous amount of time trying to understand and detail Paul’s various missionary journeys and the development of the early Christian church. Undoubtedly, we have some of it correct and some of it totally wrong. What do we make of this account of Peter and Paul, their relationship, and their movements that is so very different from what Paul describes himself? What are the overarching themes and principles that we might draw out of such complex stories and narratives?
  • What might have motivated the author of Luke-Acts to present a cohesive-looking vision of the early church?
  • Acts presents a communal picture of the early church, in which every shares what they have and gives large sums of money (even selling off property) to support the mission. What do we make of this?

Podcast:

New Life, New Hope

We are talking about the new church and what the followers of Christ were going through after his death. It’s interesting to take a look at bodily resurrection, ways to understand and interpret Jesus’ various appearances and the words he shares with followers post-resurrection.

General Background:

  • We are coming into the home stretch with our podcast series! These final podcasts address some of the remaining “hot button” questions that we know young people ask and also address (as best we can) the remaining parts of the bible that we have not yet talked about.
  • Since these podcasts cover broader swaths of scripture, we’ll try to focus in on a few passages here and there as representative of the genre we are discussing.

Scripture Readings:

Luke 24:13-35

John 20:19-31

Teaching Points:

  • We want to remain cognizant of the time frame in which these stories were written. The Gospels were written between about 70-110 CE, or 2-3 generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • Luke, in particular, was probably written around 90 CE. John was the last gospel written, sometime after 100 CE.
  • It’s important to remember that the authors were writing down parts of the historical memory of Jesus, not necessarily eyewitness accounts that were meant to be taken literally.

Discussion Questions:

  • We sometimes gloss over the sadness and despair that Jesus’ followers experienced after his death. But they didn’t know how the story was going to end. How do you think they were feeling? What do you they were talking about?
  • How might this be helpful for us to remember in our own walk of faith?
  • How does remembering the sadness of the community around Jesus help to frame the Emmaus story? What jumps out in this narrative and what is the author trying to tell us about Jesus?
  • Luke commonly tells stories about Jesus in lengthy parables. There has been some assertion that the Walk to Emmaus is, in fact, one of those parables. Does this change our understanding of the story?
  • The idea of a bodily resurrection is one of the theological assertions with which some people struggle. How important is it to believe that Jesus’ physical body was reanimated? Are there other ways to understand resurrection that are equally helpful and valid?
  • The story of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus in the upper room is often preached as a story about doubt/belief. What do we do with our own doubt? How does Jesus respond to it?
  • This might be a neat place to talk about the various Greek words that we translate “faith.” (assensus, fidelitas, fiducia, visio)

Podcast

Losing a Savior and Gaining a Future

During this Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter, nothing is the same as before. We can not prepare to gathering in one building for Easter services, or plan Easter dinner with extended family. But we can still celebrate. It may take digging a little deeper this year to search for the blessings, but they are still there. Please take a few minutes to listen to the podcast and challenge yourself to look at the Easter story in a new way.

Scripture Reading: John 18:28-38

Book recommendation: “The Last Week”

https://www.cokesbury.com/9780060872601-The-Last-Week?cid=6663109565&aid=79443367579&keyword=895352700411%3A%3Apla-895352700411&kid=895352700411&gclid=Cj0KCQjwybD0BRDyARIsACyS8msfCg2i0srr7yhAf-jUzfNdtZjUomZuT2J1iSjqoIkwHzTYehMbj6IaAhLlEALw_wcB

Discussion Questions:

  • Theologians assert that this exchange between Jesus and Pilate is a profound statement about non-violence. (It helps to know that other men claimed to be the Messiah and usually tried to prove it through efforts to overthrow the Roman government through violence.) What do you think?
  • Much ink has been spilled over verse 38, in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” What do you imagine he was thinking when he asked that question?
  • The story of Good Friday raises some tough questions for us as Christians.
    • Do you believe that it was impossible for God to forgive humanity without the death of a sinless person? Why might that story have made sense to Jewish communities? Is it harder for us to understand now?
    • What is atonement theology? Is that the only way to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • The Easter story is central to the Christian faith, and it is not uncommon for Christians to assert that belief in a bodily resurrection is “the” non-negotiable element of being Christian. At the same time, many young people wrestle with the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. What do you think about it?
  • Are there other ways of understanding resurrection that might be equally valid?

Podcast:

Everything Happens for a reason, or does it?

Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He had a key role in the story of the arrest and eventual crucifixion of Christ. Was Judas a pawn in this event? Was it free will or predestination? What if he had made a different choice? We dive into these questions and more in this podcast.

Scripture Readings: John 13:21-30 and 17:6-19 (focus v12)

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think everything happens for a reason? What situation could arise where this idea may be damaging to a person?
  • How do we answer that same question from the framework of our faith?
  • In the gospels, there is some suggestion that Judas was “used” in order to accomplish a greater purpose. What is your reaction to that?
  • Do you think God uses people to accomplish certain purposes?
  • How do we understand the relationship between free will and God’s will?
  • Can you think of other stories in the Bible in which it seems that people do/don’t have free will?
  • How does this help/change your perspective on your own life?
  • Or in your life decisions?

Podcast: