BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

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BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

Now available for download: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay”

NEW VoOM coverA little under two years ago, my professor challenged me to find a way to decimate some of the ideas I had developed in a senior thesis.

A little over a year ago, I challenged myself to think bigger than a blog post. 1,000 words every couple of weeks was neat, but what if I strung those together? What could I come up with? Could I do 10,000 words? 20,000 words?

And then I decided to put those two challenges together. The final result, and my excuse for not blogging lately, is now live and available for download at Amazon.com.

There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in just bringing “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay” to fruition. The thing, for better or worse, is littered with running metaphors, but I have to use one more: it feels a bit like completing my first half-marathon. Who cares about the final time. I crossed the finish line, and that is great in and of itself.

But, of course, I would love it if people were to read this essay. If they were to discuss it, critique it, embrace it, share it. I believe the ideas in this essay matter, and I do not think I could have succeeded in finishing this essay if it was not for this belief, however naive this belief may ultimately turn out to be.

So, towards that end, I am offering the essay for free over the next couple of days. (Soon, it will have to be priced at $3.00, to appease the Amazon.com gods and additionally help pad my rather lean wallet). If you download it for free and read it and say, “hey, that’s great, wish I paid the poor kid something for this” I would love it if you went back online and gifted a copy to a friend.

If you feel led, “four star” or “five star” reviews also warm my heart. Heck, I’ll appreciate one or two star reviews if you read the full thing and take me seriously.

What’s this essay about, you ask? Well, according to my publisher (aka me):

When it comes to culture, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideas, or just people in general, American Christians in the 21st century have found themselves caught in an unprecedented flood of diversity. Rather than something to escape from or merely tolerate, this sudden rush of strange and new things should be seen as an exciting gold rush with which we can enrich both our individual lives and our lives together. To join in on this adventure, however, we need to equip ourselves with the proper tool — “the virtue of open-mindedness.”

Author Kaleb Daniel Nyquist gives an account of the virtue of open-mindedness that is both personal and theoretical, theological and practical. It is a journey that meanders through the forests of Oregon, the streets of Chicago, the sidewalks of India, a Sunday School classroom, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many hair-pulling trips to the university library. Mashing together ideas from Aristotle, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and even Jesus of Nazareth, he puts together a model of the virtue of open-mindedness that just might help American Christians (and whoever else cares to listen in) navigate our strange, beautiful, broken and interconnected world.

You literally have nothing to lose. Apologies for the aggressive sales pitch, but you are going to waste more time thinking about downloading it (or not) than actually downloading it.

Check it out here.

(By the way, if you don’t have an actual Kindle, don’t worry. Amazon.com has Kindle apps for your computer, tablet, internet browser and smartphone. Problem solved.)

Aside

Gospel > Global Warming: The Gospel

So I meant to do a blog post on the topic of how the global warming narrative stacks up against the gospel narrative. I originally timed it for publication between Easter and Earth Day. Well, it turned into five blog posts and now it is so like not even Easter on the liturgical calendar. Suppose I got excited. Anyhow, I’ll be posting this series throughout the week. And yes, it does reflect a bit on my experience as being part of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, but nothing here necessarily reflects any official position of Y.E.C.A. whatsoever. Just my own thoughts that I want to contribute to public discussion.

The Gospel

Gospel is Greater than Global WarmingBack in the beginning, God separated the waters, filling the oceans with all kinds of fish and great sea creatures and filling the clouds with all kinds of birds and other winged creatures. From the oceans, God separated the dry land from the seas, blanketing the dry land with vegetation, livestock and wild animals.

God looked upon all that had been made, and saw that it was good. It was an achievement in-and-of-itself. The creation glorified the Creator. God could have, I suppose, stopped there.

What happens next, however, is that out of the dust of the earth God created humankind. God created them male and female, in God’s image, in God’s likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea, rule over the birds in the sky, and rule over the livestock and wild animals. Dominion was not domination, rather, being made in God’s image meant that (among many things) when the fish and birds and livestock and wild animals saw humankind, it would be as if they were gazing upon God himself. The Creator entrusted the creation to the humans, to us.

(According to Genesis 1:29, these first stewards of creation were actually vegetarians. Go figure.)

