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Study GroupWhen I was a college minister, some people thought I was a youth minister. I found that strange, as did my coworker who led our church’s youth ministry. Despite assumptions to the contrary, high school students and college students have different experiences and needs. Youth ministry and college ministry share some similarities but are clearly different ministries.

The differences, however, don’t need to keep the groups apart. Combining high school and college groups is helpful. The groups can join for Bible classes and other activities, including opportunities to serve other groups of the church and service events in the neighboring community.

Such intergroup interaction has many blessings. Let me mention four.

Blessing 1: Intergenerational ministry is biblical and helpful.

The church has been intergenerational for a long time, and intergenerational ministry helps spiritual development and learning (Allen and Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation.) This intergenerational aspect of faith communities existed long before the birth of Jesus (Deuteronomy 6; Psalm 145:4) and continued into the first-century church, as indicated by Paul’s words about different age groups (1 Timothy 5:1-3). For more on this, see Kara Jenkins’ article, “Biblical Support for Intergenerational Ministry.”

Blessing 2: Age-specific ministries need to be integrated parts of the church.

Providing opportunities for groups to interact helps this integration. While there are reasons to have different classes and activities for different age groups, combining groups for Bible study, service events, and other times of interaction can build understanding, appreciation, and relationships between generations. Keeping age-specific groups always isolated from each other hinders that relational integration. If the church is to be the body of Christ in which each member plays an important and valued role (1 Corinthians 12), the diverse members need to know and influence each other. (To read about the difference between an intergenerational church and a church with intergenerational programs, see Kara Jenkins’ article, “Intergenerational Ministry in the Church.”)

Blessing 3: Friendships with college students can help high school graduates transition.

These relationships can help students be connected and have a place to belong in the church after high school graduation. Teenagers who graduate from high school without relational connections to the next age group of the church are likely to perceive that the church no longer has a place for them. Before high school graduates get to that point, they need to know that the church has room for their gifts and has a desire to continue helping them learn and grow.

Blessing 4: College students need to serve.

Teaching or assisting in intergroup events can offer valuable ministry opportunities for older students to help younger ones. College students are young adults who need to be nurtured, and they need to learn to equip younger friends for faith and ministry. College students in the church are learning and growing, and they benefit from opportunities to share their knowledge and experience.

Allen and Ross - Intergenerational Christian FormationDespite the blessings of bringing high school students and college students together, some people might have fears about mixing the groups. Here I present two possible fears and respond to each.

Fear 1: High school and college students are at different levels of maturity (knowledge, thinking, experiences).

This is a positive aspect of the whole church. As mentioned above, the church is the body of Christ. In that body, all parts are valuable. When we look at the church as a whole, we see members at various levels of maturity. That diversity does not need to be a curse; it can and should be a blessing. We learn from each other.

Also, age stages are fluid. Every group has members at different levels of spiritual, intellectual, and social development. Stereotyping a group of students as being at one maturity level is not helpful. Some high school students have maturity far beyond what we might expect in people of their age, and some people in their 80s are spiritual infants. When it comes to spiritual maturity, there are no accurate age group stereotypes.

Fear 2: High school students aren’t ready for the intellectual and spiritual challenges which college students experience.

With guidance, college students can help high school students with high school experiences. College students have been high school students, and sojourners can benefit from guides who have traveled longer in the right direction. Although we might not want to throw college-age new Christians into teaching roles in a high school Bible class, college students who have intentionally grown through study, service, and mentoring can share what they’ve learned.

Also, high school students need to be prepared for college experiences. When they become college students, they need to already have an idea of some of the challenges they’re about to face. We don’t need to hide those challenges from high school students. They need to be ready. Let’s not protect them from what’s next. Instead, let’s provide opportunities for them to discover what’s next and to do so in contexts of Christian friendship.

In the words of youth minister JD Morris, “both high school and college students need to be called to a much higher standard for spirituality, maturity, and responsibility than what our society is calling them. Kids today are growing up much slower because we are not just allowing, but expecting them to grow up much slower.”

Keeping people in classes and other activities catered to their levels can contribute to the “dumbing down” of the church. When we all walk together in Christ, supporting and strengthening each other on the way, God empowers us to grow beyond whatever ageist expectations our society might place on us.

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O Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and triumphant . . .

Come and behold him, Born the King of Angels . . .

All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning

Those words from a traditional hymn are on my mind this Christmas morning. Today the world celebrates Jesus, the Son of God who became human about 2000 years ago. Remembering his birth fills hearts with joy and mouths with song. People give gifts and feast with family and friends.

Venice - The Adoration of Magi in Santa Maria dei Frari.But not everyone is so happy this Christmas morning. Some miss loved ones from whom they’re separated by death or conflict. Some remember painful Christmas experiences. Some are alone. Some wonder if they really believe what they’ve been taught to rejoice about on December 25.

Life is not all “joyful and triumphant.” Sometimes we don’t want to greet the Lord because we feel that the Lord has abandoned us. We may feel forgotten, forsaken, far from faith.

If you haven’t experienced such darkness, expect it. Prepare for it. Bolster your faith in advance. Ask hard questions. Pursue truth no matter what it might do to what you’ve been taught. Befriend experienced, wise Christians who can mentor you through faith and doubt. Pray now for strength to persevere when you feel like you can’t pray.

If you have experienced such darkness, share it. Use that experience to bless people who are currently going through it. Let them know that they are not alone. Assure them that their doubt does not kick them out of heaven. Gently come alongside them. Be present for them. Be patient when they’re not ready to talk. Be willing to wait, to listen. Pray for them.

If you are experiencing such darkness right now, know that you’re in good company. Read through the Psalms to find words to express your experience in uncensored prayer to God who understands and expects our cries and questions and can handle whatever pain we spew out. Find words of lament from Psalm 22 arising in agony from the lips of the Son of God on the cross and know that questioning God’s presence is part of faith.

“Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light” (Frederick Buechner).

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Bread and wineMy wife and I like our son to eat food that’s nutritious and good for his development. We allow ice cream once in a while, but we know that giving our child a steady diet of junk food would be parental malpractice. He needs vegetables, vitamins, fruit, protein, complex carbs, and a reasonable dose of fat.

When he gets bored at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat the rest of his green beans, we encourage him to finish eating. We tell him that eating his food will help him to be big and strong like his daddy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean that you become green beans if you eat green beans. It means that eating healthful food empowers you to have a healthy body and a healthy life, while eating too much junk food empowers you to have a junky body with a junky life. This observation reminds me of another saying: “Input equals output.”

My congregation’s sermon this weekend comes from Romans 8, and in verses 1-11 we find a similar inside-outside connection.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

What goes into us shapes how we live. “You are what you eat.”

When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God transforms our lives. “Input equals output.”

The Spirit enters us in various ways.

We “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” when we believe the good news of Jesus and when we are baptized (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13).

The Holy Spirit enters people through the laying on of hands (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 19:6).

The Holy Spirit can enter people who are around others in whom the Spirit is working (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The Holy Spirit fills followers of Jesus when they speak (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 13:9) and when they are persecuted (13:50-52).

God gives the Holy Spirit to people who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Holy Spirit can even enter people before birth (Luke 1:15).

Beyond these ways, the Holy Spirit can operate in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable (John 3:8). As the hymnist William Cowper penned in the 18th century, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

I look forward to listening to tomorrow’s sermon on Romans 8. Before that sermon, I get to say a few comments to prepare the church for communion. As I get ready for that privilege, my meditation on verses 1-11 leads me to see communion as one way in which the Holy Spirits enters us and empowers us for life in God’s mission.

A long-held belief in Christianity is that Christ is somehow present with his followers in communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper). Although great thinkers in the history of the church have disagreed about exactly how this presence operates, many Christians have believed that in some way Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present when gathered communities of Christian faith consume the bread and cup, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating the hope of his return.

Through this process of remembering and celebrating, the Holy Spirit continually fills the body of Christ (the church) and empowers that community of Jesus-followers to carry out God’s mission of blessing the world.

When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we do more than eat crackers and drink wine or grape juice.

