Wednesday, October 5, 2016

More Than Veggie Tales - The Importance of Critical Thinking in YouthMinistry

Remember Veggie Tales, the popular Christian videos produced by Big Idea featuring the likes of Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, Junior the Asparagus, Silly Songs, and Bible stories acted out by anthropomorphic vegetables? These characters and their antics were everywhere for well over a decade. For a while they were even featured during the Saturday morning cartoon slot on NBC. Phil Vischer, the co-creator of Veggie Tales and former "top tomato" at Big Idea Productions, has his own podcast. A couple of years ago he discussed the book A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. During the episode the following exchange took place between Vischer and his co-host, Skye Jethani.

Vischer: Here’s what I want to do. I want to encourage parents and Christian educators to teach critical thinking skills… do you know why we don’t do that?
Jethani: ‘Cause it’s hard.
Vischer: ‘Cause we’re afraid our kids will actually use them.
Jethani: And they might come to a different conclusion.
Vischer: And they might come to a different conclusion than we have come to.

For far too long educators in the church have felt like it was their job to teach those under their care what to think. The unspoken line of logic usually goes something like this...

"If we want 'the faith' to continue, then we must make sure that those who come after us understand the faith in the same way we understand the faith which is the same way that those before us understood the faith. We must teach our young what to think and how to think it 'rightly'. We must encourage conformity if the faith is going to survive."

This is a great approach if the goal is to create automatons running around who think and act exactly alike parroting the pet lines and pithy catchphrases that have been handed to them. There is no room in this approach for the free spirit, the nonconformist, the individual, the critical thinker.
The amazing children and youth with whom we are privileged to share life are not empty vessels to be filled with platitudes and easy solutions.
They aren't stagnant beings who will stay the same once they understand the faith 'rightly'.
They tend to continue to grow and learn, and they interact with other ideas and philosophies.
They won't sit still.
They won't stay the same.
They won't think the way they "should" think.
That's kind of what it means to grow up.

It is past time for us to do things differently. What would happen if instead of simply teaching our young people what to think, we committed ourselves to the task of helping young people discover how to become critical thinkers? Just imagine what kind of environment this would create for our children and youth.

It is a difficult task but is more than worth the effort. We cannot be afraid of the questions that will inevitably come with critical thinking. Those questions are there whether we acknowledge them and give them space or not. We must not shy away from the depths into which we may be pushed as we think critically about the faith, the Bible, the traditions, the teachings of our faith, and life itself and encourage others to do the same.

Life is messy. We all know that. It is more than the easy answers that we spout from our familiar religious jargon lexicons. Faith in the midst of this mess is the example of those who have gone before us. That is the witness of the stories we find within our sacred texts. It is vitally important that we create a space for the young people (and adults) in our lives and our churches to engage this messiness. If we do not I fear that we are only fooling ourselves and attempting to sell snake oil to the masses.

when a young person's parent dies;
when a teen wakes up wondering why they are the way they are;
when a young woman feels like she has to drink in order to feel alive;
when a young man would rather not exist than go through another day struggling with the emotional pain he carries;
when a young person wonders where this God that they have heard so much about is in the midst of their pain;
When all of this and more happens, these incredible young people better be armed with more than simple answers of convenience and saccharin sweet Jesus loves yous.

What are we afraid of?
Are we truly afraid that if we help young people discover the joy that can be found in engaging the difficult questions and the deep well of faith that can be discovered within the struggle they will "come to a different conclusion than we have come to"?
If so, then perhaps we should examine the object of our own faith more deeply. Perhaps we only believe in the Plasticine idol of easy answers we have created and not the living God who meets us within the wonder-filled beautiful mess that is life.

As Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote in Struggling with Scripture, "this is your faith. Your living faith. I'm trying to give it back to you. This is how the first Christians did faith, aggressively using it to interpret, not just recite their traditions. The Spirit was alive, and the Word of God was on the move. You couldn't catch it, and you couldn't hold it so you'd be safe an secure. You had to move on dangerous ground with it."

In David Foster Wallace's commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, This is Water, he says of critical thinking and engagement, "It's hard. It takes will and effort...the alternative is unconsciousness."

It is a more difficult road for sure. However, if we really want our young people to develop a faith that is alive and is more than just a treasure of the past, then it is imperative that we help them discover how and create the space for them to think critically even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


In forgetting
Who we are
How we got here
We are dismembered 
From our being
Our collective humanity.
It is in 
That we are stitched 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Consider It Holy - Sermon on Labor Day Sunday - Sabbath

Consider It Holy

September 4, 2016
Genesis 1 (selected verses) and 2:1-4a
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good;
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 
God saw that it was good. 
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 
God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 
God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 
And God saw that it was good. 
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 
God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” And it was so.
God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Perhaps it’s just me…

But it seems like I am almost always in a rush, running from one appointment, one activity, one commitment to another.
It seems as though I seldom have enough time to do all that I would like to get accomplished in a single day, a single week, a single month, a single year.
And even when I do have time, I never quite completely unplug. I rarely get real rest.

