A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Confession: because of a lot of exciting projects I am in the middle of, I had decided to take April off from the blogging game.

Confession #2: I’m going to fail at that un-resolution. In addition to the knee-jerk response I wrote after the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote a newsletter piece for Ravenswood Covenant, the church that I work at, that I think those of you who like what I write here might appreciate.

Confession #3: I am really, really excited for May. Stay tuned.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

The imagery of a mustard seed parable has been helpful for me when it comes to understanding the sort of kingdom work that has been taking place among Ravenswood Student Ministries, work that has taken place not just over the past year but also before I came on as program coordinator.

I came to Ravenswood with my youth ministry background being almost entirely in camping ministry. Camp is a unique environment for spiritual formation – kids are there for a week or more, all distractions from the outside world are cut off, and a large and focused staff work to create a big experience. From this big experience comes the big stories of conviction, conversion and commitment.

Things are different at the corner of Damen and Ainslie. At best, youth come for a couple hours a week, but sometimes we see them only once or so a month. The outside world makes itself known, as we spend Thursday nights talking about the week’s highs and lows. Instead of an army of college students who have taken what often is a convenient summer job, we have a crew of 5th Quarter tutors and Thursday night leaders who all have to make certain sacrifices to be there consistently.

But because our presence is felt year-round, because our conversations are rooted in day-to-day issues, and because our love is so sacrificial, we have been effective in a way that (at the very least) complements the camp experience. If from camp comes big stories, then I believe here at Ravenswood Covenant that God has entrusted us with the small stories.

Small stories like the one night the kids actually listened to me talk about finding their identity in Christ. Or the 5th Quarter student who is learning to express himself musically for the first time. Or the Thursday night regular who is turning in her application to be a part of North Side Youth Collision’s discipleship program. Or the fifth grader who can’t wait till next year to join Ravenswood Student Ministries.

Some of the small stories are so small, they go unnoticed by myself and the student ministries team. But that’s because there is mustard seed logic at work here: we have faith in a kingdom that grows and becomes like the largest of all the garden plants. We do not know when these small stories will come to fruition: maybe it will be at camp, or maybe it will be when one of these students is in their mid-twenties and has hit rock bottom and all they can remember is that one happy time when a church cared unconditionally for them.

Perhaps then too, they will become part of a project so big that the birds can perch in its shade.

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

In Boston’s aftermath

As a runner who studied the sociology of terrorism as part of his undergrad, I think I need to say something in light of recent, appalling events. It won’t be much. Words cannot reverse what has happened, but maybe they can point towards a possible direction, a different place set forward in the horizon.

Running, we know, is an intimately personal act. It is an act of mustering the motivation to lift your body from a state of rest. It is breaking your body down in order to make it stronger, it is choosing to be strong when your body has broken down.

In addition, running is an incredibly political act. (Not in the sense of elections and legislation, but in the sense that politics is the art of the public.) Save for treadmills and indoor tracks, running always takes place “out there” and relates the surrounding place to the runner.

Runners are vulnerable. Sometimes we are with a group, but often our sense of commitment means we go it alone. In the city we watch out for cars and in the country we watch out for cougars. The nature of the sport means we tend to be under-dressed and a little fatigued. Many times we have done an “out-an-back” long run where have turned around and realized that we are miles away from home, often with no cash, no identification, no phone. The only security runners have are our legs — and the fact that we trust society to let us freely go about on our little exercise ritual.

Runners are disruptive. Runners may be vulnerable, but runners have a certain power. Runners redefine what sidewalks and gravel roads and city parks and out-of-the-way trails are good for. Our routes are like arteries on a map, infusing meaning into the landscape around us. Running is a performance, a play of biological code and cultural script. Running is an act of presence, of being multiple places almost at once, witnessing the world around us at many miles per hour. On our favorite, out-of-the-way runs, we might stumble across a high school couple making out (sorry) or a slightly more offensive offense (like that one time I busted a drug deal at seven-minute-mile pace).

Runners are achievers. There are a special few endorphin junkies who are runners just for the feel of it, but for the most part runners lace up their shoes with some goal or challenge in mind. Many runners can point to a personal record or a particular day that they are proud of. Even if the runner falls short of an arbitrary goal, they have succeeded in going out and trying. Olympians and first-timers alike can inspire the human spirit – if passersby take a moment to step back and notice.