God looked upon this arrangement, this role and responsibility that the humans had been given, and God saw that it was not just good, but very good.

But for the humans, for us, very good wasn’t good enough. We wanted more, more, more.

[lyrics and a tune for this moment are available here]

There was one simple rule for the first man and the first woman to follow. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

But they did. Eve couldn’t blame the serpent any more for being a tempter than Adam could blame Eve for being a temptress. The deed was done, and God kicked them out of Paradise. God sent the humans to go and work the earth from which they came. Yet God did not give up on the humans, nor did God give up on his plans for the planet.

Over the millennia, God worked quietly, humbly and tirelessly among all the people made in God’s image. In what would later be known as South Asia, God put upon the hearts of a people made poor and oppressed by caste the story of a resurrected king who they did not know but who they called Baliraja. To a prince named Siddhartha, God gave the wisdom to see that there was more to life than wealth and rank, in addition to the gift of a voice that could preach this small lesson to the subcontinent’s masses.

Meanwhile, for the people who lived in the New World before the New World was new, there were glimpses of a life being sewn with some sort of common thread. The tree, the raven, the human — all were siblings before the same creator. All had hunger, all had health, all had something of value to provide, all would eventually die. These people were not only able to see themselves as part of a larger picture, but saw that in the big scheme of responsibilities that they had a pivotal part to play, not just to the world around them but to future generations.

And we mustn’t forget those who lived on that peninsula-slash-archipelago that juts out into the eastern Mediterranean sea.  These Greeks could count upon their ranks some of the era’s biggest nerds, some clever men young and old who tirelessly pondered the possibilities of justice and beauty and truth. Their insights would not simply shape the nature of society and culture in the local polis, but much of western civilization and even the young and vibrant Christian religion.

And so we know that God has been faithful and true, sticking with the original mission even when humanity was too burdened with pride and shame to see goodness in its fullest.

But God’s quiet work across the world needed a focal point. A particular place in which all this effort could be tied together.

So God initiated what would become the Israel project, a story that spanned centuries, filled with an incredible cast of characters. It began with Abram, a nomad turned patriarch through covenant. Then there was Moses, a Jewish orphan turned Egyptian prince turned Egyptian exile turned visionary leader, who led his people out of oppression and gave them a code of holiness to live and glorify Yahweh by. And there was Rahab, a prostitute who found her way into a foreign god’s plan and choose faithfulness over resistance, choose to give up her city so that a nation may build its home. There was Deborah, prophetess of God and judge of Israel, a commander-in-chief whose triumph against oppression led to forty years of peace. There was Hannah, a barren, pious woman who boldly asked for Yahweh’s favor and received a son, a precious treasure she immediately had consecrated to a life of temple service. There was David, the second king of a nation where the first king hadn’t gone so well, who truth be told had a weakness for a woman’s allure but to his credit also could not stop pursuing the heart of the Lord Almighty. There was Jeremiah, a prophet whose heart broke in pieces as God’s people refused to heed the warnings and were conquered by an unruly empire. And there was Esther, a queen for the Babylonian King Xerxes and a double agent for her exiled Hebrew people. Never mind people like Judas Maccabees and Judith, whose stories, while historical, did not make the director’s cut of what we now call the Old Testament.

The story does not end there, because then the incredible happened, and the Creator of the universe took on human flesh. Took on the flesh of an infant child, born of a virgin Israelite girl living under Roman occupation. This child, named Jesus, would grow up to be favored by religious authorities, favored until this Jesus got too smart for his own good and started demonstrating his own authority through radical teachings and miraculous healings. Then the religious authorities banded together and conspired to defeat this threat to their status quo, seeing to it that the so-called King of the Jews was crucified, his throne a cross, the man sitting at his right hand a deviant and the man sitting at his left hand a thief.

And if things were not already unbelievable enough, this Jesus who suffered a brutal death and was buried in a sealed tomb, this Jesus rose from the dead in new bodily form. This Jesus appeared to his disciples and many others before being taken into heaven. This Jesus triumphed over sin and death, and just as the trespass of Adam and Eve resulted in condemnation for all people, so also this one righteous act of Jesus resulted in justification and life for all people.