When we participate in this event, the Holy Spirit enters us yet again and strengthens us to live for God.

As a child, I experienced amazement when the bread and cup were served. When I looked at the people around me, I could tell that this practice was something special, something mystical. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the holiness of the moment drew me in.

I have not always experienced that amazement at communion. The Lord’s Supper has not always seemed special. I have not always noticed the mystery of the Eucharist.

So I pray for the ability to see the mysterious transformation that God is working through the Holy Spirit when followers of Jesus take the bread and cup together. Through the Spirit, the bread and cup become more than a snack and more than an ancient practice the meaning of which we’ve forgotten. They become a meaningful meal that fuels us for life.

When we eat the body of Christ together, the Spirit empowers us to be that body.

We are what we eat.

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Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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Experienced Christians should build relationships with young adults. That was the focus of my previous post.

On my Facebook timeline, I added a link to that blog post. A friend commented, “In ages past, the emerging adults looked to the elder adults for wisdom. Now many emerging adults disregard the elder adults… Somehow we have to change our attitudes to ‘sharing and learning’ rather than ‘taking and demanding.’”

Overcoming the communication gap between generations requires work on both sides. To turn the intergenerational nature of the church into a blessing instead of a blockade, older and younger adults need to build relationships with each other, listen to each other, learn about each other, and cooperate in unity, letting God work through their similarities and differences.

Saturday’s post addressed elder adults about emerging adults, so now let me address emerging adults about elder adults. More specifically, I want to offer seven reasons that emerging adults should build relationships with elder adults.

STG with LKF Malaysia 2006

1. A relationship is two-way. Don’t expect elder adults to take all the initiative. Get out of your “comfort zone” and do something.

2. Elder Christians can give you wisdom that they’ve collected over the years through personal experiences and through learning from others. Listening from wise people is a common theme in the biblical book of Proverbs. For a passage about younger people paying attention to older people, check out Proverbs 4:1-4.

3. Elder Christians can teach you about spiritual disciplines, including ones you’re passionate about and ones you don’t know about or prefer to avoid. (Spiritual disciplines are practices like prayer, study, meditation, fasting, celebration, and service that open us to God’s transforming work in our lives.)

4. Elder Christians can provide relational support. In those times when you get a bad grade or land on the dean’s list, when you get a date or get dumped, when you find a job or lose one or don’t know how to look for one or don’t know that you need one, you need a friend to welcome you into a home and maybe a hug.

5. Elder Christians can tell you about successes and failures that have shaped their lives. Those stories can shape you and empower you to perceive situations from more informed perspectives.

6. You can be a blessing to elder adults. Greet them. Listen to them. Ask questions. Learn. Look at pictures with them. Sit and reflect. Your presence will bless your more experienced friends as their presence blesses you.

7. You set an example for other emerging adults when you befriend elder adults. Be part of social change.

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C babySome parents give babies names that sound nice, and some parents choose names because they’re unique. Other parents live in countries that have laws about naming children.

In Germany the first name must make obvious whether the child is a boy or a girl, and the name “must not negatively affect the well-being of the child.”

If you live in Denmark, you can’t give your child the name Monkey.

If you live in New Zealand, you can name your child Violence or Number 16 Bus Shelter, but you can’t name your baby Fish and Chips.

In Sweden you can’t name your child Metallica or Superman or Ikea or Elvis, but you can call your baby Lego or Google.

This might seem strange to you, and it seemed strange to one couple in Sweden. They didn’t like all these restrictions, so they submitted this as a name for their baby: “Brfxxccxxmnpccccllllmmnprxvclmnckssqlb111163.” How do you say that? It’s Albin. The authorities rejected that name, so the parents submitted another name: A. (It’s not pronounced A. It’s Albin.) Authorities rejected that one, too.

In Genesis 41 we find some baby names. A dad named Joseph chooses the names for their meanings. He’s been beaten, sold, abandoned, resold, trapped, and imprisoned. He knows suffering, and the names he selects tell us something about his suffering. He names his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.

If you look up the meaning of Manasseh, you might find that it means “making forget” (G. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary ). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.”