The reason I bring this up, in light of yesterday’s events in Boston, is because even if the blasts occurred among bystanders, many of whom were not runners per se, these particular victims were there to celebrate a runner they knew and in some way part of the running spirit.

And terrorism, the sort of act witnessed yesterday, is not just homicidal mania. The heinous crime of terrorism is also a political act. As the cliche goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Certainly that doesn’t make it right, as terrorism is neither morally sound nor tactically effective (non-violent protest is always more effective, ethical and sincere). But it helps us understand the event and shape our response.

Almost every marathoner represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. A marathon itself is the sum total of this hard work and sweat, in addition to the volunteer and staff commitment that make the event possible. To witness the finish line of a marathon is to see the focal point of millions of hours of hard work.

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is an amateur event as opposed to mere recreational race. Although it is not the Olympics, individuals still have to qualify for the Boston. It is difficult to just “sign up” for the race, one has to truly be committed to the sport. Hence, amateur,  rooted in the word amore, the word for “to love.”

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is a integral part of the Patriot Day celebrations, something I admittedly don’t understand but Bostonians certainly cherish.

We do not know who the culprit behind yesterday’s horrible act is. But we do know this:

With the string of moments it took for them to assemble an explosive device, they attempted to steal away the significance of millions of hours. They attempted to replace love with hate. They attempted to pervert the public spirit.

Let us make sure that, whoever it is, that they fail. Let us reject categorically the twisted worldview that made a senseless act make sense to this particular group or individual.

Let us mourn the dead, care for the injured, lament what could have been.

But let us not sacrifice one inch of meaning to the false gods of fear. Let us continue to celebrate the human spirit, seeing that in a runner (like any athlete, or any person striving towards a positive goal of any sort) we can be better than base, deranged and pathetic. We may not be perfect, but we are not soulless.

So for those of who run, or cheer those who do, let us keep lacing up our shoes. Let us carry the weight of tragedy, let us look over our shoulders to be on guard for obvious threats, and then let us go, and go strong.

Vulnerable, disruptive, achieving: let us keep running.

Even before the explosions, the American Red Cross was at the Boston Marathon, supporting the running spirit by providing volunteers and working at aid stations. They were quick to respond and continue to put their muscle into this tragedy.  I consider myself more of a rational giver than an emotional giver, so as odd as it is for me to impulsively add a handful of dollars to an organization with a $3.5 billion budget, for whatever reason I threw out all calculations and did it anyway. I cite my frugal donation not to boast, but rather to challenge you to consider doing it too

In Boston’s aftermath

The distance between home and home

[Warning: this is a blog post that doesn’t resolve itself. It comes with no tidy ending or wrapped up in a witty conclusion, it is just documenting experience and that’s just fine because I’m only a twenty-something, after all.]

There is a petty dissonance down the middle of my mind, about 2000 miles wide, roughly the distance between home and home. And I know I’m not alone in this.

On my 1.5 mile bike commute to work, I see two Subarus. First, a Forester, with an Oregon license plate. Second, an Outback, that while its owner has traded the Doug Fir plate for an Abe Lincoln, the rear window still prominently features a “Heart-in-Oregon” sticker.

I have not met the owners of these Subarus, as much as I want to. I want to ask them if they have also noticed that, from a road-side perspective, our state (2) has beat out the more likely contenders by a function of population and osmosis: New York (0), Texas (0) and California (0). I want to ask them why they too have decided to play the Oregon Trail in reverse.

Nobody truly knows what makes an Oregonian an Oregonian, but like these Subarus I have through little ways resisted assimilation to the city I have found myself in. I still have my Oregon’s Driver’s License. My shipping address, which changes from lease to lease, is different from my billing address, thanks to parents who have stayed put. Even though I walk by Alderman Ameya Pawar’s office on the way to picking up groceries at Jewel Osco, I still am registered to vote in Oregon’s 1st congressional district. I have a sticker on my laptop that proudly proclaims my tribal, er, state identity to the whole coffee shop.