I often wonder why God did not skip right ahead to this critical redemption step, and far be it from me to know the mind of God, but I believe these rank up upon some of the reasons for the Israel project: first, that no attempt to save the world, no matter how divinely inspired, will succeed without cultivating the grassroots network beforehand; second, that God wanted to give us a story to live into instead of rules to live by; and third, the Israel project, moreso than the rather nomadic ministry of Jesus and the disciples, was able to highlight that redemption is not just about restoring our relationship with God and relationships with each other and our relationship with ourselves, but God’s mission is also about restoring our relationship to the land that is God’s creation.

But that is a question for another time. Because we now live in the next chapter of this great story, a story that begins with the book of Acts and continues up until the present day. It is the story of the church, God’s people across all tribes and tongues and nations and generations, a story filled with its own wild cast of characters that somehow have come together in worship and mission. We, the church, are a bride busying herself in eager anticipation for her groom to return. And what a glorious day that will be.

This story is the story of the gospel, the evangel which we live in and proclaim and invite others to live in and proclaim as well.

Do we believe this great story?

And how does the story of global warming fit into the great story of the gospel?

Tomorrow, Part 3: The Gospel > Global Warming

Gospel > Global Warming: The Gospel

Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48

Scene from the Y.E.C.A. prayer rally outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 2012
Scene from the Y.E.C.A. prayer rally outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 2012

As a young evangelical who is working to overcome the climate crisis as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, I am consistently mulling over the ways that faith and activism collide.

I also subscribe to the Flashcards published by the Sightline Institute, “quick reference tools for effective [values-based] communications strategies.” One card, How Brilliant is 350.org’s Go Fossil Free Campaign?, has really gotten my wheels turning.

Not even the whole card, actually. Just the first bullet point: Name the villains.

There are lots of reasons to name villains. Most memorable stories have one—and climate change, a threat that is largely abstract and faceless, needs one!

Plus, when we don’t name a villain, we leave the story open to interpretation. In fact, everybody who uses oil—and that’s everybody—can wind up feeling villainzed. As fossil fuel consumers, we may feel guilty, trapped, or defensive.

Fair enough. I want to combat climate change. I don’t want the story about climate change to be indefinitely open to interpretation. I definitely don’t want everybody to end up feeling villainized. These desires are rooted not in an activist spirit, but in a reflective faith that is seeking God’s will for the world.

But because I am not just an activist but also a follower of Christ, this flashcard conjures up thoughts of this common memory verse, a corollary of loving one’s neighbor as oneself:

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The tension is obvious. Name the villains. Love your enemies.

Finger-pointing jeering and deep-hearted caring. Two things that just do not seem to go together.

I want to suggest, however, that they do. If we dare see this piece of activist wisdom in the light of biblical revelation, I think we can get one step closer to understanding the gospel. Like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, instead of the fool who built his house upon the sand, it is important for Christian activists to get the foundation right before building up the movement.

Who is the enemy?

It is important that we identify, as specifically and responsibly as we can, who the “enemy” is.

The divide typically goes thus: climate activists on one side, climate skeptics on the other. It is a common cable news narrative, but a false dichotomy.

Think about how inherently hypocritical it is for a climate activist like me to villianize a climate skeptic! If I genuinely believe that climate change science points us to a grim outlook for the future, then should I not welcome anyone who brings even a shred of genuine information to me that the climate crisis is not quite as bad as I fear? Like the skeptics, I thirst for good news (indefinite lowercase), although I might be more courageous in taking in the bad news than they are.

There is a sub-variety of climate skeptic worth mentioning: those who believe human-induced climate change is real and a threat, but consider it insignificant in comparison to other issues. If I genuinely believe that climate change is one of the great challenges of the 21st century, and am actively working to bring it into the public consciousness, then it would be hypocritical of me to not pause occasionally and listen to them, hear their beliefs and understand their concerns.

Why only occasionally?

Because, in addition to humankind’s own sad sense of complacency, a true enemy has blown climate skepticism way out of reasonable proportion, using their deep pockets and wide network.