If I discovered anything about myself during my recent sabbatical that this congregation so generously granted me it was this: I had to learn how to rest.

And I think that I am not alone.
In our culture, speed is honored and over scheduling is the norm.
We are rewarded for this pace, and we are always on this quest for more. 
We have even come to believe that it is possible to multitask. 
We eat fast food. 
We want instant results, fast internet, and the fastest route from here to there and then back again.
We want a multitude of choices – 200 television stations, a full aisle or more of cold cereals at the grocery story, over thirteen styles of blue jeans with over thirty color choices. 

Turning on the television or surfing the internet reminds us that we do not have enough, or at the very minimum, we do not have all that we need. Everything can and should be bigger and faster…better, we are led to believe. We work as if our identity and very humanity depended on it. We fill our days and our schedules with more than could possibly be accomplished in twice the amount of time. Even our vacations seem to be filled to the brim with activity, and we return home longing for time to recover from our time away.
Knit into the very fabric of our culture is the understanding that if we aren’t running, we are somehow behind. We are afraid that if we aren’t over programmed we will disappoint others, stunt our children’s growth, and somehow lose our very worth. 

We have all heard and perhaps even caught ourselves saying things like:
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“I don’t have the time to do the things I really want to do.”

“I really wish I could just find the time.”

And the result of all of this rushing around, all of this busyness, is the overwhelming feeling of being out of control – a sense of being overcome by chaos.

As I was preparing for this sermon, something incredible happened. It seemed as though everywhere I looked, there was a this theme, this metronomic message of “slow down”…”slow down”…”slow down.” 

It all started with…the cover of a magazine, then a radio show, then a Facebook post.
On Tuesday, I found a magazine in my mailbox here at church, The Church Health Reader, of which former Lake Fellow Stacy Smith is the Editor in Chief. The cover article was based on this morning’s Scripture passage.

Then on Wednesday, when I got in my car to return to work after lunch, the TED radio hour was on NPR – yeah, I know, how nerdy can you get. I am not ashamed. I love NPR and the TED radio hour is one of my favorite programs. Sometimes I sit back and realize that I haven indeed become my father. This entire radio show was focused on the topic of slowing down. There was a story from Norway about this idea called SlowTV, a second piece on how slowing down increases creativity, another on letter writing, an additional segment on slow moving art, and even a lengthy piece on the value of procrastination (so I put off writing this sermon until the night before I would deliver it). 

When I returned to my computer following that car ride, and this is the part that stills seems most unbelievable to me, the top post on my Facebook feed was a video that a former student from this congregation posted on his Facebook page on what else but that Norwegian idea of SlowTV. What is SlowTV? It is a program on the national public television station in Norway, where they take an extended period of time to show something as it happens in real time. The first such show broadcast was a widescreen video taken from the front of the engine of the train that journeys all the way across Noway. Over seven hours of video of train tracks, train stations, people waiting for the train to arrive standing on the platforms, and endless scenery. Over seven hours. And approximately 1.5 million people tuned in to watch this show at some point during the seven hours. That’s approximately 1/5 of the entire population of Norway. Since that first broadcast, other such shows have been broadcast. They have shown eight hours of a log burning, over three hours of people knitting, and five and a half days, five and a half days, of video from the front of a cruise ship. Who could have ever imagined that in a world that desires fast pace, efficiency, and a complete story in under 30 minutes that such a thing would be wildly successful. Yet, there it stands in the midst of the frenzy and chaos. The co-creator of SlowTv said that what this show gives people is a chance to slow down, to take back some of the control, and it gives the producers and the audience an opportunity to go deeper into a subject. An opportunity that otherwise would not be afforded to them.

Something slow … a break, rest – if you will – in the midst of the chaos of our times.

In the 6th century BC the nation of Israel found themselves in true chaos. Decades earlier, they had been taking captive by the Babylonians. They were violently torn from their land which had been laid waste by their invaders; they were separated from family members; they were taken from all that was familiar, sacred, and holy. As this time of exile was drawing to a close, the people faced a major identity crisis. Who are we as a people? What are we about? What do we believe? Out of and back into this setting and the history of this people was born an inspired piece of writing, a poem of sorts, that provided a framework around which they could understand themselves as well as the God in whom they believed. And the poem has done the same for countless people from countless lands since. It begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while (the breath of God) swept over the face of the waters.”Into the formless void and darkness of their tumultuous existence they beheld the breath of God sweeping over the waters, the chaos. And this God, the God of their ancestors, spoke order, beauty, the magnificent art of life into being. The “ruah” – the Hebrew word for wind, breath, and spirit – the “ruah” of God speaking into this chaos creating light, sky and water, and land; the God of beauty and life speaking into disorder creating heavenly bodies, swarms of creatures to fill the air and seas, animals to occupy the land, and humanity to work within and alongside this creation. This God who creates through the divine breath in full voice then proclaimed that all of this … all of this … was “very good”.
Now, this poem of hope to the people living in chaos and despair doesn’t stop there. No, there is one more word. This God created one last thing … one more vital thing for all of creation … time to rest – “shabbat” in Hebrew. And in that rest is the assurance that all things are good, and there is nothing more that can be added. About this rest, my friend and educator at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, George Kelly said, "As Jews, we see ourselves as God's partners in the on-going creation of the universe.  The work that we are prohibited from doing on the Shabbat is work that will add to that creation.  So Shabbat is a time to enjoy creation, not enhance creation.”