Not that Chicago is a bad place. I really do like Chicago actually, or at least the neighborhoods I have spent time in. I like that just about everything I need is walking distance, I like the fact that there is always something going on, I like having centrally located train stations and airports that make the nation and world readily accessible.

If I had to, I could settle down and live here and be happy.

I could start buying things, like furniture, that do not fit into checked luggage.

So what’s holding me back?

Do I think Oregon just simply scores as the better place? — No. Places are not meant to be quantified.

Do I miss going on runs through forests with elevation changes? — No. Because I’d just as easily miss run-by-witnessing the quirkiness of people made possible by Chicago’s density of population.

Do I just like being different? — Maybe. But even so, that is probably less a weird psychological-ego thing than it is an Oregon cultural artifact.

What I think it comes down to is this: Oregon simply has shaped me in more ways than Chicago has. From the way I think to the way I dress to the way I spend my time and money. If tomorrow I were go and spend a year in New Orleans, or in Tanzania, or on the moon, I would tell people that I am from Oregon. Not Chicago.

I am not complaining about my current situation. I am here by choice, as opposed to the refugees and exiles who are here as a last resort. Nevermind that the “who am I/where am I” question is much easier than the “who are we/where are we” question: a surprising number of my friends have fallen in love not just across state lines but over international borders, and are having to figure out these questions not only in tandem with another but through concrete decisions.

So, as disorientating as it may be, the incongruence between home and home may actually be a normal part of the human experience. A formative part, even.

Maybe there is not supposed to be a right answer. If there is, however, I suspect it is not found by asking “which place should I call home” but rather “did I show up today, or did I run away?” At the very least, we are more likely to know how to answer the latter question.

That all said: my Oregon driver’s license, my state-issued identification card, expires this August. Under ORS 803.355 (and yes, I did look this up), I can only renew if I intend “to remain in the state or, if absent, to return to it.”

Not that the DMV employee is going to ask. Besides, I am confident I could make a legal case for my intention to return to Oregon in the eight-year period I would extend my domicileship, mostly revolving around the fact I see myself going to grad school sometime in the next eight years and that decision is probably going to shut the door on Chicago and there will be a transition period in which Oregon is the only place I could call home.

The more important question is this: am I going to continue resisting assimilation? If growing up in Oregon taught me anything, it taught me the importance of celebrating the places we find ourself in, whether the mountains or the valleys or the coast or the city. I am thankful for this lesson, but how shall I best thank the teacher?

By snubbing the Illinois driver’s license, am I showing up or am I running away?

I have no clue.

I am curious to see what I decide.

The distance between home and home

Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather

“Hurricane Sandy & Marblehead [Front Street 9]” by Flickr user Brian Birke, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
I am no climate scientist. I have no authority to claim that climate change was a significant factor in causing Hurricane Sandy, the “frankenstorm“, although much of what I have been reading sees a strong case for the linkage. Never mind this summer, where a number of people were puzzling over the possibility that one of the ten worst US droughts of the past century was correlated with climate change.

I do, however, grow worried when freak weather gets too closely linked to climate change. Or, rather, when freak weather becomes the only time we feel concern over the slow, gradual damage we are doing to the planet.

Why do I worry?

Because weather is only a day-to-day thing, and even if we got CO2 down to a perfect number of parts-per-million, freak weather would still be a once-every-couple-of-years thing. All the while, we live with our climate every day. Even on the pleasant days of scattered clouds and warm temperatures, our finely-tuned Earth is being knocked out of equilibrium. Icecaps and glaciers are disappearing from the only place they belong, while deserts are popping up where they should not be. With sea levels rising and coral reefs dying, the equivalent of dozens of frankenstorms are happening gradually each year, and (thanks to the hard work of numerous scientists) in plain sight (although we are too self-absorbed to see it).

Because some years ago I spent three weeks in New Orleans and the surrounding area. From that experience, I still flinch at the environmentalist take-over of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, best epitomized by the hurricane-out-of-smokestacks poster for Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, there may have been some truth in the hypothesis that global warming supercharged Katrina. But it was not rising sea temperatures so much as poor levee design and incompetent government response – all wrapped up in a tangle of racism and poverty – which took thousands of American lives.