Bill McKibben and the Go Fossil Free campaign get it right: in the story of global warming, the true enemy is the fossil fuel industry.  The plethora of corporations that extract, produce and transport oil, gas and coal, and have a vested interest in making sure our society remain addicted to the habit of consuming their product. Even though, because of carbon dioxide emissions, this product comes with a nasty side effect called global warming.

How then, does a Christian climate activist love the fossil fuel industry?

My enemy has a soul

Although the corporations that make up the fossil fuel industry can be considered “legal people” – having many of the same rights and responsibilities of living, breathing human beings – it is absurd to think of something composed of pipelines and refineries as being an actual person.

That said, good people are a part of this nasty project. Oil-rig operators to CEOs to shareholders. They probably have a heart. Some of them are just trying to make ends meet. Many of them are fellow Christians who we could, have, or will take communion with. More than we may expect, a number of them admit that the reality of climate change requires drastic action.

Yet, even if the good people did not exist, Jesus still calls us to “love our enemies.” At the core of corporations are people, and in the rush to overcome climate change, we need to remember that the Kingdom project is not one of dehumanization but rather rehumanization.

Empire criticism

Empire criticism is an interpretive lens applied to the New Testament. According to my roommate’s notes from seminary, this is a

“…variation of ‘new’ perspective. Jesus being Lord means Caesar is not. Church thus becomes subversive and anti-empire. Subversion is primary motivator.”

I’d go into more detail, but the book I would want to read on this subject hasn’t come out yet. So, in the meantime, I am going to agree with Scot McKnight (professor of said seminary course and co-editor of said book) in saying that “to see large-scale imperial subversiveness throughout the New Testament…overcooks the texts.” But I also acknowledge the fruitful possibility this lens has for cultivating effective political theologies.

At a superficial level, the obvious candidate for 21st century Caesar would be the American President or any other head of state. While there is some truth to this, centuries of democratization and the legacy of Christendom have fuddled any clear-cut comparisons. Subjects of the Roman Empire could not vote for Caesar, we can vote for our elected officials. While Christian praxis is not the law of the land, I would easily take even Richard Nixon versus Nero Caesar.

If the title of 21st century Caesar is up for grabs, I would like to nominate a member of the fossil fuel industry: ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil is, at over $400 billion in market value, the world’s biggest company. Whether through the price at the pump or through an invisible slice of our investment portfolio, many of us are somehow tied to the rising or falling fortune of ExxonMobil. Like how Caesar placed statues of his likeness all throughout the empire, ExxonMobil feels obliged to present a favorable public image of themselves through marketing campaigns.  But, also like the Roman Emperor, ExxonMobil is not accountable to the common people. Instead, the oil giant listens primarily to its shareholders — the vast majority being a number of mutual funds and institutional owners who, by their very nature, care only about the bottom line.

 

And, of course, ExxonMobil Caesar is not alone, with many other Brutuses gunning for the title: BP, Chevron, Shell, Total S.A., and ConocoPhillips. Never mind those that don’t have roadside gas stations but are still take part in the process of getting carbon into the atmosphere: Halliburton, Koch Industries, and TransCanada.

For some, the key link between the Roman and American empires are that they are both militaristic. But consider the fact that many of the United States post-Cold War military campaigns have taken place in oil-rich nations. In some sense, even the American military has been co-opted by the fossil fuel industry.

If, as a Christian climate change activist, I am trying to figure out how to love the fossil fuel industry, it seems the best place to look is how Jesus loved Caesar.

Continue reading “Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48”

Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48

Will you be my enemy?

Thought experiment: at what points in the Gospels does Jesus kneel on the ground? Fall on the ground? In the presence of friends, or in the presence of the enemies? In the turning the other cheek and walking an additional mile stuff, is Jesus still standing?

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

There’s the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount that I get. The greed and money stuff, the lust and women stuff. Even the trumpets and almsgiving stuff, which is remarkable because after all these years I am not really sure what almsgiving actually is or why anyone would blow a trumpet in the process. But I still get it, in the sense I find it all rather convicting.

And then there is this bit. The “love your enemies” paradox that we are somehow supposed to live out. It doesn’t do anything for me.

The problem is not one of difficulty. Rather, the problem is that I don’t seem to have any enemies.