And yet, in our culture we see such an idea as a novelty. An idea that’s time has come and gone long ago. Even the way that we have divided the story betrays what we think about this idea of rest – sabbath. The artificial chapter breaks in the text which were added to the text in the 13th century leave the creation of humanity as the climax of the creation poem reinforcing an anthropocentric world view. However, even a quick read of the entire text reveals that it is Genesis 2:1-4a that should serve as the poem’s ultimate climax. Listen again to the text without the chapter break.

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”

On this seventh day, the day of perfection, the day of completion, God creates rest. This “rest” – “shabbat” is the ultimate act of the God who speaks, breathes, creation into the chaos.  This is the divine subversive act to the patterns of the world. There was an “enoughness” to the work that had been done. And this is the only day blessed by the creator.

This God - the one who creates and rests - is not an outsider or alien. This God is in the midst of it all. This is the God who was engaged in the creation, rests in the creation, and is with us now.
Sabbath is a difficult concept to understand in a culture that believes more is always better. We chase that which is temporal as if it were eternal. The creation story calls us to a different understanding of the world and of our place in it. Sabbath rest is the great counter cultural message to the message of chasing more and more at breakneck speed.

Hebrew Scriptures professor, theologian, and author, Dr. Walter Brueggemann writes, "The celebration of a day of rest was, then, the announcement of trust in this God who is confident enough to rest. It was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us as a gift" (Brueggemann 35).

And rabbi, theologian, activist, and author, Abraham Heschel writes of this passage, "The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time” (Heschel, Sabbath, 10).

Yet, we run from this space, this rest, because somehow it frightens us. We have come to believe that our busyness keeps us safe. It is our beloved-ness threatens us. This type of intentional rest, Sabbath, spoken of in our text and echoed again in what has come to be known as the ten commandments invites us to be self in all of its glorious mystery, to acknowledge the self of the person across from us, and to embrace the mystery of the divine. In our hustle, in our rush, we miss the rest that allows us such a connection. 

Sabbath, rest, calls us into a deeply internal space in a world that is more often preoccupied with outer appearance and clutter of time and space. Rest is one of our greatest acts of resistance and greatest examples of what it means to be a person of faith. It is in this rest that we find true shalom – peace, completion, wholeness. 

Again Heschel writes, "He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of (humanity). Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self." (Heschel 14).

Sabbath - rest - allows us the time to live into the belovedness of our existence. "It is very good." That is not wishful thinking; that is a statement of the VERY NATURE of things. Look around you … look inside … it is very good. Only in rest can we hear the echoes of that original blessing reverberating all around us as well as in the very depths of our souls. 

This is a narrative of abundance not scarcity. Rest is a prophetic word and radical action in a world that is afraid to slow down.

On this long Labor Day Weekend, may our lives begin to echo the divine rhythm of the seventh day every day; to rest, to bless, to consider it holy. 

1. May we find our time to rest – create space to breathe, to participate in the divine breath that created all things; find room to simply be without self critique, without the pressure of what is next; take time to see, to behold all that has been created, all that has been declared “very good”; allow ourselves to be seen as we truly are.

2. May we bless the day – In order to do so, we must take our time to notice that which is occurring and the time in which it is happening – the time that many theologians call “the eternal now”. Your day, your time, is blessed not because of what you accomplish, but because of the God who meets you there.

3. May we consider this day holy – In our passage from Genesis the only thing that God consecrates as holy is time. Holy – not set apart, but complete.  It is within the ordinariness of our days where the divine dwells … the God who promises to be with us.

Let us have the courage to join in the subversive story of the God who rests!

Carlo Petrini, founder of the slow food movement in Italy and author of Slow Food: The Case for Taste, said, "We have lost our sense of time … We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have the idea that life is short - and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don't know how to spend our time wisely. And so we burn it … Ultimately, 'slow'  - rest - means to take the time to reflect. It means to take the time to think. With calm, you arrive everywhere" (Petrini).

Sabbath – rest – allows us the time to dwell in the beauty of the good news that we are enough. We have nothing left to prove. 

So let us 
Rest in this day.

Bless it in all of its beauty.

Consider it holy. 

Brueggemann, W. (2010). Genesis. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press.

Heschel, A. J. (2005). The sabbath: Its meaning for modern man. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Petrini, C. (2003). Slow food: The case for taste. New York: Columbia University Press.