And because the troubling possibility that if the most creative, sustainable way to mobilize the masses around the challenges of climate change is through freak weather phenomena, then climate activists are bound to get caught in a catch-22:  to create positive change, they will need to place their hope in tragedies. And not just any tragedy, but tragedies that are well-timed (for example, near the end of presidential elections characterized by climate silence) and well-placed (would we be having this conversation if the same storm struck China?).

“HURRICANE SANDY Taxi Terminal in Hoboken NJ” by Flickr user That Hartford Guy, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Some of you may know that recently I have been pondering the possibility of what it would like if the church were to save the planet from the worst of climate change. Let me outline my head-heart-hands argument that, for Christians (if not everybody), it should not take a frankenstorm to realize that something should be done about climate change.

Head:

Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have had a tenuous relationship with science in the midst of the last century’s so-called “culture wars.” But a number of scholars have seen a positive connection between the monotheistic, biblical world view (for example, that God has placed us within a rational, ordered cosmos governed by laws of cause and effect) and the historical rise of modern science.

As Christians, we know that there are simply some big questions about life and significance that science alone cannot answer. But we also know that there are questions which science does have the answer to – ranging from the low-budget high school science experiment to the highly ambitious attempts to model what climate change is and what it looks to be. And those ambitious models are remarkably consistent: even on days the weather is nice outside, our climate is under duress.

Some scientists find cures and are celebrated. Others point out urgent problems in society, but society in turn mocks them for their efforts, not unlike how the prophet Jeremiah was persecuted. Therefore, we can ask ourselves: upon hearing difficult news, would Jesus shoot the messengers?

Heart:

Christians are called to seek after the welfare of the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable. So when faith-based international relief organizations like World Vision and Bread for the World make major statements on how climate change is impacting the communities and nations they seek to do work in, Christians need to perk up and listen closely.

The worldwide poor are affected by climate change, not just when frankenstorms hit, but throughout the whole year. Climate change almost always hits the poor the hardest, because they lack the means to adapt to their changing environment (in fact, the super-rich have the obnoxious luxury of thinking how they can benefit from climate change).

Loving the poor through climate action is clearly abstract. We won’t directly see the smiles we might witness in a soup kitchen or through a mission trip. While there is something significant from these ministries of presence, ultimately loving the poor has never truly been about the “warm fuzzy feeling,” but rather part of the radical call of discipleship given to us by our Savior.

Hands: 

Everything I have said so far would be moot if it was not for the fact that Christians are not merely hearers, but doers. We see good work as the expression of our faith’s vitality.

It takes some care to see how a tough, 1st century text like the Sermon on the Mount translates into a call to action for the tough, 21st century reality of global warming. But at the end of Jesus’ speech comes the parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock – and, in our case, the message works both figuratively and literally.

Unlike his foolish downshore neighbor, who built a house upon sand, the wise man built a house that was able to withstand rains and floods and wind. This is what climate action looks like: instead of picking up pieces after the storm, taking the appropriate action now. Instead of serving quick profits, making the responsible sacrifices to ensure our planet’s sustainability not just for our generation but for our grandchildren’s generation.  The decisions that ensure our planet’s integrity, to the glory of the God of all creation.

None of the above will not be easy, but that is not a excuse.

“Aerial photos of New Jersey coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy” by Master Sgt. Mark Olsen, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I sincerely hope that Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, not just for the American people but also for our politicians and our news media and our risk-adverse investment bankers. But I also realize that to create a world more resilient to freak weather, it is going to take a well-rooted movement to counteract the slow, strong creep of climate change, a movement that exists regardless of how pleasant the weather is.

It is my belief that the church cannot afford to miss out on being a part of that movement, nor can the planet cannot afford the church to stand by idly.

Next Steps:

Right now, there is work to be done in Hurricane Sandy’s – and yesterday’s nor’easter‘s – aftermath. Covenant World Relief, an organization I did my college internship with, has set up a fund to help storm victims.

But after the band-aids have been applied, we will need to redirect our energies towards climate change. Continue reading “Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather”

Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather

Mr. Spontaneous

Growing up, I knew a guy a number of years older than myself who saw opportunity in every corner of life. He could turn a simple car ride from school to the grocery store into a party, and once at the grocery store he would split up the shopping list among the four of us and turn a regular old shopping experience into a complicated game of stealth and intrigue. Sometimes he would disappear for hours or even the entire day, and nobody would be able to say where he was, but nobody was ever concerned. Other times, he showed an uncanny ability to come over uninvited, but never unwelcome.