I seem to be able to manage my scuffles pretty well. There were a few candidates along the way that could almost qualify as an “enemy”: when I was in the 1st grade, one of my soccer teammates would persistently throw me into the bushes during practice. In the 7th grade, some 9th grader stole the heart of the girl I was crushing on…

That’s pretty much where the list ends. Really.

I mean, there were people in high school and college who made decisions that upset me (to say nothing of my short stint so far in the real world). But those people were not attacking me personally, and sometimes even were actively although misguidedly looking out for my best interests.

It has always felt like having enemies is a dirty thing.

Does that make sense? Does anyone else feel that way? Like, instead of fretting over how you acted towards someone who is genuinely an enemy (which is what Jesus is talking about), you are stuck on the fact that you have an enemy in the first place (which Jesus implies is a normal part of the human experience)?

(It certainly was a part of his human experience.)

I was a conflict transformation major in college, and part of the Intro to Conflict Transformation course was taking the “Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory” – a short personality test of sorts that would give a sense of just how exactly I tend to respond to conflict in my life.

In most situations, I came out a “Harmonizer.” Looking at that answer key, where my conflict style type was represented by panda bear clip art, was like looking at a mirror. Low focus on own agenda and high focus on relationship. “You win and I lose.” Benefits: Creates pleasant atmosphere. Costs: Stunted growth of personal gifts. Also, denies others the benefit of healthy confrontation. Possible acceptance of patterns or behaviors that ought to be changed.

Hmm.

To be clear, I have no sense of guilt about being a Harmonizer. I am who I am.

But over the past couple years since taking this test, I have begun to understand the “love your enemies” paradox with a more self-aware perspective. And, like the parts about greed and lust and trumpets, that part of the Sermon on the Mount has begun to convict me like it should.

For years, this was my amateur exegesis: if hypothetical disciple had an enemy, then the solution to the enemy problem was to love the enemy until hypothetical disciple eventually began to like them, and the enemy liked hypothetical disciple back, and then everyone would be reconciled and happy.

Which I suppose could happen — hypothetically. (“Fake it till you make it.”) But there was a problem with this interpretation. Here, love was the means, not the end. The problem was not that there was not enough love, but that there was one too many enemies.

According to this interpretation: since loving one’s enemies was supposed to turn enemies into friends, and I did not have any enemies, I had mastered the “love your enemies” command before I even heard it. An A+ on my Sermon on the Mount progress report.

As I have come to realize, for a Harmonizer like myself, there is a quiet-yet-radical call in the “love your enemy” paradox. Where many people might struggle with the love part, I am one of those struggling with the enemy part.

I am struggling to admit that there are people out there who might want to attack me personally. That there are people out there who are competing against me for the same scarce resources. That there are people whose vision of human (or non-human) well-being and flourishing is fundamentally incompatible with my own. That there are people who cheat, steal from, abuse, discriminate or otherwise hate upon those people that I care about.

That there are people who I consider an enemy.

It has been easier to hurt than to work, to pretend that the conflict does not really exist. Therefore my tendency has been, for the sake of giving my enemies a place to stand, to let myself be trampled on instead of finding the common ground.

Maybe I need to read the texts more closely, but, as far as I know, not once did Jesus lay down on the ground for his enemies. He would turn his cheek for enemies, but he would not let his knees touch the ground unless it was to wash the feet of the disciples.

This is not a call to go around with an “ENEMY” rubber stamp and labeling it on the foreheads of everyone who has done me wrong. Rather, it is finding that middle way between retaliation and retreat, the path to reconciliation. And knowing that even if I find the middle way, I might journey in vain.

To a Harmonizer like myself, the crucified Jesus says, “Hey, listen. It’s quite alright to have enemies. Look at me. Even I did, and I was the Son of God. And if you are going to stick up for what you believe is right, if you are truly going to put yourself out there, then there are going to be people you will piss off. You cannot control that. You do not get to decide your enemies…”

“…but you do get to decide whether or not you love them.”

This blog post is the second installment of a three part series where I’m reflecting on Matthew 5:43-48 from different parts of my life. The first post, “Thou shalt love thy frenemy“, written from the perspective of youth ministry, was published on NorthSideYouthCollision.com. This one comes from a more personal angle; next week will be from the perspective of being a climate change activist.

Will you be my enemy?