“God has made me…” God has empowered Joseph, equipped him, strengthened him. God has empowered Joseph “to forget all [his] trouble and [his] father’s household.” Joseph certainly has suffered trouble, some at the hands of his brothers and some at the hands of Egyptian authorities. God has empowered Joseph to forget his trouble and his family of origin. This forgetting is more than just forgetting, but it’s less than total forgetting. It’s more than just a slipping of the mind, but it can’t be a complete forgetting because Joseph mentions the trouble and the household. (He can’t mention something if he’s forgotten it.) This forgetting is a strong forgetting. Joseph’s trouble and family no longer bother him. They don’t hold him back. He still remembers them. They’re still part of his identity and always will be. But they don’t block what God wants to do in his life.

If you look up the meaning of Ephraim, you might find that it means “fruitful land” or something similar (summarized from Wenham). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Again we see that God has empowered Joseph: “God has made me fruitful.” Fruitful means productive. The Bible uses it in relation to producing children, and Joseph probably has that in mind here. God has given Joseph two sons, but Joseph is fruitful in more ways than having children. He’s fruitful, or productive, in several areas. In chapter 39 we see that in Potiphar’s house “The Lord is with Joseph so that he prospers” and that “the Lord gives him success in everything he does.” Then we see that in prison “the Lord is with him; he shows him kindness and grants him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden puts Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he is made responsible for all that is done there.” Joseph is fruitful in Potiphar’s house. He’s fruitful in prison. He’s fruitful when Pharaoh tells him to interpret his dream. He’s fruitful when he gives Pharaoh unsolicited advice. He’s fruitful in his role as prime minister. He’s fruitful as a family man. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful.

Notice where this takes place – “in the land of [Joseph’s] suffering.” Joseph’s literal land of suffering is Egypt, and that certainly applies here. But it’s also more than literal. It’s his context of suffering, his world of suffering. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful, to be productive, in the midst of his suffering. Suffering doesn’t have to separate us from God. God can empower us and make us productive even when we’re suffering.

Whatever your suffering, God can empower you to live productively. No matter what you’ve been through, God wants to use you. No matter how dark your story, God can equip you to do good.

joseph

This blog post is a modified portion of my sermon for Park Avenue Church of Christ, Memphis, TN, December 1, 2013.

I modified the Bible quotations from past to present tense.

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Who does the work of the church? Is ministry God’s work or our work?

The biblical book of Joshua can point us to an answer.

In that ancient story, God tells the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho once a day for six days with priests carrying horns and accompanied by a sacred box called the ark. On the seventh day, the Israelites are to march around Jericho seven times, and the priests are to blow the trumpets, and the people are to shout. They do all this, and the walls of Jericho fall, and the Israelite army is victorious.

That part of the story is in chapter 6. In chapter 8 we see a different approach. God tells the Israelites to set an ambush and attack the city of Ai. The Israelites practice some ancient but nonetheless impressive military strategy. One group hides. Another taunts Ai. When Ai responds, the taunting group retreats. Then the hiding group surpries Ai, and Israel gains the victory.

Chapter 6 doesn’t have any human strategy, but chapter 8 does. Sometimes God works with passive people, performing mighty deeds without much human contribution. At other times, God works with active people, performing mighty deeds through human effort.

How can Christians today know when to strategize in cooperating with God and when to let God accomplish the mission through us as passive pawns? This requires prayer, study, and discernment.

I cannot answer the question for every person, for every family, for every organization, or for every congregation. God works in different ways in different places and times and cities and cultures.

But spirituality involves strategy. Sometimes ministry happens without much input from us, and sometimes it happens with careful planning.

I have heard church leaders talk about the need for ministry strategy, and I’ve heard church leaders preach about avoiding strategy and letting the Holy Spirit lead the church. Both sides of the discussion have helpful things to say, but balance is needed. Relying on our own strategic skills to the neglect of the Spirit’s guidance is arrogant, perhaps even idolatrous. Refusing to strategize is negligent. Spirituality needs strategy, and strategy needs spirituality.

Is ministry God’s work or our work? Both. God works through us.

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