Mr. Spontaneous, as I liked to think about him, was fun. I wanted to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.

As I got older, and Mr. Spontaneous became less of a role model and more of a peer, there happened to be a moment where I got a privileged peek at his weekly planner. Color-coded and detailed to the quarter-hour, his days were managed like a work of art.

I didn’t believe it at first. Mr. Spontaneous, who seemed to live life on a whim, actually had structure and routine to his days? Nonsense. There was no way his unyielding sense of freedom could have come from such careful planning.

…right?

I came to realize that Mr. Spontaneous was not trying to be spontaneous at all. It just kind of happened naturally. Through his planner, he could gain a sense of what needed to be done in that day and what could wait for tomorrow. Reading between the color-coded lines, one could see the people and places he was choosing to make a priority. Mr. Spontaneous organized his life with spontaneity as an afterthought, instead choosing to pursue a practice of presence.

Another example. Although ideas of spontaneity and presence are not necessarily religious, the Christian scriptures are a testament to the spontaneous power of presence. Take the overlooked prologue in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus’ apostles had just come back from a grand and exhausting adventure, and Jesus makes plans for the team to travel to a remote location for a sort of rejuvenating retreat. But, upon arrival, there is a massive crowd waiting, and Jesus was moved “by compassion” to change course and start teaching the crowd.

(I’m surprised the apostles didn’t full-out revolt at this point. This episode is akin to arriving for a week-long vacation in Hawaii only to be get a call from the office manager that there is more work that must be done immediately.)

Jesus was present to the needs of the exhausted apostles, and so spontaneously announced plans to take a break. But he was also present to the needs of the mob yearning to hear from him, and so he spontaneously announced a change of plans.

I think that spontaneity, the creative expression of being present, has political implications as well as being a personal trait. Just like how well-meaning religious folk can overemphasize the Genesis myth of origins (i.e. entrenched creation/evolution debates) or the eschatological expectations of Revelation (i.e. apocalyptic doom-sayers proclaiming the imminent end of the world), I think our politics are often stuck on visions of the past and future, at the neglect of the present.

People trying to change “the system” tend to cast their hopes on a romantized version of the past, or a fantastic utopia of the future. This is despite the fact that flaws of “the system” are often inherited from outdated traditions of the past, or rational-yet-overbaked blueprints for the future. Needless to say, traditions and rational expectations are important, but they must intersect in a rugged commitment to the possibilities of the present.

I don’t know what presence-based politics looks like, but be rest assured that the next candidate to look like Mr. – or Ms. – Spontaneity will get my vote.

But for now, I think it is a noble enough goal to pursue a sort of spontaneous presence in each of our personal lives.

That means time-management of the sort that doesn’t divide between “busy time” and “free time.” It rather contains the sort of flexibility that makes sure what needs to get done gets done, while no great opportunity goes missed because it was not on the schedule. Being spontaneously present means showing up a half hour late to work because of an incredible conversation with a friend, and once at work scraping the revered to-do list because there is a tremendous offer that cannot wait until tomorrow.

Especially in our technologically advanced world, with advanced communication and transportation networks, spontaneous presence also means place-management. It is choosing (as much as we are able) to live, work and getting a bite to eat in neighborhoods where we are likely to be interrupted by the people we care about. It means walking or running city sidewalks without the iPod and earbuds, in tune to the voices that don’t realize they are talking to you. And lest I forget I am an Oregonian-wandering-in-Chicago, these same thoughts apply towards being present to the wonders of nature as much as they do people.

And all that means developing the eyes that see possibilities on top of responsibilities, the mind to discern which commitments actually open doors, the guts that can stomach a roller-coaster change of plans.

There is something initially terrifying about being present. The past and future, the states of being faraway and not-paying-attention, are safe places. Vulnerability to the present means giving up a measure of control. Anything can happen. But Mr. Spontaneous understood this, Mr. Spontaneous was fun, and I want to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.

Mr. Spontaneous